Monday, December 28, 2009

O Is for Ornament ("The Christmas Pickle")

(My Christmas Eve service featured"The Holidays A to Z," encompassing in 26 vignettes the breadth of the  Season.)

Ornaments  festooning the Christmas Tree are among the most beloved of  Holiday traditions.  Ornaments represent  all sorts of things that fill our lives and offer meaning.  Or they are simply colorful, shimmering baubles that delight the eye. They rest in the green branches of a symbolic Tree of Life—the Christmas Tree.

One of my favorite ornaments is known as “the Christmas pickle”  The legend of the pickle ornament maintains it’s an old German custom.  According to the legend, it is the last ornament placed on the tree, well hidden in the midst of other ornaments, lights,and tinsel.  Children are challenged to be the first to find it, the winner earning a special gift.  However, Christmas pickle debunkers (Yes Virginia, there are Christmas pickle debunkers) claim it’s a bogus legend.  They wonder, could it be a scheme of German ornament makers to sell more ornaments?  

Like many of the Christmas legends, there are those who believe and those who don’t believe the legend of the Christmas pickle ornament. In this regard the "Christmas pickle" legend represents many of the Holiday legends that rise from a twilight of truth and over time become tradition.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Friday, December 18, 2009

Peace on Earth

A Christmas Irony

The director’s remarks regarding the film “Joyeux Noel” (Merry Christmas) and the hymn we just sang “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” based on the Longfellow poem “Christmas Bells” illuminate the timeless irony of the mythic angels’ blessing to the shepherds keeping watch with their flock: “Peace on Earth."

Longfellow, while anxious and grief-stricken for his gravely injured son during the Civil War, clearly articulated the irony: “And in despair I hung my head, there is no peace on earth I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

We are at war, once again, this Christmas Season. Since 2001 we’ve been engaged in an ambiguous world wide war against Islamic terrorism. But there’s no ambiguity regarding the two hot war we’re engaged in: a war in Afghanistan we’ve been fighting since October 2001; a war in Iraq we’ve been fighting since March 2003. The War in Afghanistan seeks to root out the terrorist organization Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda promotes a worldwide Muslim holy war and masterminded the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks. The War in Afghanistan coincidentally seeks to diminish the Taliban regime that harbored Al Qaeda. The War in Iraq was ostensibly begun because Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed considerable weapons of mass destruction that were an imminent threat to America following

Both wars seek to implant freedom. George W. Bush, President at the onset of the War in Iraq, often spoke of the mission in Iraq in terms of introducing freedom and democracy into the Mideast to bend Muslims and their nations toward these Western Ideals. The War in Afghanistan has the moniker Operation Enduring Freedom. Among the names for the War in Iraq is Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Since 2003 on Christmas Eve, I’ve included in the service a meditation I wrote regarding Peace. I call it “An Audacious Light.” I vowed to reprise it on Christmas Eve as long as we’re at war.  I'll read it again this week on Christmas Eve.

It casts only a small sphere
of light,
But beyond this little sphere
the flame reaches toward
and reflects in each our eyes.

This fragile, yes fragile flame,
is nevertheless audacious:

It is an audacious light
in its brightness,
It is an audacious light
in its piercing of the darkness,
It is an audacious light
in seeking out our eyes.

Let this flame
An Audacious Peace.

Peace may elude nations.
(Tonight our Nation
is at war and
our spirits are troubled.)
But Peace is reflected
in our eyes...

This is where Peace

This is where Peace
This is where Peace
An audacious glint,
reflecting from person to person.

Look into one another’s eyes
and see a reflection, that glint,
of Peace.
Pass the reflection on.

As Peace is in our eyes,
Then let there be Peace
in our families and among our friends.
Let our sense of who is our Family
and who are our Friends
expand across the earth.

And then there
might be
Peace on Earth
Among Persons
Of Goodwill.

Then the pride and folly
of nations
Will dissolve into our shared
humanity and our common cause.

Barack Obama and a Just War

We’ve recently experienced yet again another illustration of the irony of war and peace, one which we’re complicit as a self-proclaimed peace-seeking-nation-at-war. The occasion was the acceptance by President Barack Obama of the Nobel Prize. Mr. Obama readily and coherently in his acceptance speech that he came to Oslo “filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace and our effort to replace one with the other.”

After a brief disclaimer regarding the controversy over his selection, Mr. Obama began his speech with remarks regarding a so-called “just war.” He spoke to a proud American legacy forged from World War I through the end of the Cold War: “the ideals of liberty, self-determination, equality and the rule of law have haltingly advanced.” And without using the term he alluded to the Pax Americana (the American Peace) after World War II.

Contemporary wars are different he said. Today wars are often within nations rather than between nations and kill a disproportionate number of civilians in the process. And of course terrorism proposes a unique threat whereby a handful can wreak havoc on multitudes. War and peace must be rethought. And he declared “There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justifiable.”

Immediately after certain wars morally justifiable, he invoked the idealism of King and Gandhi and their pronouncements of non-violence in the name of love. Mr. Obama declared that he personally is than “living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.”

Yet he is a head of state sworn to protect and defend his nation.

So he has a huge dilemma and offered his rationale/justification in solving that dilemma of ideals and vision versus responsibilities and realities.

With incredible efficiency he sketched the basis of what is called “moral realism:” evil exists and sometimes force against it is necessary given history, human imperfection and the limits of reason. Now friends, this analysis bows to a mid 20th century theology articulated by the Protestant thinker/clergy Reinhold Neihbur who was instrumental in reviving a modern notion of original sin and wrote passionately, and for some persuasively, about the immorality of nations and societies. Moral Man and Immoral Society, one of his influential books, power, not reason, reigns supreme in the affairs of nations, societies, and social classes. (Mr. Obama in a 2007 interview with David Brooks called Reinhold Neibhur one of his favorite philosophers.)

But, and the but has many components, there are ways and means of morally conducting war when war is necessary. These standards must be articulated and adhered to.

He also outlined ways and means to avoid war by building a just and lasting peace. It was in this section that Mr. Obama spoke of advocating worldwide human rights, in accord with the dignity of every individual. Here he iterated economic security and opportunity. He invoked, without saying, the name and the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt. “For true peace is not just freedom from fear but freedom from want.” So the expansion of human rights and opportunity is one of the means for finding lasting peace.

Many thoughtful commentators have already cited Mr. Obama’s Oslo Speech as his most brilliant, threaded with strands of high morality and worldly realism, hence the judgment that it reflects the stance of “moral realism.”

Hearing it as it was being delivered, my first reaction was disappointment at his “just war” proclamations that serve to promote a status quo of dubious origins and specious motives. I understand the responsibilities of his office and the politics of the moment he had to reconcile to principles. Still, I wanted more principle, yes, more of the ideals of love and non-violence he associated with King and Gandhi and less of a so-called “moral war,” because the Oslo platform was the most bully pulpit Mr. Obama will ever stand behind..

A Doctrine of Human Security

And I’ve recently become an advocate of a relatively new strategy for attaining world peace. (Power vs. power, violence, as Dr. King said “never brings peace…solves no social problem.” Interestingly, Mr. Obama referred to this new strategy I’m liking when he spoke of human rights, particularly freedom from fear and want. This emerging, new, people centered approach for meeting conflict both within and between nations, is being called the doctrine of human security. This emerging doctrine emphasizes human rights and dignity, and is associated with Franklin Roosevelt’s famous speech at the beginning of World War II known as “The Four Freedoms:” freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.”

I’ve become an advocate of human security in preference to national security, especially in regards to world peace. We should bend our considerable efforts and treasures to effecting human rights at home and in the world. I’m glad Mr. Obama spoke to human rights in his Oslo Speech; but I want human rights to have been at the center, because it is a cause that is also an effect.

I think the philosopher/psychologist William James got it right, both practically and idealistically a century ago, in a quotation I’ve used before. (Remember, Pete Seeger has it painted on the side of his barn.) ”I am against bigness and greatness in all forms, and with those invisible, molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time”

In closing I ask you to remember the gist of my reflection on peace, “An Audacious Light:”

Look into one another’s eyes
and see a reflection, that glint,
of Peace.

Pass the reflection on.

And so an “invisible moral force” working from individual to individual may transform our world.  I envision no other way that doesn't sow the seeds of violence time and time again than this doctrine of human security.  Pass on human rights.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Interrogating My Stuff

This morning’s overarching theme is stuff—the stuff in our lives.

It is also a reflection about the Holidays, Christmas in particular, and the double edged conundrum of giving and getting.

Each year we have new insight into the perils, including the excesses of gifting. This year a Wharton School professor Joel Waldfogel, author, of Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays is making the rounds of the talk show circuit. He is arguing that we generally value the gifts received considerably less than what they cost the giver. He says, “On the average gifts generate 20 percent less satisfaction than items we buy for ourselves.” He recommends, unless we know the person very well it’s better to give cash, in the guise of a gift card, that is, if you want your gift to be appraised by the receiver for what you spent on it.

Generally, I’ve observed that we have a love/hate relationship with material things, henceforth referred to simply as stuff, that inhabit our lives. (Stuff’s other name is legion, by the way.) I’m also using the verb inhabit intentionally. Does it seem to you as it does to me that we wake up to an infestation of stuff, like the mice who come into my home every autumn and multiple secretly but leave tell-tale markings in every odd corner and upturned dish. Unless I’m vigilant stuff cyclically but always astonishingly, in its mocking way, gets out of control.

I know that regarding the stuff in my life, it seems I can’t live with it and I can’t live without it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve resolved to pick through, sort, and toss the stuff that accumulates around me. I’ll get a start, but another, more pressing project comes along, and well, you now the results…. Remember my mice analogy. With mice and stuff a thorough rooting out has to take place or the infestation starts anew.

Some years ago, in keeping with the then au current themes of “voluntary simplicity” and “your money or your life” I cobbled together a sermon on Minimalist Living. I used as an illustration a woman of a certain age featured in a Tribune article of the day who lived alone in a fashionable condo downtown and was a consummate minimalist when it came to stuff. For example, she had just a couple a pair of shoes and a few outfits. (That they were interchangeable parts and she had great taste made her rather chic, nonetheless.) What made her unique was her vow, which she kept religiously, to toss an old piece of clothing whenever she acquired a new piece. (That she could live like a Vogue monk probably owed a great deal to her single status, as well as her age. The early years’ urge to acquire and keep ebbs in the third stage of a lifetime the Hindu tradition describes as RETIREMENT.)

Though a minimalist, it seemed clear to me that she was still a materialist. The stuff she possessed and where she lived mattered. She had not attained the ideal of the final traditional Hindu stage of NONATTACHMENT.

Minimalism (voluntary simplicity) is the best we American materialists might reasonably hope to attain.

Thanks to yet another manifestation of the Reality Show genre we have an example of the minimalist’s opposite: the hoarder. The A&E network has a popular show called “Hoarders.” It features persons’ and their beyond clutter habitations who suffer from OCD—obsessive compulsive disorder. (It’s something of a carnival geek show.)This series allows the viewer to peer voyeuristically into houses of squalor and, perhaps self-righteously, realize that their cluttered and /or disorganized houses are by no means as bad as one’s own. Yet there is also the tinge of guilt. Mea culpa we realize when we look around our own abodes.

I recommend that we live somewhere along the spectrum of stuff between the two poles of Minimalism and Hoarding. Now and again it’s worthwhile to examine where we fall on the spectrum and explore our motives,.

I asked Carolyn Healy to read her delightful essay “Interrogating My Stuff” because she offers a sound strategy of three questions to deal with the stuff of our lives: 1) What do I need you for? 2) What do you say about me? And 3) Would I buy you today? Each question has sub questions, and I’m offering a flyer with the details for you to take home.

In accordance with these questions we ask our stuff there are several options. It can be kept out in the open because it has use, it might be stored (in the box called Museum of Things I Can’t Stand to Get Rid of But Don’t Need to See Every Day), or it can be recycled/given away.

Carolyn’s process has practical results—decluttering and with that decluttering a modicum of freedom from the tyranny of materialism in a consumer. (As a measure of said tyranny just keep a log of advertisements/commercials that wash over you in a typical day.)

Carolyn’s process also honors what stuff represents—the practical value for sure, but also the intangible “value added” of meaning. Here, I’ve long loved Antoine de St-Exupery’s adage: “We live not by things, but by the meaning of things.”

The Jean Shepherd story, his memory trip ("The Return of the Smiling Wimpy Doll") stimulated by the box of gewgaws of his boyhood, teases out how meaning attaches itself to a thing. His box of gewgaws is a very personal Museum of Days Gone By.

So my counsel regarding stuff, beyond being a wise consumer—especially in this Season of gift giving and receiving,—is to thoughtfully measure the meaning of stuff in your life. This approach, measuring the meaning of material things, is pure, unadulterated Unitarianism and connects us with our Puritan roots and a long history of scrupulosity. We UUs are voracious meaning seekers, meaning demanders, and meaning makers.
Make de St -Exupery’s adage an endless mantra and even a constant admonition: “We live not by things, but by the meaning of things.”

This Holiday Season put meaning in what you give; find meaning in what you receive.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Imagine: If Christ Were in Christmas

I find the annual contention over crèches, crosses and Christmas versus holiday trees to be shallow concerns from the Christian side—an idolatry of forms over substance. And I muse, What would Christmas be if the historical Christ were truly at the center of the midwinter festival? It would be something radically different from what in our time and place is essentially a commercial holiday.

One of the most controversial aspects of Jesus’s brief ministry was the healing and comforting of the sick. Surviving sources leave no doubt that Jesus gave special attention to the afflicted of body and spirit. Translated to modern times, his example should move a believer to attend to the infirm, the ill, and the emotionally distressed in every circumstance. Certainly it would lead to direct acts of service, including charity for specific groups, which has become a seasonal custom.

But for those of fullest vision, Jesus’ example would also include universal health care. It would be unacceptable for any individual to be excluded from quality medical care because of economic or social circumstance. Followers of Jesus wouldn’t judge who is and who isn’t entitled to full medical care. They would be adamant that all are entitled, and they would seek reform.

Charity would abound in a Christ centered Christmas, but instead of an emphasis on giving downward, from those who have to those who don’t, there would be an emphasis on egalitarianism. The biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has pointed out that Jesus ate at the same table with the dispossessed of his day, including women. It is one thing to work at a soup kitchen or hand out vouchers for food and meals. It is something else to share a meal, accepting those with whom you eat as fellow human beings through love rather than pity.

Such a radical outlook would awaken a strong sense of those “isms” that keep us apart—racism, classism, sexism, agism—and would ultimately look to correcting injustices and oppressions through what we’ve come to call social justice. Deep Christians would examine and seek to rectify a social and economic system that results in us-versus-them distinctions between the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the undereducated, the hungry and the rest of "them." Like Jesus, Christians would be social revolutionaries, working for systemic change, always from a universal love that knows no distinctions.

Women in particular would have special focus at Christmas. That Jesus consorted with and lifted up women, relative to the practices of his place and time, would translate in our own place and time into a recognition of women’s full humanity. This wouldn’t be “woman on a pedestal”—mythologized and imbued with virtues that the traditional culture does not or cannot practice. There would be equal participation by women in the family, in the community, in government, in the workplace.

A Christ-centered Christmas would surely confront the endemic violence that marbles our culture. “Peace on earth” wouldn’t be a once-a-year slogan; it would be a motivating principle centered in the teachings of Jesus, internalized with such passion that all acts of individual, community, and state would be inspired by the ideal of nonresistance. Instead of a temporary state, as when warring armies put down their arms on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, peace would be the permanent, expected, normal state motivating all activities.

In a Christ-centered Christmas, the ultimate criterion for judging the motivation of any act would be whether it is done in the expansive spirit of love, which Jesus once declared was the great law. Each Christian would be compelled to look within and rectify her or his heart with the expansive love that Jesus not only taught but lived. Christmas would be a time of reflection and perhaps of corrective change—a time of humility and confidence in the power of love to transform the individual and society and make peace real.

Kingdom Come

In short, Christmas would be radically different from the commercial Christmas we now know. Jesus was an itinerant minister, so he acquired scant possessions. There would be no Black Friday the day after Thanksgiving, with frenzied shoppers lined up for deep discounts and hard-to-come-by products. There would be few if any presents under the Christmas tree (if there were a Christmas tree)—certainly no extravagances. A materialist Christmas would be more than vulgar; it would be sinful.

What there would be, I suspect, would be the fellowship and the natural levelings of the common table: good food and drink, including wine. But the purpose would be not so much to feast and drink as to gather together in gladness and joy—to be true companions. No one would be lonely or hungry on Christmas Day. And, most important, Christmas Day wouldn’t be one day—a brief interlude in a materialist and market culture—it would be every day. The Kingdom would then truly come, as Jesus once prayed it might.