Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bright Hope in the Bronx

Jonathan Kozol's book, "Amazing Grace," is about his interviews with children living in the worst areas of the Bronx in New York City.

Thirteen-year-old Anthony Green wrote him this description of a future heaven as he envisioned it:

God will be there. He’ll be happy that we have arrived! People shall  come in hand in hand. It will be bright, not dim and glooming like here on earth. All friendly animals will be there, but no mean ones.

As for television, forget it! If you want vision, you can use your eyes to see the people that you love. No one will look at you from the outside. People will see you from the inside. 

All the people from the street will be there. My uncle will be there and he will be healed. You won’t see him buying drugs, because there won’t be money. Mr. Mongo will be there too. You might see him happy for a change. The prophets will be there, and Adam and Eve, and all the disciples except Judas... 

No violence will there be in heaven. There will be no guns or drugs or IRS. You won’t have to pay taxes. 

You’ll recognize all the children who have died when they were little. Jesus will be good to them and play with them. At night he’ll come and visit at your house. God will be fond of you. 

How will you know that you are there? Something will tell you, "This is it! Eureka!" If you still feel lonely in your heart, or bitterness, you’ll know that you’re not there.

Tragically, Anthony Green was shot and killed three years later on Beekman Avenue, in the worst part of the Bronx.

There’s just got to be a city with safe streets of solid gold for people like him.

Monday, December 26, 2011

When the Work of Christmas Begins

Writer Esther Gillette eloquently describes Christmas as 

with haloed ray
quietly giving 
 itself away

Christmas is, indeed, a light that keeps on shining, a gift that keeps on giving, as Howard Thurman has written:

When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and 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 everywhere.

May the good work of Christmas begin in each of us.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Eve reflection

Growing up on a farm I can especially identify with the following piece by one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry. His reference to "April morning's light" suggests the kind of spring-like warmth that breaks into this otherwise wintery scene.

This is from his book "The Timbered Choir" (Counterpoint, 1998):

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own white frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

We wish you and yours the very best this Christmas season,

Harvey and Alma Jean

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Mere $110,000 a Day in Spending Money

He'll judge the needy by what is right,
render decisions on earth's poor with justice.
              (Isaiah 11:4a the Message)

Blessed are you who are poor, 
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be satisfied.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
             (Luke 6:20, 21, 24, 25 NIV)

According to Forbes magazine, there now are well over 400 billionaires in the U.S., and 3.1 million millionaires. And their numbers--along with their assets--are on the rise, even as millions of the rest of their fellow citizens are losing jobs, homes and health benefits.

In an article entitled “Breaking the Spell of Money” in the July/August 2011 issue of Orion magazine, Scott Russell Sanders has us imagine what a billionaire (and many of these actually own multiple billions) could do with his or her wealth:

Suppose you keep a billion dollars under your mattress, where it will earn no income, and you set out to spend it; in order to burn through it all within an adult lifetime of, say, fifty years, you would have to spend $1.7 million per month, or $55,000 per day. If you took your billion dollars out from under the mattress and invested it in long-term U.S. Treasury bonds at current rates, you could spend $40 million per year, or $110,000 per day, forever, without touching your capital. It so happens that $110,000 is a bit more than twice the median household income in the United States. If you do the math, you will find that the twenty-five hedge fund managers who pulled in $26 billion last year claimed an income equivalent to roughly 500,000 households, or some 2 million people.  

But these persons, we’re being told by some, are the nation’s “job creators,” therefore we dare not burden them with even slight increases in taxes or government regulations, lest we inhibit growth and further endanger our economy.

Dare not what?

Try telling something like that to Amos, Micah or any of the Hebrew prophets. Or run that by Jesus, or try convincing his young mother Mary, who in her “Magnificat” boldly announces:

He casts the mighty from their thrones
and raises the lowly.

He fills the starving with good things,
and sends the rich away empty.

For a real mind boggler, a Libertarian candidate for Congress in our area sent me a link to a YouTube piece regarding a “$100 million dollar penny,” which helps us see how obscene--and insane--hoarding this kind of wealth really is (Note: You may or may not be interested in the controversial points made at the end of the clip on how some of the wealth of our nation is being managed, a subject I'll not weigh in on here).

Having said all of the above, to our world neighbors who are actually starving, many of us could be seen as the world's 1% who are way beyond blessed. At Christmas, we must gift with that in mind.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

In Barbara Robinson’s "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," six members of the Herdman family, "absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world," somehow finagle their way into getting lead parts in the Second Presbyterian Church’s annual Christmas play, one that hadn’t seen any changes for as long as anyone could remember.

But to these uninhibited, stringy-haired newcomers to the church, everything in the story was new, and represented high drama. Pint-sized Gladys, who got the part of the "Angel of the Lord,’" bellows out, "Hey, Unto you a child is born!" as though it was indeed the most urgent news in the world. Leroy, one of the Wise Men, brings in the Herdman’s food-basket ham as his gift for the Christ child (instead of the fake gold, frankincense and myrrh he considered an unworthy offering). And terrible Imogene, as Mary, protested in practice, "You mean they tie him up and put him in a feedbag? Where was the Child Welfare?" (the Herdman’s knew all about Child Welfare).

But on the night of the play--one everyone thought would be ruined by the Herdmans--scraggly little Imogene Herdman was awestruck.

"In the candlelight her face was all shiny with tears and she didn’t even bother to wipe them away. She just sat there--awful old Imogene--in her crookedy veil, crying... as if she had just caught onto the idea of God, and the wonder of Christmas."

Maybe we all, like the Herdman’s, need to start over, hear and experience the story afresh.

P.S. Here are links to two recent provocative posts on the "Our World Together" blog, plus one to access Pastor Phil Kniss's 12/18/11 sermon at Park View Mennonite on "Occupy Bethlehem":

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Invented, United People

Once you were not a people,
but now you are the people of God.
- 1 Peter 2:10 a

For he himself is our peace,
who has made the two (Jews and Gentiles) one,
and has destroyed the barrier,
the dividing wall of hostility.
                                  Ephesians 2:14

There before me was a great multitude that no one could count,
from every nation, tribe, people and language,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
                                   Revelation 7:9-11

In the Christian tradition, Christmas becomes a part of the fulfillment of the dream of the Hebrew prophets, a quiet proclamation of a vision of nations beating their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, an announcement of "peace on earth and good will toward all." It is an expression of God's plan for all people to become united as children of one Creator, not through the force of God as warrior, but the love of God as Lamb.

On a more mundane level, I submitted the following thoughts in a letter to the Daily News-Record yesterday:

Editor, DNR:

Like many others, I was struck by candidate Newt Gingrich's recent reference to Palestinians as "an invented people." While he is not alone in opposing the two-state solution (actually favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many of his fellow Israelis), I'm wondering how he defends our own country's founders who, in the name of "we, the people," insisted on being recognized as a sovereign nation in spite of not being of one culture, language or national origin.

I've always thought it was a good thing that the original colonists represented a mix of Germans, Irish, English, Swiss, Scotch, Dutch, French and other people of all social classes. And that among them were Dunkards, Catholics, Jews, Methodists, Mennonites, Baptists, Congregationalists, Anglicans, Amish, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Freemasons, Deists and yes, even a group of Muslims from Morocco (down in Charleston, I'm told). Yet many of these diverse folks came together to "form a more perfect union," a great "invention," if you please.

If I understand Gingrich correctly, only native Americans should have had the right to form a sovereign state on this soil. Tragically, they were excluded and decimated. And African-Americans, sadly, were subjugated and denied any right to citizenship for decades.

When will we learn to truly proclaim liberty and justice for all?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Celebrating the Real St. Nicholas

Some years ago I read about Mike Sherer, a Lutheran minister, who with his wife Kathe, a registered nurse, decided to celebrate Christmas without Santa Claus when their first child was three years old. They had come to see Santa as little more than a prop for the great North American Christmas Marketing Machine, and so decided to focus instead on his venerable ancestor, the real life St. Nicholas.

This third century bishop of Myra, who lived on the southern coast of what is now Turkey, became legendary for his generosity in helping the poor and needy in his parish, according to stories about him passed down through the generations.

Because this real saint seemed to be a good alternative to the jolly old elf of recent invention, the Sherers have begun celebrating the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, which is on December 6, as an early part of their family’s Advent, and each year designate 5% of their December income to give anonymous help to a needy individual or family in their community, in the spirit of the good bishop of Myra.

They do put up a tree, but cover the floor all around it with good books about Christmas instead of the many other gifts for themselves that used to accumulate there. The books they then put away each year with the tree decorations, to give them a rest and to make them “new” each Advent.

The Sherers report that their giving up a fake Santa for a real saint they feel embodies the true spirit of Christmas has been a richly satisfying change, one they would recommend to everyone

The above is adapted from one of my 90-second radio spots aired on the following stations: 
WEMC 91.7 FM 11:58 am (M-F) Sun 7:58
WBTX 1470 AM 9:20 am 4:20 pm (M-F)
WNLR 1150 AM 11:28 am (M,W,F)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Wise Brain and the Wild Brain

we’re all born with ancient brains from back when we hunted on the plains,

and though an awful lot has changed, we still chase the things we chase:

salt, sugar, sex, starch, fat and love—we crave all of the above,

and it feels right when we find them, but we can never get enough...

                                                                  Brad Yoder, 2011, all rights reserved

Sometimes I show the above diagram to a client to illustrate how we humans tend to make decisions, wise and otherwise.

The lower part of the brain, the subcortex, I point out, is the part of our complex nervous system that is much like that of the rest of God’s creatures. It is the primitive, reactive part of the brain designed to help us survive, the part that generates the arousal needed for our “fight or flight” responses to perceived threats. It’s an important asset when there is a fire, an accident or any other immediate or possible danger, and is also the part of us that regulates body functions and urges us to satisfy our cravings for food, drink and sex. 

The higher brain, the neocortex, represents our amazing capacity for reflection, reasoning and creative problem-solving, and in my opinion is the part of us that most represents the image of God. It is here that we can make wise and thoughtful decisions, "wise" representing the kinds of actions we will later feel the least remorse about, and "foolish" being the kinds of impulse-based behaviors about which we are most likely to have profound regrets.

It is of course possible for this higher brain to come up with all kinds of nefarious and unwise schemes as well, depending on the moral values of the individual.

At any rate, when the lower part of our brain is highly activated, is in that impulsive mode in which strong feelings of fear, anger, or desire are escalating, the upper brain is half shut down, is more likely to just be ignored or bypassed. Which may be called for, even lifesaving, in case of a real emergency requiring immediate and drastic action, but catastrophic in life situations that call for careful choice-making.

All too often we humans tend to overreact to situations, perceiving them as crises when they simply represent normal problems. As a result we find ourselves behaving inappropriately, from the reactive rather than the reflective cortex of our brain.

All of the above is vastly oversimplified, of course, in that our brains are far more complex than I’ve described, but I still see this as a helpful picture to keep in mind. We’re surely better off being mindful of which part of our brain is calling the shots, and to make sure we are making wise, life-enhancing choices we’ll feel best about--and blessed by--one, ten or fifty years from now.

So much depends on whether the wise brain or the wild brain is in charge.

Friday, December 2, 2011

An Amish Christmas

I still remember how magical the number 25 seemed on the December calendar in the living room of my childhood home. Our farm family, consisting of two hard-working parents and nine children, was dirt poor, but we celebrated Christmas in a way that could have warmed the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge himself.

Yet by today’s standards it was bare beyond belief.

So why did we experience such breath-stopping, adrenaline-rushing, sleep-
robbing anticipation of Christmas day?

Like other Amish families in our community, we had no Christmas tree, hung no holiday wreaths, displayed no Christmas lights. There were some pine cones and evergreen branches decorating our mantles and window sills, but that was about it.

The carefully wrapped presents we had made or bought from our meager means were kept in hiding until Christmas morning. We each knew better than to look for such treasures in the weeks prior to the 25th. Snooping would have spoiled the fun, diminished the pleasure, of our eager waiting, wondering and guessing.

The one gift from our parents we could always count on was a plate loaded with hard candy, nuts and an orange for each of us children. What made it priceless was that it was entirely our own, to be savored at leisure or consumed that very day if we wished. Other gifts from our parents were always a surprise, and especially in earlier years, were often homemade.

For example, my older siblings remember that once during the Depression (before my time) my mother made each child a pair of mittens from some reused flannel material. That was their main present. At other times there were homemade rag dolls or doll clothes, or hand made toy tractors or blocks. And it was not unusual to receive practical gifts like socks, scarves or gloves as well.
In later years there might be jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, or a set of Tinkertoys or other inexpensive playthings to be shared. Once, wonder of wonders, my Dad splurged on a small train set for the whole family to enjoy--including himself, of course, a train lover and still a child at heart.

Since our trips to town were few and our allowances non-existent, we siblings often made things for each other, like a scrapbook of pictures, an embroidered handkerchief, or a wooden knickknack of some kind, carefully sanded and varnished. Or we gathered up our meager savings and shopped at one the of 5 & 10 cent stores in Waynesboro or Staunton. We knew that each small gift would be cause for great celebration.

Family devotions on Christmas morning always included the reading of a nativity text, the timeless tale of poor folks like ourselves who were caught up in an event that still heralded “good tidings of great joy” 2000 years later. And like every other morning of the year, we knelt together in our living room as my father led in a prayer of blessing.

Today, when I compare these memories with our current Christmases, involving grandchildren surrounded by mounds of wrapping paper and boxes after having opened an abundance of purchased items, I can’t help wonder, “Who really had the most fun?”

With fewer possessions, it takes very little to give us a bundle of pleasure. Each gift is priceless. Add a few more, and the result is even more delight.  But at some point, I fear, the pleasure curve peaks, levels, and may actually decline. In our efforts to give our children and grandchildren everything we didn’t have, we may fail to give them some of the good things we did have, like experiencing great blessing in receiving small gifts. 

And like a greater capacity for joy itself.

This is the column I wrote for the Winter, 2011, issue of LIVING magazine.