Change for Advent

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As Tom Petty intones, “The waiting is the hardest part.” The Christian Church is in the midst of the season of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas. Most Christians in our society are completely unaware that the season of Christmas does not actually start until Christmas Eve, and then continues for twelve days until the Feast of Epiphany. (Hence, the much loved song, The Twelve Days of Christmas.) This past Sunday, I asked the older youth of our church when Christmas actually started.

“It’s not supposed to be until Thanksgiving, but some people are starting in the middle of November now. My mom won’t listen to that radio station then.”

“No, it’s December 1. You know – when you get to start the Advent calendar chocolate every day!”

They continued debating, until I ended the discussion with the correct information. Curious why people don’t know this information, they asked why our society doesn’t observe Christmas like people used to do. I quoted Tom Petty, a keen observer of our modern culture, who has sung numerous truths over the years. The youth and I talked about how impatient people are. They seemed to grasp this concept fairly easily, to say the least. Why spend four weeks waiting and preparing when we can go ahead and celebrate and party? Because we have to prepare for the party.

How do we prepare for the party of Christmas? It’s not buying presents, pulling out trinkets and handmade decorations, or tying a tree to the wall so it won’t fall over (again). Those aren’t bad things – they just aren’t spiritual preparation.

My friend Mamie preached a great Advent sermon this past Sunday. At the heart of her message, she stated that we need to change to prepare. While we wait for the Christ child, we can change ourselves, and thus change the world. This is how we prepare the way. Change is never, ever easy. It might be exciting, but it can also be stressful, discouraging, scary. The old saying is that eggs need to be broken to make an omelet. When we invite God into our hearts to change who we are, we can’t control how that transformation will take place. We can even imagine the kind of person we will be when we are formed by God. And once we allow God to change us – we will want to change the world – to fight for justice – to care for those in need – to see the light of God in each and every other person. And the real catch is – the change doesn’t stop there. When we try to change the world for the better, when we open ourselves to others, we will be changed even further.

If we stop changing, we stop waiting, preparing for the appearance of the Christ child.

The waiting is the hardest part – but it truly leads to the best part.

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.

Raising a Feminist – #HeForShe

with my son atop Beech Mountain

with my son atop Beech Mountain

Every parent has goals for her child. We plan, we dream, we hope. We all know that each child is unique, and there are so many things that parents can’t control. Yet, we know that we provide the core environment. The earliest messages our child receives will stay with her in some form or another, for better, for worse.

I have two fantastic kids. One of my goals has been for them to treat each and every person in a respectful and egalitarian manner. I definitely want my kids to be feminists, and one child in particular received this message on a continual basis. And that child is my son – not my daughter. I always knew that my little white male child could do so very much to change the world for the better. Female feminists can only do so much unless male allies join with them to create systems, societies, and cultural values which treat women and men equally. I have always been thrilled when my son railed against injustice and inequality. As a young boy, he not only began to realize that not all moms were ministers, but his eyes were also opened to the fact that many faith communities would not allow women to be religious leaders at all. During summer employment, he has often had a female contemporary as his supervisor, yet has continually had to steer people to speak to his female supervisor when they assumed he was in charge due to his gender. I am so proud of the young male feminist in my household.

Intelligent young British actor, Emma Watson, was named a United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador a few months ago, and addressed the UN a week ago concerning gender politics. She strongly claimed the word feminist, and initiated the #HeForShe campaign. She spoke eloquently about the need for men to claim feminism and to take action combatting inequality.

Since the speech, Watson has since joined a long-line of self-proclaimed feminists who have dealt with backlash. Nasty twitter comments, a threat of leaked personal photos, and even comments about her attire while addressing the UN (which was both professional and stylish) have emerged.

Cultural misogyny is rampant today. The media has finally begun to highlight the NFL’s lackadaisical treatment of its stars who assault and abuse women. Sexual assault on college campuses is finally receiving the attention it deserves. In areas of professional sports and frat boy culture which suggests women are only important as decorative ornaments or means for a man’s pleasure, it’s vital that real men stand up and speak out strongly against these assumptions. Women are created in the image of God. They should be treated with respect, dignity, and an open mind which never limits who they are called to be.

My teenage daughter asked me if I had seen Emma Watson’s speech. I responded in the affirmative, and we talked about the content for a while. I asked her, “Do you call yourself a feminist?” She gave me the look of incredulity that teenage girls own, and responded, “What else would I be?” I’m thrilled that both my kids – a young woman and a young man – would respond to that question in the same way.

God Loves a Woman’s Body

Durer’s renowned portrait of Eve

I’m not a big John Mayer fan, but I do think one of the best songs in the past decade (okay, it was actually 2001 – but close enough) is Your Body is a Wonderland. It celebrates a woman’s body – the awe, delight, and glory every woman should feel about her body. Yet, every time I get a whiff of pop culture, there is another “scandal” about a woman and her body. Is Beyonce photoshopped in a bikini? Is Meghan Trainor’s new song, All About that Bass, dissing people who are naturally thin? How can I look as good as that Hollywood star who is the same age as I am? (even if she has never given birth, has a personal trainer and chef and assistant and stylist, and enough money that she never lies awake at night wondering which bill she can afford to pay…)

The simple state of our society is that when women think of their bodies, they overwhelming have negative thoughts. They don’t celebrate this gift from God, but find things to criticize and to improve. And I fully claim that I am one of these women. I have tried my best to model for my daughter a healthy body perception – to keep my negative thoughts on the inside or just to voice them to my friends – but it’s an everyday challenge. As much damage as our society has done in contributing to a negative body image, I believe the issue started much earlier.

I remind myself on a continual basis that St. Augustine was not a totally bad guy. Yes, he had issues with his mommy – he kicked out his common law wife of over a decade and kept their son – and he tried his best to turn Pelagius into a heretic (and was successful). Yet, it’s his use of Greek dualism in his early 5th century writings that marked the Church (and thus Western society) for many centuries to come. Augustine took a few key verses from the Bible, mixed them with some of his Gnostic tendencies, and purported that the soul was connected with the divine, and could only reach God when denying or negating the body. The soul vs. body split became entrenched in Western thought. A woman’s body was especially seen as evil, since it was derived from the first sinner, Eve. Women’s bodies came to be viewed as a temptation, keeping men’s souls from attaining the glories of union with the divine. A woman’s soul could never overcome her body.

Pelagius (Augustine’s nemesis mentioned previously) was the first British theologian. He believed that all creation was good, including women’s bodies. Women were made in God’s image, as was man, and could be trusted to follow the divine light. Various theologians have tried to reclaim this goodness of creation in recent years. This is such a powerful message for women in today’s world. You are made in God’s image – no matter your size, skin color, age, etc. Your body is not a temptation for men – the temptation comes from them and how they view women. Your body is not something to be scrutinized and analyzed – it is a gift from God that works with our souls so that we can be God’s hands, feet, mouth, and heart in this world which so desperately needs it.

God loves each woman’s body. We should too.

Country Music, Women & God

I’m proud of my roots. I am a native of the North Carolina mountains and have many fond memories of my childhood. I particularly loved the only radio station we could always get – no matter what cove or valley we drove through – an AM station that played a lot of country, some rock n’roll, and even the occasional disco item. Country music in particular was the background noise of my childhood. Some of the songs were hysterical and cheesy – think “Convoy” – but many were always filled with a variety of life situations and a range of characters. There was also the standard fare – tough lives, drinking, rural living, and God.

In recent years, country music seems to be dominated by boys (and I use the word intentionally) who write about trucks, hot young women in tiny outfits, and drinking. “Bro- country” is the term that has been coined by music critics, and I am certainly not alone in my disdain for the one note that is filling the country airwaves. Young country phenom Kacey Musgraves famously spoke about this last summer when she said singing about trucks should be outlawed. The interesting thing about country music, and particularly bro-country, is that it still pays homage to the Christian faith, which is inconsistent with the themes of the preponderance of these songs.

My favorite country music song of late is “Girl in a Country Song” by Maddie & Tae. These two young newcomers provide great insight into the way women have by and large been relegated to sex objects in the world of country music today. Women in these songs are passive observers, simply there to be desired by the male protagonist. There are exceptions to this overbearing dominance in country music today – Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, The Band Perry, Zach Brown Band, and a smattering of others. I’m by no means the first one to be irritated (to say the least) by this disturbing trend the past decade. However, one of the things I find most troubling is country music’s belief that it is intricately connected to Christianity. At the heart of Christianity is the belief that each and every person – no matter what gender, race, culture or orientation – is a child of God and should be treated with respect, honor and love. And how is that possible when women are seen only as objects, relegated to the lower status of “girls,” and celebrated for wearing skimpy outfits while putting up with bad-boys? Would any Christian parent (or any decent parent of whatever faith tradition) truly want their daughters to aspire to such things?

I certainly understand that a certain number of songs (in any genre) will be written about a physical attraction and desire, but when this is the overwhelming theme played on today’s country stations, there is a problem. Someone who truly purports to be of the Christian faith will recognize that each person (male and female) is created in God’s image, and is thus worthy of respect. Let’s hope Kacey Musgraves, Maddie & Tae, and others will continue to speak and be heard in their quest for better quality country music that truly reflects an egalitarian and respectful society, for people of whatever faith background.

The Other Mother

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My lovely daughter recently celebrated her 17th birthday. On each birthday, I awake with one thought in my head, “Dear God, please help her other mother know that she is healthy, happy, safe and well-loved.” We adopted Ava from China when she was 9 months old, so a different woman gave her birth. A different woman nourished my daughter in her womb for several months. A different woman then made certain she would be taken care of at an orphanage, until a new family could give her a home. We will never know why she couldn’t keep her little girl. It was probably due to financial reasons – there is a heavy tax on families who have more than one child. Yet, there could have been health concerns or other causes that led this Chinese woman to give up this beautiful baby girl.

Ava’s orphanage was a nice, clean facility in southern China. It was more than obvious she had been well loved during her few months there. A number of elderly who had no family to care for them also lived at the orphanage. During the few days we toted Ava around China, she lunged for just about every gray-haired woman she saw, so we imagined they gave her a great deal of attention as well. (Wouldn’t it be great if we could combine child care and retirement communities in our country? Think of all the great benefits to everyone involved!) Over the years, we have sent pictures and letters back to the orphanage. I know they post them on a board, and it is my hope that Ava’s other mother has been able to come by and see how her little girl is doing.

It might seem strange to start my child’s birthday each year with a prayer for her other mother, but I can never forget this stranger. Without her, and this incredible gift of life she gave us, I wouldn’t have my daughter. And I certainly can’t imagine life without her. One of my favorite passages from the Bible is found in Psalms 139:13 – “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” While Ava was being formed in her other mother’s womb, God had a plan for her. Our family planned and prepared for her arrival, well before we even knew who she was. Six months before we brought Ava home (and certainly long before we know who our daughter would be), our 3 year old son offered this prayer at Thanksgiving Dinner, “God, please bless my little sister and help her have strong, healthy bones.” The entire extended family was too choked up to offer much thanks beyond that ourselves. On different sides of the globe, various people prepared and waited for the arrival of this tiny babe, and then cared for her until she could be brought to her permanent home.

Studies show that many adoptive children are very curious about birth parents, some even to the extent that they search out information or have difficulty coming to terms with it. I imagine I would have been this way if I were in those shoes. Yet, Ava – for all her curiosity – seems perfectly content in our family. A little over a year ago, I was in a café with her and two of her friends who were also adopted. The other girls were talking about not always getting along with their mom. Ava said, “My mom and I get along great. We don’t argue. We’re really close because we’re so much alike.”

I didn’t cry in front of them, but I wanted to. For so many years, I had focused on the difference – between a petite Asian girl and a big blond Amazon, between a well-rounded athlete and a serious scholar, between a rather chill teen girl and a dramatic one – we had seemed so different in my eyes. I always thought perhaps she was more in the mold of the other mother.

Yet, perhaps she is also in the mold of her mom, or Ma Mere, as she sometimes calls me.

Sowing Bountiful Blackberries

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Blueberries are my favorite food, even though people close to me might be surprised I didn’t claim chocolate for that coveted spot. Blackberries come in a close second. I try my best to eat seasonally, so every summer I overload on blueberries. Blackberries are so much more expensive that I only limit myself to a couple containers at the Farmer’s Market during July. Four years ago a neighbor passed along a few cuttings from her thriving blackberry bushes, and my husband transplanted them alongside a small vegetable garden in the backyard.

I will be the first to admit I don’t have a green thumb. I come by it honestly. My mom destroyed so many house plants that she once put weeds in a hanging basket, figuring they would grow anywhere. Needless to say, that didn’t quite work out as planned either. Each summer I stumble through the vegetable garden, fortunate to harvest a smattering of zucchini, green beans, tomatoes and basil. I occasionally collect a bell pepper or two. I have another neighbor, Joyce, who has the most beautiful garden, and she generously shares, not just of the produce, but also of her wisdom. Yet, deep down – I know that it’s only a minor amount of skill and a whole lot of luck that generates anything from my back yard.

The blackberry bush has continued to expand and flourish, but with minimal fruit the past few years. Only a coffee cup was filled last summer. I honestly gave up. I thought perhaps some of it was my own lack of ability, and the other portion of blame was lack of effort or care. Then imagine my great surprise when beautiful, perfect, black/deep purple orbs dripped from the thriving green limbs. Stun and shock have filled my system. I have already collected two large tubs, and at least as many (and probably more) red fruit are simply waiting to ripen. At my daughter’s request, I even made a difficult blueberry/blackberry gelatte. Blackberry cobbler awaits our family in the future.

I’m preaching this Sunday on Matthew 13, the Parable of the Sower. As I spent over an hour in the hot sun, dripping sweat, I contemplated reaping the harvest. As the Bible so often illustrates, we don’t always see the reward of what we sow. And sometimes, try as we might, our efforts are poor. I’ll never have Joyce’s gift for gardening. And yet, God is merciful. Even if we fling our seed in lousy soil or don’t know how to care for the seed or don’t commit ourselves to the growth of the seed, God takes mercy on us. Sometimes when we least suspect it, we find ourselves surrounded by grace, beauty, bounty, and joy – exactly how I feel when I take a freshly plucked blackberry and pop it into my mouth. It’s even sweeter when we know we don’t deserve it. And truthfully, God’s mercy is always a gift – we never deserve it, no matter how dedicated we are to the church or how many good works we do each day.

I’m grateful God is merciful. I’m grateful for the harvest – whenever it may come.

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

Captain America: The Nature of Good and Evil

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My daughter and I are active participants in the Marvel Universe. We have seen all the movies, and even watched most episodes of ABC’s Agents of Shield. Captain America is perhaps our favorite of the superheroes, so we were anxious to see the new installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The movie certainly did not disappoint.

Captain America (Steve Rogers) was a soldier with the Greatest Generation in the first movie. He felt certain he was battling evil, in the guise of Nazi Germany, during WWII. Rogers found himself frozen at the conclusion of a battle, only to be awoken 70 some years later in our current day. He spends the early part of this new movie struggling with the nature of good and evil. Is he working for the “good guys?” Is he really fighting evil? Does the end justify the means? Without spoiling the movie, let me state that these answers are never resolved, but it is refreshing to hear a hero struggle with those concerns, especially in a summer tent-pole action movie.

As Rogers discovers that Shield (the agency for whom he works) has the ability to spy on every single person on the globe, he is concerned that the actions evolve from fear, not freedom. Much has been written in theological circles since 9/11 about the culture of fear which now pervades society. Countless freedoms have been eradicated based upon fear from real or perceived threats.

Fear is intricately tied to an understanding of good and evil. When we place ourselves solely in the “good guys” camp, it is easy to demonize another person or group as evil, or “the bad guys.” As long as we are the good guys, then whatever we do is necessarily right, and conversely so for the bad guys. We can do no wrong, and some might even say that is the case because God is on our side. When we demonize another, we live in fear of that person. All our actions are based out fear, because we believe the other is evil.

My district superintendent (my boss, and an extension of the bishop in my judicatory) gave me some sage advice during my first appointment at a local church. I was in the midst of a situation rife with deceit and misinformation, some from very long term members of the church. He could not have been a better support, and gave me books to read about church conflict and about the nature of evil. Evil had always felt like a distant entity – Nazi Germany, for instance. Yet, sometimes it can encompass individuals. I am always very careful about naming something as evil – it is a very damning thing to do, and naturally places me in the position of God. Yet, Fred told me one thing I have never forgotten – When we battle evil, we have to be extremely cautious, because it can easily encompass us as well.

There is real evil in the world. Each person has the capacity to commit acts of great good or great evil – it depends upon being in the right or wrong circumstances. Living a life based upon fear much more easily allows that evil to encompass us, to guide our decisions. Captain America: The Winter Soldier powerfully illustrates that point. The movie ends with Rogers, still greatly conflicted about the nature of good and evil in this world, but certain about one thing. He remains convinced that there is good in the world, and that redemption is a real possibility. I look forward to seeing how he follows that belief in future installments.

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!