Chinese New Year & New Beginnings

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     Our family, consisting of white Southern Protestants, has observed Chinese New Year for the last 15 years. Why, one might ask? And the answer is the little baby girl we brought home from China. We want her to be proud of her heritage and her homeland, so celebrating the biggest holiday of the Chinese year is one way we do that. When the kids were little, I began to make Chinese food (as best I could) on the first day of CNY. We also decorated the room with red paper and drawings, red being the color of celebration in China. I presented them with special red envelopes with a dollar inside. We pored over children’s books about the activities and beliefs behind the customs.

             Once we moved to Greensboro a few years back, the Greensboro Chinese Association greatly expanded our observance of this event. Ava joined the Chinese folk dance troupe, and began to dance each year in the grand celebration. The annual event took place this past Saturday, with Ava and her friends dancing once again. Today’s picture shows my lovely daughter preparing for a dance with a rather heavy sword. We enjoyed the lion dance, traditional Chinese music, kung fu demonstrations, calligraphy, Chinese food, and other ways to celebrate this ancient holiday. Both my children will once again today receive traditional red envelopes with money inside.

             Chinese New Year evolves out of a desire to begin again – to put the winter and darkness behind and to prepare for the coming spring and signs of new life. The ancestors and history are also to be honored and celebrated. Numerous rites and rituals help participants remember their own ancestors and the nation’s  cultural history. These observances are a way to tie the past with the desire to be ready for the future. And I love how many activities display readiness during this two week celebration (which actually just begins today) – purchasing new clothes, cleaning the house from top to bottom, getting one’s hair cut, making special food items which honor the past or symbolize new beginnings. Rice – the most basic of foods in China – symbolizes wealth, luck, and a relationship between the Heavens and humanity. Fresh fruits symbolize life and new beginnings. Each item is prepared with special intent, and absorbed into the body with a special thanksgiving for the things which it represents.

             Each year our family thinks about new beginnings. We honor the past – we tell the story of our little China baby and the ways she has grown. We once again recount that God planned for her to be in our family – she’s such a perfect fit. We reminisce about the elders who are no longer with us, and how much they loved our new baby. We proclaim that any ancestor who didn’t know her would have loved her as much as we do. And we explore possibilities and options for the future – college, career plans, possible partner and children one day. These two weeks are a grand time.

             I’ll head to Dynasty Asian Market later this afternoon to stock up on items for our family Chinese feast later. The lady at the checkout is always more than helpful – it’s rather obvious that the white woman in front of her doesn’t know a whole lot about Chinese cooking – and I appreciate her generosity in helping me learn. My family and I will once again honor this wonderful tradition, remembering the past and anxiously anticipating the future.

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Hinduism, Christianity, & Nature

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            As a College Chaplain, I am the one person who is officially designated to help support the spiritual journey of the campus community. I dare say we are living in the most religiously diverse nation this planet has ever seen. As a result, most colleges and universities today have incredibly diverse campuses in terms of religion. However, many people don’t realize this. They tend to stick with people like themselves, and this includes any religious belief set or observance.

             One of my great joys is helping students learn about different religions, and how to engage with people of other faith traditions. A group of students and I recently attended the Hindu Temple of the Triad. I’ve been several times now, and the smell of incense as I entered the building welcomed me with open arms. The leader of the community emerged, shook our hands, and generously spent time explaining Hinduism and puja (worship) to our students. Enthralled with the space, the students had numerous questions and began to see connections with their own religions.

             So many of the aspects of puja seemed familiar to me – a beautiful altar, a priest who trained years for this role, offerings to the divine, sacred writings. Yet, on this day, another similarity struck me. As our host explained the deities, he pointed out the particular animals associated with them.

             “Each idol has an animal, because it represents that all of creation is connected and part of the divine.” I sat there, again seeing a connection with my own faith of Christianity. One of my favorite parts of the Bible is where God created everything – every animal, tree, flower, star, and humans. And once God created, God said, “It is good.” All of creation is a gift from the divine, and it is good. Celtic Spirituality brought these concepts to the forefront. The first British theologian, Pelagius, understood that creation is good. However, the Western Church followed in the footsteps of Augustine, who himself was immersed in the Greco dualistic understanding of good and evil. Augustine couldn’t get past his hatred of his desires or his body. And so the church (in official doctrine, at least) rejected the understanding of the goodness of creation, and bought into the Greco ideas that our bodies (created in God’s own image) would lead us astray from the spiritual path and must be subdued. The church bought into the concept that creation itself must be dominated as well, and made to follow the will of man (and I use the word man specifically, not as a substitute for humanity).

             As I sat cross-legged in the Hindu Temple, soaking in the words of this bright man who immigrated from India, and whose life could only have been markedly different from mine own – I remembered the words of Genesis. “And God created, and it was good.”

Sleepy Hollow, The Bible, and Women

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           Every summer I thoroughly peruse the promos for new television shows. One stood out this past August – primarily because I thought it was in the top 10 of ridiculous premises ever proposed. Ichabod Crane (of the famous story penned by Washington Irving) wakes from the dead in modern day Sleepy Hollow, NY. It turns out he was Gen. George Washington’s primary soldier in the fight against biblical evil during the Revolutionary War while history has only recorded the colonies’ fight for independence from the British Crown. Crane discovers he is meant to stop the horsemen of the Apocalypse, and is partnered in this battle with Det. Abbie Mills. Chaos ensues.

             This ludicrous premise led to my favorite show of the season – and ratings reveal that I am not alone in this love. The last of 13 episodes aired Monday night, and now we all wait impatiently and spout various theories concerning the cliff-hangers until next Fall. This show has captured the affection of viewers and critics alike. Gifted actors, compelling action, entertaining humor, angst and drama, surprising historical revelations, and unpredictable storylines have contributed to this surprise hit. It also helps that the guys behind the show are in the JJ Abrams circle, working on shows like Lost and Fringe. These guys understand spirituality and well-rounded characters, especially women.

             I love all these different aspects of the show, but two areas provide particular interest for me – the treatment of the Bible and the place of women in this world. First, in regards to the Bible, it is used as a guidebook for how Crane and Mills can combat the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (see book of Revelation if this doesn’t sound familiar to you). I daresay Revelation has been the part of the Bible most appropriated by Hollywood. And of course, it’s never accurate, but that’s beside the point when someone is looking for good inspiration for a fictional story. The writers and viewers both are aware that this interpretation is fictional and outlandish, but I appreciate how the Bible and faith are treated with respect. The clergy are strong individuals, endeavoring to fight evil at whatever costs. Crane and Mills use their extensive knowledge of the scriptures to help in their quest.

             Second, it is such a pleasant change to see strong, independent, articulate, and smart women characters who are not defined by their relationship to a man. (Tom Mison, who plays Crane, even stated this was one of the draws to this show for him.) In addition to Mills (portrayed by an engaging Nicole Beharie), there is her sister Jenny, Crane’s wife Katrina, and Capt. Irving’s wife. What makes it even better is the fact that most these women are African-American. Abbie Mills’ defining relationship is not the past romance with a fellow cop, but the great love she has for her sister. In the season finale, she even tells Jenny – “I will not lose you again.” Tears came to my eyes – sisterly love is a beautiful and powerful thing. When a woman normally says these words on tv, it’s too her “soul-mate,” the romantic love of her life who completes her. (And please don’t get me started right now on the soul-mate/complete my life baloney that Hollywood dishes out. I’ll rant about that in a future blog.)

             On paper, this show shouldn’t work. But it has – in an overwhelming way. I hope other shows will follow suit. Be imaginative, respectful, and treat women as the well-rounded, intelligent, and independent people we are.

             I can’t wait until next September.

Let’s Dream

            Ever since I was a little girl, my sleep has been filled with dreams. I even remember certain dreams from when I was about 4 or 5 years old. Some dreams have been filled with ordinary occurrences, while others have been the stuff of the most extravagant sci-fi movie. They have run the gamut from gazing at cloud formations while lounging in a mountain meadow to being the side-kick of super-agent/super-hero Roger Federer while he saves the world.

 

            One of the things I have found the most fascinating in the Bible is how it treats dreams. The preponderance of dreams in the Scripture is astounding. And the majority of them are some form of message from God. God is warning the dreamer about upcoming danger, letting them know part of Her plan, helping provide support and encouragement. I do believe God speaks to us through dreams. For many of us in today’s world, our lives are so filled with activities, gadgets, stress and worry that we don’t have our ears open to hear God speaking to us. When we’re asleep, God has a much better chance of getting through.

 

            Today we remember dreams, and how vitally important dreams can be in our lives and in our society. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an ordained minister who knew the Scriptures through and through. He knew a dream from God provided vision and hope for the future. The great sin of our country has been its acceptance of and reliance upon slavery. 150 years after the Civil War, racial divide and discrimination still exist. It unfortunately exists even in the mass segregation of our churches. Throughout the history of our country, so many Christians used the Bible to support slavery, segregation, and racism. I am very thankful for the Christian witnesses, from so many different traditions, who found radically different inspiration from the Bible. The Civil Rights movement was filled with faith leaders, witnesses to the prophetic dreams God offered in the sacred writings.

 

            Each one of us is a child of God, with the light of God shining throughout. Yes, we have very real differences among us. And these differences are to be celebrated. God has gifted each one of us in very different ways, and I pray for the day when we will all have the same dream, despite our many differences – the dream that MLK verbalized for us before I was even born.

 

            Thank God for the dreamers, and thank God for the dreams given us.

 

Your Friends Are So Nice

“Your friends are so nice, Mom.” The words alone sounded like a compliment, but the tone from my teenage son definitely gave it a different meaning.

 “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. We sat beside each other on the first bench seat of my parents’ van, my parents in the front while my daughter and husband relaxed in the back. Late afternoon sunlight filled the car, as Dad drove along a two lane mountain road back to their house. A pleasant afternoon had been spent at the 50th anniversary reception for my oldest friend’s parents. The little church fellowship hall overflowed with food, pictures, family and well-wishers. My kids regularly see my dear friend, Sandra, and her family, but other childhood friends were present as well. These now middle-aged women were excited to meet my two teens, hear about their joys and dreams in life, and retell old stories for their entertainment.

 “Well, mom, I mean, they were just really sweet. It’s kinda hard to imagine those were your best friends growing up.”

 “Thanks for the compliment, buddy.” I responded with a fair amount of sarcasm.

 “Hey, don’t pick on my little girl,” my own mother chimed in with a laugh. “She’s very nice, too.”

 “Mom, you know what I mean,” Caleb added quickly. “It’s just – you know – they are really nice.”

 “And I’m not?” I bestowed a look that dared him to contradict me.

 “That’s not what I mean. But you know you can be critical.”

 “They haven’t been raising you, buddy.” The rest of the car’s inhabitants joined in the humor, as my poor boy smirked with chagrin.  “I know. I’m not as nice as they are. I can’t really explain why they wanted to be my friends – why we were all so close.”

 “Now, Amy,” Mom added. “You are as nice as they are. I just didn’t go around telling your faults to other people.”

 “Well, thanks for that, Mom.” I grinned, as Caleb continued to defend himself. In the weeks that followed that day, and in reflection on my son’s comments, I have pondered how I grew up with a very nice bunch of girls – girls who always had kind words for others, who never saw the bad in someone else, who worked hard, who loved their families, girls who were loyal and true friends. I realize my own family of origin modeled this for me. It didn’t mean we were blind to the faults of others. But it did mean that we showed grace and kindness in the face of others’ faults, because none of us were perfect. I thought about how great my friends looked physically – in the midst of their 40s – and realized that harsh lines of judgment, envy, and hate had not marked their features. I examined my own face in the mirror and yet could not be certain if those lines were there or not. I always knew they were nicer than I – as my son so obviously exposed to the rest of the family – but did it show on my face as it did on theirs?

 Those girls taught me a lot when we were little – more things than I can remember. And these wonderful women still are teaching me. They teach me and remind me each day that living a life of grace, compassion and forgiveness is the best way to truly live.

Women In Hollywood – Thinking Theologically

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            With the airing of the Golden Globes Awards ceremony last night, much has been written and discussed in recent days about the presence (or lack thereof) of women and minorities in Hollywood. When one looks at the population statistics of our country, women and minorities are greatly underrepresented in movies and television. One of the reasons The Hunger Games trilogy has been so well received is because the protagonist, Katniss, is a teenage girl from the backwoods of Appalachia. Yes, there are boys and men interested in her, but that is not her raison de vivre. She is a full and rich character – imperfect, flawed – but real. And that is such a rare thing in Hollywood. When women are present, they tend to be the girlfriends or some passive agent in the action. We can name the exceptions on a couple hands, because they are so rare. (The Hunger Games movies themselves certainly have been helped by the presence of the incredible Jennifer Lawrence, an authentic and down to earth talent.)

            The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is trying to change this in regards to children’s entertainment through research, education and advocacy. Women and girls are less than 20% of the characters represented in children’s media, and these images tend to be stereotypical. As children are inundated with these ideas, they are less likely to broaden and expand as they age. Movies and television for adults continues to perpetuate this lack of the presence of women, as well as relegating them to passive roles. And if a film has a preponderance of women, it usually falls into the derogatory category of “chick-flick.”

            This is truly a theological issue. Before serving a women’s college, I worked on a state campus for a number of years. For several years, our ministry hosted a panel discussion – “Was Jesus a Feminist?” Yes, I realize this is an improper question. It’s taking a fairly recent construct and applying it to a Jewish man from the backwoods of the Ancient Near East. Yet, in these discussions we looked at how Jesus treated women. And the fact was, he treated them in a manner that was revolutionary. In a patriarchal world that left women at the mercy of men and denied them opportunities for growth and enrichment, Jesus included women as some of his closest followers. He continually affirmed the presence and participation of women in his movement, both in words and in actions.

            I love movies. I love entertainment. (And I especially love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.) And I would love even more to see images of women in Hollywood that are real, empowering, active, and transformative. If a preacher from the wilds of Palestine changed the subject 2000 years ago, we can too.

Why I Need Winter

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Winter is not my favorite season – not by a long shot. That honor belongs to Autumn. Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, it would have been a sin not to love the Fall season. Our local economy certainly depended on a good leaf season when the mountains were covered in shades of gold, russet, mauve, canary, burnished copper and every shade in between. As a child, I collected large oak leaves that had softly wafted to the ground, gently carried them to my house, and pressed them in between the pages of a very large book. When I was in 3rd grade, one of Mom’s co-workers gave me the collected works of Shakespeare from her old college days. That book was perfect. As I grew older and opened the book for pleasure reading, I would often find some long forgotten leaf.

 

Once I became a parent, I continued to use that same book for my children to press their own treasured discoveries. Sunny days, cool nights, large harvest moons – what time of year could be better?

 

So while Autumn is my favorite, I have discovered over the years that Winter is a necessity. We usually had a scattered amount of smaller snowfalls throughout the season around Asheville. Occasionally a good foot or more might cover the land, enabling me to forgo school, drink hot chocolate, and read my latest books from the tiny West Asheville library. I loved snow days – what kid doesn’t? And yes, I still long for snow days as an adult. Since I have the pleasure of working at an institution of higher education, those days are not out of the realm of my existence.

 

My family and I moved to the Piedmont of North Carolina a few years back. Snow has been non-existent in recent years. Except for the recent arctic snap, which covered most of the country, even cold weather has been relatively sparse. While this has been great for my heating bill, it’s not been good for my soul. Each spirit needs winter – a time to retreat, to contemplate, to regroup, to break from the headiness of springtime, the heat of the summer, and the joy of autumn. The British artist Sting produced a near perfect CD a couple years ago – If On A Winter’s Night. The songs are a collection of English winter songs. Yes, that does include some Christmas music, but it’s more about the short, dark and dreary days of winter. When interviewed about the music, Sting stated that music was his church. He continued to explain that the soul needs to experience all the seasons – it’s hard to appreciate and truly live the other seasons if we skip over winter.

 

That’s why I need winter. My soul cries out for winter, for the quiet, for the dark, for the stillness. We all need our snow days.