The Spirituality of Wonder Woman in the age of Trump

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drawing by demsey satya nagara

I was obviously not the only person anxiously awaiting the new Wonder Woman movie this past weekend. The long anticipated movie has been record breaking in numerous ways, but as I sat in the darkened theater with my teenage daughter, I could only think that the current state of political and societal affairs led to an even greater positive response to this female centered movie.

Diana is an Amazon, shielded from the world until a WWI soldier appears, and she decides to leave her home forever so she can protect the millions of innocents losing their lives. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta, gives these parting words, “Those men don’t deserve you.” Diana quickly finds herself in London, a city representative of a world where women are constrained by politics, society, and even fashion. She is thrown out of a room where the white men in power make decisions that impact the world, a woman who is only seen as distractingly pretty with a limited mental capacity for the big decisions of the world. The visual of Diana circling a room of men in power is far too similar 100 years later to the real images which have emerged from Trump’s White House of white men making decisions which directly impact countless people not represented in that space.

Diana’s strength and power are amazing and awe-inspiring. Yet, what truly makes this movie so good is her heart. We see it breaking when she witnesses women and children living in terrible conditions, being enslaved, and dying due to the war raging around them. Again, modern images burst through my internal vision as I placed the fictional faces side by side the real children from Syria and Mosul. The climactic scene of the movie is a battle with Ares, the God of War. As he tries to convince Diana that humans have chosen the atrocities, he echoes the words of her mother about what people deserve for the decisions. She responds, “It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.”

The age of Trump is about believing that those in power deserve that power. They deserve the money, the finer things of life, the best health care, the autonomy to believe that no circumstances of birth or assistance from countless people along the way led them to their place in life. It is the false ideology of the Christian prosperity gospel – that we get the rewards in life we truly deserve.

Diana, as Wonder Woman, is a hero we need today. She knows people do not always get what they deserve, and innocents suffer daily for the hubris and narcissism of the men (and I intentionally use this word) in power. The movie concludes with her in the current day, declaring that she stays and fights for love. She loves humanity and works towards a better day.

In a society where women are gravely underrepresented politically, where women and people of color and children suffer disproportionately, where the President sows seeds of fear and lies – we need a beacon of hope and love. Wonder Woman is fictional, but director Patty Jenkins is not. And sometimes our greatest truths can be inspired by mythical stories. Women and men, and people of all colors, can partner together to create a world where everyone has a seat at the table. We can rid ourselves of the language of who might deserve this or who might deserve that, and know that love means everyone deserves a better life. This is the spirituality we need in today’s world.

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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.

 

 

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.

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.