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.

 

 

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The day “Christian America” died…

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November 8, 2016. Church historians will teach about this date in future years. Scholars will explore how the 50 year decline of mainline Christianity had the coffin slammed shut on that day. This is a clear and obvious demarcation of one era to the next. As with any big changes in society or institutions, the writing had been on the wall with the slow slide towards death. A serious episode of illness took place with the advent of the “Moral Majority,” but the movement of evangelicals for Trump was the final death blow.

Now I would argue that America has never been a “Christian” nation as some have claimed. The “founding fathers” were all Deist, believing that Jesus was not divine and that God simply set creation into motion and never intervened. While the Puritans pontificated about this new land being a city on a hill and a light for all  nations, the Quakers opened their doors for people of all faiths. It was this mentality that won out in the formation of the new country – church and state were separate. And before anyone starts exclaiming about the Pledge of Allegiance (“under God”) and our coinage (“in God we trust”), please know these phrases were added in the 1950s under the watchful eye of Joseph McCarthy.

Yet, those who have often insisted on America being a Christian nation  have been the very ones to vote into office a man who has not only no understanding of Christianity, but also no understanding of basic morality. He bragged of sexual assault and control over women, and dismissed it as something any man would say. He mocked a reporter who is differently abled. He condemned people based upon race, and lumped them together as the worst sort of people (criminals, rapists). He proclaimed a major world religion (and an Abrahamic one which shares beliefs with Christianity) as full of terrorists.

Since his election, incidents against women and people of color have sky-rocketed across the country. My own students are dealing with strangers and hate incidents which could never be misconstrued as Christian. These perfect strangers feel they have the right to act in these hateful and threatening ways, because they are simply following in the footsteps of their President-elect. These are not the footsteps of Jesus.

There were large numbers of Christians who spoke out against the amorality of our future President, including evangelical leaders. I pray they will continue to try and let their voices be heard. We cannot idly sit by and let people of color, women, and non-Christians be treated in this manner.

Yet, even more people will see the fault in Christianity, and believe that a secular humanism is more compassionate, life-giving, and loving. And I cannot fault them. I work every day with young adults, many of whom are not just “nones” (growing up with no religious affiliation), but are also “dones” (done with Christian affiliation after damaging experiences in churches). The many nones and dones I encounter on a regular basis act far more like Jesus than many people who openly proclaim to follow him.

“Christian America” is dead. And I’m fine with that. It doesn’t mean that the Spirit of justice, compassion, truth, kindness, understanding, and love is not flowing throughout our land. It just means that it isn’t to be found in some of the places where people talk about a Christian agenda most loudly.

9/11 and Living with the Bad

For anyone older than perhaps age 30, 15 years ago is a day and time we will never forget. I began the day on a retreat with other United Methodist clergy, glad to be in the beautiful NC mountains and focus on God. So many of us worked far too many hours, with far too many demands, and taking those couple days was necessary for our personal, vocational, and spiritual health. But soon after breakfast, our Bishop called us together. She shared with us the events – as best anyone knew at that early time of the day – and then said she had decided to cancel the retreat so that we could come home and minister to our communities.

I arrived home a little while later, spent some time with my 7 year old son to explain what we knew, and to reassure him that we were safe, and then headed directly to campus. Other campus ministers were there, and we worked all day and through the evening with all the campus staff – listening to the fears and pain of the students, and trying to help those who had not heard from parents or loved ones who had been at the Twin Towers or the Pentagon. I knew I could do much more than listen. I began to contact a variety of faith leaders in the area, especially non-Christian ones. With the assistance of the administration, we had an Interfaith service planned in less than 24 hours. Almost 1000 people gathered in the largest space on the campus of 3000, being comforted by leaders of the major world’s religions. That was the first day I participated in a guided meditation from a Buddhist monk. (And it would not be the last.) Everything about the service was helpful that day, but the meditation put my heart at rest as other things could not.

In the coming weeks, I had hopes that good could come from this terrible tragedy. The Bible states that good can come out whatever happens to us, and I had always believed that. I also knew it wasn’t always easy to find the good, or it might take many years for that wisdom to arrive. Yet, in those weeks, I had hopes that our society would pull together as one in a way we had not done before. As we dealt with the national grief, pain, and anger, I prayed that we could do that as a community – that we could celebrate the differences while being bonded by our similarities. I was part of a team which planned a city-wide Interfaith Service in downtown Asheville in the subsequent weeks, certainly one of the most memorable worship events of my career.

Yet, not all who live with the bad can find the good. Sometimes the bad just turns to hate, anger, and violence. Reports of Islamaphobia, and violent words or actions against Muslims, in our country are higher in the past year than they were after 9/11. 15 years later, and I wonder how we have regressed. How could white supremacy be mainstreamed, and a strain of Christianity preach such hate and division?

It happens when people focus on what separates us, instead of what unites us. It happens when people act based upon fear, instead of hope. It happens when people look for a scapegoat for what is wrong in their own lives. It happens when words of violence are allowed to come more easily, instead of words of compassion.

I truly thought our society would be a kinder, more inclusive, more hopeful place now than it was 15 years ago. If we don’t try to understand what it means to live with the bad, to be thoughtful about those greatly difficult times in life, and to be fully aware of our own motivations and feelings – then the bad consumes us.

I pray this consummation of our society will be transformed. We shouldn’t fight fire with fire – we shouldn’t reject the bad with the bad. We instead offer compassion, kindness, understanding, and love. That’s how we find the good in the midst of the bad.

 

Controlling Muslim Women’s Bodies

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First – a disclaimer. I am not Muslim. I am a born and bred Christian, and was ordained a minister over 25 years ago. Yet, my work as a college minister during most of that time has given me the wonderful opportunity to work with people from a wide variety of faith traditions, including Islam. One of my greatest joys in recent years has been the connection with the growing number of young Muslim women on my campus. Obviously, when things that impact my young students are in the news, I pay attention.

During the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab was front and center as the United States processed. I have since learned much more about Ibtihaj Muhammad, a New Jersey native who won the bronze in her sport.

On the Copacabana Beach, headlines were made when one member of the Egyptian beach volleyball team chose to wear a hijab. Her teammate, while also choosing the full body suit, did not cover her head. (Rules were changed 4 years ago to allow players to wear more than the tiny bikini normally seen.)

Muslim women’s bodies were once again in the news, when the mayor of Cannes banned the wearing of the so-called “burkini,” a full body swimsuit with a head covering, citing it as a symbol of religious extremism.

It seems that Muslim’s women’s bodies are not their own, but instead the battlefield for issues concerning religious diversity, extremism, terrorism, and even feminism. Is it sexist to cover one’s hair and body? When  Kim Kardasian claims that nude selfies are empowering for women, how does a Muslim woman live in the same society? (And I’ll leave it to you to decide if Kardasian tweets these pics due to body confidence or exhibitionism – or a mixture of both motivations.)

I know Muslim women who wear a hijab, and others who only wear one when they go to the mosque. I know Muslim women who wear sleeveless shirts and short dresses, and others who always have arms and legs covered. Not one of them has been forced by a male relative to do any of these things. (And yes, I am well aware that there are women who are forced to adhere to extreme dress codes – I protested the US Government backing the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1991 because of how the Taliban treated women.) My point is that there are Muslim women who choose to dress with certain standards, and people need to get over it. One of my dear Muslim students explained to me why she chose to start wearing a hijab when she was 12. “It’s a symbol that I am what’s important – not my hair or my body. People see my face, the essence of who I am.”

I was envious when I heard her explain her decision. As a child of the 80s, I have spent far too much time and money on my hair over the years. As a professional woman, I have again spent far too much time and money trying to choose appropriate, but attractive (and yes, sometimes sexy), clothing that makes the statement I want to make. And what is that statement? I’m a professional – I look younger than I am – I’m sporty – I’m fashionable – I’m desirable?

I believe it’s rare for any woman in our society – Muslim or not – to be able to separate what she truly wants in her own choice of dress or what is culturally expected. I know I can’t completely do that. I do know this – we need to find something else to worry about in this world other than Muslim women choosing certain clothing to express their faith. Let’s take on hunger, kidnapped girls in Africa, gun violence, racism, homophobia. Leave Muslim women and their bodies alone.

 

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

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The Delaware Memorial Bridge over the Delaware River

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” This telling phrase from Blanche DuBois, as embodied by Vivien Leigh, suddenly popped into my head in the middle of a dark night. My tired accent was probably close to the Southern Belle’s as I explained my lack of cash to a perhaps equally tired attendant in a toll booth on the New Jersey Turnpike. I had been awake for close to 24 hours on my journey home from a lovely and thought-provoking 10 days in Scotland and England. Unfortunately, the last leg of my flight had been cancelled, along with numerous other flights, and it well looked as if it would be two more days before I could walk through my own door. I decided an 9 hour drive would be preferable to a couple days spent in the Newark Airport, waiting to see if I made the standby cut. Rental car steering wheel in hand, I turned onto the Turnpike at 1am, guided by the gps on my cell phone. I had never driven I-95 north of Maryland, but I figured I was capable since I had just been navigating foreign countries. I hurtled into the night, feeling pretty good about my resourcefulness. I blasted the air conditioning and radio, continuing my burst of confidence, until I realized I was singing along with Carrie Underwood “Before he sleeps” instead of the correct words. (The man was a cheater, not sleep-deprived.) The first toll-booth added a couple more holes in the armor of assurance I wore. With only credit cards and British pounds, I counted myself quite lucky the attendant took pity on me and let me use a card to pay at a cash-only booth. I managed to find the $4 fee for the next booth in the various pockets of my backpack, but wasn’t quite sure how I would manage the subsequent stops.

A handful of other cars zoomed around me, but the night was dark and quiet. At least it was until a huge monstrosity loomed before me. “Holy s*%#!” erupted from my mouth, a phrase I do not believe I have ever uttered in my life. (In all honestly, it would be uttered a few more times before I arrived home the following afternoon.) In the shadows, an enormous monolith reached to the heavens, and I couldn’t see a sign anywhere that told me what the heck was going on. I quickly found myself careening over a massive bridge, quite terrified.  (pictured above – but imagine it was really, really dark;  you’re sleep-deprived; and you have an irrational fear of really high bridges) The bridge phobia can be blamed on my family, who decided to have an outing when I was a teen to see the campy horror movie, Happy Birthday to Me. While my family laughed, I was horrified at the lobotomy which took place when a car failed to make a drawbridge.

By the time I navigated what I later realized was the Delaware Memorial Bridge, I needed a break. I found myself at a Comfort Inn just north of Baltimore a little after 3. The night clerk checked me in, providing some basic necessities I lacked. I slept like a rock until 7:30am, when my body decided it was really Sunday afternoon and time to be awake. I went to check out, hair still wet from my shower, and asked the desk clerk how many more tolls were ahead of me, hoping I could come up with a solution to my lack of US cash on a Sunday morning. I rattled on about my adventures since returning to the States, and she marveled that I was able to use a credit card at a toll booth. “I have something in the back that can help,” she added and disappeared through a door. She returned in a moment, holding out a $10 bill. “You only have 2 more booths, and this will cover it.” I protested, but she insisted. (Yes, customer service knows about this stellar employee.)

I made it home safely 7 hours later. I don’t know if it was stress, exhaustion, or just the elongated vowels and blondish hair – but numerous perfect strangers were graciously kind and generous.

And isn’t that what life should be all about? The Hebrew Scriptures have a large focus on Hospitality. In a day and age where life was dangerous and often scary, any decent person would welcome the stranger, providing shelter, food, and protection. It shames me that so many in our bountiful country speak out of fear, not wanting to be in community with those who are perceived as different. We can expect our loved ones to care for us, but it’s the strangers who need our love the most. Thank goodness for that dependence. It’s what makes us truly human, and brings out the best in each one of us.

The Lucky One

 

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Ava and I at the baby shower my church gave soon after bringing her home.

19 years ago today, a tiny little girl was born in Southern China. She was possibly premature, and circumstances were challenging at best. The mother was unable to keep her, even though I imagine she loved that baby as much as any of us do when we hold a newborn. She loved her enough to make certain she found a home until a couple from America could arrive to bring her to a new home. 9 months after that difficult day of birth, those new parents arrived to find an infant wearing a Hello Kitty bib and obviously well-loved by her caregivers. Baby Ava looked at her new parents with a puzzled face, trying to figure out this odd-looking couple. She received the devoted attention of her big brother, new grandparents, and many well-wishers with casual grace in the weeks that followed. She couldn’t have been loved more.

As do many mothers, I recall the early days with my babies with great fondness and moist eyes. I had waited so long for this little girl to arrive in my life, and the days were more joyful than I could have imagined. So many others – friends and strangers – seemed happy for us as well. Yet, one sentence kept being repeated. “She is such a lucky little girl.” Even in China, people would approach us with the only English they knew, which was “Lucky girl.” I never wanted to receive such words about my daughter. Sometime in 8th grade, I realized I wanted to adopt, especially trans-racially. That was back when I was toying with going to the far reaches of Africa and translating the Bible for my life’s work. That desire faded within a year, but the idea of adopting children did not. I knew there were countless children who needed homes, and I didn’t particularly feel the need to have birth children. (And I know there are many women who feel this biological need, and I certainly do not wish to downplay that. I’m just made differently.) It never felt to me like I was doing a child a favor – I just thought of this as the way I wanted to arrange my family. My teenage musings had me surrounded by 4 or 5 children, all adopted from around the world. I can’t tell you the envy I felt for Angelina Jolie when she began to live out my dream.

I always knew I was the lucky one – not my baby girl. God had gifted me with the most incredible child – not perfect; no child is – but just perfect for our family. When people wanted to compliment me on the decision to adopt, I always responding by telling them I was truly the lucky one. Both my children are such complete gifts, the best things in my life. I offer untold thanks for them each and every day.

Every family is centered around the concept of hospitality. We welcome new persons into our inner circle, whether by choice or by blood. We choose to offer the most intimate part of ourselves, the good and the bad, the strong and the weak. We support them in the difficult days, and let them comfort us when our tough times come around. Ava and I have comforted each other when the tears came, and laughed far more often than that.

She is a gift, and on her birth day each year, I give thanks to the petite Chinese woman who offered this precious child for our family.

Let the Commencement Begin

 

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photo courtesy of Dustin Collins

The month of May normally brings flowers after all the preceding month’s showers, but it also brings the annual Commencement activities. Having worked in college ministry for 18 years, I anxiously await the ending of yet another school year. However, this season brings something different. My first born, Caleb, graduated from college this past weekend. It was almost jarring to find myself surrounded by hundreds of other family members and loved ones in mass seating, as opposed to surveying the crowd from my comfortable chair on the platform. Other Commencement days have found me propped in my seat, feet tucked under my legs, and covered by my massive academic robe. I only open and close the usual service with a prayer and a blessing, so I simply enjoy the rest of the service and offer up the occasional good thought for the graduates as they embark on their new lives.

Yet, last Saturday found me slightly shivering in a hard metal chair on damp grass, with no bulky robe to shield me from the early morning mountain air. The tears fought for release as I kept picturing a very tiny, but very loud, toddler running around – not a grown man ready to embark on the adventure of life. Some of the days over the past 22 plus years were quite long, but the years seemed to have flown by. How could we have reached this point?

I am a proud mother of a very wonderful son, and I am ready to let him go to become the man he needs and wants to be. I’ve been letting go since day one, actually. At just a few weeks old, I realized that he oftentimes stopped crying when I placed him in a bouncy seat instead of my arms. He skipped to school that first day of kindergarten, boisterously exclaiming to every neighbor we passed where he was headed. He insisted he could do things by himself, without my supervision or help. He was more than ready to let go my hand and grab the hand of a cute blond girl when the time came. And he was ready to deal with the consequences of any decisions he made which may not have been the best.

The time has come. It’s been coming. He’s grown up and he’s an adult.

That doesn’t mean I have abdicated being his mother. I actually corrected his grammar last week, and we had a good discussion about his reading material now that nothing was required. I’m still his mom, but I’m also his friend. There will be times I will provide unsolicited advice, but I know the decisions are his alone. And if he tells me to keep my opinions to myself, I might have to bite my tongue, but I’ll do it.

Adulthood has commenced. During the activities of last weekend, I heard one student refer to college as being the best four years of one’s life. I beg to differ. I know from my work as a college minister that these years are challenging, stressful, sometimes painful, and fortunately sometimes joyful. I hope and pray that there is more good than bad. Yet, there are so many wonderful years ahead. I want my son, and all graduates, to see that this is just the beginning, the commencement, of life as an adult. That life will include many different emotions, and many times that will be better than the college years. Life is about embracing the good, and enduring and learning from the difficult. I hope each graduate will be ready for some of the best years yet to come.

Abandoned by God

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I have chosen to ignore Holy Week in recent years. I am fully aware of the importance of this time for the Church year. In fact, I have preached and taught about it my entire career. Easter is the most holy day for Christians (not Christmas – it unfortunately has become the patron day for commercialization and the glorification of the family, no matter how dysfunctional or even abusive it might be). And as I have stated for years, Christians can’t really appreciate the wonder of Easter without knowing what happened the previous days. Yet, Christians consistently forgo the pain of Holy Week and focus instead on the flowers, eggs, candy, and pretty new outfits of Easter Sunday. In our society’s constant pursuit of happiness, we turn from pain towards the party.

Holy Week is tough. It deals with Jesus being frustrated to the point of anger, and abandoned by all his friends except for his mother and a couple close women disciples . It involved torture and capital punishment. The events of those few days are so agonizing that Jesus even asks why God has forsaken him as he hangs from the cross to which he is nailed.

At its core, Holy Week is about feeling abandoned by God. And so that’s why I chose to ignore it the past few years. Life had enough pain without wallowing in it for a few more days. I needed an Easter every day, not just one day each Spring.

The Church’s bemoaning of Easter Christians who ignore the other facets of the faith walk might be missing the truer realities of living in today’s world. Yes, there are some people who only want the party, but perhaps there are many more who simply cannot add one more hurtful event to their lives. Few days ever go by without someone sharing with me that she feels abandoned by the divine in the world, alone to face the hurt that life so often brings. Many countless people experience distress each day due to the lack of compassion or grace by the world around them. They are targeted due to gender, social class, race, sexual orientation, religion, or simply for decisions they make in life. Just as the majority of Jesus’ closest followers deserted him at the most difficult time of his life, too many people today are ignored or even blamed by the very people who call themselves Christian, and yet refuse to live as Jesus himself would.

How are Christians to observe this holiest of weeks? We are to observe it by doing everything in our power to alleviate the pain in this world – not by passing judgment, but by showing compassion and grace. We can pray for all the thousands of Muslims who have been terrorized and killed by ISIL. We can reach out to people who are different from ourselves, and truly listen to their stories, honestly attempting to comprehend their lives. We can fight for just laws which do not discriminate or alienate others. We can ensure a good education and safe and secure living environment for every child. We can follow the footsteps of Jesus, reaching out with compassion and grace to a world where the majority live the agonies of Holy Week each day.

 

Giving Up Giving Things Up for Lent

lent-imageI’m giving up giving things up for Lent. After having spent close to 30 years seriously contemplating my Lenten practice of fasting, I think it’s time for a change. I first discovered this ancient practice of giving something up for Lent while I was in college. One of my friends, another religion major, was a devout Episcopalian. I recall seeing her in a Wednesday morning class during my freshman year, wondering how she could have dirt on her forehead. I kindly let her know, because what kind of friend who let someone go around with dirt on her forehead all day? She grinned, and then patiently explained Ash Wednesday and Lent to me.

I felt like an idiot. How could the minister at my own United Methodist Church not have told us about something that Christians all over the world had done for centuries? I vowed I would join Christians around the globe in observing Lent, so that I could best be prepared to celebrate Easter. During those first few years, I always gave up something to eat. I have attempted chocolate six different times – but between my birthday falling during Lent and the arrival of Girl Scout cookies – I never succeeded. I have given up Diet Coke a couple times, and have focused on red meat until I finally gave up red meat completely. (Turns out eating red meat has a very bad impact environmentally, and I could certainly get protein in other ways.) After a while, I turned to things like not gossiping (a Lenten promise to which I was driven by a particular coworker), and not thinking negatively. I also experimented with taking on something – like a special volunteer project or fundraising for hunger.

These have all been well and good, and I am glad I observed Lent in those ways, but those days are in the past. I have spent close to 25 years in the ministry, much of it working with women and especially young adult women. So many women have already given up so much in their lives. Sacrifices made for children, parents, husbands. Time spent trying to prop up a broken public school system. The thankless job of managing the details of dying churches, while many lay men still held the power and were oftentimes not acknowledged by male clergy. Volunteering to help those in need, while they themselves found it difficult to make ends meet.

In the midst of this patriarchal society – where women do not earn what men earn, are graded on their looks, are abused and killed at alarming rates by male partners, and are the backbone of a broken economy – I encourage the women of the world to give up giving things up for Lent. Instead of giving up yet one more thing, find some way to treat yourself during this season. Get that long overdue haircut. Buy a special chocolate bar. Take time to read a book for fun. Tell your husband he is on duty one evening or day while you go and just goof off. Join a women’s group. Take a retreat, even if for just a few hours.

I am well aware that I am fortunate woman. I have not had to make the sacrifices that many of my sisters make each day. But that is the point, isn’t it? We are all sisters. And Jesus is our brother. He required sacrifices of those who had much, and knew that Mary deserved to sit at his feet and learn with the men. He didn’t require her to spend one more minute in the kitchen, sacrificing her time and energy so that others could be with him.

So I invite my sisters to observe a Holy Lent, knowing that the women of our world are not required to be the sacrificial martyr.

The Depths of Winter

a cold January day at an old Irish cemetary

a cold January day at an old Irish cemetary

My daughter and I had a recent conversation about “winter music.” As we drove around in my car, I yet again forced her to listen to Sting’s If On A Winter’s Night. She didn’t seem to mind, but was curious why I was still listening to Christmas songs and it was after January 6. (We do observe the full 12 days of Christmas in my home.) I shared that throughout the centuries, people had songs they would sing during the dark, short days of winter, and this was the music Sting honored with his album. That definitely included some tunes about the Christmas story, but winter was broader than just 12 days.

I acknowledge I am like much of our society when I want to skip winter, unless it involves a pretty snow that is easily drivable in a day or two. It seems Christmas is about bringing as much happiness and light into the world as we can, and then we immediately turn to Valentine’s Day where love reigns supreme, and then we immediately skip to swimsuit season. Unless we enjoy winter sports, we try our best to ignore the short, gray days, and the sadness that can often accompany them. When Sting gave interviews about his winter music, he discussed the importance of diving into winter and embracing what it means spiritually. When we just try to survive it – to skitter through in anticipation of bright, sunny days – then we miss an important aspect of life.

In the past couple decades, our society seems to have become more and more obsessed with being happy. The pursuit of happiness appears to take precedence over anything else in our lives. We don’t see the value in things which don’t make us happy. Many years ago I met with my wise spiritual director, Susan, and I can remember telling her that I just wanted to be happy. She responded, “Perhaps wanting to be peaceful might be a better option. Happiness can be superficial, and doesn’t really speak to your soul.”

Peace can only come when we really face the gray days of winter. If we try to ignore those times in our lives, we will not truly know peace. I invite you this winter to observe a full winter. Find times of quiet. Reflect on the purpose of your life. Embrace the darkness, knowing that it will shed light on the easier days. Dive into winter – the cold, the lack of light, the isolation – and look into what your soul says to you. We will definitely appreciate the warmth more fully when it comes, and be able to grasp the deep peace which truly does bring joy into our lives.