Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Whatever happened to Thanksgiving?

Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.
-- William Arthur Ward

What ever happened to Thanksgiving? Over the last few years, the day set by presidential decree of Abraham Lincoln “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” has transformed itself into the beginning of the Christmas Shopping Season. Sorry. I just need to get this off my chest.

As a child, I was always focused on the family television set (we had only one and Black and White at that!) qatching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Of course, at the END of the parade was the jolly old elf himself with sleigh full of toys and reindeer, too. It was doubly special for us because Santa was portrayed by Charlie Howard, a resident of the small canal town in Western New York where I grew up. There, he had established a Santa Claus School to teach individuals how to dress and act the part of the revered Christmas figure (but I digress).

The key notion here was that Santa came AT THE END of the parade – signifying that AFTER Thanksgiving, we turned the attention of hearth and home toward Christmas. It provides a great distinction: after we have followed the lead of the 16th president to give praise and thanksgiving to God, we can get about the business of the hustle and bustle of commercial Christmas. Regrettably, the last several years has seen Thanksgiving blended into the generic “holiday season” without a purpose of its own. This year came the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. This year, the isn’t even digested before the shopping rush is on.

Social covenants depend upon a common understanding and wiling participation of members of a society. ‘Till now, it was part of our social covenant (I believe), that we celebrated Thanksgiving in the spirit in which it was established: a day to stop and think, a day for families to gather (natural families and families of the heart), a day to express genuine gratitude for what we have received in the bounty of this earth, “our island home.”

Interestingly the God part of this holiday has taken a back seat (as with just about all other religious holidays). Churches and ecumenical communities are forced by social circumstance to celebrate Thanksgiving not on the day, nor even the eve, but on the Sunday of choice (before of after) the Thursday holiday. Some of this is because of the retail mania that has overtaken what stood for over a hundred years as a provision in our social compact – no Christmas until after Thanksgiving.

We have crossed that threshold, and as with all such realities, the genie will never be put back into the bottle. I lament this loss, deeply.

However, it does not stop me from celebrating the day as it was intended. I, for one, will join with my family and friends to celebrate the bountiful grace of God that has blessed us in so many ways in the year now passing. And I urge you to so the same. Keep the “Thanks” in Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Where does the time go?

It’s usually at this time of year that I begin to think about time. Daylight grows less and less each day. Nature turns dormant. The cold creeps upon us. It always reminds me that time is the most precious commodity we have.
We live only one unique moment at a time. Once that moment passes, there is never a promise that another will follow it.  The ways we spend our days, weeks, and months can never be undone. The 58 minutes that I spent the other day watching an episode of Law and Order that I have seen at least three times, will never return to me. (OK. I like Law and Order.)
With every second comes a decision set-up by the one preceding it and that will no doubt have an influence on the one that follows. What I find incredible is that even though time is the foundation of everything we do, we tend to value the world around us in terms of other "stuff." Typically, we look at time as something to be rushed through rather than having any innate worth. 
We pay for housing in terms of what day in the month our rent or mortgage is due. We look at our cars in terms of when they were built and how much longer we'll be paying on them. How many years have we been in school or at the same job?  How long have we been dating or married?  How many weeks until the baby is due? Time becomes a marker for just about everything in our lives.
And then time stops.
There may be no phrase that is more dreaded than the one that reminds us that our time is limited. It is in those moments that we realize how precious the quick seconds we so easily wish away truly are. The sad reality is that for most of us by the time we realize how important our time is, it is already too late.
Of late, I have been describing my relationship with time by saying, “Where does all the time go?” as if it passes at different speeds, which I could slow down or speed up. I hear my parents echoed in comments like that.  I remember well when they would warn me, “Don’t always be in such a hurry – soon enough we are old.”
We must be reminded that it is impossible to redo missed opportunities. I find it tragic to sit in a hospital room with a dying person who is not so terrified of death as over their regrets of time not well spent. 
Perhaps we should try to change the way we look at time. Right at this moment we are alive. We are breathing air and, therefore, we have choices to make.  If life is indeed a blessing, then we need not see every second is not a countdown to something else. Let’s stop thinking in terms of appointments, anniversaries, and dates that symbolize a race against time. Instead, let’s make the most of the time we have: invest in our most treasured relationships; take the time to enjoy nature; and, ask the tough question, "What does my life mean?"
How we answer the question ultimately dictates how we use our time. It will also dictate our regrets. We know life is short. As we approach our annual holidays where family and friends mean so much – and we are so often pressed for time -- may your days be filled with joy that can only come from above as we use our time to love – God’s ultimate command.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

One act of grace at a time

Studying Isaiah 65 in preparing for my homily this Sunday, I came across this quote:

"We are able to give one drink of cold water at a time. We are able to bring comfort to the poor and the wretched, one act of mercy or change at a time. One book given, one friendship claimed, one covenant of love, one can of beans, one moment of commendation, one confession of God's presence but for the asking, one moment in which another person is humanized rather than objectified, one challenge to the set order that maintains injustice, one declaration of the evil that is hiding in plain sight, one declaration that every person is a child of God: these acts accumulate within God's grace." (Mary Eleanor Johns, Feasting of the Word, Year C, Vol 4, p 292)

What a reminder that when we consider the prayer, "thy Kingdom come," that it does not come with a loud clash and clang or the trunpet blast and a world changing event, but in the mundane, daily grind of life. And what a lesson for our society. Each act of grace is worth doing all by itself . . . and begins with me.

Friday, November 15, 2013

“Christianist baffled by an encounter with Christianity”

In an interview with CNN, Sarah Palin laid bare her misgivings about Pope Francis when she said that she was “taken aback” with his liberal interpretation of Christianity. She further expressed her fear the mainstream media may be influencing him. She told interviewer Jake Tapper: “He's had some statements that to me sound kind of liberal, has taken me aback, has kind of surprised me. There again, unless I really dig deep into what his messaging is, and do my own homework, I’m not going to just trust what I hear in the media.”
She continued: "I'm kinda trying to follow what his agenda is. You know he came out with a couple of things in the media but again I'm not one to trust the media's interpretation of somebody's message but having read through media outlets."
Here is the problem. Mrs. Palin, like many on both sides of the political spectrum have fallen prey to the temptation of idolatry where ideology has replaced theology and Christian practice. It also betrays much of what passes as “Christian” in our political debate for the “cherry picking” that it is.
It’s not unusual, for example, to hear political leaders, who loudly and publicly affirm their “Christianity,” proof text the Scriptures in an effort to justify their political ideology. How often do we hear how God finds this or that practice to be an abomination (usually focused on sexual ethics) but we almost never hear quotations from the prophets (which form the bulk of the Old Testament) when they rail against the rich and the powerful as advocates for the poor and lowly.
I am afraid that Pope Francis, who has impressed believers and nonbelievers alike with his humble and practical application of the gospel, has called the bluff of many political ideologues on the use of the gospel as a pretext for their political agenda. As one social commentator wrote over the Palin flap, “If Sarah Palin's this shocked by Pope Francis, she'll be catatonic when she finally gets round to reading about Jesus in the New Testament.”
When the clear implications of the gospel are articulated in action as well as words, all human ideologies falter. What should matter to us as the baptized of God, is not whether we are politically pure on the right or on the left, but how we measure up to the plain teaching of Jesus n ALL of our social relations.
*The title of this blog post is a quote from Tom Sutcliffe of Radio 4

Monday, November 11, 2013

Honoring our Veterans

I came across a photo the other day -- you know the kind -- in a box given to you by a family member, most likely one of your parents. Among the pictures of nameless souls is a photo of a young seaman in sailor whites standing next to two hula dancers (or at least that's what they seem to be!). The photo is small so I needed both my glasses and a magnifying glass to see who that sailor was. Upon close inspection, the sailor looked very much like I did as a much younger man. Of course, it wasn't me -- it was my father. He enlisted in the Navy during World War II by lying about his age so that they would take him before he actually turned 17 (it was only a month or two away anyway).

For three years, this sailor traveled the world, spending most of his time in the South Pacific on a sub-chaser, PT boat (aka a tin can), but most proudly serving as a mess assistant on the USS New Jersey. He "saw action, " as they say but his service was undistinguished: he had no medals for valor and was honorably discharged a seaman. He was one of the thousands of Allied servicemen that did whatever was needed to bring a horrible war to its end.

As my Dad grew older, he was more and more willing to share his experiences during his time in the Navy. It became increasingly evident that this was his proudest achievement -- he had risen to the occasion when his country needed strong young men, and he put his life on the line in service to that nation. Indeed, at the end of his life, his Navy service provided a framework for him to understand his value and his worth as a man. It was something that permeated everything he did in life. Even at the very end, he spent three years in a nursing home dedicated to servicemen, most of whom were WW II vets. In one sense, his life and its meaning had come full circle. He "became a man" by entering military service and spent his last days among his fellow travellers -- men (and some women) who had many of the same epxeriences and were filled with the same pride for having accomplished something important well.

At his funeral, he was remembered as a common man, one of many in a generation that saw what needed to be done and did it, one of Tom Brocaw's Greatest Generation. Having heard how I described my dad, the organist quietly played the theme of Aaron Copeland's Fanfare for a Common Man as we walked his flag draped coffin down the aisle for the last time.

To my Dad, and to all Veterans who shared and still share that life, I give honor and gratitude.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Last Defense in the War on the Poor

On October 31st, Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate for economics, published an op-ed piece in the New York Times that laid bare one of the dirty little secrets of our society of late. He quoted Governor John Kasic of Ohio who defended his acceptance of a federally funded expansion of Medicaid by saying, “I’m concerned about the fact that there seems to be a war on the poor. That, if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”

With all of the talk about the importance of the Tea Party in the recent electoral cycle, it seems that many political pundits are using misdirection as a tactic in the debates over our economy. The popular notion (and self-understanding of many members of the movement) is that the Tea Party is about deficits and debt. A survey of many of the position statements reveals that this simplistic understanding is, as Krugman puts it, “delusional.” Instead, most of the speechification is a “tirade against the possibility that the government might help ‘losers’ avoid foreclosure.” Pundits don’t talk much about fiscal responsibility but increasingly about how the government is “rewarding the lazy and undeserving.”

These allegations become more credible when one examines the philosophical underpinning of the recent debates. Representative Paul Ryan, Chair of the House Budget Committee, puts it this way: the social safety net is becoming a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” Representative Ryan is a self-professed disciple of Ayn Rand, the literary proponent of libertarianism and total laissez-faire economics.

I am of the belief that such and understanding of economy is at its root anti-Christian. It violates the fundamental promise that Episcopalians and others take in their baptismal covenant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and "to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.” It creates an idol of free markets since if “the markets are always right then people who end up poor must deserve to be poor” (Daniel Little). Thus we have an increasingly common attitude that unemployed workers have it too easy, that they’re so coddled by unemployment insurance and food stamps that they have no incentive to go out and get a job.

This belies the fact that in places like Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, the food pantry ministry of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, we are serving increasing numbers of the working poor, people who have jobs, who work hard but simply don’t make enough money to make ends meet. We all have anecdotal evidence of individuals on such assistance that seem to squander what they are given, but the facts repudiate the tendency to make broad generalizations out of these stories. Statistics indicate that the lion’s share of people receiving food assistance do so for less than a year, but during that time, it is this assistance which makes the difference and helps them prevent the downward spiral into the cycles of poverty. “The Cupboard” and other efforts like it are often the last stop before the abyss, which is unresolving poverty. They are perhaps the last defense against the “war on the poor” which has become so evident, and I for one am proud that there are people across our community that support its efforts.