Where are you from? and welcoming the Stranger

“Where are you from?” As a native Southerner, that’s a question I’ve heard a great deal throughout my life. We like to know where people grew up, and then there is an excellent chance we will ask a couple more questions and find out we know some of the same people or are distantly related. As a native of the North Carolina mountains, I also get excited to meet someone from the Appalachian Mountains (and please pronounce it App-A-Latch-Un, and not App-A-Lashan). There’s something comforting about making a connection that speaks to the core of who I am.

Yet, that question is not always asked with kindness or respect. A hilarious video by Ken Tanaka highlights the difficulty non-white individuals can encounter in our society when people assume they must be from somewhere other than the United States. A Harvard student was asked this same question by Donald Trump Monday night when the young man attempted to ask a serious question of the Presidential Candidate. The implication is clear – someone of European descent is a “real” American, while someone of non-European descent is not.

Migration is a fact of history. It is a constant, at times having greater urgency than others. We are certainly witnessing that in our world today. How we respond to migration, and thus immigration, says far more about the people we are than about the people who are moving from one place to the next, or even the people we are assume (oftentimes incorrectly) are immigrants.

The Christian faith is based upon the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus spent his early years as an immigrant. Due to persecution and threats of death, his family fled to Egypt where they could live in safety. So many of the migrants of our world today – whether in Europe or North America – are fleeing for reasons of safety or because the poverty is so overwhelming that it is impossible to survive. Jesus’ experience as an immigrant surely impacted his teachings, as did his own faith as a Jew. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with mandates to welcome the stranger, the foreigner – to provide shelter, food and safety. Jesus himself said to that when we help the stranger, the one in need, then we are in fact welcoming him.

So why are we in this country so scared of someone who is different? Why do we want to literally build walls to keep out those who live in extreme poverty or dangerous places? Especially for those who continue to call this place a Christian nation, how can we say that if we ignore one of the basic tenets of the Bible?

Christians need to reclaim this vital part of our teaching and expression of faith. To become insular, to fear one who is different in whatever way we perceive them, is to reject Jesus. I am fortunate to work with a very diverse group of young women as a college chaplain. It pains me to hear some of them share their stories of rejection and fear, either as immigrants, or as citizens who are assumed otherwise because of how they look. Yet, in the midst of the pain so many of them experience, I can see the face of Christ. Each day, these young women teach me more and more about the Christ spirit, and what it is to welcome the stranger. And when we welcome the stranger, we discover more rewards and joy than we would ever know by limiting our circle of friends, or members of our community.

Where are you from? I’d like to say I’m from a place where all our welcome, and much grace is always to be found.

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.

A Spirituality of March Madness

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As a native North Carolinian, March doesn’t just indicate the beginning of Springtime and new life. Individuals in my state spurn the emerging outdoors to spend hours and hours on a coach in front of a tv. One will ignore everything else to flip between games, mark up her printed bracket when a favored team loses on the first day, and then toss out texts or quick voicemails to friends who made different picks. There isn’t much greater joy for a North Carolinian than having more Men’s Basketball tourney picks right than everyone else. (I will confess – I still have my 2001 bracket, when my beloved Blue Devils won the championship and I only missed 8 calls out of the 64 games.)

March Madness normally coincides with Lent, the Christian season for giving up things we don’t need in our lives and instead focusing on walking the spiritual journey with Jesus. With all the countless people I know who observe the season of Lent, I am very hard pressed to think of people who have abstained from tv. March Madness seems to draw one away from the sacred path. We are more likely to use foul or abusive language, perhaps at the referees or struggling players or coaches. We tend to eat junk food and consume a fair amount of beer. We might be petty if our team wins and our friend’s rival team loses. This whole thing is all about competition, right?

Yet, I do believe March Madness can offer some opportunities for us to grow along the spiritual path. Basketball is a sport accessible to practically anyone in our country. One just needs a ball and a hoop. Public playgrounds and recreation centers have these in abundance. No special shoes, fancy equipment, specialized training. As Jesus invited everyone – regardless of status, background, culture, or gender – to join his movement, so anyone can pick up a ball and start playing.

One of the things I love about this sport is the team aspect. There is normally a more gifted player, who might score most the points, or have most the steals or rebounds. Yet, all 5 members of the team are essential to the success of the 40 minute journey of a game. As 1 Corinthians tells us, the eye is just as important as the ear as is the head as is the foot or heart. They must all work together as one body.

Basketball takes a great deal of hard work and effort. There is no coasting on past achievements. One of the great stories during this season has been the reemergence of Rasheed Sulaimon, a young Duke player. One of the stars of the team last year, he endured some personal struggles and found himself on the bench for a while as his commitment to the game waned. Yet, he persevered, never gave up, and eventually was able to work through the difficulties in his life and once again become one of the most reliable Duke players. The spiritual journey is not an easy one, and some days or weeks or months are much harder than others. Yet, perseverance, struggling through the droughts, is always worth the effort.

Life is obviously more complex and intricate than sports, even a great game like basketball. Yet, I pray during this season of Lent, that I will remember the important things. I’m not saying I won’t gloat on Facebook about a particularly good pick, especially if my friends don’t agree – because I know I will 🙂 I am simply sending up a prayer that I will remember the gifts of something like basketball, and help incorporate those inspirations in my own spiritual journey.

More in the Season of Lent

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            Yesterday I heard a colleague spouting these words as she left a meeting, “No alcohol! No sweets!” Being on the tail-end of the conversation, I responded, “That sounds awful!” My immediate thought was her doctor had insisted on the restrictions. She quickly replied, “Oh, it’s Lent, you know.” I felt a tad bit chagrined. Being the only clergyperson around, I should have immediately known the reference.

             Lent is one of those odd times of the Christian year. Many people will “give up” or “sacrifice” something during those 40 days (minus Sundays) prior to Easter. These items often focus on food or luxuries. Alcohol, sweets, red meat, television, fast food – all these things are commonly associated with the season. Yet, why do we give up something? Is it a habit, just a thing to do? Is it a spiritual discipline? How do we hope to grow in our faith by sacrificing something we probably don’t really need anyway?

             When my kids were little, and I began to introduce the concept to them, I focused a great deal on what it means to have too much. In our society, we are almost obsessed with wanting more – more money, more free time, more possessions, more youth, more beauty, more success. And yet, so many of us have so much more than we truly need. (Now today’s thoughts are not directed towards the millions who are struggling to get by, who are dealing with food endangerment, and are on the edge of homelessness. It’s for the rest of us – the majority in this country.) I told my children that when we are so focused on wanting more, we have a really hard time focusing on Jesus and who he wants us to be. I explained that he lived his life in poverty, and wants us to help those who are struggling. When our lives are filled with excess, it’s really hard to do that. The whole camel through the eye of a needle thing.

             We give up things during Lent so that we have the heart, time, and space to focus on empowering those who don’t have more. We give up things during Lent so that we can identify, in some small manner, what it is like to do without. We give up things during Lent so we can walk in the path of Jesus.

             What am I giving up during Lent? Fast food. I have a real thing for fizzy Diet Cokes, and realized during the dark winter days how dependent I had become upon them. And I know many people in the world don’t have the extra few dollars to buy a soft drink from a fast food chain. Will I succeed in this endeavor? I surely hope so. I never maintained my promise during the years I gave up chocolate. (If the Girl Scouts wouldn’t deliver cookies during Lent, I would have had a better chance at success.) Regardless of success or not (after all, wanting “more success” will not enhance my spiritual journey), I pray that these days will create more space in my heart, soul, and mind so that I might see the needs around me, and might be filled with the Christ spirit to find ways to help meet those needs.

             I wish you all a fruitful Lent.