Things have changed. They’ve been changing for at least two long generations, and if any Rip Van Winkle needed to be knocked upside the head with a two-by-four to wake them up, the recent spate of sexual assault demolition derby losers should have been it.
A few years ago I wrote an article in which I argued that we Americans had to get over the notion that the U.S. is first in everything. “We’re number One” may be a decent team cheer, but the constant drumming of we’re the greatest, most exceptional, most powerful, richest, country in the history of the world, was not a helpful guide to our place in a fast changing world. Moreover, it wasn’t true. Coffee conversations were places to hear proclamations that the U.S. has the best medical care in the world, the best education in the world, the best highways in the world, etc. The rest of the world is jealous of our prosperity. Everyone wants to come here. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. We’re not better than everyone else at any one thing. Some nation somewhere is better that we are at something. What we are is very good at most things, with few areas of serious weakness. It’s the overall balance that gives us enduring strength.
What I suggested then was a need to be proud of what we do better than most others, and keep at it; satisfied with what we do as well as others, always with an eye toward improvement; and not anxious about what others do better than we. We had to learn to be a leading partner in a world of partnerships: a leading partner, not the leading partner. Perhaps most important, we had to learn that military intervention is seldom a good idea. Pax Romana didn’t end well for the Romans, and Pax Americana hasn’t worked out that well for us, or for others. That’s what I suggested a few years ago.
It was not a popular article. The few who read it were less than happy. It bordered on being unpatriotic, some said, and it certainly showed a lack of confidence in our collective ability to sustain our alpha dog place in the world.
In any case, that was before Trump. Whether the article was a good idea or not, the current administration is charging ahead with intentional deconstruction of our accustomed place as the singular world leader. Ironically, they’re doing it under the banner of “Make America Great Again.” Our foreign policy has the coherence of a bellicose drunk lurching from friend to foe, unable to tell the difference. Other nations have to react, but they do so without respect, and more than a little contempt. Domestic regulations protecting the common good are being repealed at a record rate. The process for adopting budgets and passing appropriations has become a tired joke. Congress is all but dysfunctional. The president’s public utterances are dominated by belittling tweets, campaign rants, displays of troubling ignorance, and blatant disregard for truth. On occasion he’s forced to read something not his own, and does so in wooden tones of insincerity. The only major piece of legislation passed so far makes the tax system more complicated, less fair, and self enriching for his family. Some portion of the public was bought off with a few temporary tax cuts, and while it includes a few long needed reforms, they can’t atone for damage done to national deficits and debt.
In a curious way, it’s not all bad. The old place had become a mansion of so many add ons and do it yourself repairs that it creaked under its own weight. It needed a gut rehab, and the wrecking crew is at it: unskilled and incompetent, but at it nevertheless. We will have to rebuild, and that will give us the opportunity to make improvements along the way. Since our place atop everyone else in the world has already been torpedoed by the current administration, we don’t have a choice about becoming less egotistically prideful Americans. It’s been forced on us.
My hope is that we will arrive at a place where we can take well earned pride in our resilience as a people and political system as we reconstruct what has been deconstructed, not as it was but as it should be. From a position of unaccustomed humility, a future administration will have to rebuild global trust in U.S. participation in world affairs as one leader among others willing to work together for the good of the planet. A new congress under new leadership will have to bend to the task of reestablishing programs for the general welfare, this time with improvements and corrections making them more efficient, and simpler to administer. A stronger public education system, universal health care, funding for national infrastructure, research requiring national resources, and programs to aid states and localities in meeting the needs of their citizens must be put back in their places, but with greater accountability and less opaqueness than before. Restoring regulations that protect the public and environment will be needed, but with more attention to making them simpler, less burdensome to follow, and with an eye toward customer service rather than adversarial enforcement. Extremists on the far right and left will still be around to poke at us about things that might require a poke, but they won’t be able to dictate, shut down, or dominate public discourse.
What may speed the transition from deconstruction to reconstruction is the new tax law. I don’t think it will take long for responsible people in both parties to recognize how bad it is. Rather than simplifying, it has made the tax code more complicated. Modest short term cuts for the middle class are set against large permanent cuts adhering to the wealthy. The impact on national deficits and debt flies in the face of financial prudence. Promises of expanded corporate investments in domestic plant and equipment, new jobs, and higher pay for workers, have little evidence to support them.
Working under a new administration with new congressional leadership, bipartisan efforts may result in true reform that both simplifies and evens out the playing field. Parenthetically, it’s uncomfortably amusing that using the tax code to reduce income inequality is seen by some conservatives as socialist redistribution of wealth, when they have used the code for years to redistribute wealth toward the already wealthy. But that’s a subject for another time.
The 2018 midterm elections may signal a new direction for the nation. I certainly hope so. In the meantime, there is some danger that the boundary between deconstruction and destruction may be breached by an incompetent administration and ineffectual congress. We shall see.
It has been said that we Anglicans (Episcopalians) have an incarnational theology. If nothing else, it means that Christmas cannot be little more than decorations followed by a few days of singing carols, opening presents, and, perhaps, going to church.
Incarnation in its simplest form means to give bodily life to something. If we are, for instance, embodied souls, then what we call the soul cannot be entirely divorced from what we call the body. To cite an old song, you can’t have one without the other. Obviously that can lead to more conversation than I want to have right now, and that’s exactly what happened when the early church began to dive into a deeper understanding of the incarnation of God in Jesus. The debate went on for centuries, and is still going on among theologians few have ever read and whose thought has little impact on how ordinary Christians understand it.
On a more prosaic level, the incarnation means that in Jesus, God became fully present, not in mere appearance, but as fully embodied. Just as you and I are fully embodied, Jesus embodied God. That’s a mystery easy enough to apprehend (but not comprehend) when the adult Jesus comes on the scene, but it’s more difficult when we consider the process of incarnation that began with embryonic vulnerability in the womb of a young unmarried woman. The mystery deepens with competing birth narratives that agree on only a few key points: Jesus was born under suspicious circumstances into the peasant class, with serious questions about the security of a place to live. Our simple version of incarnational theology affirms that God chose a time and place to enter into the human experience in the most vulnerable way possible, and it says a lot about who God is.
That’s what our low brow incarnational theology is all about. Do you want to know what God is, who God is? Look at Jesus. It’s all there. And pay attention when God is talking. Jesus is not another self help guru. Jesus is not a revered teacher inspired by God to offer helpful lessons about life. Jesus is not a magician or itinerant faith healer. Jesus is the very word of God made flesh. It means that what he did and said is not to be taken lightly. God has said time and again that he (she) desires life in abundance for us and for all, and Jesus illustrated what that means. He illustrated it not only by what he said and did as an adult, but by how he entered into our time and place in infantile vulnerability.
Not long after Christmas, on the Sunday closest to January 6, many of us will celebrate the start of Jesus’ adult ministry, a leap over years that takes us into his early 30s. But for the moment our attention is focused on Christmas, the nativity, his delivery from womb into the infancy of one whose survival depended entirely on care given to him by everyday people doing their everyday things.
What are we to make of it? Throughout scripture God demanded consideration for the poor, oppressed, persecuted and alien. In the nativity, God entered into our world as one of them. How shall we respond? Does that have anything to do with how you and I are to consider public policies that affect the poor, oppressed, persecuted and alien? God entered into our world in vulnerability. Maybe we should’t be so afraid of appearing vulnerable, so fearful for our own safety that we willingly jeopardize the safety of others. God came as light in the darkness that could not be extinguished. Maybe we could be a little more diligent in shining the light of God’s love into the lives of those about us.
Coming once again to the manger should do more than warm hearts and lift spirits. It should overwhelm us with awe that, if this is what God has done out of love for us, how might we better love ourselves and others, especially those we deem unloveable.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!””
Whom does God favor? Everyone and all of creation. Peace? Peace may be more than the absence of war, but that’s a good place to start.
Merry Christmas, and Peace be with You.
Many of us grew up going to church, served as acolytes, endured confirmation classes, and all the rest, but as adults we left the things of childhood behind. Leaving church behind is frequently one of them. Maybe people get tired of all the cheap God talk, wondering if there’s any truth to it since most seem to get along without it very well. Besides, if going to church is no more than something done only to satisfy parents, a routine doing little more than absorbing a few hours on Sunday morning, then it ranks somewhere below watching NFL football and slightly above taking out the garbage.
It seems like a good time to announce that it isn’t what church is about. Church isn’t a place or time. It’s the gathering of people who know God in Christ Jesus, or who want to know him, and intend to follow him on the path he’s set before us. It’s about recognizing that God’s ways are not our ways, nor God’s thoughts our thoughts, and that no matter what else is going on in the world, God’s word going forth from him (or her) will not return empty but will accomplish what God intends, so said God through the pen of Isaiah. They may not be our ways or thoughts, but they have been made known to us through Jesus who put into human terms the overwhelming love of God that proclaims release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, it sets free the oppressed, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor (which is the year yet to be celebrated when all debts of every kind are forgiven). That’s a little more from Isaiah, but this time in the mouth of Jesus who declared he is the one to do it.
Have we seen any of that yet? Yes, in everything Jesus said and did. But we haven’t seen the fullness of it, nor are we likely to in our life times. It doesn’t matter. As Christians, we are called to continue in the work Jesus began. We may be imperfect at it, but we are convinced that everything there is to know about God that can be revealed in human form was accomplished in Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection. It turns out that the ultimate power through which all creation exists is God’s love for us and all of creation. Why God loves us defies common sense, but there it is. What else can we do but live into it, as best we can, which is often not all that good.
Doing that requires nourishment to strengthen body, mind and spirit. As Episcopalians, we are reminded that in the Holy Eucharist we physically and spiritually absorb a portion of God’s healing love into our own bodies. It’s the holy food and drink of new and upending life for us and for all. We can tolerate a mediocre sermon as long as we get to eat and drink.
My big complaint about too many adults who have given up on church, including not a few active church goers, is that they entered their adult life with a third rate fourth grade Sunday school education about God. We wouldn’t enter any other part of adult life with such a flimsy start, so why is God left in the lurch. Sunday school faith can’t cut it in the adult world. What is ours as Christians demands adult learning, thinking, contemplation, and action. Paul, writing to a bunch of malcontents in Corinth said this:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
The love he had in mind is what the Greeks called agape. It’s the love that seeks, sees and offers blessings in all and to all things, and strives to be an agent of healing and reconciliation to wholeness of life. It’s the ideal toward which we are to move, step by uncertain step.
The Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church not only affirms the real presence of God in Christ Jesus that nourishes us with holy food and drink, it also honors the ancient practices of early Christians amended to make sense for our time. For that reason it’s not a very trendy church. When Episcopalians try to be trendy they often trip over their own feet. On the other hand, we believe strongly that intellectual reason and respect for learning bequeathed to us from generations past are essential to becoming adult followers of Jesus. Our tradition is equally bold in asserting that the bible contains, reveals and illuminates God’s word, but it is not inerrant, and was written by humans who, divinely inspired though they were, could and did make mistakes. Scripture, we say, entices, even demands, that we enter into conversation with it, and in so doing to enter into conversation with God, who delights in a little give and take. Scripture is not fragile. It won’t break. Have at it, and it will have back.
By all means leave childish ways behind. Get on with the adult adventure of following Jesus into the fullness of life in abundance, and go to church.
What is your world view? World view is a common phrase used to describe one’s construction of what the world looks like and how it operates. We could get fancy and call it Weltangschuung, but let’s stick with world view. In fact let’s mess with it as ordinary people interested in how we and others see the world about us in the context of everyday life.
Each of us has a mental image or map of what the world looks like and how it operates, but not everyone can describe it in terms others can easily understand. They may not even be able to describe it in terms they understand, but their everyday conversation and assumptions about how things are speak on their behalf. Each world view has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is us and our immediate surroundings. Beyond that, some can see far, and some not. Some worlds encompass the known universe, and some are limited to what can be seen and experienced within convenient reach. Some are insatiably curious about what is yet to be discovered, others are content with what they’re sure they already know. Variations between them are infinite.
Over the years, I’ve been on fire and medial calls where the victims and their families lived in a world so small it barely encompassed their immediate surroundings and a few friends. What they understood about those small worlds were assumed to be true about most things outside them. They were aware of people living in different worlds, but those other worlds might as well have been on other planets, so irrelevant were they to anything faced on a day-to-day basis. A borderline homeless friend lives in three worlds. One exists for a few days at a time, limited to what is needed to survive them. Another exists as the perfect town of warm, friendly people where he will at last have a nice job and comfortable home. The final one exists in the memory of his lifetime of higher education and many travels. Which one gets presented depends on mood and medication. You’ve probably met, or are related to, people who’ve lamented that you don’t live in their world, and they can’t understand the world you live in, so it would be better if you didn’t interact at all.
What I’ve been observing lately is the disorientation that occurs when one’s world view is demonstrated to be incorrect, or when different worlds collide. World views are built from the bottom up beginning with family, close friends and neighborhoods. We establish concrete images of who they are and how they function in the immediate world of everyday life. No doubt early childhood educators have a deeper understanding of how that happens, but I’m more interested in the world view we developed in early adulthood. It’s from that place that we construct understandings of events, people, and places as they unfold in our adult lives. When a well developed adult world view is locked in, anything that reveals its errors is disorienting. It creates uncomfortable questions. Who am I in relationship to him, her, them, if he, she, they are not who I thought they were? What am I if the articles of belief that define me are no longer true? How do I accommodate events in the greater world, if my immediate world no longer works the way I always knew it did?
Disorientation like this can happen in small and big ways. Here’s a small way example. An old friend I haven’t seen in over twenty years recently wrote challenging my politics based on what he remembered from the Reagan era. For him, that moment in time forever fixed who I am in relationship to who he is today. It’s mildly disorienting to step into an old relationship confident that you know who the other is, only to discover they aren’t there. In fact, they don’t even exist anymore. Anyone who has gone to a high school reunion, having been away for several decades, knows what that feels like.
On a more serious note, family members who separate to far distant places often assign attributes to their now distant relatives that were fixed in their adolescent years. Coming together after many years of separation forces them to ask, ‘Who are these people? If they’re not the people I always thought they were, who am I in relation to them?’ That can be tough if one’s self identity is rooted in a family structure that no longer exists. ‘Who am I if I am not who I thought I was?’ is as uncomfortable and disorienting as any question could be.
The cornerstones on which our views of the world are constructed are often anchored deeply in how we define our place in our families of origin, and among friends and coworkers in our formative young adult years. When those cornerstones get moved, or destroyed, it’s possible that everything else will collapse. It probably won’t, but amidst the disorientation of it all, reconstructing a workable world view can be hard to do. Some can’t.
Among a few fundamentalist acquaintances is the fear that if something in the bible is proved to be untrue (as they have learned what truth is), the whole thing would become untrue. So they cling to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary to preserve the order that gives sense to their lives. That kind of fundamentalism isn’t limited to religion. I see the same dynamic in one of our frequent letter writers to the local paper. His world view is fixated on climate change as a hoax. It’s the cornerstone of his world. Without it, nothing else makes sense, so he has to hold on. A farmer I know follows his life long way of farming in the face of evidence and advice to the contrary. All the evidence may be against him, but to admit it would destroy everything he holds to be true, so he angrily hangs on.
All of us experience discomfort when our world views are challenged. Challenges closer to how we construct our everyday lives, or how we define ourselves in relationship to those closest to us, create the greatest discomfort and disorientation. What’s the best way to confront it? Rage and stubbornness are the defensive moves of many. Maybe anything else is too scary. On the other hand, not everyone is so inflexible.
When a worldview is defined as comfortable with adventure, curiosity, and delight in discovering new truths, I suspect it can be challenged with less discomfort, and greater willingness to make appropriate amendments. One of my favorite examples is Sgt. Waldo Peterson, long deceased. A local policeman in my hometown, he was a high school drop out who devoured most of the books in the local library, and lived in a world of ideas through which new worlds were constantly open to exploration. Without his mentoring I would never had made it through 19th century Russian history, which I barely did. There are others: physicians who thrive as musicians; a public relations consultant who is a community activist; an orchestra conductor who works on the west coast, lives on the east coast, and can drive a tractor with the best of any farmer; a retired cosmetic executive who has become a widely respected artist; a CFO who is a world class nature photographer. Each of them, and others like them, seem to have dynamic world views able to accommodate new information without threatening foundational values because one of those values is to be open to new things.
I wish it was possible to teach others how to be more flexible in their world views, and how to develop skills needed to successfully address disorienting change. I have yet to see much evidence that there is. I’m sure there are those out there who offer stimulating TED Talks and workshops, but they require willing students, and people stuck in inflexible world views are not willing.
Tom and I meet for coffee every Saturday morning: a philosopher and a half baked theologian. Recently relationships and friendships were the topic of conversation, and I’ve been thinking about them ever since. Take romantic relationships for instance. There was a time not long ago when there was only one allowable romantic relationship – between a male and a female. There were rules. Males asked females out, not the other way round, except on Sadie Hawkins Day, and few today know who she was. Females acted seductive, in age appropriate ways, to signal availability. Males responded, up to certain limits, after which all was negotiable. If all went well, men married women. It was not usually said that women married men, unless their name was Gabor. All was as it should be because men were stronger, women weaker, men smarter, women prettier, men earned, women spent, etc.
Obviously there were variations. Such were the fodder of movies and soap operas. Outliers were well known, mostly because they were outliers. That WWII was fought with women doing everything men had done, faster, to higher standards, more efficiently, was soon shoved onto a shelf to be remembered as a historical anomaly. It was simple, the limits of variability were generally understood, and no one was confused.
It’s not that there weren’t alternatives. There were, but they were publicly condemned, often illegal, generally ignored, and many were simply ignorant of them. They were in the closet. I recall two old maid school teachers from my youth. They had lived together for decades, and everyone thought, ‘Oh, how nice that two spinsters could share a house all these years.’ Then there was the rising young executive who preferred his socially active bachelor life, and set ups with attractive young women never seemed to pan out. I mean, holy cow, the guy was another Rock Hudson, and women adored him. If anyone guessed, they kept to themselves.
The dominant romantic relationship remains heterosexual, but the old rules for how they develop and are lived out have been tossed out. There are new ones. Just like the old ones, they’re not written down; they’re just understood. Younger folks seem OK with that. Many older folks are totally lost, and grope, so to speak, for understanding. Romantic relationships that are not heterosexual are more widely accepted in more places, and it’s more clearly understood that non heterosexual relationships are not all about sex. Like any other, they’re more about living in relationship with one another through the ordinary events of life. We’ve become close to a number of gay couples whose daily lives are filled with hot desire to do what? The laundry, prepare meals, go to work, mow the lawn, take out the garbage, enjoy a quiet evening, and even have a date night. Wow! Who knew?
Interracial relationships, in the most heavily populated parts of the country, no longer raise eyebrows. Biracial and multiracial children are no longer the odd exception. They’re all over the place, and that’s a good thing, at least for the generations that will follow them. Many in the older generations are still perplexed about that, and struggle to appear accepting even if they aren’t. Speaking only for my own family, we’re a goofy mix of European, Asian, and Polynesian.
But wait, that’s not all! We’re learning that the simplicity of there being only male or female is not true, it never was. Some persons are born with the physical attributes of one, but the genetic makeup of the other. They’ve finally emerged from the background in which they’ve always lived to claim what medical science can at last deliver – a correction that will unify their physical, spiritual, and emotional being. Women who were trapped in a man’s body are not gay, they’re heterosexual women trapped in a man’s body. Oh, wait, maybe they are lesbians, but they’re still trapped in a man’s body. The same goes for men trapped in a woman’s body. How can that be? Don’t get all uptight about it. That’s just the way combinations and permutations work. But that’s abnormal, some insist. It’s not abnormal, as in morally wrong, it’s unusual, but not abnormal. And no, God is not concerned about it, in spite of what some think the bible says.
So what about friendships? I mean ordinary civilian friendships, not those formed in the crucible of war. They follow the same pattern. We’re now more free to enjoy friendships drawn from a more diversified palette without, hopefully, being accused of perverted intentions. Harry, of Harry and Sally, was wrong. Men and women can be friends. Blacks and whites can be friends. Gays and straights can be friends. Conservatives and liberals can be friends. A recent news video about Pennsylvania state representative Daryl Metcalf has been widely featured on the internet. He went into a homophobic rage when a colleague touched his arm during a debate over land easements. Mr. Metcalf, a confirmed and fearful heterosexual, has not yet learned that other men, gay or straight, can be formal or friendly, and sometimes a touch is just a touch, not an invitation to sex. It can be just an absent minded gesture in a debate about easements. Again, speaking only for myself, I’m not a man who likes touches or hugs from most people. It’s my Minnesota upbringing. When I moved to NYC in the early ‘80s, I found cheek kissing from almost everyone to be intensely uncomfortable. But there are some, a few, friends I know well, both men and women, gay and straight, from whom a modest hug is welcome. There are really only three rules one needs to know. One, don’t invade another’s space unless invited. Two, don’t take offense if not invited. Three, absent minded invasions happen. Take them in stride.
But I digress. Friends are a treasure. Don’t create barriers to keep them from developing. Open doors to allow them in. This from a convicted introvert who has learned to enjoy the friendship of extroverts – in modest measure of course.
Each day I scan through several on line newspapers, look at a couple of news aggregators that include a wider array of sources, and top it off with a little listening to NPR and the BBC. As each reports on the ebb and flow of the political debate, I’ve noticed that partisans on both side, but particularly the far right, use hyperbolic adjectives to describe ordinary words and actions from the other side. They’re more sophisticated versions of the old playground “are too-am not” repartee we all know so well, and handy tools to fend off having to answer hard questions.
A recent t.v. commentator described one senator’s calm, rational but tough questioning as ‘hysterical’. When pressed on it, he simply said it was his opinion, as if that made it OK. Other common examples include ‘heavy handed’ and ‘overreach’ to describe any government action one doesn’t like. Someone who confidently expresses a well thought out position is said to be ‘out of control’. Almost anything can be called a ‘job killer’. Anyone not a right winger is described as a ‘far left zealot’, while those who are not liberal enough are ‘far right zealots’. If all else fails, calling someone a Looney Tune will do.
A representative of the cattle industry complained about heavy handed regulations that stifle ranchers and feedlot operators. What regulations might he have considered not heavy handed? None. That regulations are intended to protect the public health and welfare is irrelevant. Cattlemen know how to raise cattle. Just leave them alone, quit interfering with what they know best how to do. Government interference in how their practices impact on others is of no concern, so go away.
In like manner, public management of public lands is overreach to those who live near them, and want to use them as if they were their private property. As they argue, the land belongs to the people, not the government, and, since they’re the people who live nearby, they’re the people it belongs to. Who does it not belong to? Tourists, Indians, and tree huggers who want to preserve natural and archeological treasures. Overreach, it’s all overreach.
To be fair, government regulators and public land managers often forget they’re in the business of customer service, with the goal of assisting their clientele in meeting standards. Instead, they see themselves as enforcers in search of offenders. Heavy handed overreach may be more an issue of customer service than anything else. How hard would it be to change that?
In other news, a proposed bulk terminal in the Pacific Northwest that would be used mainly to ship coal to Asia was stopped over environment concerns. Shippers and construction unions complained ‘out of control’ government ‘overreach’ had ‘killed jobs’. Apparently jobs outrank all other considerations. If a project promises high paying construction jobs, that’s all that counts. Jobs win over everything else. You’ve got to be completely ‘out of control’ to disagree with that. It’s true that we all want more well paid jobs, but there’s always a but. But we want them for projects we agree are worthwhile for the good of region and nation. Determining what is good will always include measures of impact on quality of life, the environment, long term economic viability, and general welfare. Jobs alone, at any wage level, cannot be the sole determining factor. Labeling opponents who have good reason as out of control doesn’t help. Geez, you don’t have to get all hysterical over it. Get a grip you Looney Tune.
Using hyperbolic adjectives to describe something one doesn’t like is a way to avoid making a calm, rational argument that invites conversation through which agreement might be reached. How did we get to a place like this? Ad hominem name calling has been fashionable for centuries. It’s not a new thing. What’s new is the pervasiveness of talk radio and t.v. personalities who have made it routine, acceptable, and ubiquitous. It’s all over the place. All day, every day. You cant get away from it. Millions of people, submerged under the daily barrage, have adopted the practice as their own normal behavior, and, thanks to social media, they can broadcast it without fear of contradiction, except from those hysterical out of control Looney Tunes who disagree with them.
‘Tis the season to be jolly; ‘tis the season of the holidays. Into the three biggies claimed by Christians – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas – are interwoven others celebrating their own religious and ethnic heritages. There are plenty of holidays to dive into, including the most secular of them all, New Year’s Eve. Then, after weeks of being jolly, we bellyflop into the doldrums of January.
But what exactly is being celebrated? It’s debatable, and passionately debate we will, because the holiday season rests on two incompatible foundations. One is the religious significance of each holiday, the other is a collection of secular customs that compete with religious meaning. It creates problems of balance. Some are fearful of disrespecting, even abandoning, religious convictions in favor of secular partying? In fact, most Christians have a foot in each camp. Speaking as a pastor, I think we can honor religious faith, each in our own way, and also have a good time celebrating with friends and family. Those of other faiths can also have a good time celebrating without transgressing their values. The unreligious are free to do as they choose, and most choose to enter into the spirit of the season.
With that said, the spirit of the season needs to be unpacked, at least a little, and the reality of how that spirit is experienced needs to be more honestly addressed.
Halloween, for instance, is one part Christian holy day, and one part secular holiday. On the Christian side, it’s All Hallows Eve, an evening of preparation for the solemn remembrance of all the saints whose lives have given inspiration to generations of others. On the secular side, it’s a spooky fun night of confronting anxieties about ghosts and demons through costumes, decorations, parties, and children going door to door begging candy. The children, of course, have no idea why they’re doing it, they’re just out having fun. In a congregation I once served, we tried to get kids to dress as their favorite saints. What we got were costumes of favorite super heroes, and who can blame them? After all, what did St. Gerard wear, and who cares?
Thanksgiving is another oddity. Every culture has fall harvest festivals of one kind or another, and we have ours, Thanksgiving. It was a secular holiday from the start, initiated by politicians as a way to bring the nation together for at least one day. Not satisfied to leave it at that, Christians layered the day with religious overtones associated with Plymouth Rock pilgrims and their friendly Indian neighbors. The story has a lot of holes in it, but it’s endured through decades of grade school art, pageants, and table top decorations. Pilgrims aside, Thanksgiving is a day for recalling that, in the midst of turbulent times, we can pause and be grateful for the good things that have enriched our lives. It’s the one holiday that can be observed by adherents of every religion, or of none.
Christmas is a special case. The second most important Christian holy day, it marks our remembrance of the birth of Jesus, whom we declare to be Messiah. It’s preceded in many traditions by a four week period of solemn reflection on the state of the world, and our role in it as agents of the Prince of Peace. In the meantime, those same four weeks are filled with gatherings, large and small, for a little holiday cheer, and outrageous consumer spending in childlike anticipation of the day. We know little about the actual date of Jesus’ birth, except that it was certainly not in late December. The early Church established it on December 25 to replace a raucous Roman holiday celebrating the sun god. It hoped to stamp out pagan excesses of wine and bad behavior, replacing it with virtuous worship. It didn’t work.
Finally comes New Year’s Eve. Everyone, so it is said, gets dressed up, goes to elegant parties where champagne flows, stays up ‘til midnight, and is romantically kissed by a loved one, or whoever is closest. What a great time! The next morning, having slept off a hangover, everyone hangs around eating and watching football. At last, the boredom of January calls with seductive offers of relief from all the good times. It’s time to get on with ordinary life. It’s a struggle for liturgical Christians who still have six more of the twelve days of Christmas to celebrate. It’s a rather subdued celebration.
What most of us know is that the holiday season seldom lives up to its reputation. The season of being jolly can easily be a season of stress and worry. We might not be so easily taken in by all the hype if it wasn’t for Hallmark channel romantic movie reruns, a cascade of advertising enticing us to believe that we must have it all, and our own anxieties about others having a better time than we are. We can’t avoid the pressure to spend and have a good time. It’s everywhere we go, everywhere we look, on every t.v. channel and radio station. It’s too much. The reality is we’re not alone, many others are in the same boat. Nearby are other boats filled with people suffering from the absence of loved ones, poverty, hunger, and numbing uncertainty about what the new year will bring. For some, it can be the worst time of the year. What are we to do?
Relax. Ignore the hype if you can. Enjoy what you are able to enjoy, and forget the rest. I can’t speak for other religions, but for Christians it is time to explore a little more of what it can mean to be an agent of the Prince of Peace, leaving other convictions and allegiances behind. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. It will bring great rewards.
Jewish friends have some good advice for us all. They celebrate a minor holy day during the holiday season, Chanukah. It recalls that in the dark of destruction, surrounded by enemies, God did not let the light of God’s presence go out. The ultimate victory will always belong to God. We Christians recall that in the darkest of days, God came, out of love, to be among us in the most vulnerable way possible: as a baby born of a young, unmarried woman in a borrowed stable in the kingdom of an evil ruler. Let yourself be vulnerable to the power of love, at least for a few days. Do it in whatever way is right for you. Don’t worry about whether others are having a better time, or can afford more things. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, maybe they can, maybe they can’t. Does it matter? Laugh with those who laugh. Weep with those who weep. Enjoy the season in little ways. It will make a big difference. And for heaven’s sake, don’t get all in a huff over whether it’s Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.
Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
Thus begins the gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Advent. What a downer for all the joyfulness with which the holiday season is infused. Almost every year someone asks me why, when everyone else is getting into the holiday spirit, we Episcopalians enter Advent with all this doom and gloom stuff about the end of the world?
Maybe it’s not the end of the world about which Jesus spoke. Maybe he wanted his listeners to hear something else. Most adults I know have personal experience with moments in their lives when the sun refused to shine, the moon failed to light the night, the stars no longer glittered, and no heavenly power could penetrate the dark. It isn’t only us, the psalms are filled with questions about God’s apparent absence in time of trouble. It is in these moments, these troubling moments in which hope seems pointless, that Jesus comes to those who look for him, not only with words of consolation, but with his embracing presence.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
That’s the promise of Advent. We don’t have to pretend that dark days won’t come. They will. It’s a delusion to believe that being Christian means nothing bad happens, or that God’s grace can’t seem distant, maybe gone for good. The opening lessons of Advent are not about doom and gloom, or the end of the world. They’re simply honest about life, our own lives, and give us the tools to infuse them with renewed hope in what we may not be able to see, yet certain that God’s own Spirit intercedes on our behalf through our sighs too deep for words (Rom.8)
Behind the Christmas scenes of mangers, shepherds and angels stands the cross, behind that the open grave, and above it all the one who comes in great power and glory to give life in abundance. It’s the promise of light and life that darkness and death cannot defeat. These first few days of Advent are meant to help us face the dark with courage and strength, empowered by God’s Spirit to walk upright with hope into a greater light that cannot be taken from us. We will find it glowing in the manger. Nothing could be more improbable, but that’s how God does things, improbably, against all expectations.
Advent comes every year in December on the church calendar. In our daily lives, advent like times have no schedule, and always come when it’s most inconvenient. These four weeks of quiet, contemplative meditation that lead to Christmas Eve can prepare us with the faith, hope, and love we will need for those moments.