Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Week About Women

This has been a week about women for me. And not just because I am a woman, I swear.

Of course, today is International Women's Day, trending on Twitter and in my Italian class this morning where my professor led us in a conversation about "La Giornata delle Donne." But the night before that, I attended the We Say "NO!" to Violence Against Women service at Marsh Chapel. And the day before that, the discussion for my religion class was about Confucian filial piety for women.

There's a thread of continuity here, I promise.   

Let's trace it back to that aforementioned discussion section. After reviewing the expectations of Confucian society for women--namely, that they stay confined to the domestic sphere and influence the world through influencing their husbands--our TA asked what we thought the role of women should be today. Are they meant to be stay-at-home moms? Can they have careers? Should they have careers?

Some of the answers of my classmates shocked me. Things like, "Men are supposed to work. Women are supposed to stay home." I couldn't believe that, in 2012, we were sitting in a classroom saying such things.  I believe that women have the choice to stay home and raise a family--but that they also have the choice to have a career or anything else they dream of doing.

The next day, I went to the We Say "NO!" to Violence Against Women service. There were strong women there--wonderful singers and speakers and activists. Yet there were also men, both in the pews and at the lectern. It was such a powerful, yet tacit message: this is not a battle for women alone. We have allies. Fighting violence against women will only be successful if we have the involvement of both genders. 

And then there is today, International Women's Day. The media is filled with reports on the quality of life for women across the globe; some of the news is heartening, while some of it is heartbreaking. Women in the USA aren't as well off as women in Iceland, the leader of the pack. But we are in a much better place than our sisters in Yemen, at the bottom of the list.

Taken together, this week has made me dwell on the reality of being a woman in 2012. Our world is  now more than a decade into the second millennium. Women have made huge strides in terms of gaining equality. But there are still plenty of problems, things like sexual assault and violence, that are far from being solved.    

And this is where God comes in. As all of us--men, women, people everywhere--exist and fight for rights together, I hope that we remember that we are all children of God. To him, his sons and daughters are equally cared for. We are a family, and families take care of and respect their members. And above all--they love each other.

Friday, March 2, 2012

"The Razor's Edge"

When I first read Henry Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, I immediately felt that I had found a fictional role model, and a potential answer to my own struggle with the real meaning of the “straight and narrow.” Matthew 7:13-14 says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life.” When I was younger, I imagined this verse to be a warning against sin, a calling to a blameless life. It wasn’t until my teenage years, when I began to take a closer look at the stories of the great men of the Bible that I began to question my own interpretation of this verse. Jacob, Moses, David, all beloved by God, were never saints. Jacob was a cheater, Moses a doubter, David sexually immoral. Yet it is undeniable that they walked the path of salvation. What then, is the true meaning of the narrow path and the small gate? The Razor’s Edge was the turning point in my interpretation of these verses.

Maugham’s protagonist, Larry Darrell begins his life as an orphaned, but well-cared for American teenager. Deemed perfectly normal by his peers, his life seems destined to follow his culture’s expectations of a successful man. Larry goes from being normal to decidedly abnormal after witnessing the death of a friend while serving in the First World War. After returning to Chicago Larry quietly but firmly resists his friends’ suggestions that he finds work, and instead embarks on a twelve year journey in search of religious truth.

The epigraph, and potentially the inspiration for the novel were taken from the Katha-Upanishad, a Hindu text, and reads: “the sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over, thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard.” Although Larry eventually discovers his own philosophy on God, it is not the answers to the questions he poses that are important, in fact Maugham invites the reader to skip the chapter in which Larry describes the philosophy he adopts, but the sacrifice that embarking on the path of seeking truth requires. The decision to search for God, a decision made every day, is the true meaning of the what it means to pass through the small gate and travel the narrow road of Matthew 7:13-14.

Although I, like any human being, falter constantly in my decision to search for God I have found a sympathetic role model in Larry Darrell. The strength of his decision, the grace by which he carried out his search for truth, and the dedication he brought to his journey serve to encourage me on my own decision to, like the rich man, give up all and follow Him. As my time as an undergraduate draws to a close, I stand at a crossroads. There are many paths to choose, but I hope in some small way to emulate Larry by choosing to seek the Lord.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Interfaith Potato-Cleaning

"My Zen Master liked to say there are two ways to clean a pile of potatoes."

It was Tuesday of this week, and I was sitting in a circle with some of the other members of the Boston University Interfaith Council at Marsh Chapel (a quick plug: we meet every Tuesday night from 6-7 pm in the Marsh Room, in the basement of Marsh Chapel!). The topic of discussion this week was the importance of individual vs. communal worship/practice/fellowship/insert-your-own-word-here. One of our members, a Buddhist, had just spoken.

"Potatoes?" I asked him, wondering what root vegetables (though, wait, are potatoes even a root vegetable?) had to do with interfaith dialogue.

Then he explained. The first way to clean a pile of potatoes is to take each one individually and scrub it in the sink. But this method is time-consuming, and, frankly, wastes a lot of water. The second method, however, is to get a giant pot and put water in it. Pour in the potatoes. Grab a stick. Stir.

And, as simply as that, the potatoes will get clean, rubbing against each other as they're stirred until the dirt is cleared away. "It's a metaphor for what my teacher called 'together-action,'" he explained.

"From now on," I replied, "that's our metaphor for interfaith cooperation, too."

It's strange--you wouldn't think of potatoes as a great comparison to make. They don't exactly scream harmony and world peace. But this idea that by coming together--even if there's a little uncomfortable collision and disagreement in the process of being stirred about--can get rid of the dirt and grime of ignorance and misunderstanding? That's a beautiful concept, for root vegetables and for people too. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Prayer is so personal. It is entirely unique to every individual. When I pray, in my mind or out loud, I always begin my prayer “Dear God,” but I am the only one I know who does prayer in this way. I have heard “Loving God” “Holy Father” “Wonderful Creator,” but never ever “Dear God.” I thought about why I address God as though I’m writing a letter, and I came up with a few ideas. First, maybe when I first started praying before bed and at the dinner table, my mom taught me to pray in this way. Maybe “Dear God” was my introduction to prayer, and so that is how I think of it now. But I think there’s more to it than just a practice I learned as a child. So then I thought about the first time I felt God addressing my prayers. I was in the third grade, a time of structure and unvarying routine at school and at home. At school my teacher wrote our schedule on the blackboard for the week, outlining our regular subjects and any special activities planned by the parents or the school. At home my mom woke us up to breakfast and a morning devotional, morning chores, and Flintstones vitamins, and put us to bed with a book, prayers, and a song. One evening I went through the routine prayer, “Dear God, please bless Grandma and Auntie and Mom and Dad and Scott and Evan and anyone who’s hungry and anyone who’s sleeping outside and anyone who’s flying in an airplane…” and oddly added, “and please let us do something fun in school tomorrow.” I knew there was nothing planned, so this fun thing would have to be a good book at reading time or an especially fun recess. However, upon my arrival to school the next morning the plan had changed, and there was Celia Nissen’s mom with 25 small, flat, wooden crosses and hundreds of seashells to hot-melt glue on them. I distinctly thought, “God answered my prayer!” and I still have that cross toda

Not everyone likes the way I start my prayers, but though I have been criticized for it, I haven’t changed my opening address yet. I think the reason I open my prayers in letter-format is because I want to make sure I have God’s attention before I rattle off my concerns and requests. Its kind of a personified way of catching God up to the beginning of my prayer. I know that’s not how it works, but the distinction between “God the all powerful being” and “Jesus loves me this I know” becomes huge when I start to pray. Why would I pray to an essence? I don’t think God micromanages my life, but I do like to think God throws me a bone once in a while, like my wooden seashell cross.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Some recent conversations

Most if not all readers of this job live in a plural environment. We are constantly surrounded by people different than us in almost every way imaginable, beyond the array of necessary human characteristics that is. Each of us is acquainted, almost undoubtedly, with someone who does not share our skin color, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, or religion. It may seem strange to some people that not all Americans are afforded this opportunity. Until I went to high school I had little to no introduction to those different than me.

Growing up in the rural Midwest as a pastor's daughter did not offer many opportunities for conversation with those different from me. Now religious conversations with friends and loved ones who don't share my views of the world are both intensely exciting and frightening experiences. They have also taught me much about my own worldview, revealing my own set of those insidious hidden beliefs that we take for granted, either not acknowledging their presence or never imagining that those around us would differ from our cozily fabricated reality. They have also helped me to work through my own doctrine, fortifying and fleshing-out what I truly believe.

I recently had a couple of conversations with friends that helped me define my stance on the issue of religion and science. These two giants of ideology are often declared incompatible by members from each; debates have led to many a casualty, both on the intellectual and physical plane.

I have entered into this fray several times with friends. I am often quite nicely (literally, my friends are very nice) how I can be such a rational and logical person and a Christian at the same time. Isn't Christianity totally outside of the realm of logic? How could you even use logical processes to explore religion? These are all valid and reasonable questions. The answers to which lie in the nature of the two fields, not in their methods.

Science is often said to be a "hard" subject, a subject in which facts and only facts are sought and heeded. However, few people outside of science (and some within) fail to realize or acknowledge that the scientific process is based completely on mystery. Every scientific finding is only true until it is falsified, and only findings that are falsifiable are accepted. Therefore, we're not really sure what we know until we know that what we previously knew was wrong. An easy example of this would be the before-unquestioned notion that the earth was flat. Completely accepted at the time, it was only when it was proven to be false that this notion became antiquated.

The real issue with Christianity (at least in the scientific perspective) is that the existence of God, at least up to this point, is not considered to be falsifiable. How can you disprove the existence of God when most of the evidence for God is, to the naked eye, untestable. Yet, until the earth was proven to be round, no one knew how to test the hypothesis. It has not been proven that it is impossible to test the existence of God, therefore why is religion seen as something so far-fetched. I explained to my friend that my decision to become a Christian came after the accumulation of so much evidence for the existence of God that I could no longer deny it. Is the scientific process so different?

I believe that the real difference between science and religion lies not in the methods that they utilize, but rather their end goals. Science is devoted to the discovery of how the world works, while religion is devoted to answering the question of why it works. The latter question is not easily answered through physical data, at least that we know; the former is.

I never realized that I had developed such a theory on the relationship between science and religion until I had the chance to speak with my delightful friends. I am so blessed to be a part of the varied and dynamic community that is Boston University.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

“No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”

Attaining diversity and inclusion is not a linear process. As soon as you think you’ve successfully tackled an aspect of prejudice or inequality, you have to go back and assess the situation. We see that in so many fights against inequality in this country. Are we living in a post-racist, post-sexist time? Definitely not, though we’ve made great strides as a nation. It should go without saying, though, that you cannot check off the “anti-racist” box in your search for equality quite yet, no matter who you are or what you believe. You have to keep checking the system.

In the UCC, we pride ourselves in being all-inclusive. When I told some friends about the diversity assessment presented at the Joint Boards meeting this last weekend, their reaction was “well aren’t you already an all-inclusive church? I thought that was kinda your thing.” And its true, our church history is pretty impressive when it comes to prophetic activism. In 1785, a historical strain of the UCC became the first Protestant denomination to ordain an African American pastor. In 1853, we ordained Antoinette Brown, the first woman since New Testament times elected to serve a Christian congregation as a pastor. The UCC’s Golden Gate Association ordained the first openly gay person, Rev. William R. Johnson, as a minister in an historic Protestant denomination in 1972, and in 2005 the General Synod became the first leadership body of a large U.S. church to support equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. That’s a pretty good list of firsts, and is just skims the surface of the UCC’s push for equality and inclusivity in its polity and activism. “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” is a tag line the UCC wrote and embraces.

So why are we still concerned with justice, equality, and inclusivity in the UCC? Well, I don’t think it can be denied that when one battle of this sort is won, another two present themselves. The UCC did not, and could not, abandon the issues of racism once it ordained an African American pastor. Just because a system no longer actively prevents groups of people becoming leaders, it still may unconsciously (or, unfortunately, consciously in some cases) prevent groups from being molded into leaders. And that’s just one aspect of universal inclusion. In every group, the majority of the people don’t want to necessarily be a traditional “church leader,” but still deserve a church that holds their presence as a thing of value.

This past meeting I think the Holy Spirit called the UCC out a little bit. The Collegium was about half way through their diversity report, when a woman stood up and asked for a point of personal privilege. The room went quiet as she, in obvious frustration, remarked the lack of acknowledgement of people with disabilities in the presentation. When she was speaking, two other women stood up in solidarity with her comment. It was a humbling moment for the whole body, and apologies were gracefully made. Geoffrey Black, the UCC’s General Minister and President, made a good point, though, when he said, “This is not the first time we’ve had this conversation.” Inclusion and equal access is not a linear process. We can’t even hope to name every marginalized group at this point. As the world grows and changes, our dynamics as society change as well. We need to go back and check ourselves to really make a difference.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A difficult commitment

I'm heading towards a slew of serious commitments-in April I will commit to a seminary, a three to four-year commitment not to be sneezed at. Shortly thereafter, I will be committing to a life of service in ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church (assuming that the United Methodist Church commits to me!). In May, I will be making the biggest commitment of my life, by marrying my fiance of four months. It's strange, then, that the hardest commitment to make this semester, is the commitment to a day off!

Like many who work in a service career, I find it very hard to make myself unavailable to those who ask for help. My personality is over-sensitive, over-empathetic, to the point that I find it very hard to take time to care for myself. Unfortunately, this means that my life has become overworked and over-stressed. Lately, I've been finding that I am less and less able to care for those around me.

As my colleague Kate Rogers mentioned in her post this week, we spent last Saturday watching an ethics training video geared towards spiritual leaders. This video series was filled with memorable stories and advice from a wide variety of leaders, but the quote that stuck with me the most was a statement made by a Methodist pastor in the section dealing with self-care. He countered the spiritual leader's tendency to want to be perfect in love, saying "we are not called to be perfect care-givers; we are called to be healthy human beings, helping other human beings to be healthy."

Still, it took a relaxing and stress-free visit from my mom, along with several mother-daughter heart-to-hearts, to prepare me emotionally to a commitment to one day a week in which I will not touch school work, chapel work, or wedding preparations, and will instead focus on nourishing my own mind, body and spirit.

So, Saturday is my new day off for the rest of the semester. I will turn off my phone; I will tune into the health of my body; I will reconnect with my spirit. I will rest.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Boundaries Ethics Training

Last Saturday, Bethany and I, lead by Jen and Soren, watched a three hour video series called, “A Sacred Trust: Boundary Issues for Clergy and Spiritual Teachers.” The series seamlessly hears from clergy throughout the range of religious practice, from a Catholic Priest to a Buddhist monk, on the variety of issues that inevitably arise when interacting with congregants. The videos impress the idea that, no matter the religious tradition, the role of a clergy person innately carries power and influence that must be monitored. The videos skimmed the obvious no-no’s (No manipulating people, no inappropriate physical relationships with congregants, etc), and spent the majority of the time discussing the more subtle responsibilities of the clergy. In this internship at Marsh, I spend a good deal of time thinking about how to listen to people, respond to their remarks, read between the lines, and initiate helpful conversation and meditation. A lot of the Vocation Care exercises and other education revolve around how to interact with the other person from the view of the other person. These videos, however, turned the discussion on “you,” the leader, rather than “they,” the congregant. They addressed challenges like duel-relationships, the power of the pulpit, and transference by using the narrative of the leader, not the follower. They prompted soul-searching questions like: “Do I get too much fulfillment and excitement by being someone’s confidant?” “Am I pushing my own agenda at the pulpit for a desired result?” “Do I contact congregants because I need the contact?” “Do I need my congregations help and support?” “Who are my friends, and how should I be in friendship with my congregation?”

The different leaders highlighted in the tapes had many different approaches to the questions posed. When it comes to friends, some said one can absolutely not be friends with a congregant, some said they recommended being friendly without spending time with one another, and others made a distinction between social friends, or friends you go bowling with, and personal friends, friends in which you confide your feelings and troubles. Rather than leaning on their congregations, some recommended finding emotional support in therapy, others through spiritual advisors, and a few through clergy contacts. All recommended a variety of self-care models, whether it be strictly observing family time or eating right and staying healthy. There seemed to be a general consensus, though, among all those interviewed, that to be the most effective spiritual leader, one must strive to be a whole and supported individual.

Generally speaking, the videos offered educational, but foreseeable, insight and ideas. For example, while I previously may not have considered the possibility of a congregant botching my eye surgery (or some other less-dramatic duel-relationship), the scenario reveals rather obvious complications. There was one idea, though, which surprised me. The videos encouraged clergy to be very aware of how invested, and the level of enjoyment, they receive through pastoral contacts. They warned against getting too much of a thrill from hearing people’s secrets and offering advise, and suggested making sure congregants can function without pastoral contact meetings. After I thought about it, this definitely makes sense, but I’m very glad it was called to my attention. I think, in the ministry profession, hubris and dependence are very slippery slopes. Loving the job is great, but getting too excited about giving someone the BEST advice, or falling in love with the demand of your presence, are easy ways to neglect the best interest of the congregant. A large part of ministry involves leading people to healthy, safe, relationships, and to do that, an awareness of your relationship to them is pivotal.


Today is a very special day! As I write, my mom is en route to Boston. She's coming to visit me, a visit I've been looking forward to for a long time. Our original plan was to run a half marathon together. We made those plans last semester, before I went to Niger, before I was engaged, and, unfortunately, before my mom injured her ankle. Needless to say, plans have changed!

I can't wait to see my mom. I also can't wait for her to meet my fiance's parents for the first time. Our two families are coming together, a major step in our path to joining lives. This stage of my life is a joyful one as well as an apprehensive one. Both my fiancee and I are shifting roles not only in our relationship with each other, but also in our relationship with our families.

My family is so important to me, and having my parents feel comfortable with my mother and father-in-law is something I want very much. There's little chance that such a wonderful and loving group of people won't get along with each other; even so, I would appreciate prayers for this exciting time.