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.

 

Adoption and Being Real

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Gold Medal Winning Gymnast, Simone Biles

I’m an Olympics junkie. The tv or computer (or both) run constantly during those two weeks, anxiously awaiting the next exciting event. I’ve uncovered a love for women’s rugby during the summer, and can’t wait to catch up on curling when the winter games roll around. I’m fortunate that my daughter enjoys watching much of the games with me, although gymnastics is her favorite for the summer games. Ava was a gifted gymnast in elementary and middle school, and maintained the skills throughout years of cheerleading. We turned up the tv for the qualifying round Sunday night, ready to see Simone Biles’ domination. We cheered with her teammates and parents. Except not all the commentators saw the event the same way we did.

“Simone Biles’ grandparents…” was the usual talking point. Al Trautwig even tweeted that they were not her real parents, even though they legally adopted Biles as a very young child. They are the only parents she has ever known, legally, spiritually, and emotionally. Biles speaks about how her family came to be, and has said “It’s so normal.”

As my daughter and I sat on the couch, watching tv and the twitter feed, I told her how irritated the dismissal of adopted families made me. “I’m your real mom, and you are my real daughter.”

“I know. Some people are just stupid.” Ava shrugged it off, but I’m still irritated. Just like Biles, a family being formed by adoption is normal for my daughter. Yet, I’ve spent 18 years explaining that I love my child who was adopted just like I love my child to whom I gave birth. I’ve spent 18 years explaining that I am Ava’s “real” mom, just not her birth mom. I’ve spent 18 years explaining that we are like any other mother and daughter, even though we are of different races and came together in a less than common manner.

As a person of faith, I believe adoption is the highest form of parenting. The New Testament (Romans 8) proclaims that we are all adopted by God – loved and cared for as God’s own child. And even when we have birth children, we have to “adopt” that baby – promising to love and care for that child. We know of too many parents who don’t “adopt” their birth children, instead offering neglect or intentional abuse.

My daughter summed it up nicely, “Some people are just stupid.” And some people are just mean. Al Trautwig doubled-down before he finally apologized. I don’t know if he has learned anything from this. I don’t know if non-adoptive adults will stop making insulting statements to adoptive families. (“Do you love her like you do your own child?” “How much did you pay for her?” “I guess kids who are adopted have all sorts of problems.”)

It is more challenging being part of an adoptive family – the challenge comes from others who don’t understand what it is truly to love someone for her own sake, regardless of how she came into your life. The challenge comes from a lack of Christian charity and compassion, and the desire to make everyone over in their own likeness.

As God has adopted us, so adoption is the highest form of parenting. I’ve adopted both my kids – birth and adopted, alike. I hope Al Trautwig and others like him will realize families formed by are adoption are real and normal. Otherwise, it’s just plain stupid.

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.

The End of Hope

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One of my favorite classes in seminary was Black Church Studies with Dr. Willie Jennings. Prof. Jennings began the class by asking us to raise our hands if we were racist. We glanced around at each other, none of us wanting to claim such a title for ourselves. I certainly felt like I didn’t qualify for that – social justice had always been an integral part of what it meant to be in my family, and I had plans to adopt transracially. Yet, Prof. Jennings continued by raising his own hand. “Everyone here is racist. We live in a racist society, and thus we cannot be removed from that foundation. We are part of it. The key is to recognize it.”

25 years later I have not forgotten these words. This summer they have seemed more poignant than ever. The stats are clear that black individuals are stopped by police at far greater rates than non-blacks. Senator Tim Scott recounts his own experience with this – an experience his white colleagues do not share. (And I shouldn’t have to write this, but of course I support our police. As Prof. Jennings pointed out, none of us can be removed from this racial foundation, and we need training and education to recognize the blinders we wear.) It has also pained me greatly to witness, and to hear first hand from my students, the dramatically increased harassment of Muslims in our country. Many others have stated this – and it is true – Islamic State is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity. When political leaders call for mass deportation or interviews of the incredible young Muslim women with whom I work, my heart breaks for them. They don’t deserve this treatment.

The idea of the United States being a “Christian nation” has been tossed around throughout the history of this country. The name of Jesus has been taken in vain to support xenophobia, misogyny, and white elitism. This country was begun with mass genocide of the natives, and then built on the backs of slaves. We can’t erase or ignore this. It’s in our blood. There are so many wonderful things about this country, but we need to acknowledge our history and the continuing repercussions in how we relate to each other. We need to follow the steps of Jesus in reaching out to others and including them in community – especially those who have been outcast, downtrodden, beaten, and discounted. If we are truly Christian, we will look for ways to include, unify, and love together.

One reason I have never forgotten Prof. Jennings’ words is because a year after his class, I heard them resounding in my ears while I stood outside the Food Bank/Mission in Asheville. I brought a donation and saw two men at the door. They both greeted me. I assumed the older white man was the volunteer, and the younger black man was there for assistance. It turned out to be the opposite. I was ashamed of myself, even though I don’t think they knew of my assumption. I stood there, a minister in the community and one who actively discussed and worked towards racial reconciliation – and yet I found once again that the original sin of racism of this society had been played out through me.

It’s been a terrible summer in many ways for our society. I hear so many young adults feeling like there is no hope. Yet, the old saying is that it is always darkest before the dawn. This racism and xenophobia have always been present. I am thankful for technology and social media which can help us recognize it – and hopefully we can take those challenging steps to be a better society.

Let this summer not be marked by fear, hatred, and despair. Let us see this time as the recognition of the work we have to do, and the beginning of a hope for tomorrow.

 

What’s happened to my church?

I clearly remember one of the worst days of my career. 9 years ago I sat in the auditorium of Lake Junaluska Assembly, gathered with all the ordained ministers and laity representatives from my annual conference of the United Methodist church for our yearly meeting. I had practically grown up at Lake Junaluska. My grandfather had been a minister for many years and had essentially been my dad until he died when I was 10. Some of my earliest memories were walking around the Lake with him, and feeding ducks while he “conferenced” with his colleagues. It had always felt a safe place – until that sunny afternoon.

A lay person stood up during the conference budget discussion, and read a letter that had been given him by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). He demanded that funding be withdrawn from the United Methodist campus ministry I served, because we were a Reconciling Ministry and were “promoting homosexuality.” The Bishop dealt with it in a very professional and efficient manner. Meanwhile, all eyes in my vicinity turned to me. I wanted to sink into my seat, but I knew it was important to sit tall, so I did. I held my countenance for the next hour or so until a break came, and then I quickly made my way to the back side of the auditorium where a small private deck overlooked the Lake. The conference treasurer found me. He was an older man I had known for years, but not known well. He and the Bishop had received a letter from the IRD the previous month, so they had prepared for the possibility. The IRD had targeted 5 Reconciling Campus Ministries – one in each jurisdiction – and mine was the only one in the country where the issue was brought to the floor of annual conference. This dear older man let me cry my tears of anger and hurt, and completely supported me. He propped me up until I could re-enter the crowd, head held high, and receive support from many of my colleagues and friends, while enduring the stares and whispers of others.

The irony was that we were a small ministry with no openly LGBTQ students. I suspected two of my students had not come to terms with their sexuality. Since we were rebuilding the ministry, not one program had been done on any controversial issues. Every event centered around community building and outreach.

The case eventually went to Judicial Council, and was seen as out of order. I accepted another college ministry job that better suited my gifts and graces, and made certain that everyone knew I was not leaving due to the IRD and its actions.

That day mobilized me more than anything else. Scientific evidence has shown for many years that being gay is not a choice or a lifestyle. I began to have more and more students tell me their stories, especially knowing from their earliest memories that something was different than what people expected. I had more and more students sit in my office, crying and asking if they were really going to hell, because that’s what some Christians had told them. I comforted young adults who had their home churches reject them, and steered them to the handful of churches that would welcome them. I reminded them that God knew them while they were still in their mother’s wombs, and that being born gay was not a mistake or something to be overcome. I told them that I loved them, and that God loved them, and that God had great plans for them.

And yet my beloved denomination, supported by my family for generations, continues to be divided by fear. Even though same-sex marriage is legal in this country, I cannot perform such a union without fear of losing my credentials. Y0ung adults who have felt the same calling to ministry which I have felt have to commit to a life of being alone and denying a core part of themselves in order to fulfill that calling in my church. I defy anyone who adamantly denies these things in our denomination to sit and talk with one of the young people I have known during my years of ministry. Unless he has a heart of stone, one cannot help but be moved by the exclusion, condemnation, and hatred visited upon them by ones who say they follow Christ.

As United Methodists, we incorporate scripture, tradition, reason, and experience into our faith journey. My experience as a pastor and scientific reason has helped me better understand the misrepresentation of scripture (as it has done with issues like polygamy, slavery, or misogyny).

General Conference is currently taking place. This is the body that meets every 4 years to make the guiding decisions for my denomination. The IRD is alive at GC, and the issue of homosexuality is once again being debated. I pray that we will let justice roll down like rivers, and not continue to lag behind our society in doing what is right and Godly. I pray for the time when I will not have one more student come into my office, racked with tears and pain because of how Christians have condemned them. I pray that those who fight against inclusion will truly make the time to sit and honestly listen to someone’s life story that is different from theirs. I pray that my denomination will return to its roots of love and inclusion, and stop making a significant portion of the population second-class citizens who cannot marry or be ordained. As Pentecost approaches, I pray that the Spirit will come down and fill the hearts of the people making decisions which impact the lives of so many people.

In the future, when someone asks about my denomination, I hope I can hold my head high.

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.