Being Kind and Grateful in a World That is Neither

Truth be told, I can be pretty snarky and judgmental.  I’m not proud of it, but there it is.  Sometimes the filter between what I am thinking and what comes out of my mouth is out of order. This is rarely a good thing. As the bar for human interaction sinks lower and lower, I find my own behavior changing as well, and it is alarming. When it comes to being kind, I can only do so much on my own.  After a while my own volition is exhausted and I am right back to being snarky and judgmental.

Abraham Lincoln wisely noted that at such times we need to summon “the better angels of our nature.”  The “better angels of our nature” are at the bedrock of our being where we are reminded of what is important, what is good, what is right and what is expected of us in the human community.

I believe those “better angels of our nature” teach us gratitude.  Like kindness, it is not something we can manufacture on our own; but we can till the ground in which gratitude grows and we can let it inform the stance we assume in the world.  Such a stance shifts our perspective from entitlement, hostility, fear, and over attachment to the commodities of modernity to a renewed sense of wonder at what it means to be alive. A stance of gratitude calls us to be present to life in a different way.

Gratitude is called forth when we are silenced by the wonder of sunrise and sunset following one another in a loop of time that brings the seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter- each with its own rhythm and blessing.

Gratitude is nurtured when we open our eyes in the morning and see light and shadow and color and texture.  It grows when we are reminded of the wonder of the senses: taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell.

Gratitude is planted when we ponder the number of people who work for just outcomes for injured populations, advocate for those with no voice and speak truth to power.  They are our role models and reminders of what it means to live in the human community.

Gratitude is the only response to the wonder that each and every human being on this planet is a unique and unrepeatable human being. Each is beloved by the Holy One.

Gratitude reminds us that time is precious; tomorrow is promised to no one and how we live today matters. 

Gratitude is a spiritual practice that helps us balance all that is awful in the world with what is right and beautiful and holy.  It builds compassion for others and for the creation in ways that change how we are in the world.

Carrie Newcomer, one of my favorite singer/songwriters says, “I can’t change the world but I can change what is happening three feet around me.” If we all changed what is three feet around us the world would be a very different place.  Gratitude teaches us that we are not powerless.

Gratitude also comes with a warning label: causes vulnerability, increased compassion, a desire to change what is three feet around you and an unwillingness to settle for the status quo.

When we are amazed by sunrise and sunset and the movement of the seasons, it is impossible to be indifferent to melting polar ice caps and global climate change.

When we are awakened to see light and shadows in a new way, they become metaphors for human behavior and we can no longer hide in the shadows.

When we are rendered silent by the great miracle and mystery of human life in all its shapes and sizes and colors, it is impossible to hate and our fear is diminished.  It also makes me less snarky.

When we realize that many of us have lived more of our lives than we have left to live, what is important in this life shifts; what we have is no longer as important as who we are.

Gratitude is close to the heart of what it means to be human.  It calls forth our better angels at a time when the world is desperately in need of kindness. 

A Cherokee grandfather was teaching his grandson.  He said, “Inside each of us is a fight between two wolves. One is kind, filled with hope, generosity, truth and compassion and the other is filled with anger, greed and arrogance, self-pity and resentment.  The grandson thought about it for a moment and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

The Road to Perdition

Perdition: noun. Utter destruction, from the fourteenth century Anglo-French perdicium. Ultimately derives from the Latin verb perdere, meaning “to destroy.

That we are on the road to perdition seems patently and painfully obvious:

  • Our legislators were perfectly willing to pay themselves while 800,000 of some of the lowest paid federal workers went over a month without a paycheck.
  • Our government approved separating 2,342 children from their families. Several have died in US custody.
  • Bethany Christian Services, an adoption agency with financial ties to Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, was and remains the primary housing provider for immigrant children in detention centers. The cost is $700.00 per night per child.
  • It is unclear how many children are still separated from their families. Numbers range from 300-500.
  • The worst year for mass shootings was 2018, with one about every eight days.
  • So far this year over 1,000 people have died from gun violence.
  • This past week three 21 year old males killed 13 people.
  • Last year was the deadliest on record for non-binary, gender nonconforming and transgender persons.
  • For the second year in a row the government will borrow one trillion dollars to finance the occupant’s tax cuts.
  • Environmental protections are being rolled back at an alarming rate. For example, logging on federal land will be increased to produce more than four billion board feet of timber this year. It represents a 31% increase.
  • The permanent director of the EPA is a former coal lobbyist.
  • The Supreme Court is becoming increasingly partisan, a trend that is expected to continue with new nominations. Mitch McConnell’s refusal to consider president Obama’s nominee for the court represents an over reach of government authority and puts yet another nail in the coffin of democracy.
  • There are 954 identifiable hate groups in the US. The largest increases were seen in neo-Nazi, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ (to see a complete list click here).
  • Twenty hate groups outwardly identify as “Christian.”
  • There was a 66% increase in violence against disabled persons in 2017, the last year for which data are available.
  • Anti-religious bias was up 23% due to increased anti-Semitic violence.
  • One third of all Americans doubt that the Holocaust happened.
  • 48% of all hate crimes are gender biased. Since reporting of hate crimes is not uniformly mandated, the number is likely much higher.
  • Gerrymandering and voter suppression make it entirely possible we will have four more years of the occupant, a malignant narcissist and pathological liar with the emotional intelligence of a rock.
  • The occupant has retrieved xenophobia from the sewer of human interaction and set it on a course to acceptability.

There are frightening parallels to the post World War I world in Europe and the United States.  In the 1920’s the US pursued an “America first” type ideology that was isolationist, imposed hefty trade tariffs, and increased income disparity between those at the top and the rest of the country.  There was also immigration restriction that, at the root, was about keeping America white.

In Germany, Paul von Hindenburg was elected president and given broad executive power to defend Germany against foreign threats. He began using his powers to rule by decree and not by parliamentary process.  Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble and abolition of the parliamentary government were among the things that were abolished in that time.  Further, there was demolition of unions and widespread dismissal of civil servants.  There was a direct connection to this series of actions and the subsequent installation of Hitler as chancellor.

Crucial to the rise of totalitarian regimes is controlling the news media.  In the US the function is well served by Fox News and the Breitbart organization, among others.  By calling anything that doesn’t agree with the occupant’s perspective “fake news,” he is subtly and surely eroding the power of the free press to the point where truth soon will be irrelevant.

It is likely that many of the social rights instituted in the last fifty years will be severely curtailed as the Supreme Court becomes more conservative and more partisan.  By choosing which cases they will hear, they can effectively shape public policy that limits access to birth control, protects businesses that discriminate against LGBTQ persons, undermines affirmative action and increases voter suppression and gerrymandering.

It is said that those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.  And while the period between World War I and World War II will never be exactly replicated, there are disturbing similarities that will likely have far reaching consequences for individuals, communities and the environment.

When hate is spoken into the world and meets nothing but its own echo, it rises unchecked.  When hate is spoken into the world and it is met with resistance and push back there is some hope that its destruction can be curbed.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The only thing necessary for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing.”

 

Sources: National Geographic, Southern Poverty Law Center, Human Rights Campaign, BBC, The New York Review of Books, Christopher R. Browning, the Suffocation of Democracy

Privilege Pushes Back

What’s true, what’s not and what needs context?  There are several perspectives on the viral video that came from protests in Washington over the weekend. They add a needed voice to balance in the conversation.

It’s true that the Hebrew Israelites said hateful things to everyone.  It’s also true that Nathan Phillips, Native American elder and Vietnam veteran, willingly inserted himself into a situation that was inherently risky. It is true that the Covington Catholic high school students were temporarily successful at drowning out the hateful rhetoric of the Hebrew Israelites. Furthermore, it is true that there was something of a standoff between Mr. Phillips and Nick Sandman, the young person in the viral video. 

I watched the one hour and forty six minutes video online.  There was indeed hateful and inflammatory speech by the Hebrew Israelites.  While it is not clear that their intention was to incite the crowd, it certainly had that affect. From the video it seems to me they would have engaged a telephone pole if they thought they could get a rise.  Watching the video has changed my perspective somewhat, but I don’t buy Nick Sandman’s innocent teenager routine for one minute.

Several points are worth noting.  If Nick Sandman was trying to de-escalate the situation, why did he continue to stand in Mr. Phillips’ personal space?  If de-escalation was indeed the goal, why was he not facing his classmates and encouraging them to disperse? Was he in a leadership role prior to that time, that students should imitate him or listen to him?  His insolent smile is as much a smirk as it is anything else. It is the one thing that kept me from believing his story. Hiding behind the “teenager” moniker, though indeed they are teenagers, implies less responsibility for their own behavior.  They are old enough to know right from wrong.  They are old enough to attend a right to life rally to protest the law of the land.   

What is familiar about this situation is white privilege rearing its ugly head.  Our culture is raising another generation of patriarchal men who are used to getting their own way.  What religious bow they put on the package is irrelevant.  What is familiar is a Native American being marginalized and taunted.  That Mr. Phillips willingly inserted himself into the situation does not excuse the sneering smile and defiant eyes of Nick Sandman.

This is not the first time a racist event took place at Covington Catholic high school.  Several years ago, though the video has been deleted from YouTube, a group of students dressed up in black face to go to a basketball game featuring a predominantly black team.  There is no bow that makes this an acceptable package.  It suggests there are deeper issues to address.  I wonder how many people of color are students at the school and how they are treated. 

And, all this from a Catholic school; this is the most problematic. I am trying to think of a bible verse or a Catholic doctrine that covers this situation and I am coming up empty.  I am not a doctrinal scholar, so maybe I am missing something but I doubt it.  It is important to not paint all Catholics with the same brush; many faithful and loving people find their anchor in the embrace of the Catholic Church.  The Catholic social justice workers were some of the earliest champions of human rights.  No one religion is all bad or all good.        

The church in America, regardless of denomination or tradition, is a hostage to the culture.  We no longer see a line between what is Christian and what is American.  This is not a new problem.  American civil religion has been around a long time. It reinforces power structures that favor white skin over dark skin, the educated over the less educated, and the rich over the poor, the few over the many. And what is maintained in the midst of it all is the status quo.

We Should Give France Back Their Statue

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

We are a nation of immigrants.  You are either an immigrant, the child of immigrants or a Native American.  There are no other options.  That said, in our contemporary anti-immigrant stance, it occurs to me we should give the Statue of Liberty back to France. 

Before 1965 there were four major waves of immigration to the United States.  From 1790-1820 a wave of English, Scots, Irish, Germans, French and Spanish came to the US.  From 1820-1860 more Germans, Scots and Irish arrived. From 1880-1914 the Chinese, Japanese and Asians comprised the largest group of immigrants.  A significant number of Jews fleeing religious persecution also came here the later part of this third wave. From then until now the largest group of immigrants is Hispanics and Asians from multiple countries. I find it interesting that none of the sites I visited in my research for this blog included the millions of slaves brought here from West Africa against their will.

What these waves of immigrants have in common is that they faced discrimination and exclusion.  As the “other,” the “different,” the primarily Anglo-Saxon white population marginalized those who spoke different languages and looked different than they. 

We are seeing a repeat of history as waves of anti-immigrant sentiment grow stronger and more vocal.

Tarrant County in Texas is voting on whether Shaid Shafi, who was appointed vice chair of the county GOP in July, should be dismissed because he is a practicing Muslim.  The argument is that he could not accurately represent the GOP because his beliefs are different from the majority.  See last week’s blog for all the reasons this is so off base.

A group of white evangelicals called the Liberty Counsel, which opposes gay rights, wants gays removed from the anti-lynching bill passed unanimously by the Senate last month. A few things about this are notable. First, it took until 2019 to pass a federal law making lynching illegal.  This is mind boggling. Second, if these folks get their way it would be okay to lynch gays.  Seems some folks just aren’t happy unless they have someone to lynch. Finally, that anything passed the Senate unanimously these days is nothing short of a miracle.  Good to know they have some standards even though they don’t, for the most part, have a moral backbone.    

Of course all this comes in the midst of the hoo-ha about building a wall along the Mexico US border.  I’m all for appropriate border security but this just isn’t it. I’m all for people coming to this country legally, and escaping persecution and fearing for their lives are legal reasons. If we took the bazillion dollars the Occupant wants to spend on this damn wall, we could process every single person who is trying to come into this country and set them up in legal channels and actually HELP them.  There would be money to spare.

This isn’t just a social issue, it is a faith issue.  Jesus was all about knocking down the walls that separated people. He touched the woman with an issue of blood and restored her to community. He hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes, touched lepers and those possessed by “demons.”  Today we would probably say they have a mental disorder, and this is a whole other group of people who face big time discrimination. But I digress. There was no person Jesus walked away from as not worthy. There was no person Jesus excluded because of their profession, their social standing or their marital status.  Jesus was the Great Includer. 

A theology that builds walls instead of bridges is one that escapes the essential messiness of life.  It divides the world into “us” and “them.”  But the world is far more complicated than that.  Political regimes make pawns out of groups THEY want to exclude; sometimes religious groups become targets for persecution; ethnic minorities become targets for “ethnic “cleansing;” and people who speak out against oppressive regimes often become targets for execution. Some people fear for their lives because of gang violence. Others flee persecution because of their position on unpopular social issues, i.e. women’s rights, reproductive health care or LGBTQ rights. Corrupt leaders hoard resources for their own gain, creating widespread poverty and privation.  I hope people trying to get into our country don’t expect THAT to be any different here. 

Immigration, like life, is messy. A one size fits all wall is both idolatrous and immoral.  Sadly, we repeat history, rather than learn from it. We ignore an essential gospel teaching when we build walls instead of bridges.

F-Bombs, Sexism and Leadership

Rashida Tlaib, a newly elected Democratic representative from Michigan, dropped the F-bomb while hanging out with her constituents in a bar. So what?  It is no worse than what the Occupant said when he suggested that men “grab them by the p***y.”  To get into a linguistic pissing contest is a waste of time and a distraction from what is really going on.

First, it is a distraction from the issues that need the government’s immediate attention.  They are too numerous to list but include the unnecessary government shut down, that idiotic wall, and the disastrous foreign policy the Occupant likes to Tweet about at 2:00 in the morning. 

Second, it shows that women are judged more harshly than men.  This should not come as a surprise. Men are forgiven more quickly for bad language and bad behavior than women.  It takes longer for a woman to regain her position and authority after an unexpected candid moment or a misstep. When Tlaib dropped the F-bomb, suddenly the world went all puritanical about language and leadership and her suitability for office. Please, give me a break. 

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a newly elected Representative from New York, has been widely criticized for wearing an expensive suit and shoes. Fortunately for men, it is not as easy to tell when they are wearing custom made suits that cost as much as a used car. However, the larger point is that no one is questioning what men wear and no one is looking at their shoes and asking how much they cost. How women look and dress is an issue for public scrutiny when in the public eye.  

This is familiar to me as a woman pastor.  In the early years of ministry, when I was still in seminary, I served a small church as pastor.  Like most graduate students I had little money. Also, I was not yet ordained.  I did not own a pastoral robe.  One Sunday after service I was approached by a deacon and told to get a robe “because my legs were distracting men in the congregation.” Forty plus years later and I have yet to see how this is my problem.

Yet, as women, such judgments are always our problem. It is a blatant symbol of the misogyny and sexism that still dominates our cultural landscape.   The criticism comes from both women and men. In a recent PBS News Hour broadcast several women bemoaned the “likability” factor of some of the women newly elected to congress.  They also questioned Elizabeth Warren’s “likability” as she announced her intention to run for president in 2020.

The “likability” factor is pure sexism.  It says that the very qualities men possess that make them good leaders are undesirable when manifested in a woman. Being strong, decisive and vocal is all well and good if you are a man. Women who are strong, decisive and vocal are often called “bitchy.” Women who are collaborative, open, flexible, caring and sensitive are often viewed as weak.

If I had a nickel for every time someone called me a bitch, I would be rich. Truth be told, I would be even richer if I had a nickel for every time someone thought I was a bitch but didn’t have the nerve to say it to my face.  It is a criticism leveled when women are decisive, assertive and definitive, or when women assert their authority. The same qualities in a man are celebrated.    

Lest we think this cultural judgement of women emerged in a vacuum, we do well to remember the role of religion and misuse of Scripture. Verses like, “Women be subject to your husbands,” and “Women must keep silent in the church” have been widely quoted as the way women should be treated.

Those who claim to read scripture “literally” do well to remember that Miriam was a leader beside Moses and Deborah was a judge. In the New Testament there are women, named and unnamed who had leadership roles. Jesus included women in his inner circle, which elevated the role of women in his time. Phoebe, Prisca, Aquila, Mary, Junia and Olympus are all mentioned in Romans 16. Philip’s four daughters are prophets named in Acts 2. Eudia and Syntiche of Phillipi are named in Ephesians 4:11. Lydia is named in Acts 16:14-15 and Nympha is named in Colossians 4:15. They all had leadership roles in the early church.

There are countless examples of women’s leadership throughout Scripture. The Gospels and the New Testament usher in a radical view of women rooted in equality and mutuality. Those who claim connection to the Christian tradition do well to read Scripture and read it as a whole book made of smaller books.  The overarching message of Scripture is that God has an eternal love for all people and all creation.  In God and through God we are called to loving, respectful, equal and mutual relationships. 

The cultural bias against women will not go away quietly. It is too ingrained in our social fabric to be easily routed out.  However, the quiet rising tide of women and men who refuse to bear the stereotypes, biases and judgments that perpetuate inequality will, with time, reach critical mass and create a new way of being people of faith and culture in the world. 

 

 

A Lesson in Civics

In the United States which of the following is legal to be inducted into civil service:

Placing a hand on the Quran?

Placing a hand on the Bible?

Affirming a willingness to uphold the Constitution?

Using a copy of the Constitution to take the oath of office?

Using a Roman Catholic Missilette to take the oath of office?

The correct answer is “all of the above.”  The Constitution of the United States of America expressly forbids the requirement of a religious text for anyone to be inducted into public office. Article 6 Clause 3 states, “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and Judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust of the United States.” (Capital letters are quoted directly.)

An individual may use any sacred text or no sacred text, according to religious conviction or absence thereof.  Presumably this means if one belongs to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster one could be sworn in on a box of pasta.

In law, an affirmation is a solemn declaration allowed to those who conscientiously object to taking an oath.  An affirmation has the same legal effect as an oath but is usually taken to avoid the religious implications of an oath. For example, Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses do not take oaths because it violates their religious beliefs.

Those who place their hand on a Bible and swear an oath while having no regard for the actual content of the book is another issue entirely.

For further historic clarification, President Obama took the oath of office on Bibles belonging to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt did not use any sacred book when he took the oath of office.  John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce used a book of law to take the oath of office.  Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office with a Roman Catholic Missilette found aboard Air Force One. Newly elected Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota used a Quran for the optional ceremonial photo, but not for the swearing in.  New York Judge Carolyn Walker-Diallo took an oath to uphold the US Constitution by placing her hand upon the Holy Quran.  As a practicing Muslim she holds the Quran to be a sacred text and as such chose this text as authoritative for her life.

If you have a problem with this, read the Quran and the Bible. And of course, study both texts with historically accurate knowledge and with an understanding of both languages in the original texts.  If you have a problem with the Quran, the Sutras, the Vedas, the Bhagivad Gita, the Tenach, Mishnah or Midrash as appropriate sacred texts, do some homework. Then read and understand the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Until then, zip it.

Furthermore, to require a Bible or any sacred text for an oath of office is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the first Amendment to the Constitution. This expressly forbids the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion or non-religion or non-religion over religion.

I recommend some of our judges and legislators review the Constitution and first Amendment. They either have forgotten or are flat out ignoring the requirements of our founding documents. 

As a new and historically diverse group of legislators take their place in our government, these distinctions are of utmost importance.  In this country it has been the tradition to use a Bible, but it is not required.  Tradition does not dictate present or future practice. 

For one to place their hand on a book in which they do not believe makes no sense. It makes far more sense for one to choose the book they adhere to as holy, or use no book at all and simply affirm their willingness to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.  We come dangerously close to merging church and state when one religious book is required over another. It is a bad idea for both political and religious reasons.

Christmas Traditions, Disconnects and Weirdness

Christmas food traditions are just plain weird. For example, roasting chestnuts on an open fire; have you ever tried to do this? They explode.  Then there is the French buche de noel, which tastes like the tree it is supposed to look like. Let’s not forget eggnog, which is a lot like drinking paint but is really just milk, cream and raw eggs with a little rum.  The rum is it’s only redeeming quality. Christmas cookies in every flavor imaginable, painstakingly decorated, are a lovely gesture for the palate, not so much for the hips. While people complain of being insanely busy, this cookie extravaganza suggests they have entirely too much time on their hands. While there are countless variations on the theme of Christmas dinner, many of them include the bizarre dish, boiled onions.  In whose sick mind did it ever occur that boiling little white onions in milk and butter was a good idea? Then there is fruitcake. It is widely rumored that there was a fourth Wise Man who was turned away for bringing one.  

I get that the symbolism of light shining in the darkness is big at this time of year, but an outside display that can be seen from Landsat is a little over the top. Combine that with tacky plastic snowmen, the inflatable crèche and Victorian carolers and you have the cultural Christmas mash up that leaves much of the world scratching its collective head.

Christmas music; why is that everybody and their ukulele has to do some version of Silent Night?  And what’s up with the Little Drummer Boy? If I spent hours trying to get a baby to sleep and some kid came in with a drum I would brain him on the spot.  Of course this year everyone is upset about “Baby, Its Cold Outside.” I like to think of myself as a fairly well informed feminist but since I only have so much outrage to go around, I’ll save it for something else.  Then there’s “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and the “Twelve Pains of Christmas” which is almost as interminable as the original song it parodies. And if I hear Domenick the Donkey” one more time I may go hunting for the first time in my life.   Then there are the more bizarre and less well known (thank God) songs like the South Park parody of Peanuts Christmas specials featuring the song, “Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo.” 

Moving on, next in my sights are the weird church traditions, like the Christmas Pageant. In this attempt at a worship service we dress children up with dishtowels on their heads. They look like people we profile the rest of the year. Wise Men from the East bring gold, frankincense and myrrh when a meatloaf, diapers and an offer to baby sit might have been more appreciated.  If we take out all the refugees and foreigners from the manger scene we are left with a few jackasses and a camel.  It’s worth pondering.

Next are the chrismons.  These are Christmas ornaments in the shape of Christian symbols.  They can be quite beautiful but my experience is that they are cut out of Styrofoam and decorated with way too much glitter and gold rick rack.  Each year they look a little worse and are dragged out to decorate the phony tree put up somewhere in the building because, after all, what’s Christmas without a tree?  The fact that the tree is a throwback to pagan celebrations appears to have slipped corporate Christian consciousness.

If we peer beyond the Christmas window dressing we have some hope of redeeming the silliness this holiday has become.  Beyond it all, the unshakeable message is that God has not given up on this sorry planet despite what we do to ourselves and each other.  There is still a way to symbolically find our way to the manger and in so doing find a new way of life. 

The true light that shines in the darkness is not found on our houses but in our hearts.  It lights our way when we are lost, shines through us for others to find their way and illuminates a heart that is a reflection of God’s eternal love affair with all things human. 

In celebrating the quintessential symbol of vulnerability, a completely dependent child, we see how God hopes to work through us. We need not be perfect, beautiful, strong, or successful. We need not have all our beliefs figured out to be of use to the God who is and is to come in this season. God loves us as the human messed up people we are and works through us just as we are. 

This holiday comes around once a year with all its weird and wonderful traditions to remind us that long ago a baby and a very brave family accepted a challenge from the Holy: to live lives of holiness that would change the world and change everyone who followed in that way.  

The God of abundance deigns to come to us, not to grant our every wish for the newest gadget or gizmo (that’s Santa Clause), but to burst open the lies and empty promises of worldly things.  The abundance is about grace and love, peace and joy.  I know it sounds cliché, but that’s the deal of the season. And it’s the best one going.

Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

Right wing news media outlets and a scattering of Christians of many different theological stances have declared that there is a war on Christmas.  It centers around saying Merry Christmas and not Happy Holidays.  Those who think the only way to acknowledge the season is by saying Merry Christmas are offended by those who use a more generic seasonal greeting, Happy Holidays.

Christmas is not the only religious holiday celebrated in December. Hanukkah (Jewish), Bodhi Day (Buddhist), Yule (Wicca), Zarathosht Diso (Zoroastrian), and Kwanzaa are just a few of the religious and cultural celebrations that take place in December.  It is impossible to know everyone’s religious affiliation and it is insulting to say Merry Christmas to adherents of a different faith.

Freedom to practice any religion is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.  It was adopted on December 15, 1791. It established the separation of church and state and prohibited the government from making any law that established a religion. It also prohibited the government from interfering with a person’s religious beliefs and practices.

For all of our talk about religious liberty, our history living it out is less than stellar.  In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Pilgrims who came to the New World for religious liberty promptly established a state church.  Droning preachers reminded people they were going to hell in services that lasted hours. Puritanism has been defined as the nagging uncomfortable notion that somewhere someone was happy.   

Leaders of Massachusetts Bay Colony banished Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson for having the audacity to challenge Puritan theology and practice. I think they were tossed out because the Pilgrims couldn’t stand the thought that some people were not as miserable as they.  And for the record, Puritans did not celebrate Christmas at all.

Christmas has a spotty history.  The first recorded celebration was in 336 c.e. when the Roman Emperor Constantine chose the 25th of December as the day to mark the birth of Jesus. Several years later Pope Julius 1 made it official and declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25.  It was in part an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia Festival. 

The point is that Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on December religious holidays. There is no war on Christmas. There is a great melding of religious traditions that mark celebrations in December.  This diversity is, in part, what makes our country great.

So maybe instead of getting all bent out of shape, we might work at acknowledging our American sisters and brothers who embrace other religious traditions. It is a freedom guaranteed by our Constitution. It is also a way to not be a jerk.

Maybe those who are convinced that Christianity is the superior religion might develop some humility and celebrate the great religious diversity that is woven into the fabric of our society. Jesus had some advice for people with superiority complexes; get the tree out of your own eye before you try and pluck out the speck from someone else’s eye.  

Maybe people could remember that the heart of every religion is love.  Religious extremists of every stripe do not speak for the vast majority of people who adhere to that religion. Isis does not speak for Islam and the white evangelical base that supports the Occupant does not speak for Christianity.

There is much that makes this season holy. So get your panties out of a bunch, put on your grown up pants and honor the religious diversity of our great nation.

Happy Holidays.

Beyond the Christmas Hoopla

I am none too fond of Christmas.  Mostly I don’t like what Christmas has become; one huge orgy of buying more things for people who already have too much.  I don’t like how people get their knickers in a knot about saying Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays, as if Christmas makes any difference in the way they actually live their lives. I don’t like the thin veneer of holiday cheer that hides franticness and fear, self-imposed impossible deadlines, and Christmas letters describing the Hallmark family. I don’t like how parents buy war toys and violent video games for their children as gifts that celebrate the Prince of Peace.

I don’t like the gluttony of food that adorns the season while so many people are hungry.  I don’t like the phony charity that feeds the hungry at this time of the year, ignores them the rest of the year and refuses to address why they are hungry in the first place.  I don’t like hearing “Hark the herald angels sing glory to the newborn King” over the Muzak at the pharmacy; it assures the ongoing need for my blood pressure meds.

Most of the hoopla of Christmas is an adventure in completely missing the point.

The antidote to the lunacy of it all is John the Baptist.  He is a wiry, hyper man with wild hair and a beard showing the remnants of his last meal: bugs and honey.  His clothing is more akin to rags, and he is yelling himself hoarse with a simple message.  “Repent, you brood of vipers.” Don’t bother looking for cards with John’s message at the Hallmark store, you won’t find them.

John’s call is a steady heartbeat under the increasing noise of the season.  He invites us to hear our own heartbeat; that place of our deepest longing and greatest hopes, the place of our shattering fears and wrenching loneliness.  When we allow ourselves to think beyond our own needs, the sorry state of our world is also part of our own heartbeat and it carries its own brokenness and fears.

The antidote to all that breaks us and breaks around us is in John’s simple call to repent.  It means to get a new heart, to receive what is offered from the abundant and gracious heart of the One in whose image we are made.  The way of life to which we are invited in this season is a transformational way of loving the world. John announces that the old ways are getting the boot and the new way is one of radical acceptance of those who are different.

As a rising tide of hatred and intolerance threatens to drown all decency, it is a timely and needed message.  As people of faith we are called beyond mere tolerance, a low bar at best, to genuine love and acceptance.  It is far beyond what we are able to accomplish under our own steam.  After all, there are times when we have trouble loving the people we are supposed to love.  Complete strangers who look different, talk different and smell different are just beyond the pale.  That’s why we need someone like John the Baptist telling us it isn’t just about us and what we can do on our own.  It’s about getting a new heart and turning toward the Source of Love, the One who makes us far more than we can be on our own.

John isn’t the Source, he just points to the Source.  Follow this guy Jesus, he’s the real deal.  His teachings right what is wrong with the world and heal what is broken in us. Or to quote John, “repent you brood of vipers.”     

This season is less about a baby than it is about a way of life. It is high time we stopped worshipping the baby and freaking ourselves out thinking about whether or not Mary had sex. Who cares? It is just a diversion away from the demands of a radically loving God whose abundance aches to flow through us.  

All the ways we miss the point are diversions away from John’s unapologetic call to life lived in the transforming embrace of a God who dreams of a new world where peace is the norm, there is enough for all, our fears are transformed by love and our deepest loneliness is met with renewed purpose.

We don’t have to eat bugs and honey, but let’s hope the whole repentance thing catches on.