The Tree of Life

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Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pexels.com

Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe. – Elie Wiesel

Reverend Jes Kast tweeted this morning, “Repeat after me: I was made for this. I am needed for this era.” Those words spoke to the very depths of my soul. How many times can a heart be ripped up? How many times can we continue to be outraged by the hate, violence, and evil filling our society? Two black men were killed in Kentucky on Friday, simply because they were black. Eleven people, from ages 54-97, were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday morning simply because they were Jewish.

The past two years have seen a massive increase in hate incidents and crimes due to skin color, religion, and political affiliation. Elie Wiesel’s words seem to have been written for this very moment, even though the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate has been dead for 2 years. Each and every location for these evil acts must be the center of our universe. We cannot rest, or ignore, or deny, until we have worked our damndest to change this society.

Jesus said if we are not with him, we are against him (Luke 11:23). If we are not actively with the people being persecuted and murdered in our society, then we are against what is good, just, and loving. And just saying the words is not enough. We all know that actions speak louder than words. It’s been more than enough for months now, but let’s remember that we can continue to work together to fight this evil.

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Timeless speaks the Truth

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Lucy Preston, an historian who is a lead character in Timeless

When we stay silent, we are just as much to blame as those we fight against, and fight is what we must do…”

These powerful words concluded another compelling episode of NBC’s show, Timeless. This amazing show is in its second season (and unfortunately, just a short season of 10 eps), and it just continues to get better and better. The diverse characters are fully realized – strong, goofy, intelligent, complicated, loyal. Women are changing the world – they support each other – and their lives do not revolve around a romantic interest (even when there is one present). It’s hard to believe each person isn’t actually a real person, even if they are the “bad guy.” It has action, humor, drama. But the best part is the social and human truth it embodies each week.

Last night’s episode was about the Suffragist Movement. Once again, the show uncovered forgotten history, and showed how women were treated as they tried to have their rights represented. We all know that being able to vote does not make one an equal citizen, but it is a crucial first step. As we have seen the rights of anyone in this country who is not a white male (and supposedly Christian) trampled in the past couple years, this show could not be more timely. The parallels between the various historical settings each week and what is occurring in 2018 hits almost too close to home. In the climax of the episode last night, these words were uttered, “When we stay silent, we are just as much to blame as those we fight against, and fight is what we must do…”

Silence is complicity. If we ignore the oppression of others in our society and do not make the effort to speak and to act, then we are just as bad as the oppressors. If we act like all lives matter, without realizing that black and brown ones suffer far more proportionally, then we are part of the problem. If we choose not to worry too much about women dealing with sexual harassment and assault and lower pay, then we are part of the problem. If we turn off the tv when we see a child ripped from a parent because of lies about immigration, then we are part of the problem. When we choose to ignore continual lies and inflammatory language from our highest elected official, then we are part of the problem.

It reminds me of that old bumper sticker, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” But anger is not enough. The anger needs to propel us to action.

Sexual Assault and a Male God

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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and once again this evening I will lead a meditation and candle service for students. Many of these students are living in the aftermath of sexual abuse and assault. Others will be present because this issue has affected people they love. Working with women who have been impacted by this pervasive problem is one of the most important parts of my ministry – and also one of the most challenging. I have lost sleep, filled with concern and pain for young women who have endured experiences no one should have to endure. I have found myself at a complete loss for words, when students have hoped I would know the right thing to say. I have learned over the years that the most important thing I can do is to be present – to show compassion. And as I am present, I also know I can offer a word of grace.

The church has so often failed women when it comes to sexual assault and abuse. How many sermons have we heard about King David being tempted by the lovely Bathsheba? This biblical story is truly about a king, taking a young married woman who had no power to reject his advances. And how many sermons have we heard about Esther, wrapping King Ahasuerus around her finger, when in fact she was a political prisoner who was kept with numerous other women in a harem?

As do so many of us clergy nowadays, I decided to do a quick Google search about prayers for sexual assault survivors, seeing if some words of grace might appear on my computer screen. A few helpful things popped up, but most were simple prayers that begin with the phrase “Father God.” I know from my many years of working with women that praying to a male deity is one of the last things most of them want.

Even in the shadow of #Metoo, the church still believes a male head can take care of everything.

The biblical understanding of God is that God is above and beyond gender, above and beyond human constraints and understanding. Yet, the church remains comfortable with allowing a patriarchal world to dictate how we understand the Divine, no matter who it might harm. When will the church get out of its own way and encourage a connection with the Divine that is truly life-giving, compassionate, and helpful? And for the people who reply that perhaps a loving heavenly Father can bring healing – I do agree – but that should be at the individual’s instigation. It should not be the primary way she is forced to engage with the deity.

A significant number of women sitting in churches understand sexual assault and abuse all too well. They keep their stories buttoned up, tucked away deep inside, and listen to the images of a male figure taking care of it all. Let’s open up these stories, these images, and allow the Spirit of the Divine to flow as She will.

Words for International Women’s Day

From Nikole Lim (@nikole_lim) Co-Founder and International Director of Freely In Hope

A blessing for 2018:
Women-mothers are made of fire. We hold the potential to both burn and balm, harm and heal, inearth and illuminate, exhaust and embrace. It is this same fire that can mold fear into double-edged weapons with the intention to protect against the violence of darkness. This darkness will choose to harm you, like others have, attempting to destroy your light. But it will fail.

Daughters, your fire holds the potential to either burn or balm the cracks between your broken heart, to harm or heal the darkened skin across your arms, to inearth or illuminate hopeful visions of your future self, to exhaust or embrace the woman you ar e becoming.

May we women realize that we are fire. We must remember, more often, to feel its warmth.

I’m not surprised – Me, too

The news has been inundated this past week about Harvey Weinstein and his decades of sexual harassment and assault of women. When the story first broke, I wasn’t surprised. I know a great many women who were not surprised. This is par for the course in living life as a woman. (Yes, there are men who deal with this as well, but it is a pervasive issue for women.) John Oliver rightly chided the Academy for congratulating itself on getting rid of seemingly the one man who does this kind of thing in Hollywood.

Sunday evening brought forth a different way to highlight the pervasive nature of sexual harassment and assault in our society. This message filled social media –

Me, too.

Copied: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

 

It is really difficult to find a woman who has not dealt with this at some point in her life, and oftentimes on multiple occasions. It doesn’t matter how we are dressed, where we are, or what jobs we have (yes, women clergy deal with this all the time). And if we choose to report this, we know everything about us and our lives will be questioned as if it were our fault. We know people will doubt our stories, or think perhaps we just took things the wrong way. We know others will look at us with pity, instead of us as an autonomous individual who is competent and capable. And all that doesn’t even begin to touch on the nightmares or flashbacks – all the times we have to overcome fear or anxiety and attempt to trust ourselves or another person.

When I saw all the “Me, too” posts on FB, I continually tapped the anger emoticon. I’m angry. I’m mad as hell. The media keeps talking about being shocked, but this is a country who elected a serial assaulter as President, and wrote off his bragging as locker-room talk. This is a society that tells women they should dress in sexy and attractive ways, and then completely tears apart her clothing choices when she deals with harassment or assault. This is a society that encourages boys to be tough and powerful, and shames them when they are sensitive or cry.

The focus needs to be removed from the women, and placed on the men. What makes men think this is okay or acceptable? Certainly our legal system makes it easy to act in this way, and the falling back of Title IX (by a woman selected by Trump) does not help in the least. Men need to give other men loud and clear messages about what is appropriate and respectful behavior to women. And while I despise the men who say “since I have daughters I speak out about this topic,” we need to think seriously about the messages we give our children – whether or not they are our legal children. I have reared both a boy and a girl. It wasn’t easy talking about these things, but we did it. And we continue talking about these things. One of my goals for my son was to make him the best male feminist around. I knew it was critical to counteract the messages he received from society about how boys should treat girls, and what it meant to be a real man. As a mother to a son, I know I can do a great deal to help change this culture, one man at a time.

I hope people don’t just say they are shocked, or feel bad about the situation. I hope they get angry – angry enough to change our culture and our legal system.

Me, too.

 

The Spirituality of Wonder Woman in the age of Trump

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drawing by demsey satya nagara

I was obviously not the only person anxiously awaiting the new Wonder Woman movie this past weekend. The long anticipated movie has been record breaking in numerous ways, but as I sat in the darkened theater with my teenage daughter, I could only think that the current state of political and societal affairs led to an even greater positive response to this female centered movie.

Diana is an Amazon, shielded from the world until a WWI soldier appears, and she decides to leave her home forever so she can protect the millions of innocents losing their lives. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta, gives these parting words, “Those men don’t deserve you.” Diana quickly finds herself in London, a city representative of a world where women are constrained by politics, society, and even fashion. She is thrown out of a room where the white men in power make decisions that impact the world, a woman who is only seen as distractingly pretty with a limited mental capacity for the big decisions of the world. The visual of Diana circling a room of men in power is far too similar 100 years later to the real images which have emerged from Trump’s White House of white men making decisions which directly impact countless people not represented in that space.

Diana’s strength and power are amazing and awe-inspiring. Yet, what truly makes this movie so good is her heart. We see it breaking when she witnesses women and children living in terrible conditions, being enslaved, and dying due to the war raging around them. Again, modern images burst through my internal vision as I placed the fictional faces side by side the real children from Syria and Mosul. The climactic scene of the movie is a battle with Ares, the God of War. As he tries to convince Diana that humans have chosen the atrocities, he echoes the words of her mother about what people deserve for the decisions. She responds, “It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.”

The age of Trump is about believing that those in power deserve that power. They deserve the money, the finer things of life, the best health care, the autonomy to believe that no circumstances of birth or assistance from countless people along the way led them to their place in life. It is the false ideology of the Christian prosperity gospel – that we get the rewards in life we truly deserve.

Diana, as Wonder Woman, is a hero we need today. She knows people do not always get what they deserve, and innocents suffer daily for the hubris and narcissism of the men (and I intentionally use this word) in power. The movie concludes with her in the current day, declaring that she stays and fights for love. She loves humanity and works towards a better day.

In a society where women are gravely underrepresented politically, where women and people of color and children suffer disproportionately, where the President sows seeds of fear and lies – we need a beacon of hope and love. Wonder Woman is fictional, but director Patty Jenkins is not. And sometimes our greatest truths can be inspired by mythical stories. Women and men, and people of all colors, can partner together to create a world where everyone has a seat at the table. We can rid ourselves of the language of who might deserve this or who might deserve that, and know that love means everyone deserves a better life. This is the spirituality we need in today’s world.

The Idolatry of Motherhood

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My two babies from a long ago vacation…

“Being a mother is the greatest thing a woman could do.” Kathie Lee Gifford uttered these words some 25 years ago to Regis Philbin, while I watched the tv with an older friend, who had a house filled with children. “I don’t think that’s always true,” I responded, but was quickly reprimanded by my friend. I responded by saying that it certainly was true for some women – perhaps many women – but not every woman. I decided (wisely, I thought) to let the subject drop.

I was not yet a mother, but knew I wanted to adopt children who needed homes. I had always wanted to be a mom one day, but didn’t feel the drive for pregnancy that many women experience. A graduate student at the time, preparing for a career, I also was not blind to the fact that professional mothers had much more challenging lives than professional fathers (and that unfortunately has not changed over the years). And even though I very much wanted to be a parent, I knew there were women who did not feel that calling in their lives.

Being a mom is a core part of who I am. Yet, not every woman is able to be a mom or is called to be one. This might be a choice, or imposed on a woman by circumstances. It also might be a woman who has biological children but is either unwilling or unable to be the parent a child deserves, offering support, love, and a home.

Yet, one thing remains true in our society. Being a mother is seen as the highest ideal for a woman in our society. Every little girl is expected to want children, and every newly wed woman is asked about the time plan for starting a family. New moms have to make choices about employment and child-care. Young women who aren’t even married wonder how they might balance children and a career one day, while that thought rarely crosses a young man’s mind.

And if a young woman doesn’t want children, or is not planning for them, disdain often is reigned down upon her. She is seen as selfish, uncaring, egocentric.

All this occurs because we have made motherhood an idol. It goes along with the ideals of placing women on a pedestal. Either women conform to the patriarchal notion as saints in the household, sacrificing all for their children, or they are knocked off the pedestal to be trampled by others’ judgments. Motherhood is a gift, not a requirement. For me personally, I wanted both my children. They are the most wonderful part of my life, but also sometimes the most challenging. I worry, celebrate, offer guidance and sometimes judgment, and have spent more time and money on them than I could count. As much as they fill my life with joy and love, I know that motherhood is an ongoing journey which has occasionally been smooth and other times been filled with rocks and potholes. I know I have failed miserably at times. The one consistent thing I can offer is my never-ending love to them.

Yet, choosing to be a mother does not make me a saint. It is simply part of my journey. As Mother’s Day approaches, I pray that our society will find better ways to honor mothers. We can see them as real human beings, who are fallible and have dreams and desires apart from their children. We can also honor women who have other callings in their lives, and do not have biological or legal children. Let us step away from thinking of them as less than because of their life circumstances or decisions. I know numerous women who have no legal children who have been instrumental in helping me rear my own, and in offering support to me when I often most needed it. I also feel I have a number of other “children” who are not legally related to me. Their presence in my life fills my heart.

Some Native American tribes pray to the Great Mother. A mother is someone who gives birth – and this might be a physical birth, but it also can be giving birth to love, hope, compassion, kindness, peace, and joy. For Mother’s Day, instead of focusing on a biological act, I hope we can focus on giving birth to these qualities in our society.

Don’t put me on a pedestal…

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“I just love women. I put them on a pedestal.” A well-known author spoke those words to me the other night. We were at a social gathering, and I found myself the only woman in a circle of men. The author is someone who has presented insightful information about egalitarianism and the prominent role women have in creation, theology, and mythology. His writings and teachings are ones I appreciate. Yet, given the current status of women in this country, those words rankled.

“Women don’t want to be placed on a pedestal! They want to be equal partners!” Our discussion continued until it took a different direction, but the image of a pedestal remained with me. While we have a President who only wants women under him (literally and figuratively), we have a Vice-President who wants to place women on a pedestal. I am not surprised by the recent news highlighting Mike Pence’s refusal to dine or work with a woman without a man present, including business functions. (As a woman in the male dominated field of ministry, I would be essentially isolated if I followed such a rule in regards to my male colleagues.) Anyone who followed the election process should well comprehend his view of a “Christian theocracy,” a place presided over by very conservative men who have a narrow understanding of the Bible and Christian faith, and wish to impose this legally on the rest of the nation. It is this view that propagates placing women on a pedestal – supposedly raising them up to a place where they are honored, adored, and treasured.  People who follow this viewpoint use specific passages from the Bible to support their ideas, namely Proverbs 31. They claim it’s the greatest way to respect a woman.

Yet, when one is placed on a pedestal, it’s too easy to be knocked off. A woman is either the saint, residing just out of reach of ordinary mortals – or she is the whore, the fallen woman who tempts good men and leads them to destruction.

This idea of placing a woman on a pedestal took root in the early 1800s in the American South. It coincided with the view that a “real man” was a tough guy, aggressive, competitive, and master of all he surveyed. This included not just his land, wife, and children, but also his slaves. Placing women on a pedestal was a way to keep them caged so that a man could maintain control and power.

I don’t want to be on a pedestal. I want to be an equal with men, whether it is in personal or business relationships. Neither of the two men who are representing us in Washington have any concept what that means. While it’s more obvious in the President’s case, it is perhaps more dangerous in the case of the Vice-President. Claiming to honor and protect women (and supposedly his own virtue) is code for saying he doesn’t really trust them, and he certainly can’t trust himself. People who are not on the same level can never truly be equals. A pedestal is simply a jail.

Someone Else’s Baby

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One incident from my daughter’s childhood has stood out in my mind the past few days. I often took my children to parks and play areas. While my son was in kindergarten, I took my daughter to a nearby playground, and let her dig in the sandbox while I sat a couple feet away from her on the edge of the box. Other moms and children came and went, when one mom approached the area, and began to exclaim, “Where is this baby’s mother?” I gave her a confused look, because I was closer to my daughter physically than any other mom, and then responded “Right here beside her.” She looked surprised, muttered, “Oh,” and then went to another area of the park with her child in tow.

I immediately understood the issue. I am a blondish Caucasian, and my daughter is a petite Asian. It was just the first of many times people have assumed we could have no relationship because of our appearance and races. Ava was adopted from China as a baby, so naturally we do not favor each other. I always knew I wanted to adopt internationally and cross-racially. I took on this dream when I was in junior high. The dream originated with the understanding from the Bible that every single person is a child of God, and deserves to be loved and wanted. I knew there were lots of children in the world who needed homes, and I wanted to provide those. How that child looked was a non-issue. And if my dreams had really continued, I would have adopted many more from around the world. (I keep trying not to envy Angelina Jolie for being able to do just that.)

Yet, the world continues to be filled with people who think their “own” children are of more value than other children. The devastating refugee crisis in Syria is a perfect example. We turn our eyes, and try to wash the blood from our hands, ignoring the innocents who are living in pure hell, while spouting invalid information about protecting ourselves. We have elected officials who claim we have to have our “own babies” for a civilization to grow and thrive, and refuse to acknowledge the many cultures and skin colors which make up “America,” instead wanted to create a culture of exclusion. We live in a world where stats bear up the belief held by many that white children matter more than non-white children. We have a government keen to exclude millions of more children from health care and programs to help those in poverty, while beefing up the already largest military budget in the world.

Every baby is our baby. I come at that from a deep-seeded spiritual belief, grounded in the message displayed throughout the Bible. We are responsible for the children of the world. Even if someone does not agree with this theological statement, it is simple common sense to care for the children of our society and our world. We cannot completely remove ourselves from others. We are interconnected in more ways we can image – whether economically, socially, or scientifically. Labeling a baby as “someone else’s” is like saying our foot or hand does not belong to us.

We are all one body. Each child is our own. We are all in this together.

 

 

A Post-election Christmas Message

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traditional Moravian beeswax candles, trimmed for Christmas

Below is the message I gave at our college Christmas Candlelight service last week.

Faith communities across North Carolina this weekend are coming together for a special focus in worship services. The North Carolina Council of Churches, working with other non-Christian faith communities, are focusing on this one theme – Love One Another. Every major religion in the world has at its heart the message that we should treat each other the way we want to be treated. So the idea of loving one another comes naturally from this foundational message.

Love one another.

What better way to share the Christmas story than to talk about loving one another? This message is especially critical for us in our society today. Our country is greatly divided. Hate incidents and crimes have spiked dramatically in recent weeks, occurring to people I know personally, and people who sit in this congregation. What is supposed to be a time of great joy with the Holiday season, is instead for many a time of pain, anger, anxiety, and sadness due to the hate-filled division dominating our culture.

Jesus, the baby whose birth we honor today, was born into a time and place of violence, and a society filled with religious and racial and cultural divisions. Born into poverty to two very unimportant people, his family soon fled as refugees to escape the genocide of male children by an unstable ruler.

Yet, in spite of the danger and uncertainty of his time, Jesus brought together people across lines of division from the very beginning. One of our scriptures today tells of a time when the wolf will live peacefully with the lamb. This is a sign which indicates that the light of God’s kingdom is breaking through on earth.

At Jesus’ birth, this Jewish baby had shepherds who visited – men who were on the fringes of society and living out in the fields with the sheep. The average person didn’t want to associate with a smelly shepherd who couldn’t find a better way to make a living.

At Jesus’ birth, the Magi from Persia came with gifts of great monetary value. These non-Jewish leaders, men of great wealth and power in their homeland, gathered with the castaways from society to honor a baby born into poverty in a stable.

At Jesus’ birth, animals were present, welcoming the child into their home in the stable, and signifying that all God’s creation is meant to be united in love and community – the poor, the outcasts, the wealthy, Jew and non-Jew alike, the most vulnerable of creation.

It was certainly a feast of Love at the first Christmas.

What does this mean for us today? When we focus on loving one another, I am absolutely not saying – Just be nice to each other. That is superficial and meaningless. It reminds me of that phrase I often heard growing up in the South, “Bless her heart.” Now it sounds innocuous on the surface, but my mom always said people really meant, “Bless her pointed little head.” – It meant being nice to someone’s face, but disdaining who she truly is. It placed the person as “the other,” separated from ourselves where we lived in a place of privilege and power.

Truly loving one another is not just “being nice.”

Love is the most wonderful and life-giving thing in this world – but we all know that what means the most in this world are the things for which we have to work the hardest.

Something I appreciate about working in the heart of Salem is the Moravian Motto – “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”

This doesn’t mean we gloss over injustice or try to “be nice” – it means we do our dead level best to find ways to respect, engage, and encounter the other person as a child of God. There is not one person on earth with whom we will agree 100%, and sometimes we will find our disagreements are so big that relating to the other person seems impossible. Liberty in non-essentials can be a major challenge. And if we don’t agree on what is an essential or non-essential, it becomes even more difficult. There are no easy answers in trying to figure out how to engage and be in community across what feels like as essential to us. It takes commitment to that relationship with the other person. It takes patience. It takes grace.

This is not easy, but we are always meant to reach out in love – no matter how the other person responds. Loving another can be tough – parents knows we have to provide tough love on occasion for our children. There are times we have to speak words of truth and justice, which the other person may not want to hear. And Love doesn’t mean we always like the other person. Love takes a whole lot of hard work. It takes a generosity of spirit in being in community with that person, trying to understand that person’s point of view. And the more abhorrent or foreign that view seems, the more important to respect them and remain in community together.

Now in the end, love is all we really have, isn’t it? There is far too much hate in the world today – hate which will consume each one of us if we let it. There are far too many people spewing words of division at each other. There are far too many loud voices not respecting the humanity in others.

Love is all we really have, isn’t it? Jesus was love – his life was about loving others – each and every person – and it threatened the establishment so much that the people in power decided to execute him. But that didn’t stop his love. And it didn’t stop millions of people over the centuries being inspired by his example and reaching out in love to others, no matter the consequences. And not just Christians. People of other faiths – Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and others – see him as a great teacher with a prophetic message who has shown us a better way to live.

So I say to you today – go forth and love each other. It’s often not easy. And when it’s not easy – that’s when it is the most important. It will be the most challenging and difficult thing we do in our lives. But it will definitely be the thing that makes us the most fully human, and that makes us most filled with the Divine.

It will be that which makes life worthwhile.

Go forth and love.