Prayers for Nepal

Nepal flag

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

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

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

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

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

Growing Up

945470_10100669394490121_1719016664_nMy mom always said it wasn’t your own birthday that got to you – it was your kids’ birthdays. My little baby boy turned 21 last week. I had a birthday a couple weeks before that, and it really didn’t seem to faze me one way or the other – but looking at the young male adult before me was something different. Like most parents, it seemed just the other day that he was a wild-haired, bright-eyed, rosy cheeked little toddler exploring anything and everything within reach. And now he’s officially an adult. Yes, he still has a little more than a year of college left, and I will do whatever I can to be a support in the coming years as he tries to establish himself, but he is officially an adult.

The next day I had lunch with a former college student of mine. I have been a college minister for almost 17 years, and catching up with former students is one of the true joys in my life. This incredible young woman is in her first year of navigating life beyond college. We discussed how things were and her plans for the future. It’s a truly exciting, but also nerve-wracking, time in one’s life.

As I thought about these two people for whom I care so much making the transition to adulthood, I remembered one of the best known verses of the Bible, found in 1 Corinthians 13:11. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” This letter is written to a community that is terribly divided and fighting over a wide variety of things, both big and small. In many ways, they are acting like immature children. The letter reminds them that when we try to live in God’s Spirit, we grow up. We firmly place childish behavior in the past, and learn to live as mature sisters and brothers.

Now, my brother and I still like to pester each other, even though we are decidedly middle-aged. Sisters and brothers are still sisters and brothers, even when they are adults. They are different. They view the world differently. They engage with others in different manners. They are their own independent people. Yet, no matter how they might differ, a true sister or brother will always be there for the other. While growing up, I could pick on my little brother, but woe be to anyone else who decided to do that.

Growing up doesn’t suddenly mean we have all the answers. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have differences with each other – sometimes very deep divisions. It doesn’t mean that we live in a world of rainbows and happily ever after. It does mean we are mature enough to meet the challenges of the world, and to engage with others in a respectful manner. It’s great to see my son, and my former student, put the childish things of the world behind them, and firmly grasp the things of adulthood. I become so frustrated and discouraged when societal and political leaders act like children and refuse to find ways to work together. One wonders if anything productive can ever come out of our nation’s Capitol anymore. I hope and pray that our church, and our society – both so badly divided and so often childish – can follow the example of the children who are becoming adults in today’s world. And a little child shall lead them.

#MuslimLivesMatter

“I’m scared, Chaplain Amy.”

I couldn’t breathe for a moment as I looked at the beautiful (both inside and out) college woman before me. On Tuesday evening, three young Muslims in Chapel Hill were brutally murdered at their home. Our campus is only about an hour away from Chapel Hill, and many of our students have friends at our state’s flagship university. Our Muslim students are no exception – several of them have relatives at Carolina who knew these vibrant young adults whose lives ended so tragically. As I asked my Muslim students how they were doing, the response was the same – they’re scared.

I wanted to reassure them so very badly. I wanted to tell them that this would never happen to them. I wanted to let them know that no one would ever single them out for their faith. I wanted to tell them they would be safe. But I make it a point not to lie to my students – these wonderful women who will be the leaders of our communities and who will change the world for the better. They have all been instructed by their families for years about what to do and what not to do as Muslim women in our society so that they could be safe. They know the “rules” about how to avoid conflict or dangerous situations in a culture where most people can only associate being a Muslim with being a terrorist. But when students who have done all the right things are shot execution style in their own home, how can my students ever feel safe? How can they live without fear? What does this truly say about our society?

I’m a lifelong North Carolinian. Sometimes I’m proud of that, and sometimes I feel like I need to apologize. As the entire world discusses my home state, I know that this is where Rev. Franklin Graham also lives – a man who continually has labeled Islam as an evil religion and spouts “facts” about Islam which are completely false. I know that far too many people in my state (and in my country) do not know the basics of Islam – do not know that it is an Abrahamic faith with the same roots as Christianity and Judaism – do not know that the Christian Bible has far, far more texts about the use of violence than the Qu’ran.

Anti-Muslim hate crimes are five times more likely to happen now than before 9/11. I also remember talking to students on that day and in the days after – trying to reassure them when they felt unsafe and were scared. I remember all of us thinking about the good that could come out of that terrible event – that we could find ways to live in community and truly respect others, no matter how different we might all be.

No one will ever truly know why this man committed these terrible murders. People will blame it on mental illness or a parking issue or some other excuse. People will ignore the ways he acted towards these obviously Muslim young people and his comments on social media. But the fact remains that we live in a society where a Muslim individual can never feel truly safe. We live in a society where Muslim children are taught from an early age how to be careful of people who are ignorant about their faith or who willfully misunderstand and mischaracterize it. We live in a society where people, including people with power like Rupert Murdoch, choose to demonize an entire religion and all its adherents.

Muslim Lives Matter. All lives matter. The spark of the Divine is in each and every individual we will ever meet. As a society, we need to step away from the fear, the hate speech, the deepening of dividing lines. When we lessen the value of another, we are downgrading our own value. All lives matter. Let us act like it, and let us speak out when others ignore this basic facet of what it means to be in a just society.

Felicity Smoak – Role Model

A couple years ago I started watching a new show on the CW network, Arrow. I watched for one reason alone – John Barrowman. Barrowman starred as Captain Jack Harkness on BBC’s Dr. Who and Torchwood. It was a great character, and I figured his presence alone was a good reason to give this little comic book show a try. I enjoy action movies, and I can recognize Stan Lee, but I know nothing of this particular comic series.

The show immediately engaged me apart from Barrowman’s presence, and the appearance of a new character, Felicity Smoak, several episodes in had me riveted to the television. Apparently, this character does not exist in the comic world, and was meant to be a one-off, but the response by fans was so positive that Emily Bett Rickards quickly became a series regular. Smoak is a beautiful blond, but this fact is superfluous to her character. She is a genius-level tech whiz. She can hack anything on earth in just a few seconds, and throw in some amusing asides while barely batting an eye.

Felicity falls for the lead character, Oliver. Since she’s the geeky tech girl, and other women seem to catch Oliver’s eye, the audience could only ship these two. That was until the end of last season, when we realized Oliver was a smart man after all and fell for Felicity. This is tv, so naturally the course of true love does not run smoothly. Felicity yet again proves that she is not the typical young woman on an action show. She loves Oliver, but she also loves herself. Oliver is an imperfect hero, and makes plenty of mistakes. And you know what? Felicity is not going to allow her life to be ruined by the man she loves. Oliver decides to join forces with the evil Merlin (for good reasons, but does the end truly justify the means?), and Felicity wisely refuses to be part of it. She reminds Oliver of what happens to the women he loves, especially when he strays from the path of goodness and integrity, and she refuses to be a woman he loves who gets destroyed.

I literally cheered at the tv when she took her stand. I have always loved this character, but how many times have we seen stories where the women love the guys regardless of any stupid or risky actions. They practically sing “Stand by your man.” Romantic love is the most important thing. Reason is trumped by love, even to ruin or death.

Felicity loves herself enough to know that she deserves better. She deserves a man who will act with integrity. She deserves a man who will not ask her to go against her conscience. Yes, she loves Oliver – but this by no means negates the love she has for herself. Felicity is a role model. She’s proud of her smarts. She has a great sense of humor. She works hard. She expects a great deal from herself and from others. And she will not settle for anyone less that who she really deserves.

I love Felicity Smoak.

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.

Change for Advent

http://mylittlenorway.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/advent-candle.jpg

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.