Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Crosses and Yarmulkes, Bonnets and Hijabs

I read an article this week in our local paper which discussed some of the recent difficulties faced by Islamic women who wear the hijab, the head scarf that many wear as a symbol of their faith, and out of a commitment to the Qur'an's call for modesty in dress.  It is one of those outward symbols that immediately identifies the wearer as a person of faith, a particular faith, much like the bonnets worn by Amish and Mennonite women, or the yarmulkes worn by many Jewish men. 

It seems that some Islamic women are reconsidering wearing the hijab, for fear of being singled out and tormented in one way or another by Islamaphobic strangers.  One of the episodes recounted in the article was particularly disturbing.  A woman living in California was at the local playground with her one-year old son.  The little boy was playing with another child his age, when his father, seeing the other in her hijab, rushed over to the play area, and pulled his child away.  He indicated that she should go back to wherever it was that she came from, and then he picked up some of the wood chips that were on the ground and threw them at the woman's one year old son.  (The News-Press, 12-27-16, 2B)

This is wrong on so many levels!  After all, we are a nation devoted to, arguably founded on, the notion of religious liberty.  As Americans we are free to hold whatever religious beliefs we choose, or none at all.  And that includes the right to wear garments that express our religious beliefs without fear.  We are a nation built on laws, laws that tell us it is wrong to publicly attack someone else for any reason.  And really, in what part of our country is it considered acceptable to throw things at a child?

OK--I know I'm venting.  But really, an attack on one, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., is an attack on all.  Would it be appropriate for someone to harass me because I wear a cross around my neck?  Would it be appropriate for someone to throw things at my grandchild because they disagree with my beliefs?  Of course not!

I've said it before.  I'll say it again.  Grow up America!  Grow up!  We are better than this!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas and Blarney, Fake News and Hope

There are more well-known Christmas carols and songs than you can list.  There are purely sacred pieces, like "O Come All Ye Faithful", and purely secular ones like “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas.”  And then there are a few that fall somewhere in-between.  One of those is “Christmas in Killarney.”  Perhaps you know it:


                        The holly green, the ivy green

                        The prettiest picture you’ve ever seen

                        Is Christmas in Killarney . . . .

It goes on to talk about mistletoe and Santa Claus, as well as the parish priest coming by to offer a blessing on the household.  I’m not sure if it’s a very accurate picture of Christmas in Killarney, or anywhere else in Ireland!  But it is lots of fun!


Several years ago I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful concert sung by the Moscow Boys Choir.  Like so many concerts it was a blend of both sacred and secular seasonal selections.  And to my surprise, one of the featured numbers was “Christmas in Killarney.  You couldn’t help but chuckle as boys and men with sturdy Russian accents sang lyrics like, “I’m handing you no blarney.”  It was really a wonder, while at the same time, rather absurd!  Yet in the end, it was a magnificent reminder that the Love we celebrate at Christmas crosses all boundaries.


If truth be told, the Christmas story itself, with its baby born in a stable, and heavenly angels singing to sleepy shepherds is much the same.  It is quite wondrous, while at the same time a bit absurd.


Think about it, for a moment.  The same God who is said to have created the universe, the same God who is said to be all-knowing, all-powerful and ever present, chooses to come to us as a baby—and not even a very special baby.  This is no crown prince born in a royal palace.  No, this is a baby born to a peasant girl in a no-account country.  So unimportant that he and his parents don’t even rate a room at the local inn, and so he’s born in a barn.  And his first visitors?  The local dignitaries?  The mayor of the town?  No, the lowliest of men in the neighborhood—shepherds claiming to have seen angels. 


But despite all the seeming absurdity, it is a story that we have hung on to for centuries.  It is a story that has been told, and retold, and retold again, because it speaks so eloquently of Love. 


In these days when we find it hard to separate fact from fiction, when fake news gets enough traction to cause a shooting in a pizza parlor, knowing that Love is real is more important than ever.  And this simple story of a long ago birth gives us hope.  Hope that Love can be found in even the lowliest of places.


And that's no blarney!




Monday, December 12, 2016

Advent: Seeing Reality with New Eyes

Advent is a time for preparing ourselves to once again experience the joy of Christmas.  But in order to really share in that joy, we need to be willing to expand our definition of reality.  For the Christmas story turns reality on its head!  It turns things upside down and inside out.  It takes our narrow strip of understanding and challenges us to expand our gaze, and to deepen our faith.  The Christmas story says things are not always as they appear.  Things are not limited by time or space.  Reality stretches across the universe and beyond!  Yes, it starts in a simple way.  Yes it is filled with common characters.  A tired old man forced by an occupying empire to take a long journey.  A pregnant teenager unsure of her baby's origins.  A cranky innkeeper, overwhelmed by an influx of travelers.  A band of minimum wage shepherds just doing their jobs.  Nothing special.  Nothing extraordinary.  But the Christmas claim is far reaching.  For it says that in and through these everyday characters, God was and is revealed.  And that is cause for rejoicing!

I imagine when Mary first told Joseph that she was pregnant, when she tried to explain about seeing the angel and being told she was to give birth to the Christ.  I imagine Joseph also had a very limited definition of reality.  He was at first, no doubt angry.  For it appeared Mary had betrayed him.  How else would she have become pregnant? She must have slept with another man.  And then to try and explain it away with such a cockamamie story!  But then, in time, as his initial anger subsides, he too may have felt she was going insane. 

But then Joseph has a dream.  He is visited by an angel and is told that Mary is playing it straight.  What she has told him is true.  She is indeed to give birth to the the one who will save the people.  And that, says the angel, that is why dear Joseph, you must name the child Jesus--for it means he saves.

And suddenly, overnight, the narrow world of Joseph's carpenter's shop with its wood and workbench and tools, suddenly expands into a reality he could never have imagined!  The presenting scene remains the same!  Rome is still in power.  Mary is still pregnant.  Taxes must be paid.  Sheep must be tended.  Yet now it takes on cosmic significance.  For beneath it all, through it all, in it all, God is at work! And that is cause for joy, deep seated joy.  For reality is greater, wider, broader than that which we can see!

I have seen some of life's hardships.  Yes, I've often asked why.  Yes, I've questioned, even doubted.  But whenever I have remembered the simple truth that reality is greater than what I can see, wider than what I can touch, deeper than what I can begin to know, whenever I remember that truth, then I have been given new strength to carry on.  Then I have known joy.  Not necessarily happiness.  I was not happy to see my grandmother fade away from Alzheimer's diesease.  I was not happy to see so many productive lives cut short by terror in the attacks on 9/11.  No, not happiness, but joy.  That underlying sense that in the end all will be well, despite appearances.  That underlying sense that God can, and will, sort it all out.  For I believe that the God who was revealed in a child of born to an unwed mother in an occupied land is always at work bringing about the good, the true, the eternal.  And, year after year, even in the face of personal or societal problems that seem overwhelming, it is because that broader view of reality, that Mary and Joseph view of reality, that I can sing with real conviction joy to the world, the Lord has come!      

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Farewell to Barbourville--Moving Mom

We moved Mother to Florida this week.  She'd lived in Barbourville, Kentucky, for twenty-eight years, and it was finally time to begin, what she calls, the last great adventure of her life.  Who knows if it will be the last one, but there is a sense of adventure about it all!

Barbourville, in the southeast corner of Kentucky, was (and is) a long way from the small Vermont town where she grew up.  But when she took a teaching position there at a small liberal arts college and began teaching English literature and grammar to would be teachers, business folks and others, she settled in.  So did my Dad, who after a four decade career as a pastor, started fresh teaching religion and speech at the same college.  They joined a church, began to make friends, and gained some notoriety as excellent professors.

But then their world was turned upside down when Dad was struck by a drunk driver and almost killed.  For seventeen sometimes long years, he was an invalid--a paraplegic, with serious brain injuries.  But, with a tremendous amount of volunteer help from church members and college friends, as well as some  terrific professional caregivers, Mother managed to keep him at home until he died of cancer in 2009.

When Dad's accident happened, Mother needed to learn to drive.  She had never gotten a driver's license.  So two or three friends taught her the rudiments of operating a car.  One of her coaches frequently took her to the local cemetery to practice.  "You all can't kill anybody here," he told her.  She was a good student, and got her license to drive.  I think through the years she was as proud of that license as she was her PhD!

She retired, and at seventy-five, took up the dulcimer!  She even played with a local group--the Knox County Porch Pickers.  Amazing!  She read voraciously (still does) and worked at the local historical society as a docent.  But all that started to change a bit ago.  She could no longer drive, and needed some extra help.  So the move to Florida where my wife Linda and I live. 

On the last full day we were in Barbourville, Mother and my brother Bob and I went to the cemetery where she had learned to drive, and where Dad is buried.  She wanted to tell him goodbye.  "He was my guy," she said.  And so he was.  She bought a single red rose, and placed it on the grave.  Not a whole bunch of roses, Dad was rather frugal, he wouldn't have approved of such extravagance.  So a single bud.  "I'm moving to Florida," she told him. She's made us promise to bury her ashes next to his when the time comes.  She even has a headstone next to his.  It's a promise none of us are eager to keep.  But when we need to do so we will.

We shared a few stories as we stood in the damp greyness of the late afternoon, and then we walked back to the car.  And the next morning, with some hired help, we packed up the truck, which Linda drove to Florida, and then we left town.

Somewhere on I-75 Mother said to me, "Barbourville seems so long ago now.  So far away."  And I know it is.  But I also know it will never be far from her heart.  She loved that little Appalachian town---and, as we saw so many, many times over the years, they loved her right back.
"Bless their hearts!"