The Tree of Life

silhouette of people standing neat tree under the moon

Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pexels.com

Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe. – Elie Wiesel

Reverend Jes Kast tweeted this morning, “Repeat after me: I was made for this. I am needed for this era.” Those words spoke to the very depths of my soul. How many times can a heart be ripped up? How many times can we continue to be outraged by the hate, violence, and evil filling our society? Two black men were killed in Kentucky on Friday, simply because they were black. Eleven people, from ages 54-97, were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday morning simply because they were Jewish.

The past two years have seen a massive increase in hate incidents and crimes due to skin color, religion, and political affiliation. Elie Wiesel’s words seem to have been written for this very moment, even though the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate has been dead for 2 years. Each and every location for these evil acts must be the center of our universe. We cannot rest, or ignore, or deny, until we have worked our damndest to change this society.

Jesus said if we are not with him, we are against him (Luke 11:23). If we are not actively with the people being persecuted and murdered in our society, then we are against what is good, just, and loving. And just saying the words is not enough. We all know that actions speak louder than words. It’s been more than enough for months now, but let’s remember that we can continue to work together to fight this evil.

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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.

Woman: A Child of God

The recent news of another mass shooting – this time at the University of California at Santa Barbara over the weekend – has filled the thoughts and hearts of many in recent days. Yet, the reasoning behind this event is a bit different than others in recent years. While it seems to be the norm for someone who resorts to such violence to feel bullied, isolated, and rejected by others, this individual focused his anger towards women. In various ways, he maintained that women wronged him because they refused to date him.

The vast majority of people in our society certainly realize this is an extreme situation. However, far too often, girls are told they are “lucky” if a boy likes them. They are told they should be grateful to be asked out on a date. If a girl refuses a date, she is labeled stuck-up or a bitch. A recent article by celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach states that what women want more than anything to be is desired.

Seriously? Desired? He and I read the same scriptures, and apart from the Song of Solomon, that doesn’t seem to be a major defining characteristic of a woman being important in God’s kingdom. Miriam wanted to save her little brother Moses, and then help lead her people to freedom. Deborah wanted justice in the land, and used her brains to make it happen. In the New Testament (which as a Christian, I add to the Hebrew Scriptures for my tradition’s sacred writings), Mary wanted to praise God and rear and love her son Jesus. Mary Magdalene wanted to share Jesus’ message. Lydia wanted to build a strong church.

Former President Jimmy Carter published a new book this spring, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. Though not a religious scholar, he does a solid job of exploring how religion has been used to perpetuate violence against women. The idea that women simply exist as a help-meet to the superior male, and that women only want to be desired by men, has led to untold actions of violence and oppression against women throughout the centuries. No matter our faith tradition, religion has been used to perpetuate these ideas.

It is time for both women and men in our society to proclaim that women are not simply objects revolving around the male sun of the universe. Both are made in the image of God, and God has great plans for each person – no matter their gender. I would hate to think my son expected that any girl he liked should be honored to date him. I would also hate to think my daughter felt her highest goal in life was to be desired by a man. Both of my wonderful children are so much more than their gender – they are so much more than who they might become with a good life partner one day. I pray that our society will expand its concepts of how men and women interact, and help create a culture where patriarchal ideology and violence are not tolerated.

My prayers go out to everyone connected with the shooting at UCSB. My prayers continue for women everywhere.

#YESALLWOMEN