Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas 2009

Gratitude is the fundamental response to creation common to all authentic religious expression, and the fundamental attitude in response to experience as well. It’s easy to feel a depth of gratitude today, for I’m sitting in a nice warm house watching the snow pile up. The tree is lit, the carols are playing, and delicious smells waft from the kitchen. There is so much for which to give thanks.
So, to celebrate Christmas 2009, I offer this thanksgiving.
For our crazy, comical family, much thanks. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost an entire year since our family played host to a couple of dozen folks who came to town on a frigid January day to witness the inauguration of President Obama. Despite the difficulties of the year, I do give thanks for the promise of that hope-filled moment, and remain deeply inspired by my dying aunt’s words on the night of his election – among her very last words: “see what we can accomplish when we all work together.”
For Bud, who has grown into his real name (Dylan) most places outside of the family, 2009 was a year of great transition. He graduated from the Clonlara School last spring, and, due to so much work at Northern Virginia Community College, he entered Mary Washington University a few hours short of being a sophomore. We have noted for him that he is pretty sophomoric already, so it seems he’s just precocious. He’s had a fine first semester in Fredericksburg exploring lots of academic options and “majoring” in ultimate Frisbee thus far.
For Martin, who finally caught up and grew taller than his older brother, it’s been a year of growing pains and celebrations. He learned a bit about consequences when some self-imposed academic struggles resulted in his missing out on summer camp. We’re not sure if that experience made the difference this fall, or if it’s the fact that his girlfriend lives in Richmond and they only get to see each other if their grades are such that their parents see fit to trek up and down I-95. Out-of-town love interests are a great bit of leverage! Obviously, the mere fact that there is such interest tells you that Martin is growing up. The fact that the interest is another sweet child of another Presbyterian pastor tells you that he is growing up well. Beyond the love interest, Martin continues to expand his artistic endeavors, adding the mandolin to his violin playing and continuing to work on his drawing and cartooning.
For Hannah, who continues to accomplish whatever she sets her mind to, 2009 was a year of holding on fast to rapidly ending childhood. Hannah did some growing up when her best friend Josie moved to Tunisia with her State Department family. We’re further grateful to live in the communication age, and Hannah and Jo have kept up a great long-distance friendship over Skype. But Hannah remains a little girl at heart, spending hours in blanket forts with one or more dogs and one or more books because, well, outside of a dog a book is a little girl’s best friends, and inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. She emerges from the forts to practice her flute, to write stories and create small art works that decorate her walls.
When the collective mood is right, as it was earlier on this snowy day, Hannah and Martin and I get our instruments out and make music together. We’ll be playing an Irish bit during the Christmas Eve service next week.
Cheryl is the master of ceremonies for this three-ring circus – sitting in the rocking chair, sipping tea, knitting and offering wry commentary on the chaos that unfolds around and interrupts her serenity. To make sure that her ringmaster credentials stay current, she added another master’s degree to her pedigree this year, completing the library science degree at Syracuse University. One more master’s and she’ll have a degree for each ring of the circus. Of course, one more master’s degree and she’ll be in the asylum, too, at least to visit her husband. She gives thanks for continuing good work at the Library of Congress. In a time when so many are struggling, to have a great job, doing work that you love with good colleagues is a great gift.
I continue to serve as pastor to the great little congregation at Clarendon, where we are still feeding the hungry, extending hospitality to the outcast, empowering the marginalized, trying to do justice and make peace, and preaching good news. The highlight of my year was reaching the respectable age of 50. I celebrated the benchmark by running a 10K. I finished it in just less than an hour. Last time I ran one I did it in 39 and change. Of course, I was 25 then! I added less than a minute per year, so by the time I run another when I’m 75 … well at that stage I’m sure I’ll be grateful if I can make it to the finish line.
On the one hand, it is difficult to sum up a year in the life of a family in a few paragraphs, on the other hand, it was a typical year in the life of a typical family. Oh, to be sure, there were interesting moments: President Obama gave his "back to school speech" at Martin's school; Bud and I spent a wonderful week in Italy to celebrate his turning 18; Hannah visited Jamestown; Cheryl and I got to see Herman Wouk honored by Jimmy Buffet -- which doesn't happen just every day.
Other than the Italy trip, these were all just perks of living in Arlington. Nothing extraordinary happened, but there were small miracles every day. Ordinary resurrections, as Jonathan Kozol calls the rising up that we do every day, mark the passing of our time. For some, in these days, rising up is an extraordinary challenge for it comes in the face of violence, sickness or grief. For we who rise up so easily, and take it so for granted, it is often easy to forget the great gift we have been given. When we remember, sometimes we are moved in gratitude to rise up singing, rise up dancing, rise up praying, rise up marching to end the violence, heal the sick and comfort those who mourn.
Despite endless wars, economic calamity, and dysfunctional politics that darken the present and threaten the future, a light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
So we rejoice and give thanks in this season of lights, and move boldly into the future bearing as much of that light as we can.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Law and Order and Responsibility

It seems that Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly is ticked off at the producer of NBC's Law and Order, Dick Wolf, because in a recent episode of the show the actions of a character who aims to kill the children of immigrants are explained, in part, as due to the hatred spread by pundits such as O'Reilly, who was named in the show.
I don't know that I've ever seen an entire episode of the show, so I don't know what kind of agenda it might put forth. The little bits I've seen did not lead me to believe it was right wing agitprop like "24" or pushing a liberal agenda, a la The West Wing.
I can understand O'Reilly being angered at being called out, and I don't watch his show ever so I can't say much about it behind clips. From the clips I would say O'Reilly is not in the same league as others named in the show such as Glen Beck or Rush Limbaugh.
But that's for others to decide, and apparently the Law and Order folks lump them all together.
Personally, I'm all for all of them having the right to speak their minds, but I also believe that we are responsible for what we say and how we say it. The only reason we have Constitutional protections on speech is because we believe firmly that speech makes a difference.
It's OK to yell "fire" in a crowded theater if you're an actor and it's in the script. It may even be OK to yell it if there is, indeed, a fire -- although something a bit calmer might be more helpful.
It's altogether another thing if there is no fire, or if the fire is, say, a match used to light a cigar. (OK, I know, no smoking, but even someone as turned off by smoking as I am shouldn't yell "fire" at a lighter.)
A lot of today's bloviators strike me like that: they are screaming their heads off trying to whip up a frenzy about threats that don't amount to much more than a flick of the Bic (now there's an old reference).
It's remarkable, for example, how quickly both left and right play the "Hitler" card in their arguments. When you get to the point of comparing your opponents to Hitler and the Nazis -- which so many do in about two steps -- then what you are suggesting is that it is justified to use violence to stop the other side. I've tried to avoid the rhetorical temptation, though I've succumbed once or twice over the years -- usually in the guise of "I'm not suggesting that they're Nazis, but the way they goose step scare me ...". That we use that kind of rhetoric over issues such as reforming health care or immigration laws is just plain sad.
The sadness turns to tragedy if followers take up arms in response to the clarion calls. The same holds for makers of violent entertainment when its consumers reenact it in the real world. Speakers are responsible for their words, and while there is no reasonable way of legally extending responsibility for how listeners respond, to deny that there is a response is to deny the power of speech.
The causality is impossible to trace, but simply resorting to "1st amendment" arguments in the aftermath of tragedy is a coward's way out.
Don't know that this has much to do with the way Bill O'Reilly's name was used, but it does have something to do with how his words may get used.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Good News

Or, at least, fun news; especially for those of us who are on the downhill side of midlife. Amidst the gloom of war stories, sex scandals and broken politics, I heard a story on NPR today about an 83-year-old woman who took her first solo flight a few weeks ago.
She told NPR that she hadn't taken her first flying lesson until after her 80th birthday, and, in fact, hadn't ever thought about learning to fly until then. She wanted to find something to stretch herself and keep her mind active.
Some older folks take up cross-word puzzles. I hope that when I reach this woman's age I have her enthusiasm for taking on something new.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bonhoeffer on Advent

“We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”