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.

 

 

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.

 

Prayers for Nepal

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“Remember just to breathe, Amy.” Tenzin calmly bestowed these words on me as she left my office. Her smile and quiet presence lingered long after she headed back to her dorm room. She was one of the first Nepali people I had ever met, and she certainly exemplified the peaceful spirit I came to expect from so many of my Nepali students. When I arrived at my new job as a college chaplain years ago, I quickly realized our campus was filled with young women from Nepal. Over the years, I would learn so much from them – about the beauty of this remote and mountainous land, the average living conditions, and especially the Hindu and Buddhist faith of the people there.

Breathing is an essential part of yoga and meditation, practices well known in Nepal. As I have so often struggled to catch my breath in the midst of this hectic American lifestyle, my Nepali students have reminded me of the importance of simple focus and grounding. My knowledge of Hinduism and Buddhism were quite limited (and mainly academic) before getting to know these young women. I have learned much about these belief systems, and even more about the similarities and complementarities with my own faith of Christianity.

The impact of the earthquake in Nepal is staggering. The thousands of lost lives, the greater numbers homeless and in need of basic supplies, the years of rebuilding that lay ahead for this small and vital country – it’s overwhelming. As I work with former and current Nepali students, I pray for the help that is needed, and the strength and courage for the Nepali people to move forward. Please do consider making a donation. Money is what is needed first and foremost, and here are some reputable agencies who are already well established in Nepal.

Finally, I offer these words from the Bhagavad-Gita, XVIII, for the people of Nepal.

I desire neither earthly kingdom, nor even freedom from birth and death.
I desire only the deliverance from grief and all those afflicted by misery.
Oh Lord, lead us from the unreal to the real from darkness to light from death to immortality.
May there be peace in celestial regions.
May there be peace on earth.
May the waters be appeasing.
May herbs be wholesome and may trees and plants bring peace to all.
May all beneficent beings bring peace to us.
May thy wisdom spread peace all through the world.
May all things be a source of peace to all and to me.

Defending One’s Faith

interfaith 6I am a minister. I am called to live as a minister, but I am also a teacher. As a college chaplain, I work with people through crises, plan worship services, support a variety of spiritual life activities and also teach religion courses each semester. Yes, I am a busy person. And I love my job.

When teaching about religion, each semester one phrase comes out of my mouth on multiple occasions. “Every religion has a great deal of diversity.” I tend to focus on women’s studies and religion, and we explore how different religions treat women and allow them to function within that particular faith. It is impossible to say that any particular religion has one attitude towards women. It depends on culture, geographical location, age, race, social status, and so many other things. Just ask any Buddhist feminist. People assume that Buddhism is all about peace and equality, but there are Buddhist women in some parts of the world who have not found that to be case. Does that mean that all Buddhists are patriarchal misogynists? Certainly not.

I have been called on to defend my faith on occasion. “How can you be part of a religion that thinks God is a man?” I always respond that even though there are some sects of Christianity who believe this, the majority of Christians believe God is above gender. “How can you be part of a religion that has oppressed people throughout the centuries?” Yes, there are some awful things that have been done in the name of Christianity (the Crusades and genocide of Native Americans come to mind immediately), but there are many Christians who do not believe their faith is inherently violent or encourages violence. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” is one of my favorite phrases (Matthew 5:9).

Despite these occasions, I live in a country where the majority of individuals are Christians, and “defending one’s faith” is not a commonplace occurrence for me. Most people understand my job and role in life, and fortunately for me, most people tend to think well of ministers (despite some high profile cases that could make one think otherwise). I wish people of other faiths were given the same benefit of a doubt. I have worked with the Interfaith community for many years, especially since 9/11. Since that time, I have witnessed countless Muslims defend their faith. This issue has increased in recent weeks, with the rise of ISIS, an organization which obviously does not understand the fundamentals of Islam. How many times do Islamic scholars and leaders have to speak out to ears that refuse to listen? How many times do they have to defend their faith?

One of the things I like best about Jesus (who is considered a great prophet in Islam) is that cultural and religious boundaries didn’t bother him. He saw the light of God in others, no matter how different from himself they might be. He reached out in love, extending the hand of community and understanding. How much better would this world be if people cared more about looking for the light of God in others, and reaching out with respect, than they did about defending their own understandings or fighting for attention and ratings?

Let’s stop calling on people to defend their faith. Let’s instead try to live in community, building bridges which help us learn about other faiths. I know the more I do that, the more my own personal faith deepens.

Better Together/Be Blue Day

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People are wearing every shade of blue on college campuses across the nation today. Duke blue, Carolina blue, teal, aqua, and everything in between. Each year Interfaith Youth Core sponsors an annual day to take a stand against religious intolerance. Wearing blue means that one supports interfaith dialogue and shows respect for people of different faith traditions. Students are especially encouraged to find volunteer projects they can do together. Having a common goal – especially helping make the world a better place – is always a good way to build community.

College campuses are a perfect place to deepen one’s spiritual journey. Students are removed from the pressures of their homes, and can’t rely on being parasites of their parents’ faith. My mom once told me that the unexamined faith is not worth having. The independence of a collegiate setting provides the opportunity to delve more fully into one’s own faith – what do I believe, why do I believe it, how does this impact my life and the lives of others around me. The spiritual journey hits at the heart of all the existential questions in life.

So many people assume that interacting with someone of a different faith will harm or damage their beliefs. I don’t know how many times I have encountered first year college students whose home churches gave them the parting words, “Don’t let that school take away your faith!” The recent movie, God’s Not Dead, only encourages that mindset of fear. The movie tells the fictitious story of a college student whose professor makes his class disavow the existence of God or fail the class. One young man refuses to do this, and thus is given the alternate assignment of convincing his classmates that God is not dead. If he cannot achieve this, then he will fail. The well-meaning church members who fear for the faith of their young ones heading to college certainly supported this movie.

A protectionist, defensive mindset prevents people from developing a mature and real faith. A good college education encourages a young adult to think for herself, to develop her own ideas, to explore a variety of facets from multiple perspectives. College is not a place out to destroy one’s faith. It’s a place where one has the opportunity to create a deep faith that has true meaning, and will provide a spiritual foundation for all the ups and downs each life carries.

Encountering people of a different faith in a meaningful way does not harm one’s faith, but actually makes it stronger. I love seeing a student explain her faith to someone else. When she does, she understands it more fully. It becomes much more her own, instead of something she simply inherited from her family. It excites me to see students find commonalities across faith traditions. They realize we oftentimes have more in common than we realize with a surface or misinformed understanding of a different tradition. And it thrills me to see students band together to make the world a better place.

Our world is so incredibly divided today. This division oftentimes comes from ignorance and misinformation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once stated that college students are at the forefront of any real change in our world. Thousands and thousands of students across our country are leading that change today. They are wearing blue, signifying to all around them that they are taking a stand against religious intolerance and will find ways to live authentically in community with people of different faiths.

Thanks be for leadership of college students!

Here comes the rain again…

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            Tacoma, Washington is close to heaven on earth. I attended a summer conference here about 10 years ago, and immediately fell in love. It sits on the Puget Sound, with the Cascade Mountains gently circling the city. My favorite colors are blue and green, and every shade of these two hues fills the eye in Tacoma. Rolling hills, diverse architecture, and unique micro-breweries dot the landscape. I am quite fortunate to find myself back in Tacoma for another conference. It’s not the freshly warm days of summer, but instead the cool rainy days of winter. A winter storm is sweeping north of here, so the day has been filled with torrential showers. Wind sweeps the rainfall sideways, and hail even decided to make a brief appearance. Tacomans have been quick to tell us visitors that this is unusual. Yes, it rains often here, but usual gentle sprinklings that don’t interfere with one’s normal day.

             The rain hasn’t bothered me. I rather like it. As a teen, one of my favorite songs was “Here Comes the Rain” again by The Eurythmics. Here comes the rain again, falling on my head like a memory, falling on my head like a new emotion. Rain was equated with deep emotion, the depths of one’s heart and soul. I didn’t quite understand all the meaning of the words so beautifully sung by Annie Lennox, but I knew it stirred me and spoke to something beyond my short-sighted 16 year old perspective.

             The rain still speaks to me. The world’s religions have various water rituals which symbolize cleansing, new life, new beginnings, new community. “Remember your baptism and be thankful” are words I have stated on numerous occasions. Rain cleanses us, nourishes us, gives growth to the dryness of our lives. So many people desire sunshine each and every day. We want sunny dispositions, an easy and fun life, a wide sandy beach with a cooler of Coronas.

             But we need balance. It wouldn’t be so lush and gorgeous in the Pacific Northwest without all the rain. The sunny days wouldn’t mean so much if they never ended. We’ve been taught that rain is something we must endure – into each life a little rain must fall. But why must rain be the bad guy? Rain instead exemplifies what is basic, necessary, and foundational in our lives.

             So I say, bring on the rain.

Chinese New Year & New Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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