The virtual message I offered for Winston Salem Friends Meeting today…
Sunday marked the beginning of the Pentecost season in the Christian year. According to the Book of Acts, Jesus’ followers had gathered for the Jewish festival in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension. Jerusalem was a large and cosmopolitan city with numerous languages spoken. The Holy Spirit descended on these followers, and they were able to speak so that every person in the crowd heard the words in their own language. The word for spirit can be translated as breath. The Spirit of God, the spirit of life, is breath itself.
Breathing is such a foundational thing for our existence that most people don’t ever think about it. We completely take it for granted. And yet, our nation is dealing with crises which are focused on the inability to breathe.
The Coronavirus attacks our ability to breathe, until a ventilator has to breathe for us.
The majority of Americans are in severe economic distress, stealing our ability to breathe easily as we try to figure out how to pay bills.
And black and brown people have their breathe taken away from the evils of systemic racism and oppression. The video of George Floyd shows a man literally crying out that he cannot breathe, while four white police officers ignore his pleas. “I can’t breathe” is the rallying cry heard throughout our nation this past week.
Pentecost is about the rush of wind or breath, of God’s Spirit, bringing about new life and a transformed way of living. Black Lives Matter, and I pray that a new spirit is sweeping this land so that white people will begin to take in cleansing breaths that help us identify and deal with systemic racism so that a better and more just world will be created. For all of us white people, we have a great deal of work to do. Praying and being nice isn’t enough. During this Pentecost season, here are some resources which can help us actively work towards bring new breath into this world.
My sermon from Sunday, December 29, 2019….
2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
This passage from Matthew is the lectionary reading for today – this first Sunday after Christmas Day. The Wise Men had come from Persia to visit the baby Jesus – and this visit happened some time within the first couple years of his life, even though we tend to place the Wise Men at our Nativity scenes with the shepherds and the newborn Jesus. You might recall that the Wise Men had sought information from King Herod when they were following the star to look for Jesus, and Herod wanted them to tell him where the infant “King” was once they had found him. Being wise in many ways, they returned home by a different way.
So once Herod discovered he had been tricked, he decided to have every child under age 2 executed in the area of Bethlehem. An angel spoke to Joseph to warn him of the upcoming murders, so Joseph took Mary and Jesus to seek asylum in Egypt – and there they stayed until Herod died.
It’s not easy to hear this text immediately after Christmas Day. We are still in the Christmas season, and we have sentimentalized this season in recent decades to the place that it is only about being happy. We even sing, “It’s the hap – happiest time of the year!”
We place a great deal of pressure on ourselves to be happy at this time of year, and to do everything we can to ensure happiness for others. And studies have shown that it is actually a very depressing time for a significant number of people. Happiness doesn’t come with the season for large numbers of people.
Our society has done an amazing job of setting up Happiness as our primary goal in life. Americans talk about one of their inalienable rights being the “pursuit of happiness.”
But this Christmas season we don’t celebrate the Prince of Happiness – we celebrate the Prince of Peace.
Happiness is a superficial veneer – Peace is something different and much deeper.
It’s important for us to hear this passage from Matthew today, often entitled “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”
We can’t really be happy when innocents are slaughtered – when children die every day in this country from gun violence, when people of faith are in danger simply for worshipping as with the violence facing our Jewish siblings in New York, when hundreds of thousands of children around the world are seeking asylum or living in camps in terrible conditions, when there are children within a few miles of here who go to bed hungry every night, when there is the greatest income inequality that our nation has seen in almost 100 years and the vast majority struggle just to get by.
Any feeling person can’t be always happy if they are really paying attention to what is going on in the world.
But we can have Peace. We can have Peace if we follow in the steps of Jesus and work towards justice.
That is what the Christmas season is truly about– not attempts to “feel” happy or insulate ourselves from the bad tidings of the world around us – it is about accepting the peace we find when we truly follow this baby in the manger – as he flees to seek out political asylum in Egypt – as he lives in the forgotten backwoods in poverty – as he loves every person he meets, especially those outcast by society – as he loves people in such a radical way that the people in power decide he must die.
Our scripture for today reminds us that Jesus is both, and always, a beacon of hope, and the constant irritant for those in power, even as an innocent baby. This passage reminds us that Jesus entered a real world of pain, brokenness, oppression – a world where the killing of infants and the easy ability to forget and not care for the children of our world exists.
This is how we celebrate Christmas – eyes and ears wide open – loving others – looking for the moments of joy and happiness when they come – and knowing that true Peace comes from following the Prince of Peace, the light in the world, wherever it may lead us.
Pastor David Lose shared this story – “When I was ordained, a retired pastor and parishioner gave me a print made from a woodcut depicting the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. What made this particular rendition distinct is that they were not alone. Instead, they were surrounded by a group of refugees, reminding us that in this story of forced flight, God-in-Christ identifies with all who have been driven from their homes by the threat of terror, all who are displaced by violence, and all who flee in fear with hopes for, but little assurance of, a better future.God is with us, even in the darkest times. And God is also for us, promising not only to accompany us through difficult times but also to bring us to the other side that, in time, we might know the fullness of joy that is life in Christ.”
Happiness can and will elude us during this season of Christmas, but Peace remains. We know that we are not alone – others are with us, physically and spiritually, during the challenges we face – both individually and as a society.
And the Christ Spirit of Peace remains with us always, and will empower us to work towards justice in the world which cries out for it, just as Rachel cried out in Ramah for her children. Peace be with you, and with the world around us. Amen.
This is the message I gave at our recent College Christmas Candlelight Worship Service –
A number of you know that I have been struggling with knee issues for a while, and had a partial knee replacement a few weeks ago. I feel fortunate to have access to the surgery, and to the follow up physical therapy. I also am very fortunate that my parents are in good health and were able to come and stay with me during my first week home from the hospital.
My mom had a full knee replacement a few years ago, and is a retired nursing home administrator – so she really understands knee issues and the therapy required to heal from the surgery.
In my first few days post surgery, as I struggled with the pain of doing everything the physical therapist instructed, my Mom offered these words, “Well, Amy, maybe something good that is coming out of this is that it can help you be more sympathetic to those who struggle with physical issues.”
I laughingly responded that I thought I was already sympathetic enough. My mom was right – as she normally is. I am a fairly sympathetic person, but going through the pain I experienced for the months before the surgery, and then the challenges of recuperation – including using my departed grandmother’s cane every day – has certainly given me insights I would not have had otherwise.
As I am hobbling into this season of preparation for the Christmas celebration, I have been thinking about what it means to be broken. No one wants to be broken. We all want to be healthy, whole, strong, independent.
A central part of the Christmas message is that God chose to enter this broken world through the life of Jesus. A tiny baby was born into poverty on a cold, dark night in the backwoods of the mighty Roman Empire. His family soon had to flee their home and seek asylum in a foreign land due to a political tyrant. This baby would grow up, and would love others so much that his heart and body would be broken.
Jesus experienced a broken world. He witnessed people ostracized, alienated, harmed, rejected, demonized. He saw hate and fear oftentimes dominate love and compassion. And he understood that when one of us is broken or hurt in this human family, it breaks the entire body.
And it was into this brokenness of the world that love and hope were born.
My knee now has a piece of titanium in it. It is perfect – the muscles around it are still adjusting – but I know this right knee is the strongest physical part of my body. I keep hearing the words of the pop song, Titanium, in my head. I’m sure many of our students know it –
I’m bulletproof – nothing to lose
Fire away, fire away
Ricochet, you take your aim
Fire away, fire away
You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium…
Now this song is fun to sing, but the truth is that our real power and strength come through our brokenness.
When our hearts are broken by the pain in the world we see around us, that is our strength.
When our arms are tired from reaching out a helping hand, that is our strength.
When our hands hurt from holding tight in solidarity with the oppressed, that is our strength.
When our legs buckle from trying to lift up others, that is our strength.
When righteous anger over the harm done to others keeps us awake at night, that is our strength.
The Christmas message is not that we are called to be titanium. We are called to be broken – and in that brokenness, we know the very best of humanity. In that brokenness, we are connected to others – every other person we will ever meet, and every creature throughout this world. We know that each person we encounter is our sibling. The connection to others and the world around us is our strength.
Leonard Cohen’s beloved song, Anthem, has a line that speaks to us today. It goes – “There is a crack in everything – that is how the light gets in.”
The light can’t get in when we are titanium. The light only shines through what is broken and cracked.
As we see the Moravian star before us today, and as we light the Moravian beeswax candles in a few moments and see that soft flame – Let’s think about the light that comes in the darkest, longest night of the year – and let’s remember that the light we need only comes through what is broken. Being broken is not the end – it is the beginning. When we are broken enough to open ourselves up to others and to love and to grace and to compassion – that is when all of us together become as strong as titanium. Amen.
So excited to be recognized as a Local Hero in the Winston Salem Magazine for the work I do with spiritual wellness!
Tennis became my favorite sport as a teen. Being a child of the mountains in the ’70s and ’80s, athletic options were fairly limited for girls. The equal opportunity of Title IX had yet to make it to my hometown. I discovered tennis on TV. I loved the international flavor of competition, the sportsmanship most players showed (I was never a John McEnroe fan), and admittedly, the cute outfits the women wore. There was no team on which I could play, but my Dad brought out some old wooden racquets, and our family would hit around on local courts.
My high school did have a boys’ team, and even though I kept asking for a girls’ team, no coach cared enough to make it happen. The tennis coach asked me to be the manager for the boys’ team. He even gave me a Letter as a Senior for tennis. (Yes, I achieved an athletic Letter, even though I never played one point in a match.) He was a kind man – I was very organized and took care of a number of things he was too tired to care about – and I guess that was his way of thanking me. I haven’t kept much from high school, but I kept that letter – it’s on a cardigan sweater, with my academic Letter on the opposite side.
I am glued to the tv, and now my computer, and even phone, when the Grand Slams occur 4 times a year. A few years back, my friend Tracey and I went to the US Open for a few days. It was definitely some of the best days of my life.
Saturday’s evening match at the US Open was decidely memorable. Teen phenom, 15 year old Coco Gauff, played defending champ, 21 year old Naomi Osaka. Gauff made a good run at Wimbledon, taking out her idol Venus Williams along the way. Yet, Osaka’s game was too much for young Gauff, and the girl understandably found herself in tears at the end of the match.
TV matches always offer a quick interview with the winner. The other player normally makes a quick exit to the locker room, letting the winner bask in the glow for a few minutes on their own. The loser oftentimes just wants to get off the court and go cry or be angry without thousands or millions watching them. Yet, Saturday night was special. The video above shows Osaka comforting Gauff, and even encouraging her to be interviewed with her. This move was not only unusual – it was unheard of. Commentators were floored by the compassion and generosity.
These two young women of color displayed dedication, extremely hard work and effort, kindness, respect, and resilience. Venus and Serena have paved a way for young women of color to make their way in the tennis world, and beyond. In the midst of a society where white supremacists are still quite prominent, and quieter racism is a daily thing, it took far more than just athletic ability to make a name (and even the greatest name for Serena) in one of the whitest of sports in the US.
Osaka and Coco understand that making one’s way in the world, especially in a world dominated by patriarchy and racism, takes courage, cooperation, and community. The mutual respect and support displayed Saturday night provides a powerful message for all of us. When we support others, and lift them up, especially if they are seen as our “opponent,” our world will be all the better. And we ourselves will be all the better for it. It makes us better and stronger people to show compassion.
I look forward to seeing many more matches with Gauff and Osaka in the future. I enjoy their playing ability, but I appreciate who they are as leaders and role models even more.
Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things we have to do as humans, especially when we don’t want to do it. Even if the separation is just for a few days, weeks, or months, when we love someone, we don’t want to let them go. We want them to be part of our lives, to share our joys and disappointments. When we are facing saying goodbye forever, the pain can be almost unbearable. The recently opened movie, The Farewell, explores these deepest feelings of having to say goodbye. Rapper turned actor, Awkwafina, stars in this dramatic role, based upon a real life event from writer-director, Lula Wang. The movies begins with this sentence on a blank screen, “This story is based upon a actual lie.” Real life normally seems to inspire the best stories..
Awkwafina plays Billi, a struggling young New Yorker who as a child immigrated from China with her parents. Her grandmother, Nai Nai, remains in China, along with the rest of the family (with the exception of Billi’s aunt and uncle and cousin, who have resided in Japan for a number of years). Nai Nai is dying from cancer, and as was a common practice in China, the family has decided not to tell her. The family gathers from their various homes for the wedding of Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao – simply a ruse to come home for the final time before Nai Nai dies.
Billi’s Western mindset and emotional connection lead her to believe that telling Nai Nai the diagnosis is the right thing to do. Certainly, we here in the West believe it is our right to know what is going on with our own bodies. Not knowing such information would seem like a betrayal from those we love the best.
Billi listens to her family’s rationale behind such a decision, and learns that Nai Nai didn’t tell her own departed husband of his fatal diagnosis years before. One family member tells Billi that the community is more important than the individual, and that the family “carries the grief” for the dying member so that the one dying does not have that burden.
Carrying another’s grief is such an incredible, beautiful image. In this society, filled with rampant individualism, we don’t want to carry our own grief, much less another’s. We just want to anesthetize pain with food, alcohol, ignorance, or means of escape. As much as we try to ignore our own pain, we do an even better job ignoring other’s. We want to blame people who are experiencing difficulty, instead of sitting with them in the dark days and working with them to find some better path or to change systems and structures which create pain.
I am so thankful for loved ones who have wanted to carry grief or pain with me. I hope I can at least do that in part for others – to carry what I can that might help relieve the burden.
Without giving away the ending, the movie does tell us that Farewell is never really a permanent goodbye. One of the most beautiful (and entertaining, as real life often is even in the midst of pain) scenes comes from the family visiting the gravesite for Nai Nai’s departed husband. They give offerings (a common practice in many cultures), and celebrate his presence with them, even if his physical presence is gone.
I pray that we in the West can better understand what it means to be community and to carry another’s pain.
Central North Carolina is beautiful right now. Everything is in bloom, the sun is out, and a cool breeze keeps it from getting too hot. (And on a side note, I have asked too many students if they have sunscreen!) Yet, along with the beauty comes the seasonal pollen. This is the most pollen-filled place I have ever lived, and this year the pollen is worst than normal. My allergies are raging, some of the roads are covered in yellow, and my car could really use a daily washing. Some people have even coined this particular year as the season of the Pollenacolypse.
As I sit with Holy Week, preparing for Easter, it seems like the pervasiveness of a dampening blanket of yellow which takes away my ability to breathe, or even think clearly, is symbolic of the heaviness of the season. Holy Week is flat out depressing. There is no way around it. Most Christians do try to work around it – They wave palm branches and sing joy-filled songs on Palm Sunday, and then ignore all the other holy things until Easter Sunday arrives. But the fact remains that if we don’t experience the fear, isolation, pain, and death of Holy Week, then Easter simply becomes one more day of the year where we dress up, sing happy songs, carry flowers, and eat a big meal.
Life is tough. No one willingly wants to experience a Holy Week. No one wants to feel abandoned, alone, dealing with pain and grief and suffering. Many people experiences holy weeks on an ongoing basis, when life just throws too much at us, whether it is on a personal or communal scale.
Yet, as a resurrection community, we are called to remember hope and new life always awaits. And when we can’t feel it in our hearts, we can remember it in our brains and words. I always liked the advice of Philip Otterbein, “Preach faith until you have it.” On the days when we think the hard times will never end, we keep telling ourselves that it will, until it finally does. I know the pollen will go away. I don’t know when, and I wish it were sooner than it probably will be. And as a person of faith, I know Easter will come. When we have our times of “holy weeks” – when life is too much – Easter will come. We won’t know when, and we will wish it were sooner than it actually is – but it will finally come.
As the pollen will be washed away, painful days will be washed away – and the world will be as new.
Last week was a whole lot like life in general – the truly wonderful intermingled with the truly awful. I was fortunate enough to be in Albuquerque during the time elected representatives of my denomination, the United Methodist Church, were at a called international General Conference – gathered to figure out a way forward from division over the issue of homosexuality. My denomination has a long history of focusing on social justice and progressive ideas. The fact that I, as a woman, am clergy is representative of that. My denomination also has a long history of trying to be an umbrella which is inclusive, even in terms of theological interpretation. We have been straddling this fence for so long that it is not tenable anymore. If we were only a national denomination, the decision to be fully inclusive and welcoming would have been made well before now. But we are not. And so a minority of conservatives, funded by outside sources which also have tried to shape our political landscape, have been able to band together with international delegates to pass a plan which is virulent in its condemnation and scope.
The fact is that our churches are filled with people who identify as LGBTQIA. I have more clergy friends than I can count across this country who identify along those lines, and some of whom have long-standing marriages with happy children. One of those colleagues said to me last week, “They will have to pry my ordination from my hands.” And in my over 20 years of collegiate ministry, I have sat with far too many young people whose families and churches broke ties or condemned them because of gender or sexual identity. How can anyone hear those stories from God’s children and support such legislation as barely passed in St. Louis last week?
This isn’t the end. Most of the legislation has already been ruled unconstitutional, and in all likelihood our Judicial Council will affirm the unconstitutionality next month when it meets. But the damage has been done. The fight for property and the name of what it means to be Methodist will continue, but the pain and suffering inflicted on my siblings cannot be undone.
The good part for me last week was being at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. Close to 200 were gathered, and one of my joys was seeing all the young women who were present. It filled my heart to hear their stories, ideas, and vision for collegiate ministry. Our closing dinner took place Tuesday evening, on the heels of the final vote at General Conference. I was seated at dinner with some other UM clergy, and two young women from colleges in the Northeast. One is Muslim, and the other is Jewish. In the few minutes before food arrived, we had all been instructed to share with our dinner companions about positive things that had occurred from the chaplains’ conference. All of us UM ministers were so grateful for the support of the rest of the chaplains, and as I explained a bit of what was going on with the UMC to these two young women, I told them that the highlight of the conference was seeing so many young women, and especially of different faiths, present at the conference. I told them it gave me hope for the future. And I started to cry. The Muslim woman immediately reached out to hug me.
LR Knost wrote a poem that states we are all drops in the same ocean. When I see the goodness, the love, the compassion, the humanity from our younger generations, I see hope. When I see what we have in common, what binds us together, I see hope. When I see that the wisdom of the Divine Spirit speaks in more languages and manners that we can possibly imagine, I see hope.
There is much work to be done in my denomination, my church family. The Spirit of God will continue to move and work in powerful ways, regardless of what happens. And I will not abandon those who have been wounded so deeply. With the compassion my young colleague showed me last week, I will continue to reach out my arms to include, and love, and lift up each one of my siblings. I see hope…
Please to go Convergence on Campus (enhancing institutional climates for religious, secular, and spiritual identities through policy and practice) to check out the January magazine, which includes my review of the fantastic book by John Schmalzbauer & Kathleen Mahoney, The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education.