Scripture speaks to us of the “cornerstone”of our faith. The cornerstone is, of course, Jesus. But the Apostle Paul goes on to suggest that that cornerstone causes people to stumble and fall when they are not watchful about what they are constructing. That insight is helpful in looking at the recently proposed infrastructure plan.
I recently heard someone say, “that a budget is a moral document.” Where the money goes is where the priorities of the institution lies. Those priorities will determine the infrastructure, that is the success and stability, of that institution. Many years ago I remember a community member resigning from our school board because all the discussion was on bricks and mortar and not on students and learning. School boards need to begin with the students and their needs and then work out from that point. A former pastor once told our church board that a “Church budget is always a faith document.” If everything is going for upkeep and very little for missions and outreach and dealing with the poor, then the church has lost its focus. Better to have a storefront church than be wrapped up in a building and its beautification. I saw a poster that said, “Wear the old coat, buy the new book.” Again a statement on where your priorities are.
Now of course budgets need balancing and there is a need for contingency funds both personal and for larger institutions. But all focus should be on what good that budget can do. Children need to have comfortable desks, safe rest rooms, good meals, broadband access and well-stocked libraries. Teachers’ salaries need to measure what we are calling on them to do. Hospital personnel need the supplies and equipment to save lives. Savings, yes. Commonsense projects, yes. But still, the lives and well-being of those who call this place “home” should be our main focus.
I wish the U.S. Congress could take a bus trip throughout the country to inner cities desperation and poverty and rural isolation. “This isn’t flyover country. This is home.” (Sen. A. Klobuchar)
That is why I have been pleased to see the definition of the recent infrastructure bill includes more than bridges and roads. Infrastructure is the foundation built of everything we need to thrive, not just survive, as a people. That is why the talk of broadband access for every person in the country, for example, is so important. Someone recently pointed me to an article in the book OUR TIMES OUR LIVES about a Works Progress Administration project in Glendive. The WPA, i.e. government, brought in heavy-duty sewing machines and sewing rooms were set up in the basement of the high school and in Richey from 1935-1940.
Bundles of cut material came from Butte for boys’ and men’s shirts, children’s coveralls, girls and women’s blouses and slacks and men’s work pants. Recipients of the clothing were many. They mass-produced clothing for the poor, made curtains for the CCC camp near Butte and made bandages. Many volunteered time to make quilts after hours and fix football uniforms. Something to provide work for women, a little extra income and work with a purpose. It was all for building a sturdier foundation.
Infrastructure covers every aspect of our lives — racial equity, health care, insurance, and free clinics, for example. Our government buildings like our City Hall need updating and better accessibility for every citizen. The farm to market roads need care and anything having to do with transportation of goods and services to people (i.e., markets) — air service, rail service, ocean travel must be updated and cared for.
The past few years there has been a chipping away at the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to be shaped into a document that serves only special interests and a certain economic class of people. The issue of infrastructure is already political. Stubbornly, both sides put up unnecessary roadblocks simply because they don’t want the other fellow to look good. “A budget is a moral document”. We have millions and millions of people in this country who need help. The Depression of the 1930s may be 80 years ago, but the problems and issues are basic and moral ones and are still with us. The rich continue to fill their pockets and the politicians continue to accumulate power. And the people suffer.
Sometimes out here on the prairies we tend to think of ourselves as a “backwater” in the great scheme of things. I was attracted to presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar’s slogan for her campaign in 2020: “This isn’t fly-over country. This is home.” She is from Minnesota and spoke often to the notion that too many people think Midwestern people don’t have a voice to be heard in the national discussion.
March is Women’s History Month, so it has been interesting that while working with folks from the Frontier Gateway Museum a number of items dealing with Dawson County women have surfaced. Catherine McCarty and Grace Marron Gilmore were well-known in early Glendive, Dawson County and Montana. Many people have read Catherine McCarty’s autobiography From Blue Grass to Big Sky. McCarty came here from Kentucky and homesteaded 320 acres in Garfield County before finding her way to marriage and Glendive. She lived to be 107 years of age. Of her many accomplishments one is the giving of land to Makoshika State Park which included McCarty’s cabin, well-known to anyone who roamed the Park in the 1950s and 1960s. It still stands and is being re-vitalized by the Park.
In the 18th Legislative session of the Montana Legislature, Catherine was one of two of the first women elected to the legislature (1923-1925). In 1919, she began working for the Dawson County Red Cross as Home Services chairman. In that capacity she assisted veterans of the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War in obtaining benefits, finding work, seeking medical care, etc. She also worked for the Red Cross in drought relief during the 1920s and 1930s. She also served on the Dawson County Veterans Advisory Board, and worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the National Youth Administration (NYA). Catherine had also applied to be a yeoman in the Navy during World War I.
But even before Catherine McCarty there was Grace Bendon Marron Gilmore. She came to Glendive in 1881 when her father Ira Bendon was hired to build houses for the people following the Northern Pacific Railroad. Her obituary said at fifteen she married a rancher from the Red Water area, living there until his death when she returned to Glendive. Gilmore's community involvement translated into political activism. During Montana's successful statewide suffrage campaign in 1914, Gilmore represented Glendive at the suffrage parade at the state fair. After the achievement of woman suffrage at the state level, Gilmore continued her political engagement. She went to Paris, France in 1919 with the National Catholic War Council during World War I as a hostess with the Catholic Welfare, after doing war work in Washington, D.C. In 1924 The Flathead Courier noted that Gilmore was a part of the executive committee to help the Democrats organize events to elect members of the Democratic Party to various positions in government. She is remembered as an author, historian, and pioneer.
In more recent days Louise Cross was active in the Glendive community and the State of Montana. She was the chair of the committee on the environment when the new Montana Constitution was written in 1972 (the only woman to chair a committee) and she remained active in environmental affairs for many years. She was a member of the Ducks Unlimited, Audubon Society, National Wildlife Foundation, Northern Plains Resource Council, and Dawson County Resource Council. In 1997 she advocated for the Glendive City Council’s approval of Resolution #2534 to protect Makoshika State Park from oil development. Louise was elected as a delegate to the 1972 Montana State Constitutional Convention where she continued to defend the environment. Because of her unfaltering leadership and the unfailing support of her fellow delegates, Montana’s Bill of Rights contains a constitutionally protected right to a “clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” Among other things, the article provides for land reclamation and water rights. This article was challenged in 1991 and upheld by the Montana Supreme Court. (Thanks to the family for an obituary that preserved much of what Louise believed in.)
With the help of others, Louise was instrumental in organizing the Frontier Gateway Museum. She loved Western history. Her hard work and careful use of limited resources helped the museum to grow and be recognized today for the important institution it is. Her work in the State and the community was well recognized.
There is more to be learned about these women who worked for women’s rights. It is 100 years since women earned the right to vote. Some one said ”women were given the right to vote”, but a suffragette said, “we fought for the right to vote.” And until the Equal Rights Amendment is passed the job is not done.
Catherine McCarty, Grace Gilmore and Louise Cross and other pioneer women were women of courage and great personal strength. We need to learn more of their history and legacy and we need to continue their work to make better this place in which we live between the banks of the Yellowstone River and the soaring badlands.
Remember when you were a kid and someone said, “Tell the truth! Straight in the eye!” The premise being that no one could lie looking his or her accuser directly in the face. The idea has some merit. Although we also have the term, “bald-faced liar” meaning they can look you in the eye and still lie.
As Holy Week approaches, I have been reading some devotionals on the Passion of Christ. One author I read was talking about Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Pilate is trying to find out just who Jesus really is and if Jesus deserves to die. In the course of cross-examining Jesus, Pilate asks the question — “What is truth?” Pilate’s question was coming from his experience with Imperial Rome — a place of corruption, bribery, lying, assassinations. Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” We really don’t know much about Pontus Pilate after he appears in history at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus, but one source says he killed himself at the order of the Emperor Caligula sometime after 36 BCE. His search for truth ended.
All of history is a search for truth. Every nation has to struggle with the truth of its own history. While the U.S. has accomplished much in science, literature and the arts, living standards and international relations, we are at a moment when we have to stop and have the discussion among ourselves —“What is our truth?”
That question is on my mind after seeing the movie “The United States versus Billie Holiday”, a drama about the life of the Jazz singer. She came from a time and place in our history where to be black and poor and a woman meant you were never going to have an opportunity to stand straight and tall and discover your own truth. As a famous jazz singer, one of her signature songs was “Strange fruit.” Written by Lewis Allen (Abel Meeropot) in 1937, the song is about the lynchings in the South during the days of “Jim Crow”. “Jim Crow” was an attempt by white supremacists to return to the pre-Civil War South and slavery. Because she would sing this song, the U.S. Government tried to keep her quiet saying the song “stirred people up”. She was harassed to the end of her life. The one hundred years after the Civil War was a time when people of color were harrassed for speaking and voting. This fight continues. Today (March 8) we are remembering the 56th anniversary of the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and the violence which followed. Legislatures around the country, now in session, are attempting to make voting more difficult for people of color and minority groups. Native American reservations are facing restrictions from state legislatures. We in Montana are not exempt from voter suppression and blocking the rights of people we don’t agree with. In many other regions, roadblocks of various kinds mean people of color and sexual orientation are being legislated out of the right to make decisions that affect them and this country.
What is truth? How are we going to teach our nation’s history to the next generation? We are proud of the men and women who shaped this nation, defining words like freedom and liberty. We recognize those who step forward and are active in working to make things better for everyone today. We can be proud of men and women of every religion, color, creed and gender orientation who stand up to be counted. We have much to share with the world about living together in community. That is why it is so important to answer this question: How are we telling our truth? How we answer this question will shape our story for generations to come.
I just left a lunch meeting with a group of pastors from across the southeast corner of the state. Previously there had been Zoom meetings, but this was the first face-to-face in quite awhile so everyone was talking in small groups, trying to catch up on their church’s activities. The consensus was, there was a gradual coming back to the way things had been done in the past, a return to some of the sacred rites and practices of the faith that are so precious to Christians everywhere.
One of the pastors changed the direction of the conversation a little when she said, “I have been feeling we need to push a “reset” button on our lives and the life of the congregation. We need to take this time to re-examine who we are now and how our thinking has changed." That word made a lot of sense to me — “reset”.
How often in our lives do we have to find that button in our brain and push it and then prepare ourselves for change — the birth of a baby, job change, life passages. This group of professionals was talking about church worship, how technology has been adapted to reach people with the gospel message, and the frustrations they felt as they realized that while people were still faithful to the gospel message, the way of doing worship had altered subtly while we were all under quarantine.
And it is not only church worship. The cry of this past year is, “When can we get back to normal?” But what is “normal”? Erma Bombeck, the humorous columnist, once said, “Normal is the setting on a washing machine.” Nothing will ever be exactly as it was before the pandemic. To date, five hundred thousand people have died. Many people have lost loved ones either to the virus or just the usual ways that death comes. Your grandchildren have grown and matured in your absence. If you have spent an intense time at home with your children you have come to know each other in a very different way. There are nuances to behaviors we have not recognized in each other before this time.
I often think about the horrors of the Civil War. I have seen pictures of Atlanta, Georgia, and other cities in the South that look like the bombed cities of London and Dresden, Germany, after World War II. The results of that war are still being felt in the issues of white supremacy, Black Lives Matter, and the removal of statues that are unpleasant reminders of a time in our history that shaped us for generations to come. “Normal”? History is never normal.
The “reset” button for our generation has been spinning the world into a new age and a new way of looking at the life we have been given. Massive crowds of people will not be a comfortable place for many people maybe for years to come; medical resources and care of hospital personnel have to be examined and the systems re-vamped to meet the needs of this generation. Education of our children will return to the classroom, but every teacher and student will have a memory of masks and home classes. “Wash your hands” is now a part of how we live safely.
And the power of the pandemic has altered our political landscape. The inequities of health care and financial resources have boiled to the top and everyone is demanding equality so that they can live with dignity. In the past four years the world has seen a side of the United States it had never seen before and we are having to “reset” how we deal with the European Union, the Middle East, South America, Africa and Asia, Russia and China.
The “reset” button is whipping our world through a sea of changes. Sometimes we just hold on for the ride, but other times we are apt to land in a different place than we have been before.
“Normal” — not so much. “Reset”. New focus. But human beings always adapt and we can only work together for the good of all.
A friend and I were discussing a book the other day and in the process of our visit she asked a rhetorical question — “How did white people and western civilization ever get the idea that their way was the only right way?” Her thoughts jarred loose a memory about an incident that happened when I was in India. Northern India had been conquered by a group of people known as Moghuls. They were from the plains of Central Asia. They were lighter skinned and according to anthropologists are from the same branch of humanity as lighter skinned Europeans. The further south you travel in India you notice the people are much darker and part of the native group known as Dravidians. The Moghuls never subdued this group. They had a thousand years or more history of mixing with the people of Africa. I overheard a conversation by two of our guides one day. Both were from Northern India around New Delhi. One of the women had seen a famous Indian movie star. The other guide was very excited and asked, “How light-skinned was she?”
Their conversation hit me so hard that I have never forgotten that day. Everywhere there seems to be the concept that lighter skin means greater beauty and in the progression of things — leads to power and wealth. It was an eye-opener that was really hard to hear.
The six weeks I spent in India, the lectures I heard, the places I visited, the people I met all taught me how little I know about the world in which I live. A world so variegated as to be beyond comprehension. We are each unique and no one person is better than another. It seems as though it is a lesson the world has never learned, because every culture and society constantly belittles the “other”. And we wonder why we can never find peace.
America is so blessed by the rich tapestry of people and cultures that have contributed to our makeup. The history of America is not just a “white” history, but African, Asian, South American, East Indian, Middle Eastern and every other color and creed. That is our greatest strength. Western civilization is younger than the 5000 year old history of India’s people. We now know that human beings came out of Africa and began that great migration to all the corners of the world.
Public Radio had an interview recently with a Latina woman who talked about self-image and learning that every culture sees beauty in a certain way. My vanilla-colored skin is a far cry from the exotic beauty of many mixed races across the continents. Body shape and size, music, art and other cultural aspects of national identity are all good and strong. It seems that Western Civilization has fed the world “the great lie” that “white is good” and that other gradations of color are not on an equal level, but are lesser than.
It is time this fantasy was put to rest. When we combine our energies and our cultures we are like a strongly interwoven rope. We can do great things for the human race and sustain this planet which the Creator has given us. Life is good when we are one.
My father’s 100th birthday will roll around in April. He is no longer living, but as his daughter I find one hundred years worth remembering. Dad was a romantic. He loved my mother passionately from their earliest courtship until her death. He never left her side during the fifteen years of her journey with cancer. He was a pleasant man. After he moved to the Veterans’ Home I once told him, “Dad, if you aren’t having a good day, if you have a day when you have pain, you don’t have to be pleasant. You are allowed a bad day now and again.” He looked a little puzzled and told me, “You might as well be pleasant. It makes life so much easier.” The CNAs enjoyed coming into his room because his “Please” and “Thank yous” were so genuine.
The son of a Swedish immigrant who left his country for lack of opportunities, Dad’s life was one that many people here in the West experienced. His parents gave each one of their children one year of college. Dad started out as a rural school teacher in Perkins County, South Dakota, and then after his time in the service in World War II, he used the G.I. Bill to finish his undergraduate education and move on to a Masters’ degree.
Where Dad sometimes had a little trouble being practical, Mom was pragmatic. She kept the family’s direction headed in a straight path where and when she was able. She was a rancher’s daughter and a rural school teacher as well. She and Dad met when he was teaching and she was County Superintendent of Schools. They decided to wait until after Dad returned from the service before getting married.
They built a solid life together. They were both frugal. Their one dream was to own a home and see to it their children got a college education. They achieved both. In Scripture, Jesus talks about a man who built his house on a solid foundation and it did not fall. My parents built this together. Dad always said his recurring nightmare was losing his job and not being able to support his family. He worked Saturdays some years and every summer from the time school let out until it resumed to see to it the bills were paid and there was food on the table. He was honest and hard-working. And he was patriotic and believed in citizenship and its rights and responsibilities. I will fly the flag on his birthday.
Every family has people like this. Sometimes we let them slip away as time goes by. It is important to lift up those who really made a difference in small, but profound ways. We are the result of their hopes and dreams. It is these people who have forged our nation and it is their legacy we preserve and protect in our hearts, in our families from generation to generation and this country.
For a couple of weeks, like most of the nation, I have been deeply disturbed by the events of January 6 and the insurrection at our nation’s capitol. For me the date was doubly significant because it was Epiphany, a time in the church year that talks about light and revealing. In the Christian faith the coming of the Magi from foreign lands to find the Christ Child shows salvation has come for all the nations. So coming as it did on the same day, the riot at the nation’s capitol building was a revelation of the hatred and violence that lie deep within the human soul. That the appearance of civilized society and organized government is a thin veneer. White supremacists and racists showed their true colors. It was an experience that left us all badly shaken, especially when forces within the government seemed to be aiding and abetting the rioters.
The days found me pacing and restless and wanting to speak out and not knowing what to say. So many words had already been dedicated to this extremism I certainly had nothing to add that was worth hearing.
Then several things happened that seem small by comparison, but were full of grace and promise. The first occasion was getting my Covid vaccine shot. I have been waiting for this day because it seemed like a breath of freedom, a loosening of the bars which have surrounded us and kept us from those people we love. As I watched the nurse (again the angels of mercy who have been with us on this journey) pick up the vaccine and prepare to give me my shot I thought that little tiny vial is the product of hundreds of hours by dedicated men and women in medical research around the world. There are billions of people waiting for this same shot so they can get on with their lives as I want to get on with mine. And here on the prairies of Montana, I am privileged to receive this vaccine. It is a great gift that in time will change the world with its healing abilities.
Secondly, I am so proud of the GROW Glendive group that has organized into a non-profit and have worked out a way for us to recycle cardboard in town. I have been a passionate recycler for decades. A friend and I take turns hauling what we can to Miles City, so what a treat that a load of cardboard I had accumulated this month could be delivered to this group of like-minded folks right here in town. It is a gift back to the community and it is a “green” activity which I whole-heartedly endorse.
Lastly there was inauguration eve with the 400 lights in the reflecting pool at the base of the Washington monument in memory of the 400,000 Americans who have died of Covid. It was a brief, but moving memorial service that was needed by us all. And then inauguration day and the historic transfer of power in which we take great pride as a nation. This year the election process was maligned and threatened, but the process held firm. Democracy may have been bent, but it did not break and today we saw its resilience in a pared down, Covid aware official act. To think that for 250 and more years we have gathered to witness this event. Given what abuse Lady Liberty has had to take, it was an emotional moment to see it happen because for a time we had our doubts. Flags flying high, the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and to see a mixed-race American woman of immigrant parents take her place as our first woman vice-president. These have been days of promise, hope and deep gratitude.
I had a nice walk along the Yellowstone River yesterday. I normally go into Makoshika Park because it is so much closer to my house, but decided this would be a nice change. I walked along the leveee going north and then changed direction and headed south. This is the area the River floods most every year. Here and there are patches of sand deposited by the river when in flood. The paths fairly well-maintained and wind their way through the flat land.
The above photo shows what we call the "black bridge", railroad bridge still used by the BNSF. Glendive has four bridges -- this one, the interstate bridge, the Old bridge which is closed to traffic, and the Towne Street bridge.
This next photo is the underside of the Towne Street bridge. Something I have not seen before. Interesting.
Anyway it was a lovely day -- chilly but no wind, sunshine and a good path to walk on with my leg which is still questionable when I need balance. Nice way to end 2020.
Trump is on his way out! I heard Rep. Ben Sass of Nebraska call out those Republicans who are trying to appease Trump's base as they look to their own futures. He called it "civic vandalism". The vote with the electoral college is the 6th of January and for the first time it is contentious (well maybe 1876). There are groups who want to disenfranchise those who voted for Biden. Many are going to make Biden's work very difficult. The work is not over, but we pray for the vaccine to reach more people, pray for health for all, prayers for the world that this virus may be brought under control. 3400 died yesterday.
Today is a windy day. Strong gusts both today and tomorrow. The temp is a decent 22 degrees and the sun is shining, but the wind. . .Really limits anything outside, like a walk.
Heard from the family. Margy is doing Christmas cards today. Bernie made a chicken noodle soup as Greg is ailing and I am writing a sermon for Christmas Eve. I will bring the message at the UCC church by invitation. Fun and nice to be asked. Their Pastor (Brother Guy) is a very laid-back, down to earth kind of guy.
Made filled cookies and fudge this year. Sharon and I will share Christmas Day dinner so I will make Grandma Larson's apple salad. Always a favorite.
Vaccines are starting but virus cases are high and many deaths. Dawson County is experiencing its share. Scarey and difficult. Even when people die of heart issues or cancer there is not the closure allowed because of virus exposure. I have done a few graveside services with masks and distancing and it is difficult for people.
Thought I would share my Christmas Eve sermon as I have worked on it thus far.
Christmas Eve UCC December 24, 2020
Grace and peace to you from God the Creator, from Jesus, the Messiah, the promised One and the Holy Spirit our teacher and guide. Amen. Grateful for invitation to bring you the Christmas Eve message. It truly is a holy and joyous night when Christians the world around celebrate the birth of Immanuel, God with us.
As a pastor, one of my frustrations about Christmas, is what message to bring that is new or different or challenging at Christmas. It is a dilemma because I think what most of us want to hear are words that take us down memory lane. Christmas is a dear, sweet, nostalgic time. Every sight, sound, smell, every tinkling bell takes us back to childhood and that most magical time. I can even remember some of the gifts I received that were special, in particular two dolls that I still have stored away. Precious memories.
My parents wanted my brother and me to be part of family traditions that had several generations of patina on them. The ranch where the night sky was so crammed with stars you thought you couldn’t squeeze in one more. Cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles, traditional Norwegian food, presents and then we always had a family Christmas Eve devotional time. There was the final round of coffee and cookies before everyone headed home. You all have have something special you remember — the church services, programs — school and Sunday School, caroling, the sense of joy prevading your life. But in truth no Christmas was perfect — each one was different — some good, some difficult.
But what people want each year is “normal” — tell the old story and we do, but remember that each year we hear it with new ears. There is no “normal” Christmas in the sense it is like last year or ten years ago or fifty years ago. We hear it differently because each year means something different to each one of us. You know I am going to talk about 2020 — such a different year —raging forest fires, hurricanes, melting polar ice caps; our music has been the songs of civil protest and recognizing racial inequality; division in our democracy and a fractured election; and of course, most of all the virus brought death and isolation and financial ruin, hunger and poverty to millions of people throughout the world. Underlying this year has been a basic strain of fear and a lack of understanding as to why this has happened? how it happened? and how do we deal with it? This year perhaps we can say with more understanding that the manger lies in the shadow of the cross. This year more than ever we need the Christ Child to move among the lost, the dying and the suffering bringing the Word of comfort, peace, and assurance we all are desperate to hear.
The challenge of the preacher bringing the Christmas message and the challenge to those listening is to take those varying worlds and draw them all together until the focus narrows and the beam of light pinpoints the baby and we hear perhaps for the first time, the words of the prophet Isaiah on this Christmas Eve — For a child has been born for us, the gift of a son for us! He will take over the running of the world. His names will be Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. His ruling authority will be widespread and he will deal in fairness and right living now and forever.
As Christians of the 21st Century, ones who still believe in the power and love of the Child, we are called by God as each generation has been called to redefine the Christ Child, placing his manger in our world against the backdrop of our time and place. Only then can the old story become startlingly new and speak to us in words and ways that mean something for us.
The Apostle Paul, writing to Titus as we read in the NT, reminds us that Jesus is not just then, long ago, but Jesus is now. Paul says, “For the grace of God has appeared (that is Jesus) bringing salvation to all, leading us in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly as we wait for the blessed hope and the second coming in glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” The key words are “leading us in the present age to live lives”.
How do we identify Christ for our time? As we come adoringly to the manger, we must bring our own gifts and talents for these are the gifts the Child seeks — what is in our hearts? A loving heart is what is pleasing to God. How do we love? Not just in thought, but in word and deed. How we serve our neighbor next door and around the world? Jesus said the greatest commandment was: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind. And the second commandment is like it :You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22.36-40.
I have always found Jesus’ words in this commandment to be full of deep meaning. Jesus says we are to love God with everything we’ve got. Everything we are and hope to be we focus on loving God and then Jesus adds love your neighbor just like you love yourself. All our lives are focused on self-preservation — it is the way we are made. Jesus now take that activity and focus on your neighbor. What does that mean — love God, love your neighbor. Actually pretty simple to hear but much harder to do..
Coming to the manger to coo and ooo and ah at the baby is ok as Lon as it doesn’t end there. It must not end there. The manger in the shadow of the cross is the challenge of our faith. Baptized, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever. Christmas is a holy and sacred time when we reintegrate ourself into this world with resolution to live as we are called to live in this present age. We hear the Christmas story with different ears this year. But each year is a year like no other. We face the challenges and the hopes and the desires of each year kneeling at the manger and then moving into the world to serve.
As I make my preparations for the holiday season, I find myself taking periodic reality checks. I was struck with reality particularly hard as I sent out Christmas cards and letters and blithely signed “Happy New Year.” Last year I did the same thing never realizing the year that lay ahead of us. Now, at the end of that year, the reality of those greetings is that it means picking up the pieces and attempting to mend our world which is broken. When I read the cards this year, the language of Christmas takes on new meaning — joy, hope, love, goodness and, of course, peace. A broken world where the word “peace” is twisted and battered and in shreds.
The whole world is hurting, but the United States seems to have been hit harder than other countries and we are reeling from the economic disaster the pandemic has brought upon us. And I am reminded of the poem by Shelley entitled “Ozymandius”. Upon seeing the ruin of a mighty statue lying in the desert, the poet hears the words that are written on the wind, “We are the greatest nation. Nothing like us ever was.” But nothing remains and
“Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
And I wonder about the greeting “Happy New Year.”
If you have understandably, after this past year, turned your back on news reports, magazines and newspapers. If you say “No more politics”. Then perhaps you have not heard the analysis of the struggle that lies before us — receiving and distributing the vaccine, healing a broken government where legislative action and judicial decisions are divided to the point that trying to do some good is blocked at every turn. To wish someone a “Happy New Year”, after all 2020 has brought with fires, civil unrest, political division, and hurricanes, not even mentioning the virus, seems to me rather like the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”
In Jesus’ words to his disciples, He says, “Peace, I give to you, my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives…”. I want to grab hold of the word, “peace” and attempt to wring out of it any hope for the new year. And lo and behold, there it is. Do you know the Greek myth about Pandora’s box? Pandora’s curiosity causes her to open the box given her by Zeus. As she does all the horrors of life spill out and move into the world bringing sadness, death and destruction. Struggling to close the box, Pandora hears a soft voice saying, “Wait” and out of the box flies “Hope” to move into the world.
The “peace the world cannot give” is a hard fought peace. It means that each day of the new year we must dedicate ourselves to pick up the pieces and mend our broken world. No more blame games, no more letting someone else do the work. Money and greed, prestige and power will not make 2021 a “Happy New Year”. It is going to take diligence and the recognition of a hard-won peace to rebuild. We have to lay aside political differences and gender and race and think about helping this world and our country be a place where everyone matters, dedicating ourselves to the lost and the struggling and the poor. We are in this struggle as one humanity. Only then can we return to being a beacon for the world through our generosity, our welcome and our allegiance to freedom and democracy.
Howard Thurman, American author, philosopher and social justice activist wrote a Christmas blessing that stirs my heart and helps me re-orient myself in the right direction each time I read it:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart
Let the work of Christmas begin!
Let’s begin it together!