Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Oh, Rest Beside the Weary Road

we have an advent calendar shaped like a christmas tree.  at its base is a tray that contains ornaments of various colors and patterns that attach to the tree magnetically.  each day during the season, i add another ornament to the tree, counting down to christmas.  on christmas day, there is a large star to top the tree.  i look forward each year to filling the tree with ornaments as the big day approaches.

as i reflected on what christmas means to me, i thought about all the clich├ęd phrases we use to describe the meaning of the day that is so important in the christian calendar.  christmas is probably all those things--a time of new beginnings, of hope, of light in the darkest time of the year.  for me, it is a mark of the rapid passage of time.  my advent calendar fills with ornaments so quickly, and before i know it, it's time to put the star on the top.  my wife and i are celebrating our 48th christmas together, and we are both observing our 70th christmas.  it seems as if only a short time ago, i was a wide-eyed child jumping with excitement on christmas morning and an even shorter time since my wife and i celebrated our first christmas together.

how could so many years have elapsed so quickly?  coming, as it does, so close to the end of the old year and the start of the new, i suppose it is natural to associate december 25 with replacing the old calendar with a new one and beginning a new year, filing the old one away in our memories.  i think there is more to it than that, though.  christmas reminds of events that happened so many years ago, in a place and time that are very different from our own.  it reminds us of oppressive occupiers of a tiny land in which the baby was born.  it reminds us of cruel kings that would slaughter innocents to protect their thrones.  it reminds us of the universality of a mother's love.  it calls us to look back at events even further removed from the day of jesus' birth: to ancient lands, to earlier religions that called humankind to lives of peace and virtue, to cultures so different from ours and yet so similar in many ways.

christmas means looking back for me, back through the eons of time and remembering how much we have in common with those who have gone before us.  the present reminds us of the cycle that repeats over and over:   cruelty, selfishness, bigotry, and fear of those who are superficially different are eternal, but so is kindness, concern for others and the natural world, love, respect for one another.  in the face of all that is wrong with the world, there are religions and philosophies that assert what is right with the world.  the birth of a baby in an obscure place that christians celebrate at christmas was not the beginning of the search for what is right, but a continuation of it, a reminder that there are many lights piercing the darkness.

may this season bring joy in the face of sadness, hope in the face of fear.  may we be reminded that kindness ultimately defeats cruelty, but the selfishness from which that cruelty is born continually reasserts itself, making the need for love and kindness all the more important.  may we love unconditionally and without reason.  regardless of our religion or lack thereof, may we have "happy holidays!"  shalom.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

From Lies of Tongue and Pen

i went to the post office the other day to mail some christmas packages.  in the parking lot there was a truck with a large trump sign in the back window.  on the back bumper was a sticker that said, "i don't believe the liberal media."  i wondered exactly what the owner of the pickup meant.  i was certain he didn't spend a lot of time reading "rightwingwatch.org" or "huffingtonpost.com"  did he mean that the "liberal media" is any media other than fox news or the right wing radio talk shows that abound in our area?

this led me to think about the proliferation of "fake news" which was in evidence during the recent election campaign and that so many of our citizens were ready to believe, things like "pizzagate" that claimed hillary clinton and members of her campaign staff were operating a child sexual abuse ring out of a pizza parlor in washington or the story long perpetuated by donald trump and others that claimed president obama was not born in the usa or the claim that secretary clinton's aide, huma abedin, was sympathetic to the muslim brotherhood and that our government had been infiltrated by that organization.  one of the most disturbing characteristics of the trump campaign and of our president-elect is the promotion of these far-fetched conspiracy theories.  mr trump's embrace of such disproved and fantastic lies gives them a legitimacy that reinforces his followers' insistence on their veracity.

the increasing reliance on social media as a source of information and the denigration of the traditional press is a disturbing trend that came to the fore in this election.  both major-party nominees were dismissive of the press, and mr. trump, in particular, frequently attacked the media, egging on those who attended his rallies as they targeted the reporters who were confined to the "press pen."  the refusal to distinguish between legitimate reporting of the sort that seeks truth without bias and pretend reporting that dismisses facts that fail to support a preconceived conclusion or that passes on unsubstantiated information as fact is a grave danger in a democracy.  the problem is not so much that fact-averse journalism exists, but rather that there are increasing numbers of people who are ready to accept as fact that which is demonstrably false.

i wonder if there is not a relationship between ready acceptance of patently fallacious reporting and unquestioning faith in religion.  the religious right's insistence that those who question or refuse to accept supernatural religious belief are undermining the foundations of our country seems to go hand in hand with insistence that fact-free "news" is preferable to conscientious journalism.  those who are ready to accept unprovable religious beliefs may be more likely to accept unproven stories that support their own biases.  as carl bernstein, the legendary reporter who, with bob woodward, exposed the watergate conspiracy during the nixon admistration, said recently, "what we have seen throughout the [trump] campaign is pathological disdain for the truth, a kind of lie, and ease with lying, that we have not seen before."  a democracy that allows this sort of conduct to take place unchallenged cannot continue to exist.  the easy acceptance of propaganda that has been proven to be untrue undermines the rational thinking on which our country was founded.

may we counter falsehood with truth.  may we seek truth wherever it may lead.  may we not succumb to arguments that target our emotions and our own biases rather than our brains.  may we defend the press's freedom to say whatever it wants but, at the same time, may we insist on proof of what is being said.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

And the World Will Be a Better Place

this morning i am thinking of the unspeakable acts of cruelty going on in the world, of the merciless shelling of the city of aleppo, of the battle raging against isil, of the unspeakable killings that are part of the drug trade in central america and mexico.  i am thinking of the pivot towards anti-immigrant sentiment in this country and in europe.  i am thinking of the persecution of women throughout the world and the desire to control women in my country, exemplified in the "fetal heartbeat" bill passed by the ohio legislature in the wake of donald trump's victory.  i am thinking of the oligarchy our country has become.

in the face of all this, it is easy to feel powerless.  what can i do to combat this pervasive evil in the world?  how can i defend those who have come here to make better lives for themselves and their families?  is there a way i can make life better for those who are endangered by the present political and social climate?  one thing i've resolved to do this giving season is to increase my financial contributions to organizations that are doing good in the world by providing the impoverished with tools to improve their own lives and institutions that improve the quality of life for those in my community.

the question of how i can make a difference in the world through the way i live my daily life still nags at me.  financial assistance to worthy causes is good and something each of us who can ought to do, but i want my life to make a direct difference, to live a life that takes a stand against the forces that increase suffering for so many.  here are some pre-new-year resolutions that i hope will make me and the world a better place:
* i can strive to treat others with more loving-kindness and respect.
* i can hold my tongue when i'm tempted to lash out at another who has wronged me.
* i can speak against the intolerance and bigotry that seems to be increasingly prevalent, and i can speak in such a way that is less a personal attack against the intolerant and bigoted and more an affirmation of ideals that i embrace.
* i can stop criticizing others as persons and start criticizing ideas that are harmful to others.
* i can be more patient.
* i can be more concerned with hearing another than i am with proving that i'm right.

so this is the day to begin to live these resolutions in my life, to live more skillfully.  i can't waste time fretting over the actions of our president-elect and his advisors, actions that i have no control over.  i can't go fight with the rebels in syria.  i can't conquer mosul or raqqa.  instead, i can exhibit the qualities that i want to see in others, living my life with dedication to ideals that i believe would make the world a better place if we all adopted them.

may we each make the world a better place, one human contact at a time.  may we treat others as we wish to be treated.  may we not give in to pessimism and fatalism.  may we love those with whom we disagree.  may patience replace anger.  may we never give up.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

What Child Is This

it is interesting how seemingly unrelated things sometimes converge to make connections in our minds.  during this time of year, my wife and i watch lots of holiday movies, some great, like "it's a wonderful life," some not-so-great and pretty sappy.  though the election is over, we live near louisiana, and there is a senate race there that won't be finished until next week, so we are still having political ads for that election foisted on us as we watch tv.  it's the connection between a couple of these movies and one particular political ad that has infected my brain.

in one movie, the female lead is shown practicing yoga.  she and her adult daughters no longer attend the church where they used to sing in the choir.  they seem to have joined the "spiritual but not religious" movement, but, in the end when all the conflicts in the story are resolved, we see the mom in her choir robe singing in the church choir again.  she steps forward out of the choir, a spotlight shines on her, she invites her family to come to the chancel where they are substitutes for the holy family in her closing solo.

in the second movie, set in the "wild west," an outlaw is responsible for accidentally killing the pastor of a church in a small town in the aftermath of a bank robbery.  as he dies, the pastor tells the man that he can change, that every wrong act can be forgiven.  in his remorse, the outlaw flees the scene to live a life of seclusion.  his two partners seek him out, an argument ensues, and, in the process of trying to escape, he is shot and left to die by his former friends.   a woman and her two children find the man alive near their farm, take him into their home, and nurse him back to health.  every night she reads the children a bible story, and the two stories that stick in the mind of the injured outlaw are those of the prodigal son and the good samaritan.  the outlaw becomes a changed man, falling in love with the widowed woman and helping her care for her two children and the farm.  in the end, we discover that the pastor he killed was the woman's husband and the children's father, but they forgive him, recognizing that he is not the same man who killed their husband and father.

in the commercial, the conservative candidate lists his "core beliefs."  one of them is, "i believe in God; the second is, "i believe we don't owe anything to illegals;" another is "i believe in love, but i believe in carrying a handgun just in case."  i've heard his beliefs so many times that i mute the tv every time i see his face.

all three of these that i've described trouble me:  the first movie by its vague religiosity that finally leads to a mawkish recreation of the christmas manger tableau, the second movie by its insistence that change for the good requires becoming a christian, and the commercial by the candidate using "God," "illegals" "love," and "carrying a handgun" as non-too-subtle codewords to appeal to his evangelical base.  of the three, i found the redemption movie the least bothersome, despite its insistence on christianity as the only path to change; in it, the woman and her children care for the injured outlaw, acting as his "good samaritan," and in the process, they are able to let go of the loss of the pastor-husband-father and move on with their lives, while the outlaw finds a way to forgive himself and to make amends for his past actions.

the religiosity of these three--the two movies and the political ad--is what ties them together in my mind.  this idea that religion, and particularly the christian religion, is the only effective way to do good in the world is offensive.  i sometimes think that God laughs at our use of religion as a means of separating the "good" from the "bad," those following our brand of religion being the good, while everyone else is bad.  i wonder if the real truth isn't that we are born with the ability to be both good and bad, and religion or lack of religion has little to do with which prevails in our lives.  rather, it is the choices we make, the skillfulness with which we live our lives, and the influence of those who surround us in our formative years that determines whether good or evil fills our hearts.

may we take responsibility for our own choices.  may we overcome bad influences and relish good ones.  may we try to live more skillfully each day that we are given.  may the true meaning of christmas, the potential for good that the birth of every child brings to the world, fill us during this season.  shalom.