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Just Generosity – A Christmas Message
Below is the message I recently gave for our College Christmas Candlelight Service…
A milestone has recently occurred in my family – one that many people my age and older always appreciate, and one that all our students here are looking forward to with great anticipation. My son finished college a couple years ago and moved out to the Rocky Mountains, where he can snowboard and climb sheer rocks all he wants. And this past summer, he got his first real “adult” job – one that has a decent salary and benefits and all those wonderful things. And I know that many of our students – especially our seniors – have lots of Holiday dreams about when that time will come.
A couple weeks ago, my son Caleb was asking about what I wanted for Christmas. He is actually able to come be with us in person this year, so I told him his presence and some dark chocolate covered cherries were plenty. And he said, “No mom, I can be really generous this year. You’ve done so much for me my whole life – and I am glad it’s my turn to be generous.”
Of course, I teared up – because that’s what moms do – but the word he used – generous – has stuck with me. People toss around that word a lot – I believe without actually thinking about what it really means. We might tell someone at the dining table – “Be generous dishing out the mac and cheese!” We like it when people are generous with their praise or thanks, especially when we are reading comments on a returned paper. We always appreciate people who are generous with time and money.
Generosity is a trait we all can admire, but it seems also to be something that people feel like they can only offer only after they have everything they need. The Christmas story before us today is one that abounds with the message of generosity, and from many people who had so little.
Teenage Mary knew all sorts of problems could come – even to the point of being stoned for adultery – when she found out she was pregnant with Jesus – but she generously offered praise and thanks for the blessing of being the mother of Jesus.
Joseph knew Mary was pregnant with a child not his – but yet he cared for her and protected her, and “adopted” the baby Jesus as his own.
The owner of the inn had space that was overflowing with people due to the government decree, yet he found room in a warm and friendly manger for Mary and Joseph, generously offering the best he could.
The shepherds in the fields were some of the poorest in the region, with days and nights filled trying to keep their sheep safe, yet they were generous with their time, coming to lavish praise and wonder on the event of Christmas night.
The Wise Men were generous with not only their time and money in journeying far to visit the new babe, and giving costly gifts, but even more generous in their wisdom of not giving away his location to the King who wanted to execute the baby Jesus.
Generosity is a theme we see throughout the Biblical narrative – in fact, it’s a theme throughout the major religions of the world. Every major religion has at its heart the message of treating others the way we want to be treated.
And we certainly want others to be generous with us, don’t we?
Ron Sider wrote a book first published almost 20 years ago, entitled Just Generosity. It’s a wonderful play on words. Generosity is the foundation of the spiritual life – being compassionate, loving, kind, supportive, understanding. Yet, true generosity is not possible without Justice – thus Just Generosity.
Generosity is not about the sloppy sentimentality that people can so easily fall into during this season.
Generosity is not about having big hearts, giving what is comfortable with our financial means, saying we love everybody, and being blind to systems and actions which harm others.
True, just, generosity is about giving when we aren’t certain we really can, and doing so with a loving heart.
True just generosity is about relinquishing our own power so that we can include someone who is on the margins and barely hanging on.
Just generosity is about taking our whole beings – our material possessions, our time, our ideas, our likes and our dislikes and our loves and our hates – and giving fully so that we can be connected with the rest of humanity and thus share in the true peace that only comes in that connection.
The old adage is that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And it is. It’s a good thing to receive, but it’s an event better thing to give. And to give generously and justly – of what we have and who we are – that is the best thing of all.
So my Holiday wish for each one of us today – let us be generous in spirit – with each other – with those we love and those we don’t like. And let us be justly generous in all the many ways we can make this tumultuous world a better place. Amen.
Check out my latest blog post on Convergence on Campus about what I do as a college chaplain!
Adulting – For Real
Young adults today have created a new word – “adulting.” In the age of helicopter parents, we should have known it was only a matter of time until college students coined a word which represented what it was like to learn the skills needed to be an adult. I’ve seen students offering programs on Adulting, with topics ranging from doing laundry, basic cooking, to balancing a bank account. I always thought one should have those skills prior to leaving home (even if it’s just for college), but helicopter parents like to be needed. In a society where our self-worth is so shaky that we don’t even want to communicate respectfully with people of differing opinions, it makes sense that self-worth can be found in having another human being think they can’t do anything without you.
I by no means want to set myself up as the perfect parent. Both my kids practically kicked me out of their kindergarten classes their first days of school, and I begrudgingly went, thinking they could have offered just a couple tears to help ease my pain. But they didn’t. And that’s a good thing. The fact remains that every child needs to grow up, and parents can either make that easy or hard (or somewhere in between).
I’ve been a college minister for over 18 years. The one phrase my children hated was, “You will not go off to college and not know how to …” One can fill in the blanks – do laundry, manage money, earn some money, cook, handle conflict, put appropriate things on social media, etc. As my own mother told me, the best parent gives the child the tools s/he needs to be a competent, healthy, independent adult.
That’s always the goal.
And then it finally happens. My boy is doing what he’s supposed to do. It’s been the goal the past 22 years that he would discover his unique passion and talents in life, and embark on the world of being an adult. He moved to Colorado this week – a state I have never visited, and one that is a 24 hour drive from my home. He is actually adulting – for real. He’s already called a couple times. I have received a few texts. It’s not to ask advice – but just to share his excitement at this new adventure. I am so grateful for technology which will allow me to continue to be part of his life beyond the occasional letter or brief long-distance phone call. He is no longer a kid, or a college student, but a young adult starting his adult life. He couldn’t be more thrilled. And that’s the way it should be.
I’ve always known I was more than Caleb’s mom. I have plenty to keep me busy in my own life. And I don’t intend to smother the one child who is still “at home” even though she’s off at college and Cornhuskin (anyone with a connection to Meredith College will totally understand that). I’ve shed a few tears, and some kind friends have listened patiently to my meandering reminiscing. Grief, worry, excitement – my heart is filled with each one of these emotions and so much more I can’t even describe.
But I do know one thing for certain – the boy will always be my baby. And I’ll always be his mom. Adulting – for real.
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.
Let the Commencement Begin
The month of May normally brings flowers after all the preceding month’s showers, but it also brings the annual Commencement activities. Having worked in college ministry for 18 years, I anxiously await the ending of yet another school year. However, this season brings something different. My first born, Caleb, graduated from college this past weekend. It was almost jarring to find myself surrounded by hundreds of other family members and loved ones in mass seating, as opposed to surveying the crowd from my comfortable chair on the platform. Other Commencement days have found me propped in my seat, feet tucked under my legs, and covered by my massive academic robe. I only open and close the usual service with a prayer and a blessing, so I simply enjoy the rest of the service and offer up the occasional good thought for the graduates as they embark on their new lives.
Yet, last Saturday found me slightly shivering in a hard metal chair on damp grass, with no bulky robe to shield me from the early morning mountain air. The tears fought for release as I kept picturing a very tiny, but very loud, toddler running around – not a grown man ready to embark on the adventure of life. Some of the days over the past 22 plus years were quite long, but the years seemed to have flown by. How could we have reached this point?
I am a proud mother of a very wonderful son, and I am ready to let him go to become the man he needs and wants to be. I’ve been letting go since day one, actually. At just a few weeks old, I realized that he oftentimes stopped crying when I placed him in a bouncy seat instead of my arms. He skipped to school that first day of kindergarten, boisterously exclaiming to every neighbor we passed where he was headed. He insisted he could do things by himself, without my supervision or help. He was more than ready to let go my hand and grab the hand of a cute blond girl when the time came. And he was ready to deal with the consequences of any decisions he made which may not have been the best.
The time has come. It’s been coming. He’s grown up and he’s an adult.
That doesn’t mean I have abdicated being his mother. I actually corrected his grammar last week, and we had a good discussion about his reading material now that nothing was required. I’m still his mom, but I’m also his friend. There will be times I will provide unsolicited advice, but I know the decisions are his alone. And if he tells me to keep my opinions to myself, I might have to bite my tongue, but I’ll do it.
Adulthood has commenced. During the activities of last weekend, I heard one student refer to college as being the best four years of one’s life. I beg to differ. I know from my work as a college minister that these years are challenging, stressful, sometimes painful, and fortunately sometimes joyful. I hope and pray that there is more good than bad. Yet, there are so many wonderful years ahead. I want my son, and all graduates, to see that this is just the beginning, the commencement, of life as an adult. That life will include many different emotions, and many times that will be better than the college years. Life is about embracing the good, and enduring and learning from the difficult. I hope each graduate will be ready for some of the best years yet to come.
My 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.
“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.
Better Together/Be Blue Day
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!