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Just Generosity – A Christmas Message

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Below is the message I recently gave for our College Christmas Candlelight Service…

A milestone has recently occurred in my family – one that many people my age and older always appreciate, and one that all our students here are looking forward to with great anticipation. My son finished college a couple years ago and moved out to the Rocky Mountains, where he can snowboard and climb sheer rocks all he wants. And this past summer, he got his first real “adult” job – one that has a decent salary and benefits and all those wonderful things. And I know that many of our students – especially our seniors – have lots of Holiday dreams about when that time will come.

A couple weeks ago, my son Caleb was asking about what I wanted for Christmas. He is actually able to come be with us in person this year, so I told him his presence and some dark chocolate covered cherries were plenty. And he said, “No mom, I can be really generous this year. You’ve done so much for me my whole life – and I am glad it’s my turn to be generous.”

Of course, I teared up – because that’s what moms do – but the word he used – generous – has stuck with me. People toss around that word a lot – I believe without actually thinking about what it really means. We might tell someone at the dining table – “Be generous dishing out the mac and cheese!” We like it when people are generous with their praise or thanks, especially when we are reading comments on a returned paper. We always appreciate people who are generous with time and money.

Generosity is a trait we all can admire, but it seems also to be something that people feel like they can only offer only after they have everything they need. The Christmas story before us today is one that abounds with the message of generosity, and from many people who had so little.

Teenage Mary knew all sorts of problems could come – even to the point of being stoned for adultery – when she found out she was pregnant with Jesus – but she generously offered praise and thanks for the blessing of being the mother of Jesus.

Joseph knew Mary was pregnant with a child not his – but yet he cared for her and protected her, and “adopted” the baby Jesus as his own.

The owner of the inn had space that was overflowing with people due to the government decree, yet he found room in a warm and friendly manger for Mary and Joseph, generously offering the best he could.

The shepherds in the fields were some of the poorest in the region, with days and nights filled trying to keep their sheep safe, yet they were generous with their time, coming to lavish praise and wonder on the event of Christmas night.

The Wise Men were generous with not only their time and money in journeying far to visit the new babe, and giving costly gifts, but even more generous in their wisdom of not giving away his location to the King who wanted to execute the baby Jesus.

Generosity is a theme we see throughout the Biblical narrative – in fact, it’s a theme throughout the major religions of the world. Every major religion has at its heart the message of treating others the way we want to be treated.

And we certainly want others to be generous with us, don’t we?

Ron Sider wrote a book first published almost 20 years ago, entitled Just Generosity. It’s a wonderful play on words. Generosity is the foundation of the spiritual life – being compassionate, loving, kind, supportive, understanding. Yet, true generosity is not possible without Justice – thus Just Generosity.

Generosity is not about the sloppy sentimentality that people can so easily fall into during this season.

Generosity is not about having big hearts, giving what is comfortable with our financial means, saying we love everybody, and being blind to systems and actions which harm others.

True, just, generosity is about giving when we aren’t certain we really can, and doing so with a loving heart.

True just generosity is about relinquishing our own power so that we can include someone who is on the margins and barely hanging on.

Just generosity is about taking our whole beings – our material possessions, our time, our ideas, our likes and our dislikes and our loves and our hates – and giving fully so that we can be connected with the rest of humanity and thus share in the true peace that only comes in that connection.

The old adage is that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And it is. It’s a good thing to receive, but it’s an event better thing to give. And to give generously and justly – of what we have and who we are – that is the best thing of all.

So my Holiday wish for each one of us today – let us be generous in spirit – with each other – with those we love and those we don’t like. And let us be justly generous in all the many ways we can make this tumultuous world a better place. Amen.

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.

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.

My Wandering Uterus

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My Wandering Uterus is officially in print! I am excited that my chapter, “The Threshold of the Sheela,” is part of this collection. The book shares stories of women and their travels, and all the challenges, insights, and gifts such journeys entail.

I saw the call for submissions a number of months ago on the Facebook page of Byron Ballard. I first met Byron when she was a bookseller at my favorite bookstore in Asheville. The store had the best spirituality section in town, and I was a young minister who loved books. I often entered the store with an energetic toddler in tow. Byron would entertain him while I leisurely browsed. Once my son was old enough that he was not always with me, Byron would always ask after him and share how much she loved his little jean baseball cap he always wore. (I actually still have that cap in storage – it’s a fond memory of my journey of motherhood.)

When Bryon wrote about the concept for the book, I immediately knew my pilgrimage to Iona several years ago was a story I needed to share. My chapter tells of this pilgrimage, exile, a Sheela-na-gig, and my ongoing irritation with St. Augustine and his view on women. I hope you will purchase a copy!

 

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.

The Feminist Advent of St. Brigid

Brigid-jpg-740x986the following is the message I gave at a Christmas Lessons & Carols last week…

There are a number of women saints who have intrigued me over the years. At this time of year, I tend to recall fondly stories of St. Brigid. She, along with St. Patrick, are the two patron saints of Ireland. Now it’s hard to pin down what is historically accurate about a woman named Brigid who lived 1500 years ago and what are mythical stories that developed.

And it really doesn’t matter. The Celtic imagination knows that truth and inspiration can be found in these stories, no matter what may have factually occurred.

One story about Brigid is that she was the midwife during the birth of Jesus. Now we know that Brigid lived about 450 years after Jesus, but that’s beside the point. The story of Brigid helping Mary give birth to the Prince of Peace provides real truth. The figure of Brigid herself is all about new life, giving birth, transitioning to a new way of existing.

Throughout most of history, wise women were midwives. These were women who understood nature and creation. They used the gifts of creation to help mothers as they endured the traumatic physical event of giving birth. Then they made certain this new little baby transitioned from the safety of the womb to a new existence in this world.

The message for this season of the year is about giving birth, symbolically transitioning to a new life. For each person here, we have all experienced transitions to a new life – a new birth.

Our first transition was a physical birth, just like the baby Jesus.

We had new births when we started school, and were students.

We had new births if younger siblings came along – and we birthed a new identity as an older sibling.

We have new births with celebration of birthdays – becoming a teen, a legal adult, a person of middle age, a retired individual.

We have births with new jobs and vocational opportunities.

We have new births when we enter into deep relationships which transform us and enable us to grow.

We have new births when we discover our calling in life, and take steps towards on that journey.

And at each point with the new births in our lives, there have been midwives – people who have used their gifts to ease the pain of transition and to help us be healthy and strong as we encounter our new lives.

During this Christmas season, I encourage everyone to think about how you can be a midwife. How can we be like St. Brigid, helping birth a new world?

We can seek to ease pain and suffering – whether it’s physical, emotional, or spiritual. We can offer words and actions of kindness and grace. As we celebrate the Prince of Peace today, we can share peace with others – and especially others who may not bring peace to us.

We can offer hope. We live in days when we are constantly bombarded by images and actions of violence, hatred, divisiveness, and fear. Hope can keep us moving forward on days when the awfulness around us can paralyze us. A midwife recognizes hope, encourages it, and helps others live in hope – no matter what we might encounter.

St. Brigid – whether she was a real woman, simply a legend which developed, or a combination of the two – inspires us to be midwives – to move forward to a new life, a new birth, a new way of being filled with peace, love, compassion, and hope. Let each one of us seek to be like St. Brigid – a midwife. Let us seek to help birth a new life, a new world, around us.

Today, as we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, I would like to close with the hearth prayer of St. Brigid.

Brigid of the Mantle, encompass us,

Lady of the Lambs, protect us,

Keeper of the Hearth, kindle us.

Beneath your mantle, gather us,

And restore us to memory.

Mothers of our mother, Foremothers strong.

Guide our hands in yours,

Remind us how to kindle the hearth.

To keep it bright, to preserve the flame.

Your hands upon ours, Our hands within yours,

To kindle the light, Both day and night.

The Mantle of Brigid about us,

The Memory of Brigid within us,

The Protection of Brigid keeping us

From harm, from ignorance, from heartlessness.

This day and night,

From dawn till dark, From dark till dawn. Amen.

 

Here’s to the “Real”

 

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Merrill Farnsworth

As a young teenager, I began to realize that life was not always fair. That moment of realization is never easy for anyone, but my Mom offered the wise words of Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I have not been so eloquent in helping my children navigate the difficult days of life. I’ve normally told them that life really sucked sometimes. (Sorry Mom – I know you taught me better.)

A few weeks ago, I learned that my friend, Merrill, was in her last days of life due to breast cancer. I met Merrill one year ago, when she was assigned as my mentor with the Haden Institute, where I had enrolled for the two year Spiritual Directors Training. I specifically remember when I first laid eyes on her. I recall what she wore (she was a cool dresser), and the way she tilted her head. I knew during those first moments that she was the perfect mentor for me.

Merrill and I had a couple really great conversations during that first long weekend training. There were numerous points of connection with our lives, and she just really “got” where I was in my life. From the very beginning, I knew I could be 100% me with Merrill, warts and all. I could do that because Merrill was always 100% Merrill. She was one of the most authentic people I have ever known. And that authenticity empowered me to be the most me I could be. In thinking about her life and spirit in recent days, The Velveteen Rabbit came to mind. The children’s book tells of a stuffed animal who became “real” because it was loved. Merrill loved life – she loved creation – she loved to dance and art and poetry – she loved people – and she was as real as they come. And this vibrant person empowered others to be “real” because of who she was.

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Merrill died while our mentee group was assembled. We were together when we heard the news, and after tears and words, we chose to go to the stone labyrinth and journey its path. Merrill was a lover of the labyrinth, and especially encouraged others to dance along the walkway. As our group followed the path to our destination, a pileated woodpecker appeared on the ground just before us. After a few moments – just long enough for all of us to have a good look – it took flight, and then began making the cawing racket only this bird can make.

Merrill’s voice and presence were real, inspiring, and loud (symbolically!). She was far too young to leave us, but all of us who loved her know her presence will remain with us. She was the real thing, and I know many of us have been inspired and encouraged by her to be the realest we can be, too.

Here’s to the real – here’s to Merrill.

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.