Stories of Crossing Borders

In May, I traveled to Tucson, Arizona with a group of seminarians to learn firsthand about the realities of immigration and human rights along the US/Mexico border. We spent 10 days along the border, meeting with undocumented immigrants, Border Patrol agents, immigration lawyers, human rights activists, pastors, and ordinary people whose lives are tied up in the messy and complicated world of migration and survival. In August, I had the pleasure of serving my congregation, Stone Church of the Brethren, as a sabbatical coverage minister, and on August 9, I organized that morning’s worship around these issues. The two scripture lessons were taken from Ruth 1:1-19 and Matthew 2:13-23. My sermon title was “Stories of Crossing Borders,” and I wanted to share it here:

As you can tell, our theme for this worship has been focused on crossing borders, migration, and the issues of peace and justice that are tied up in these realities. Lately the headlines that we read and the rhetoric that we hear insists on the dangers of the so-called “immigration problem.” Groups of people, almost always Latinos and other dark-skinned people, are lumped together under the category of suspicious, foreign, and threatening, protestors hold up signs reading “Go back home!,” and politicians convince hard-working Americans that the Mexicans are out to take our jobs. This morning instead of buying into the fear-based political platform of anti-immigration policies, I want to skip past the generalizations and broad strokes. I want to share true stories about individuals whose lives are right in the thick of this hot button issue. We’ve already read two significant stories of migration found in the pages of our faith’s history, one from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, our shared scriptures with the Jewish people, and another from our own scriptures, the New Testament. This morning I want to share two other true stories of immigration that will hopefully bring to light the complexities and realities along the United States’ southern border. And perhaps we’ll see some parallels between these modern stories and our biblical stories.

First, I want to tell you about a woman named Rosa Robles Loreto. Rosa lives in Tucson, Arizona and has lived there for 16 years. She is a wife and a mother of two young boys. She is active in her community and volunteers at her church, in her son’s school, and with her son’s baseball teams. In 2011 Rosa was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. When the officer discovered she did not have the proper paperwork to live and work in the United States, the Border Patrol was called and she was placed in a detention facility for 53 days. She fought her immigration case through the courts but it did nothing. You see, the thing about Rosa is that in the eyes of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she is not a high-priority deportation case. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, prioritizes undocumented persons with violent crimes, drug offenses, and criminal histories. These are the persons that ICE is told to focus their energy and resources on deporting. But Rosa has no criminal history, is the mother of two minors, and has good standing within her community, therefore the federal government has classified individuals like her as the lowest priority for deportation. But because her lawyer did not file the right paperwork at the right time, Rosa now has an order of deportation hanging over her head and is not safe to move and work freely in her own community of Tucson. In August of 2014 Rosa entered into sanctuary with the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. While in sanctuary, Rosa is safe from being deported and torn apart from her family but she is restricted to live within the walls of the church building. This past Friday, August 7, two days ago, marked the one-year anniversary of Rosa’s sanctuary. Until her deportation order is dropped, Rosa will remain in sanctuary.

Signs like this are seen across Tucson as the community rallies around Rosa and her family

Signs like this are seen across Tucson as the community rallies around Rosa and her family

Rosa’s story reminds me of Ruth and Naomi’s story. Like Naomi, Rosa traveled to a new country with her two sons and husband to find a living. Naomi loses her husband and her sons, the only true safety net for a woman of that time, and especially for a woman in a foreign land. Although Rosa has not lost her husband and sons, she has lost her safety and security when she fears that at any moment she could be forcibly removed from her family and her community. When Ruth declares her intention to remain with Naomi and return with her to Bethlehem, Naomi is blessed by this show of loyalty and commitment that ensures she is not alone in this world. By taking refuge at Southside Presbyterian Church, Rosa is blessed with a network of support, loyalty, and safety that ensures she is not separated from her family.

So in our first biblical story, the the tables are turned: years ago Naomi followed her family to the foreign land of Moab in search of survival, and now Ruth follows the only person who is left of her family to the foreign land of Judah. One border crossing was for survival, the other was for loyalty and commitment. Eventually, we learn that Ruth finds a husband in Bethlehem, and this woman, this stranger in a strange land, gives birth to a son who will become the grandfather of King David himself.

Our second contemporary story this morning is perhaps the most difficult to hear. Just a warning that it does involve violence and the threat of violence. When I traveled to Tucson, Arizona with a cohort of seminary students in June, we took an afternoon to cross the border into Mexico, into a town called Nogales, in the state of Sonora. Just yards from the Port of Entry you can find an organization called the Kino Border Initiative which operates a soup kitchen, or comedor, for migrants. In addition to providing 2 meals a day, this initiative run by Jesuit nuns also provides medical care, clothing, and advice for those travelers. Of the men and women that drop by KBI for food or other needs, about 90% of them have already crossed the border into the US illegally, been caught, detained, and deported back into Nogales, but most of them plan to attempt the journey again.

Kino Border Initiative

Kino Border Initiative

The comedor was literally steps from la frontera (the border)

The comedor was literally steps from la frontera (the border)

That day after helping to scoop second helpings of rice onto plastic plates for the hungry men to eat, I sat down next to some of my classmates who were in deep conversation with a few of the migrants. One of the men was young, hardly a man really. He was an 18 year old boy who shared his story with us. After he was caught illegally smuggling marijuana across the Sonoran desert, he had been arrested by US Border Patrol and deported to Nogales. But this 18 year old was not a drug lord making money from this operation. He had been picked up by mafia in one of the Mexican border towns and threatened into carrying a 40lb bale of weed, held up by straps that rested on his shoulders, into the United States. If he refused, or if he got caught, or if he dropped off the drugs and didn’t get the money back to the drug lords… they would cut off his head. Sadly, his story is not uncommon. Many unsuspecting young men and boys are sought out by drug lords, kidnapped, and coerced into smuggling illegal drugs against their will. Some are told that their hands will be chopped off, or that their families will be killed if they refuse. When asked if he was going to try to do it again, the 18 year old in the comedor in Nogales told us, with his shoulders bleeding from the straps he had carried and with a hint of fear in his voice, “I have no other choice.”

I do not know his name, but I will never forget this young man’s story. Was he doing something illegal? Yes. His actions, illegally smuggling drugs across the US/Mexico border, are exactly the kinds of things that our politicians and pundits roar and rage about… the dangers of illegal immigrants, criminals infiltrating our borders, and infecting our society with drugs and other dangerous substances. But when I sat next to this young man and heard his story, understood his situation, and imagined if I were in his shoes… I didn’t see a threat to our country, I saw a person who was taken advantage of, who lived in fear, and who felt trapped by his circumstances. Perhaps he would cross the border again… and perhaps he would not get caught by the Border Patrol but instead find a way to survive and thrive in a country where his life was not at risk. I hope so.

In this boy’s story, I see Jesus’ story. Before this comparison makes you feel uncomfortable, remember what Jesus said in Matthew 25: we are to see the face of Jesus in the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, and the imprisoned. It is not a stretch to see Jesus in the life of this 18 year old.

In our second biblical story, the holy family migrates not to find better living conditions, food, and water, like Noami’s family, but rather to escape real oppression and danger. The members of the holy family are political refugees, fleeing persecution from their government and fearing for their lives. This is so significant yet we often forget that the child Jesus, the one we worship and commit to following, crossed national borders to find freedom and liberation from oppression.

Like the infant Jesus with his family, this young man’s life was threatened by those with power and he was in real danger. Both the holy family and this man crossed borders hoping that the journey would provide safety and ultimately a way out.

However the comparisons do end there…Jesus and his family were eventually able to return home without fear of harm, whereas our 18 year old has no such relief. He must make the dangerous journey again, crossing the border between two worlds where he remains fearful of the Border Patrol on one side, and fearful for his life on the other.

There is so much more that we could say this morning on this theme of immigration and crossing borders. It was challenging enough for me to only share the stories that I did… because during our time in the Arizonan cities of Tucson and Douglass, and the Mexican cities of Nogales and Agua Prieta, we heard so many more stories from undocumented immigrants, church leaders, immigration lawyers, Border Patrol agents, and volunteers that highlighted the complexities and nuances of the realities along our country’s border with Mexico.

Tour of Border Patrol station in Douglas, AZ

Tour of Border Patrol station in Douglas, AZ

But one thing is clear: our faith’s history as recounted in the pages of the Old and New Testament is filled with accounts of migration. Beyond the stories we read today, we remember Abraham and Sarah leaving the land of Ur to resettle and start their family in the land of Canaan, the Israelites liberation from slavery in Egypt by following God through the wilderness for 40 years, the nation of Judah forced into exile in Babylon and rediscovering and reinventing their faith far from their homeland, the nomadic ministry of Jesus as he traveled throughout Palestine healing and teaching, the early apostles moving throughout the Mediterranean and Near East spreading the Good News of new life and the restoration of all creation…. migration and crossing borders is not a new phenomenon, especially not to those who study the Bible.

Crosses with the names of migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran desert. We participated in a vigil to remember them.

Crosses with the names of just some migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran desert. We participated in a vigil to remember them.

Even more importantly, the theme of hospitality and kindness to strangers accompanies these stories throughout our scriptures. The Hebrew scriptures have many books devoted to complicated laws about every part of life, and as Christians we often skim over books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but throughout these pages one of the most consistent commandments that God gives the people is this: Love the stranger in your midst. Care for the foreigner. Treat the alien like one of your own. And what is God’s reason? Because you were once the foreigner too. We were once the stranger too. In Canaan, in Egypt, in Babylon. In Jerusalem, in Rome. In the United States. Perhaps in Huntingdon, or in Stone Church. Somewhere, sometime, we and our families and our faith communities were strangers, crossing a border into a place, a situation that was unknown.

The current United States policies surrounding immigration are enough to make your head spin. We don’t have the time this morning to go into detail about the trade agreements of the 90s that led to such dire economic conditions in counties like Guatemala and Mexico, how the wait time for proper documentation in the United States can sometimes take decades, how many federal environmental laws were waived in order to build the wall along our southwest border (over 30, by the way), and what daily life is like for those individuals and families who live and work in our country without papers but not without a desire for them.

This morning was just a small piece of this large, complex puzzle. But I believe that retelling biblical stories about migration and crossing borders and hearing other modern-day stories for the first time can be the first step towards compassion and kindness. The next step is to ask questions, to do some research, to pay attention to the topic of immigration when it arises, especially on the national scale. Our shared history and connections with our Jewish neighbors, and our commitment to following Jesus, the Christ who both reached across borders and crossed them, requires us to push back against nationalistic rhetoric that is exclusive, hateful, and xenophobic. As Christians we are called to love the foreigner as ourselves, because we were once strangers, because we are called to see the face of Jesus in the face of the immigrant and the alien, and because the love of God, our Creator, Christ our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Sustainer, knows no borders.

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Myanmar Reflections, Part 2 of 3: Return To Your Breath

Return to Your Breath: Immersion into Vipassana Meditation

On January 10-12, our cohort spent 3 days quietly immersed in the practice of Vipassana meditation. We were guests at Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center in Yangon. Vipassana, mindfulness or insight, meditation is a practice of Theravada Buddhism. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had spent about 6 weeks of the fall semester practicing this mediation as part of my Spiritual Practices class. Furthermore while we were in Myanmar, during the week leading up to our retreat, every morning one of our classmates would lead us through about 20-30 minutes of insight meditation. It was helpful to have had this background and not start with a completely blank slate, however the retreat was still challenging!

At the entrance to the meditation center

At the entrance to the meditation center

Before I get into details, I should explain the practice of Vipassana meditation itself. Overall, there is a pretty clear reason why Vipassana is also called insight or mindfulness mediation. According to a small booklet of guidelines we were each given at the center:

“Vipassana or insight meditation is, above all, an experiential practice, based on the systematic and balanced development of a precise and focused awareness. By observing one’s moment-to-moment mind/body processes from a place of investigative attention, insight arises into the true nature of life and experiences. Through the wisdom acquired by using insight meditation one is able to live more freely and relate to the world around with less clinging, fear, and confusion. Thus one’s life becomes increasingly directed by consideration, compassion, and clarity.”

The way to develop this clarity, mindfulness, or awareness is to pay attention to your breath. Specifically, this could mean noticing your abdomen rising and falling with each in breath and out breath, or noticing the air going in and out through your nostrils. The breath is perhaps one of the most important concepts in meditation, and from what I understand, many people who use this practice would say that’s because the breath is the one thing that you always have throughout your life. Breath is, in fact, life. (Actually, this concept is deeply embedded in Christian theology as well. In the creation account of Genesis 2, God breathes life into the nostrils of first human being. Our breath is the life and breath of our Creator.) So to boil your attention down to just your breath, the source of life, is a simple yet profound act.

Now obviously, just paying attention to your breath is a lot harder than it sounds. The mind wanders, you begin to day dream or to get distracted. “Rising… falling… rising… falling… rising… I wonder how everybody else is doing with their meditating… has it been 10 minutes so far or only 5?… I think I’m getting hungry…” It’s really not that hard to realize that you’re no longer focusing on your breath. But here’s the beauty of Vipassana: that’s okay. The mind starts to wander, starts to think, because that’s in fact what it was designed to do! The mind is just doing its thing. So when that happens, the key is not to scold yourself about it or feel guilty or frustrated, but rather just to notice it, to become aware of it. Notice that you are thinking. Notice any object of awareness that might arise, like feeling hungry, or becoming cold or warm, or hearing a sound. Label those: “thinking,” “hearing,” “imagining,” etc. Then return to your breath.

This is a very basic understanding of sitting meditation. There is also a practice of walking meditation, which is similar in its intent but slightly different because walking involves movement. In short, the focus of walking meditation is to notice the process of walking through every movement of the feet and legs. You stand up (“standing, standing”), you lift your right leg (“lifting”), you push your right leg forward (“pushing”), you drop your right leg to the ground (“dropping”). Repeat for the other leg. Obviously this is done very slowly in order to notice each of the steps. Also, I want to note that both my descriptions for sitting and walking meditation are for beginners. There are deeper ways to sharpen your focus and become more aware as things arise during your practice, however most of us were beginners at this practice and were not expected to reach the next levels. (I should also add that this has been my humble attempt to briefly explain a practice that is deeply rooted in a cosmology and a community of which I am not a part. For anything that is incorrect or simply unclear, I apologize and suggest one book that was helpful at least for my rudimentary understanding: Larry Rosenberg’s Three Steps to Awakening: A Practice for Bringing Mindfulness to Life.)

So Vipassana became our practice, at least for those three intense days. You might be wondering, well what exactly did those days look like? Did you just sit on a cushion for 12 hours a day or walk very slowly and mindfully without doing anything else? Well…here is what a typical day looked like.

A bell would ring to wake us up, 4 descending chimes, around ten minutes ‘til 4 in the morning. Yes, you read that correctly: around 3:50am. At that time, we had about 40 minutes to take an ice cold shower (or find some other effective way to wake up, but that usually did it for me!) and then make our way to the building that had been arranged for us to practice. We began our practice at 4:30am, and it was suggested to us that as beginners we alternate between 30 minutes of walking meditation and 30 minutes of sitting meditation. At 6:00am, the bell would ring again, and we would (mindfully) walk to the dining hall for breakfast, along with the other monks and nuns who were also on silent retreat. We sat on the floor, about 5 persons at each round table, and ate in silence (oh, did I mention that this retreat also included eating and drinking mindfully? To reach for your glass of water to take a drink: “moving, moving…taking, taking, taking…drinking, drinking…moving, moving.”) After breakfast, we resumed our practice of either sitting or walking meditation until a bell rang again at 10:30am: lunchtime. Again we ate our meals in silence, and very slowly. Personally, I made sure to fill up, because lunch was our last meal of the day. According to the precepts that we committed to observe during our time at the center, it was considered improper to eat between noon and dawn. So that 10:30am meal was pretty important. Following lunch we returned to our breath again through walking or sitting meditation. Around 4:30 in the afternoon we were allowed to have what our guide called “soft drinks,” which really meant some sort of fruit juice, usually papaya or lime. (We were also allowed to drink water at any time throughout the day.) Finally, our day would end around 8:30 or 9 at night. We would go straight to bed, because the first bell would be ringing in just a few hours to wake us up!

The building where our group practiced sitting meditation every day. We could practice walking meditation either inside or outside.

The building where our group practiced sitting meditation every day. We could practice walking meditation either inside or outside.

The meditation center's dining hall

The meditation center’s dining hall

That was a basic outline of our daily routine at the meditation center, however there are two other things I should add that were actually very important to our routine and our experience there. The first is that we received permission for our group to practice yoga in silence for half an hour, twice a day. This allowance was truly a gift, because after many hours of sitting quite still or moving quite slowly, the body can become stiff and sore! The yoga was so beneficial for us both physically and mentally. One of our classmates, Liz, has practiced yoga for over a decade and offered to lead us, so twice a day (at 4:30am and at 3:00pm) we moved and stretched our bodies in ways that helped us loosen up and recalibrate. The fact that we practiced yoga in silence was actually quite remarkable, and while it wasn’t strenuous exercise, it was definitely the most unique yoga I’ve ever done.

The second piece I should mention is that we were also gifted with daily meetings with the meditation center’s assistant abbot, a monk named U Nyana Ramsi. A typical expectation for participating in retreats such as ours is that meditators will meet with a teacher once a day for an “interview,” in which meditators report on their practice and raise any questions they have. The teacher will give suggestions or instructions in response. So each day around 5:30pm, our bhanti (a Pali word of reverence or respect, similar to “sir”) would slowly enter the room in his saffron robes, often with a junior monk or nun at his side, sit in a chair in front of us, and ask softly, “How is your practice going today?”

At first I think we were all a little nervous to speak up. But slowly we began to ask questions or bring up challenges and things we noticed about our sitting or walking meditation. Bhanti was patient and kind and so very wise. We were amazed at the wealth of knowledge that he drew from as he answered our questions. The way he spoke, softly yet confidently, and the way he moved his hands when he talked, gently touching his fingertips to list the eight kinds of suffering, or the three kinds of awareness…it was mesmerizing. Looking back I know we were very fortunate, as a group of mostly Christian seminarians from the United States, to have the opportunity to sit at the feet of this teacher and be treated like any other meditator in Buddhist Myanmar. I’m not sure how many Westerners can say that.

Our bhanti, assistant abbot U Nyana Ramsi

Our bhanti, assistant abbot U Nyana Ramsi

So at this point you may be wondering something important. What does it mean for seminarians or for Christians in general to practice Buddhist meditation? A few thoughts here.

This course, “Walking the Path of Nonviolence in Myanmar: Buddhist and Christian Approaches,” by its very nature was an interfaith experience. In our curriculum, this course is designated as a Border Crossing Immersion. At Andover Newton, all Master of Divinity candidates are required to complete 3 credit hours of a Border Crossing immersion that engages students with communities and persons of different social, cultural, ethnic, racial, economic, national, and/or faith identities other than their own. So in this particular class, not only were we crossing an international and cultural border, we were also intentionally crossing a religious border.

Furthermore, as I’ve already mentioned, Buddhism is not just the majority religion in Myanmar, it is also the state religion. It would be impossible to begin to understand the culture, society, and politics of this country without learning about Buddhism and Buddhist practices. And we can learn and read all we want about Theravada Buddhism and Vipassana meditation in a book or online, but we won’t really understand it until we’ve lived it. This concept of personal experience is also deeply embedded in Theravada Buddhism. The monks say, “You can only learn from your teacher up to a point. You cannot benefit from another’s practice. It must be your own practice that transforms you.” Likewise, we can only learn about the Buddhist practice of vipassana mediation by practicing it ourselves.

From my perspective, the practice of Vipassana meditation is not antithetical to my identity as a Christian. I am a follower of Jesus, who modeled a Kingdom of God-oriented life of nonviolence and compassion. Vipassana meditation is a practice that, alongside regular prayer, worship, and service to others, can only serve to increase a Christian’s compassion toward themselves and others. Furthermore, meditation itself does have its own place in Christian history. Also described as contemplative prayer, this ancient spiritual practice has been reclaimed in recent decades by Benedictine monks such as Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton. In her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cynthia Bourgeault describes how these monks have reintroduced meditation as a Christian practice and how the gospel of Jesus aligns with the goals of meditation, inner awakening, insight, or mindfulness. “Wake up!” John the Baptist proclaimed. “The Kingdom of God is near!” Might meditation help Christians awaken to the ways in which the Kingdom has arrived, and the ways in which it has not yet arrived? Might meditation help us live a little more attentively to the ways in which we might usher in the always new, in-breaking Kingdom of God?

Return to your breath. This is a common instruction and reminder in insight meditation. As a Christian, this is also a reminder to me: return to one who gave you breath. In my mind I hear the old haunting hymn:

“Breathe on me, Breath of God
Fill me with life anew
That I may love what Thou dost love
And do what Thou wouldst do.”

As I meditate, may this also be my prayer. With each in breath and out breath, may I be reminded of my Creator and Sustainer who gave me life and continues to give me life each day. With each thought that crosses my mind and takes my attention away, may that be one more opportunity to return to my breath and return to my breath giver.

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After this intense, 3-day immersion, and now after returning to the United States and continuing a practice of daily meditation, I am curious about what role, if any, meditation plays in your life. A secular version of mindfulness meditation has been growing in popularity over the past 1-2 years, and researchers have praised its psychological, physical, and emotional benefits. People of faith, and especially clergy, emphasize the importance of individual spiritual practices such as prayer, journaling, reading scripture, or yoga, and meditation certainly falls into that category. So, do you have a daily meditation practice? If so, what kind of meditation do you practice? I am especially wondering about my clergy friends and if meditation aligns with your theology and your personal spiritual practices.

As always, thank you for reading, and stay tuned for my final Myanmar reflection, coming soon!

A Corinthian Conversation

I am part of an interfaith peer group through Andover Newton and Hebrew College’s CIRCLE program (Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education). The group is called “Engaging Sacred Sources of Violence” and we examine scripture, rituals, and stories from the Jewish and Christian traditions that are violent or otherwise not life-affirming for women. Julie, an ANTS student, and Salem, a rabbinical student at HC, are the two intelligent and thoughtful CIRCLE Fellows and co-leaders for this peer group. When we met in February, I was asked to lead the discussion and chose to examine 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, part of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, as recorded in the New Testament. Last month our conversation around this text was so engaging that we could not get to all of the material in just 45 minutes, so we continued our discussion today. The text is as follows:

2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husbanda is the head of his wife,b and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflectionc of God; but woman is the reflectiond of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol ofe authority on her head,f because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

a The same Greek work means man or husband
b Or head of the woman
c Or glory
d Or glory
e Greek lacks a symbol of
f Or have freedom of choice regarding her head

Obviously this is a difficult text, especially for women. I mean, verse 7 alone: “For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man”… ouch. I wish I had the space (and your attention span!) to recount everything that I researched and, more importantly, everything that we discussed about this passage over two different sessions. If I was going to share everything…

…We could go in depth about the historical, geographical, and religious context of the Corinthian church to whom this letter was written: what head coverings and hairstyles meant and symbolized for the rituals of Greek and Roman religions, and how physical gender differentiation was important for many writers of that time, not just Paul.

…Furthermore, we might examine the rhetorical devices and language that Paul uses in this text: how he balances and frames his argument (when men pray with their heads uncovered, they pray properly, but when women pray with their heads uncovered, they are not praying properly), how certain Greek words can have various English translations and what those translations imply about the meaning of the passage (biblical scholars have found verse 10 to be an especially tricky verse to translate).

…We could also note how Paul appears to change his mind halfway through this text. He does argue in in verses 8 and 9 that “man was not made from woman but woman from man” and “neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.” These words are troubling to hear, no doubt. But just a few sentences later… “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman but all things come from God.” This is a striking reversal of the statement he just made in verses 8 and 9, implying mutuality or even equality between men and women. So what does Paul really think about relationships between men and women in this passage, let alone his thoughts on head coverings? If you really look, it is challenging to come up with one argument to sum it all up, without any sort of nuance or qualifiers.

Now, I know that an in-depth text study might not be the thing that you are most excited to read about (what can I say… seminarians and rabbinical students tend to like this sort of thing). But what made our discussions around this passage so engaging, and what I hope you’ll find interesting as well, was not so much the text per se, but the individuals and perspectives in the conversation itself. We discussed varying values and authority of scripture, how Jews and Christians look at and understand their sacred texts in different ways, and how we use scripture in worship and in our personal and daily lives.

For example, Salem shared that, in some Jewish communities, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is read in worship all the way through in a year. This means that (theoretically) all Jews read and hear each part of the Torah at least once a year, including the texts that are encouraging and affirming, and also the texts that are troubling, confusing, or violent. In one way, this can be empowering because even if each specific passage is not preached on, you still hear each passage, and, as Salem put it, “the onus is on all the people,” to hear and acknowledge each part of the Torah. Yet as Salem reminded us, the fact that each year the community is “forced” to listen to certain stories and passages without much choice could also be considered a kind of violence.

In turn, Julie and I thought about the practice of reading scripture in Christian worship, and the variations of doing so. Some churches follow the lectionary, where the texts and scripture lessons are already planned, and any Christian community anywhere in the world who is following that lectionary is hearing and preaching on the same text that day. This has many similarities to the reading of the Torah that Salem described. Other churches (like the Church of the Brethren) do not follow a lectionary, and thus pastors and worship leaders choose which passage and lesson will be the focus of worship each week. Some of the questions we raised were: What does it mean when a faith community can pick and choose which passages to read? Is there freedom or is there censorship in those choices? Life-affirming or not, who gets to decide which texts are preached on and which texts are ignored or never taught?

But really, you’re asking…what does all this have to do with this passage from 1 Corinthians? Well, for one, we were wondering what we might do with a passage like this on a Sunday morning, a passage that clearly gives some mixed messages about gender relations, but also has significant theological implications that have been pervasive throughout church history. Some of the theology of this text (God > Christ > Man > Woman, in verse 3) has been used to justify gendered hierarchy within the church, patriarchy in Christendom and beyond, and oppression and violence toward women because they are not “in the image and reflection of God” as men are, according to verse 7 of this passage. But as Christians we cannot deny that such a troubling passage is still part of our sacred scriptures. Do we say that this theology and this specific passage is sacred? From the pulpit? (What about in a bible study, or during a one-on-one with a women who has experienced domestic violence?) Or do we choose to reject this passage and passages like it as being from a different time and culture than ours and therefore irrelevant and untrue in the 21st century world? Or do we intentionally choose to engage with this text, examine the complexities and nuance in the words and translation, acknowledge and lament the ways in which this text has been used to subjugate and harm women, and work as a community to figure out if or how 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 can be part of our holy and sacred scriptures?

If you couldn’t tell, I am just brushing up against the surface of what is really an iceberg of a discussion. There is so much more that could be said, and I’m choosing a small part to share with you here. Also, I am not claiming in any way to have this figured out, for myself or others. But I’m curious: what do you think? If you are a Christian, has this text (or texts like it) ever been preached on or discussed in your church or bible study? Have you yourself preached on this text? How might this passage be handled in a faith community that also considers other, life-affirming words of Paul (such as Galatians 3:28) to be inspired teaching? If you are committed to a different faith or worldview than Christianity, how does your community approach challenging texts or sacred sources that justify or at least imply subjugation, oppression, or violence?

Thanks for learning with me, and supporting my ongoing lessons about God, faith, and community.

Spring! …Semester, That Is

Spring has sprung! At least for the academic year, anyway. (The current temperature begs to differ.) I’m gearing up for what looks to be an exciting semester, and before things become too hectic around here, I thought I’d share a little about what I have to look forward to and what’s been on my mind.

I’m taking 4 courses again, and continuing to work as a cashier in the campus dining hall. In addition to classes and work, I am also becoming more involved in an interfaith peer group through a program of Andover Newton and Hebrew College called CIRCLE (Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education). This semester I am very happy that I am able to participate in the community choir that sings at our weekly worship services. Oh, and did I mention that throughout the semester I will be researching, interviewing, and eventually confirming a ministry site where I’ll complete next year’s required field education? There are many exciting possibilities that this spring will bring!

My classes this semester include: Introduction to Christian Social Ethics (which involves reading important people like Reinhold Niebuhr and Chimamanda Adichie); A Hundred Years of Preaching: 20th Century U.S. Sermons (paying special attention to progressive mainline preaching, Pentecostal preaching, and African-American preaching); Jesus, Paul, and Judaism (a New Testament course examining how Judaism influenced Jesus and Paul in the shaping of early Christianity); and Understanding Interfaith (an online course that unpacks “interfaith” personally, historically, theologically, and practically). Sounds like a fun course load to me!

Just a FEW of my books for the semester

Just a FEW of my books for the semester

I mentioned that I am part of an interfaith peer group through the CIRCLE program. The topic for my group is Engaging Sacred Sources of Violence, and it is co-led by an MA student from Andover Newton and a rabbinical student from Hebrew College. The goal is to explore and interrogate sources from our Christian and Jewish traditions that are not and have not been interpreted as life affirming for women, and this includes not just scripture but also traditions and practices. On Monday I am taking a turn leading our discussion, and in preparation I’ve been researching 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, where Paul writes about women covering their heads while they pray. (If you aren’t sure what this passage has to do with violence, go ahead and read it… Or better yet, perhaps I will blog about it in the future!) This group has been a great way to form significant relationships and to immerse myself in a different type of learning outside of the classroom setting. I would love to lead a CIRCLE peer group of my own in the future.

All of these priorities and commitments (class, work, CIRCLE, choir, planning for next year…etc. etc. etc.) can add up to very full days and not much room for self-care. And admittedly, at times I can be pretty lax about taking care of ME, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That’s where community and discipline come in to play. In the middle of finals week last December, a few friends of mine decided to be intentional about self-care in community with others. We started a small prayer group where we can come together to care for and hold each other in sacred time and space. Without our trying, it even turned out to be an interfaith group, with two women from the United Church of Christ, two who are Unitarian Universalist, and one who is Church of the Brethren (you get one guess as to who that one is…) But while it might seem like a small thing, what an enormous amount of support and love a group like this can generate. I am so grateful! Additionally I have started practicing yoga most mornings, with the guidance and suggestions of a friend who is trained in yoga therapy. When we met for the first time, she asked me, “Does practicing yoga conflict with any of your Christian beliefs?” In my opinion, for too long the Church has frowned on our earthly bodies, or the “flesh,” as separate and sinful compared to our “spirit.” But to what end? Our bodies are real, our hands serve and our arms hold others in love, our feet walk and run to do the work that brings the restoration of God’s kingdom. By using yoga as a spiritual practice, I do my part to redeem the flesh and body that is mine, to be thankful for my body and my soul that was created in the image of God.

So there are many things to look forward to this semester, and I am grateful to be back in a routine with my classmates and friends. But… can I be honest? I am still worried and can become quite stressed about things that, in all honesty, are out of my control right now. Where will I be and what will I be doing this summer? How can I pay the extra rent to keep my same apartment next year? How much am I in debt, and how much more debt am I accumulating right now? When these questions and concerns arise, I do well to remember that God is faithful. Be still, I read in Psalm 46, and know that I am God. And yet I ask, will you pray with me? Pray that I find Christ’s peace in this time and place, that I feel the Spirit’s assuring presence, and that I rest in God’s faithfulness and promise in this call. Amen and amen. Your prayers are felt and welcomed. Thank you.

Sacred Encounter

Teaching is creating a community where truth is discovered. –Parker Palmer

Imagine this: You walk into a room full of people, most of whom you’ve never met. You come from different parts of the United States, and also from different parts of the world. Some of the people in the room come from a similar background and hold a similar worldview to your own. However, you are positive that there are many in the room who look at the world much differently, and who hold assumptions about faith, community, and identity in a much different way than you. You know you’ll disagree on more than one of these assumptions. Additionally, you’ve entered the room to engage in a topic with which you personally have very little experience, but you’re also pretty sure that a lot of the folks in the room have years and years of experience to draw from. And before anyone has officially met anyone else or begun a conversation around that topic, you have all committed to spending over 30 hours together in a five-day period.

Does that sound fun or what? Because that was a pretty accurate, although simplified, description of my experience last week!

During the month of January, Andover Newton has a winter session, during which students can opt to enroll in a two-week or a one-week intensive course before the spring semester begins. Several courses are offered during this time and I chose a class on religious education called “Teaching In and Across Religious Traditions.” What made this course unique was the fact that it was co-taught by a professor from Andover Newton and a rabbi from Hebrew College, the institution with which we share a campus. The students enrolled in the class were Jewish students from HC, and Christian and Unitarian Universalist students from ANTS. So in addition to exploring and practicing the art of religious education within our own faiths, we also discussed what is to be learned from interfaith encounters and ministries.

Obviously, it was an intense week; to fit an entire semester’s worth of class time, required reading, and assignments into five days was exhausting! There are so many moments and experiences that I would love to share with you: the little “interfaith moments” that occurred when one student would mention some aspect of their faith tradition and another student of a different faith would interrupt to ask a question or ask for an elaboration; the afternoon we spent visiting and observing classrooms, teachers, and students at a Jewish day school in the area; the various lessons that our small groups prepared throughout the week and then taught the class; the evening interfaith panel with guests sharing about teaching and learning in the presence of the religious “other;” the afternoon we learned from the Hebrew College students about the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat and then celebrated with a mini Seder in class…just to name a few!

For the sake of my own learning and hopefully to sum up my experiences and takeaways, I will share with you an adaptation of a short essay I wrote in class on the last day. As a result of our class discussions and learning opportunities, we were asked to reflect on our perception of ourselves as religious educators both within our own faith traditions and in exploring interactions and encounters across faith traditions. As you can see, I started this response timidly but eventually came to a stronger and more confident understanding by the end:

This is a hard question for me to answer, because truthfully I’ve never thought of myself as an educator, let alone a religious educator. I suppose after this week I see myself as a question-poser. This isn’t really a surprise, coming from the fact that in my Meyers Briggs profile, I am an N for Intuition, which means that in making sense of my day-to-day experiences, I am likely to interpret events in terms of inherent possibility for the future. I tend to value questions and speculation such as, “What if…”, “What might happen if…”, or “What this could mean is…” rather than definitive or absolute answers.

In class this week we talked a lot about education as question- or problem-posing. Educator and thinker Paulo Freire preferred the type of education that poses questions or problems and then invites creative response from the community. Jewish intellectual and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s most common response to questions in the classroom was, “Is that the right question?” Within the Christian tradition, when Jesus was asked a question by one of his disciples or followers, more often than not, he responded by asking another question. (Perhaps this was also a reflection of his Jewish-ness!)

Additionally, over the past six months of seminary, I have come to understand the jurisdiction of the minister as meaning-making. So perhaps my role as a religious educator is helping others to create and pose questions of meaning in community. In this way, the religious educator is not that much different from the minister. [ This probably isn’t a surprise, but cut me some slack here… I’m learning! 🙂 ]

I also want to take seriously the words of Jesus in Matthew 5. The Sermon on the Mount is a beloved part of the Christian scriptures and it is especially valued in the Church of the Brethren. Jesus’ words in verse 9 come from what have been called the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Personally, I look at the violence and animosity in this world as stemming, in part, from intolerance and hatred across religious and ideological differences. If I am to be a peacemaker as Christ calls me to be, I must take seriously this problem and use my framework and authority as a minister to educate and plant seeds of religious literacy, respect, and cooperation in Christians for other faith traditions.

In summation, standing on a foundation of my question-posing orientation, I understand my role as a religious educator to be one of opening up possibilities of both meaning-making within my own tradition and of living in peace with our religious and non-religious neighbors.

Our class on our visit to the Solomon Schechter of Greater Boston Jewish Day School

Our class on our visit to the Solomon Schechter of Greater Boston Jewish Day School

I feel so blessed to have experienced this time of sacred encounter with my religious neighbors, and I am still full with the lessons and stories shared throughout the week. As always, I am deeply grateful for your support and especially for your prayers during this challenging yet rewarding phase of my ministry journey. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Season of Waiting

Amidst group projects, end-of-the-semester presentations, and final papers, it can be easy, even for seminarians, to overlook the fact that one of the most important seasons of Christianity has begun. The irony of this is not lost on me: the collective anxiety that seems to build in December doesn’t leave much breathing room for us to anticipate the birth of Christ, even as ministers or future ministers.

But to be honest, I never quite knew what to make of the Advent season. The Church of the Brethren is pretty non-liturgical, which could be one reason why Advent, as the beginning of the church year, did not make a big impression in my mind. The childhood memories that I have of this season are limited to watching families light purple, pink, and white candles in church on snowy December Sundays, and anticipating small pieces of chocolate that popped out from the family calendar each day leading up to the 25th. Each winter season, I can also recall carefully unwrapping the creamy, porcelain Advent display from its place among our family Christmas decorations, and arranging it carefully with colored candles on the dining room table. Other than these few images, the season of Advent was more elusive than anything. After all, isn’t the actual day of Christmas more important than the days and weeks leading up to it?

Seganos Family Advent Centerpiece, minus the candles. You get the idea.

Seganos Family Advent Centerpiece, minus the candles. You get the idea.

However, I’ve discovered that lately I am starting to better understand and appreciate the mystery and the joy of the Advent season. (I’m sure being in seminary does have something to do with it.) The New Oxford American Dictionary defines advent as the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. For Christians, the notable person who arrives is Christ, who just so happened to enter into this world as a tiny, vulnerable, crying baby. Each year Advent is the Season of Waiting for this arrival. However, this waiting is not anxious or passive, but rather an active, expectant waiting, as we anticipate and work for the birthing of Christ into our world again. Jesus was born in a small Palestinian town to a poor family over 2000 years ago, but he continues to be born each year as we expect and prepare for the newness and the redemption that this Emmanuel (God-with-Us) brings to our broken world. The birth of Christ is for us a reminder of the creative and loving ways that God interacts with and deeply cares for humanity. Advent reminds us to expect and anticipate that God continues to be born and reborn in unexpected and surprising ways today. And we cannot be content to just sit and wait for this newness to be born, but through our acts of service and compassion, though our conversations and our daily routines, we do our part to help prepare the world for Christ’s arrival each year.

This particular Advent I can’t help but think of an important person who often gets overlooked during this season. We focus so much on our own expectant waiting for Christ’s birth that it is easy for us to forget about the very first human who ever waited for this child: Mary. What about Mary? The mother of Jesus was indeed in her own unique season of Advent as she awaited the birth of her mystery, miracle child. She watched her own body grow with both eagerness and trepidation at how her world would change once she gave birth. While I personally have not experienced pregnancy and motherhood, any of you women who have can certainly identify with this particular season of waiting and expectation! Consider too, the situation surrounding Mary’s pregnancy: the angelic visit, the assurance of God’s favor, the foretelling of this miracle baby and what he would mean for the world (Luke 1:26-38). Indeed, Mary had much to expect and wait for!

So do we forget about Mary’s Advent, the woman where it all began? For so long the Church has left women, and especially women’s bodies and spirituality, out of the picture, or in the margins of Christian life and community. But Mary is the epitome of Advent waiting. Let us, in this season of anticipation, wait with Mary for the birth of this child who will change the world in radical and redemptive ways.