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.

 

 

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.

 

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 Prince of Peace in today’s world…

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The traditional Moravian beeswax candles for our Christmas service

The first Thursday of December is when Salem College holds its annual Christmas Candlelight worship service, which has been a tradition since the beginnings of our school in the late 1700s. As College Chaplain, I am privileged to provide a meditation. Our world right now is so particularly shattered by hate, violent rhetoric, fear and misinformation, that it begs to be addressed, especially during this season of advent. Below is the message I gave last week –

We come together today for this annual worship service to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. And Christmas is all about honoring the Christ Child. During this season, there are many names we call the Christ Child – the Light, the Messiah, Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace. This afternoon, I would like to focus on what it means to prepare for the coming of Peace.

Peace is something we talk a lot about in this world, but it is so elusive. The name Salem itself comes from the Hebrew word Shalom, which means peace. The Moravian founders of this area sought to build a peaceful society in the midst of a world that seemed so far from it. At the heart of this sacred ground of Salem – peace should reside.

Just as the early Moravians knew, just as Sister Oesterlein (our first teacher) herself knew, this world is not peaceful. In recent months, we have been particularly reminded of that. Violence pours forth in so many parts of the world – whether the streets of Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Kenya, Nigeria, or other places not deemed as news-worthy. Violent, mass shootings have become so commonplace in our own country that many of us aren’t as shocked as we should be, and think that all we can do is pray. Institutionalized racism is still a core fabric of our society – 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement – racism is present, whether it’s obvious, subtle, or unrecognized by the people in power. People who don’t fit what society deems the “norm” are seen as less than and less worthy.

And we all know the saying “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” – and we know the lie that fills that phrase. Words of hate, fear, division and ignorance do hurt us. Peace is that intangible thing we talk about, especially at this time of the year, but which we struggle to grasp. Before we can even define what Peace in our own lives, and Peace in the world, truly means – it slips through our fingers.

The child we gather to hear, sing and pray about this afternoon was someone who lived in a time of great violence and upheaval. He knew that Peace was something greatly desired in his world of unrest, hatred and fear. And when he talked about Peace – it wasn’t a sanitized version, where everything was clean, neat, happy, and uncomplicated. It wasn’t just the absence of violence. It can be too easy for us to buy into this – to sit in our nice clothes in a beautiful setting with the comforting aroma of beeswax candles and think this is Peace.
This – this that we experience here today – this is what propels us to work for Peace. Peace is real – it’s authentic – it’s messy. We come together not because this is Peace – but because this gathering lets us glimpse the possibilities before us. As we see the goodness in our sisters and brothers – we want to carry the hope and promise of true Peace with us tonight and tomorrow and the day after – we want the world to reflect what we see in small part here.

There is an old saying that holds true – If you want Peace, work for Justice.
Jesus was someone who didn’t just sit around and talk about lofty ideals. How he lived – his actions spoke far louder than words. He reached across lines of division – whether it was religious or cultural or political or socio-economic – and brought people together in unity. He insisted they operate with respect for the other, and place others before themselves. He modeled that Peace does not come from a place of power, but from a place of servanthood, of understanding, of walking in someone else’s shoes – especially if they are shoes in which we’d rather not walk.

I encourage you today – take the glimpse of the beauty and peace of this afternoon – this wonderful hint of a better world that is before us at this moment – I encourage you to carry it forth to a world filled with violence, division, fear and hatred. Take steps – both big and small – to work for the abolition of violence in all its many forms, to work for justice – so that peace may prevail. Breathe in the Peace around us, and release that breath of peace to the world. One place, one person, at a time – let peace begin with each one of us, as we seek to go forth and change the world for the better.

Peace be with you. Amen.

Where are you from? and welcoming the Stranger

“Where are you from?” As a native Southerner, that’s a question I’ve heard a great deal throughout my life. We like to know where people grew up, and then there is an excellent chance we will ask a couple more questions and find out we know some of the same people or are distantly related. As a native of the North Carolina mountains, I also get excited to meet someone from the Appalachian Mountains (and please pronounce it App-A-Latch-Un, and not App-A-Lashan). There’s something comforting about making a connection that speaks to the core of who I am.

Yet, that question is not always asked with kindness or respect. A hilarious video by Ken Tanaka highlights the difficulty non-white individuals can encounter in our society when people assume they must be from somewhere other than the United States. A Harvard student was asked this same question by Donald Trump Monday night when the young man attempted to ask a serious question of the Presidential Candidate. The implication is clear – someone of European descent is a “real” American, while someone of non-European descent is not.

Migration is a fact of history. It is a constant, at times having greater urgency than others. We are certainly witnessing that in our world today. How we respond to migration, and thus immigration, says far more about the people we are than about the people who are moving from one place to the next, or even the people we are assume (oftentimes incorrectly) are immigrants.

The Christian faith is based upon the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus spent his early years as an immigrant. Due to persecution and threats of death, his family fled to Egypt where they could live in safety. So many of the migrants of our world today – whether in Europe or North America – are fleeing for reasons of safety or because the poverty is so overwhelming that it is impossible to survive. Jesus’ experience as an immigrant surely impacted his teachings, as did his own faith as a Jew. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with mandates to welcome the stranger, the foreigner – to provide shelter, food and safety. Jesus himself said to that when we help the stranger, the one in need, then we are in fact welcoming him.

So why are we in this country so scared of someone who is different? Why do we want to literally build walls to keep out those who live in extreme poverty or dangerous places? Especially for those who continue to call this place a Christian nation, how can we say that if we ignore one of the basic tenets of the Bible?

Christians need to reclaim this vital part of our teaching and expression of faith. To become insular, to fear one who is different in whatever way we perceive them, is to reject Jesus. I am fortunate to work with a very diverse group of young women as a college chaplain. It pains me to hear some of them share their stories of rejection and fear, either as immigrants, or as citizens who are assumed otherwise because of how they look. Yet, in the midst of the pain so many of them experience, I can see the face of Christ. Each day, these young women teach me more and more about the Christ spirit, and what it is to welcome the stranger. And when we welcome the stranger, we discover more rewards and joy than we would ever know by limiting our circle of friends, or members of our community.

Where are you from? I’d like to say I’m from a place where all our welcome, and much grace is always to be found.

Seeing oneself as a hero – a Theological Interpretation

Thank you, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, for once again providing an evening filled with humor, truth, wit, and insight at the 2015 Golden Globes. I oftentimes get bored during awards shows, especially when I haven’t seen most of the fare which has been nominated, but last night kept my attention for the entire three hours. Part of it was that gifted duo of hosts, part was watching with my teen daughter and explaining things that were out of her realm of understanding (and hearing her talk about how lucky Fey and Poehler’s kids were to have the coolest moms anywhere – no offense taken on my part), but the biggest part for me was the affirmation of people who were not considered mainstream being celebrated in Hollywood.

Women last night once again proved they bring the funny. They proved they are more than the designer they wore. They spoke about rape culture and changing the discourse. They celebrated the trans culture. They spoke about freedom of expression. Common, co-winner with John Legend of best song for “Glory” in the movie Selma, identified himself as the woman on the back of the bus needing a seat, as the kid needing a hand when he received a bullet, and as a cop being shot in the line of duty. They spoke about unity and the right to self-expression. And one woman spoke about being a hero. Gina Rodriguez, star of the new CW show, Jane the Virgin, surprised many by winning best actress in a TV Comedy. It was the first award of the night, and left me in complete tears. “This award is so much more than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see itself as heroes.”

Heroes – not as outsiders, interlopers, immigrants, undocumented, unwanted, a drain on a white nation of heroes modeled after John Wayne. Heroes.

One of the best parts of the Gospel message is that Jesus was an unexpected hero. He hailed from the backwoods of Galilee, born of unwed parents, lived in poverty, hung around with some dodgy sorts, and angered the righteous, upright citizens who had all the power. He came for the outcasts – the ones neglected, abused, or cast away by good society. He came for those who lived on the fringes, denied access or acceptance. He confided in and trusted people who were seen as unworthy or unimportant – women, non-Jews, puppets of the Empire, lepers, and so many more. Jesus told each person they were a special child of God, loved by God. He told them they were meant to be a hero.

One thing I love about my job is the great diversity of the young women with whom I work. I am thrilled to see a young Latina woman, the first in her family to go to college, realize she can be a hero. Even if she still gets mistaken for a maid when she stays at a hotel to present a paper for an academic conference, even if some men only want to talk about her body, even if people assume she is undocumented – she is a hero, and she will inspire me and countless others.

Thank God for the heroes, and for the ones who teach me everyday.

A Spirituality of March Madness

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As a native North Carolinian, March doesn’t just indicate the beginning of Springtime and new life. Individuals in my state spurn the emerging outdoors to spend hours and hours on a coach in front of a tv. One will ignore everything else to flip between games, mark up her printed bracket when a favored team loses on the first day, and then toss out texts or quick voicemails to friends who made different picks. There isn’t much greater joy for a North Carolinian than having more Men’s Basketball tourney picks right than everyone else. (I will confess – I still have my 2001 bracket, when my beloved Blue Devils won the championship and I only missed 8 calls out of the 64 games.)

March Madness normally coincides with Lent, the Christian season for giving up things we don’t need in our lives and instead focusing on walking the spiritual journey with Jesus. With all the countless people I know who observe the season of Lent, I am very hard pressed to think of people who have abstained from tv. March Madness seems to draw one away from the sacred path. We are more likely to use foul or abusive language, perhaps at the referees or struggling players or coaches. We tend to eat junk food and consume a fair amount of beer. We might be petty if our team wins and our friend’s rival team loses. This whole thing is all about competition, right?

Yet, I do believe March Madness can offer some opportunities for us to grow along the spiritual path. Basketball is a sport accessible to practically anyone in our country. One just needs a ball and a hoop. Public playgrounds and recreation centers have these in abundance. No special shoes, fancy equipment, specialized training. As Jesus invited everyone – regardless of status, background, culture, or gender – to join his movement, so anyone can pick up a ball and start playing.

One of the things I love about this sport is the team aspect. There is normally a more gifted player, who might score most the points, or have most the steals or rebounds. Yet, all 5 members of the team are essential to the success of the 40 minute journey of a game. As 1 Corinthians tells us, the eye is just as important as the ear as is the head as is the foot or heart. They must all work together as one body.

Basketball takes a great deal of hard work and effort. There is no coasting on past achievements. One of the great stories during this season has been the reemergence of Rasheed Sulaimon, a young Duke player. One of the stars of the team last year, he endured some personal struggles and found himself on the bench for a while as his commitment to the game waned. Yet, he persevered, never gave up, and eventually was able to work through the difficulties in his life and once again become one of the most reliable Duke players. The spiritual journey is not an easy one, and some days or weeks or months are much harder than others. Yet, perseverance, struggling through the droughts, is always worth the effort.

Life is obviously more complex and intricate than sports, even a great game like basketball. Yet, I pray during this season of Lent, that I will remember the important things. I’m not saying I won’t gloat on Facebook about a particularly good pick, especially if my friends don’t agree – because I know I will 🙂 I am simply sending up a prayer that I will remember the gifts of something like basketball, and help incorporate those inspirations in my own spiritual journey.

More in the Season of Lent

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            Yesterday I heard a colleague spouting these words as she left a meeting, “No alcohol! No sweets!” Being on the tail-end of the conversation, I responded, “That sounds awful!” My immediate thought was her doctor had insisted on the restrictions. She quickly replied, “Oh, it’s Lent, you know.” I felt a tad bit chagrined. Being the only clergyperson around, I should have immediately known the reference.

             Lent is one of those odd times of the Christian year. Many people will “give up” or “sacrifice” something during those 40 days (minus Sundays) prior to Easter. These items often focus on food or luxuries. Alcohol, sweets, red meat, television, fast food – all these things are commonly associated with the season. Yet, why do we give up something? Is it a habit, just a thing to do? Is it a spiritual discipline? How do we hope to grow in our faith by sacrificing something we probably don’t really need anyway?

             When my kids were little, and I began to introduce the concept to them, I focused a great deal on what it means to have too much. In our society, we are almost obsessed with wanting more – more money, more free time, more possessions, more youth, more beauty, more success. And yet, so many of us have so much more than we truly need. (Now today’s thoughts are not directed towards the millions who are struggling to get by, who are dealing with food endangerment, and are on the edge of homelessness. It’s for the rest of us – the majority in this country.) I told my children that when we are so focused on wanting more, we have a really hard time focusing on Jesus and who he wants us to be. I explained that he lived his life in poverty, and wants us to help those who are struggling. When our lives are filled with excess, it’s really hard to do that. The whole camel through the eye of a needle thing.

             We give up things during Lent so that we have the heart, time, and space to focus on empowering those who don’t have more. We give up things during Lent so that we can identify, in some small manner, what it is like to do without. We give up things during Lent so we can walk in the path of Jesus.

             What am I giving up during Lent? Fast food. I have a real thing for fizzy Diet Cokes, and realized during the dark winter days how dependent I had become upon them. And I know many people in the world don’t have the extra few dollars to buy a soft drink from a fast food chain. Will I succeed in this endeavor? I surely hope so. I never maintained my promise during the years I gave up chocolate. (If the Girl Scouts wouldn’t deliver cookies during Lent, I would have had a better chance at success.) Regardless of success or not (after all, wanting “more success” will not enhance my spiritual journey), I pray that these days will create more space in my heart, soul, and mind so that I might see the needs around me, and might be filled with the Christ spirit to find ways to help meet those needs.

             I wish you all a fruitful Lent.