Cancelled?

The other night, after enjoying my egg drop soup from Hot Wok (a local excellent Chinese restaurant), I cracked open my fortune cookie. Would I read a gem of wisdom or a glimpse into the future? Neither. It said: “you will have a successful year.”

I dropped the fortune and laughed out loud. Really? REALLY? 2020? We’d seen the accountant for the business the day before, who summed up 2020 by saying “It’s a good year if one’s still in business.” Sadly, that is true as far too many businesses (large, such as Stage Department Stores, and small, such as our former favorite Mexican Restaurant, Los Mayas) have had to close permanently. Not even an economy that was rocking and rolling at the end of 2019 survived the CoVid shutdowns.

Christmas this year has taken on a somewhat surreal aura. Some countries have embraced their inner Grinch and have “cancelled” Christmas. I understand urging people to avoid large crowds. That’s a good idea even in a garden variety flu season for people with compromised immune systems. But how does one cancel Christmas?

Every year we grumble about the commercialization of Christmas. This year I shake my head as retail outlets feature sparkly holiday wear. Where are we gonna wear the glitz this year? Matching family pajamas are quite the rage this season, as are holiday themed masks. Never doubt the power of American ingenuity when it comes to marketing even in the midst of a crisis.

I know I’m not alone when I say that the Christmas spirit has been late in visiting me. I didn’t put up the usual tree this year, just a tabletop decoration, a tiny creche, and stockings. But…no Advent music. No choir practice for Christmas. No choir at Christmas – no vocal music at all in church. The human voice is the only musical instrument crafted by God – and it is silenced.

Yesterday, music partner Joshua and I played through some Christmas music – everything from O Come all Ye Faithful to Jingle Bell Rock. My family’s Christmas Eve celebration will be substantially smaller this year, limited only to those in our “isolation pod.” We’ll play music, and yes, sing Christmas Carols. Music is a way of prayer for me. While we always need prayer, we’ve needed it more than ever in 2020.

Too, the promise of Christmas is more timely than usual: The promise of redemption, of salvation, and the mystery of grace. Christmas should remind us that the unexpected can yield miracles. The world was waiting for a savior; and it was thought that this savior would be a mighty warrior king who would save the Jewish people from the tyranny of Rome.

Instead, they got a tiny baby who grew into a man who spoke in parables, healed the sick, worked miracles, and became enraged at the money changers in the temple. He didn’t take up arms against the Romans; instead, he became a sacrificial lamb. His disciples didn’t get it until the resurrection. We don’t get it either, but such is this human lifetime, seeing through a glass darkly.

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

So much has been written by great theologians about the miracles of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. This year, though, the words of the great philosopher Dr. Seuss are most appropriate:

“Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!
IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow,
stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.
And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,
That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!”

Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Joshua and I played and sang through Christmas carols, I felt my mood lighten. It was starting to feel like Christmas. No country, no government, no one can cancel Christmas. They can try to cancel gatherings, events, etc. But Christmas? No. Christmas comes just the same, and we are blessed and redeemed because of it.

Clanging cymbals

Right now, our world is running on hatred and fear. Just look at the news (you can’t escape it), and you’ll see riots, destruction, fear spreading and a focus on division.
I am told by talking heads and pundits that I should “speak out.” Others say that I have “no right” to say anything. Don’t forget – I am also told that I should stay home to avoid being an unwitting spreader of a deadly virus. I am told that I should/should not/should/should not wear a face mask.

I’m not alone when I say that I am tired, weary, and worn out.

iris small

 

People are asking a question that is hard to answer: How do we fix the many wrongs of the world and of our society?

In this cacophony of voices crying for attention, we really need to hear this:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

~ 1 Corinthians 13:1 – 13

We usually hear this passage read at weddings.  But interestingly, Paul’s letter was sent to a church that was experiencing – you guessed it – division. It is timely, and timeless.

I’m sure many will say this approach is too simplistic and downright impossible.  Please, please – go back and read it again. Let it sink into your bones. Let this be our starting place and returning place for healing.

It’s difficult, I know. As humans, we may never have enough love. But if we draw from the endless well of the love of God, we have a never-ending supply of love and compassion. That’s what we need.

Because without love, we truly have nothing. And only with the love of God can we have any hope of making sense of this mess.

Let not your hearts be troubled.

The gospel scheduled for this coming Sunday is that of John 14. How especially appropriate is this, as we are surrounded by an almost hourly dose of fearful statistics and more stories of a virus with mysterious ways! We are inundated everywhere we turn by calls for reopening the economy / staying shut down / we will have to wear masks forever / people will die!! / suicides on the rise / businesses are failing / etc.

It seems that every utterance is one of fear or one of derision towards one school of thought or another. I hear and read comments that are diametrically opposed: We Should Already Have The Economy Opened up versus We Need To Stay Shut Down Until They Find A Vaccine. The irony here is that most people agree that this virus should not be taken lightly and we need to understand what will be the best approach for the greatest number of people. There is a point of diminishing returns, and everyone has different opinions on it – and those different opinions fuel the fires of fear.

I can’t help but wonder: If we follow Christ, then why do we fear?

AA mountain laurel

Of course, we fear for our loved ones who may be more vulnerable. We fear for ourselves, our family, friends, coworkers, those in the medical field, the folks who work at the grocery store, the baristas at our favorite coffeeshop, the folks who own and who work at our favorite restaurants and businesses, our country, and the world.

But it seems that we are forgetting the most critical thing: God’s got this.

Take a breath. God’s got this. We have a responsibility to do what we think is best – and then, let it go. Not everyone is going to agree on the same approach to this.

I keep hearing comments like “I get so angry when I see people running around without masks! They are so inconsiderate!” (Maybe they have a breathing or sinus problem that wearing a mask exacerbates. Maybe they’re trying to practice social distancing, so stay out of their way.) I also hear comments like “where are all these people going? Why are there so many cars on the road? They need to stay home!” (Maybe they’re just getting out of the house for a ride. Maybe they’re running an errand for someone who’s vulnerable. At any rate, their cooties are in their cars with them.)

Take a breath. God’s got this. All we can “control” (and I use that word lightly) is what WE do. We’re in charge of our own choices, and the rest is up to God.

Isn’t that a relief? Why are we forgetting this?

But people will die!

Well…yes. I hate the idea that I may lose someone (or my own life) to this virus, and I know we all feel that way. But have we forgotten that we all die anyway? Sure, we don’t want to go before it’s our time, but again…our time is in God’s hands.

There’s a lot of fear and disagreement about “opening up,” and I get that.

But when we fuel fear, we separate ourselves from God, and we encourage others to be separate from God.

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We focus on the fallacy that we can control this, and we can’t. Sure, we can be cautious, wash our hands, and do what we can to “flatten the curve.”  Let’s not forget that yes, there will be more deaths attributed to this virus. (There will also be more deaths attributed to auto accidents, cancer, influenza, heart disease, suicide, war, violence, etc.) As people begin to move around more, there will almost certainly be an increase in infections. Don’t forget the idea of the shutdown was to not overwhelm the medical system, and we’ve been successful with that.

We don’t have to live in fear. Importantly, we don’t have to wield fear as a weapon to “make people behave.” We don’t have to judge others or make them examples of our righteousness if they don’t behave as we (or some expert) thinks they should behave. We might do well to remember that the models we’ve seen have been wrong, and that logic tells us we should be cautious – but not panic.

Be not afraid. Let not your hearts be troubled. God’s got this.

Discombobulated.

We’re all a bit discombobulated these days. Even for those who are still working (I am), things feel fragmented because we really can’t count on much of anything.

Which is sort of silly when you think about it – life is never certain, and I laugh every time I hear anyone in a Covid-19 briefing say “we can’t guarantee that it will be safe to…until…” or “We won’t open up again until we can guarantee the safety of….”

Seriously? Can you EVER guarantee safety? Of course not.

But…I’m tired of the fear-mongering and the blaming that is going on. Yes, Covid-19 can be very serious. It is a strange thing, as many who get it show no symptoms, or have nothing worse than a bad cold or bronchitis. Others get it, and it’s pure torture or even deadly. I’m not downplaying the severity of this virus, and with all of the talk and numbers flying around, I’m looking at some perspective.

isolation

Perspective in isolation.

 

The models that experts and leaders point to in decision making have been notoriously wrong. We’re told that’s because we’ve been “flattening the curve.” I don’t know if that’s really the reason, because I don’t have all the data. None of us do.

 

I’m worried, though, about the toll this is taking in mental health, and there is very little talk about it. Why should I be surprised? Mental health comes into play when there is a celebrity suicide or a mass shooting, and then it goes lurking back into the shadows again. This is something that has concerned me for years; I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, no matter when/where/how/if I am practicing currently, I keep my license and continuing education active.

For perspective:

As of April 20, the CDC reports 746,625 cases of Covid 19 in the United States, with 39,083 deaths attributed to the virus. These numbers include “probable” cases. This is since 1/22/20, when that tracking began. (Note that the deaths include people who had the virus, not necessarily who died OF the virus.)

Now, let’s look at the 2017 – 18 flu season. (Yes, I know it’s not the flu. Bear with me a minute, OK?) Here are the CDC’s estimated rates of influenza-associated disease outcomes for all ages in the US:

44,802,629 infections

20,731,323 sought medical attention (that is, saw a doctor: Do I have the flu? Yep.)

808,129 hospitalized

61,099 deaths

But, as we are often reminded, Covid 19 is NOT the flu! We have a vaccine for the flu. (No, not really, but we have a sometimes-more-effective-than-others “shot” for the flu that is called a vaccine.) Wow, a good thing we have a flu shot, that keeps the numbers down to just…45 MILLION infections!!)

For more perspective, the National Safety Council notes that in 2018, 39,404 Americans died in automobile accidents.

For even more perspective, the CDC notes that every day, approximately 123 Americans die by suicide.

That’s nearly 45,000 Americans a year who choose to take their own lives.

SAVE.org (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) offers training to the public as well as to mental health and health professionals. They compile statistics from the CDC, NAMI and others, and those stats are even more grim than when I earned my MSW three decades ago.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US for all ages. (Where does Covid 19 fall? I’m just curious.) Depression affects 20 – 25% of American adults in any given year, and only half of Americans who have a major depression episode (which is VERY different from “the blues,” reactive sadness, grief, etc.) receive treatment.

new gym

What will each day bring?

So what does this have to do with Covid 19?

My personal opinion, based on professional experience (aided by logic and an understanding of human nature) is that the effects of prolonged isolation, job loss, and downright economic disaster is going to have repercussions that may be even greater than those of the virus.

A recent article in US News & World Report noted that suicides have gone up by 35% in the last two decades. Jonathan Singer, the president of the board of directors of the American Association of Suicidology, noted that many “deaths of despair” happen in rural areas where there are fewer economic opportunities.

“Poverty breeds hopelessness, loneliness and depression, all emotions that increase the risk for suicide.”

Right now, most of the country is shut down. Following a great period of job growth and record low unemployment, many Americans were feeling optimistic about opportunities, work, and a chance to get ahead.

But now we have an economy in freefall, with over 22 million filing for unemployment, millions of Americans scared to death over a virus that hasn’t been anything like what was forecast, and poverty is getting up close and personal with a LOT of people. The models used to “predict” what was to have happened with Covid 19 haven’t been right yet.

But we can’t end these shutdowns yet! The infection rate and the death rates will go up!

BUT…the whole idea behind “flattening the curve” was to avoid overwhelming the health care system. I think we can safely say that we’ve done that. There will be people who point to increased infection rates (when things are “open” again) and say “see? We moved too soon! Disaster is on the horizon! Shut it back down again!!

The longer things are shut down, the more likely people will be to swarm everywhere they can once things are “open.” And yes, we will no doubt see more infections and , sadly, deaths. (I am interested in following the clinical trials on hydroxychloroquine. LSU is to be doing one, and they’re not alone. Fortunately, we already have a track record on that drug; it will primarily be a question of investigating its efficacy with treating Covid 19).

A prolonged economic shutdown breeds poverty…hopelessness…and loneliness. Those prone to depression and anxiety are going to have a worse struggle, and even those who aren’t “prone” to such things are likely having a tough time. (Let’s not even think about those poor souls with OCD! Hand-washing on steroids!)   If you’re worried about feeding and housing your family and you and your spouse are suddenly unemployed, you want to get back to work. For many small business owners, this economic slide means the end of their dreams.

But the danger…

Well, that’s why I included those flu numbers. We don’t freak out over the flu. We wash our hands, don’t go to work when sick, and do our best to stay healthy and not think about this deadly disease that kills tens of thousands each year. We could catch the flu, even if we had a flu shot. (It’s happened to me.)

masks upload

We do our best to stay healthy.

We don’t freak out over the prospect of dying in a car accident. We put that out of our minds, buckle up, check the rearview mirror, and drive to work.

I can promise you that somewhere in this country, right this moment, there is someone (and no doubt more than a few someones) worried, fearful, and in despair over the economic downturn. They may never have had to apply for any assistance before, and are overwhelmed with the “system” and the amount of paperwork they suddenly have to deal with.

Some are lost in the black hole of depression and desolation – and decide that’s it, and become another suicide statistic.

Stop reading for a moment and say a prayer for those souls; may their hands be paused from taking further action and may they reach out to someone for help.

Remember, risk is something we must live with every day, in everything we do. No one can guarantee our safety or wellness, not even the most respected doctors. The best any of us can do is mitigate the risk the best we can and carry on with life, and lend a helping hand to those who need it.

But please, let’s carry on with life; for ourselves, and for each other.

Holy Week: Canceled?!

Louisiana is one of the states hardest hit by CoVid-19. Consequently, we are all under a “Stay at Home” mandate – even if the local Wal-Mart parking lot indicates otherwise. Everything has been canceled, even regular Sunday church services.  Like many others, our own Epiphany church has gone to online services, calling us to a new experience of community through technology. (As I often say, technology is wonderful…when it works. Plans for streaming a live service were abandoned when the wi-fi service inside of the church proved to be less than robust. Hence, it was recorded.)

As our choir director, Leon, is safely tucked away in a neighboring state taking care of his elderly and high risk parents, I received a call from Fr. Matt asking about help with music. So last Sunday, Fr. Matt, Deacon Andrew and I gathered for Morning Prayer in a quiet church. Andrew and I played guitars and sang, and  Matthew 18:20 became very real to me.

I was reviewing guitar translations of hymns and looking ahead. Palm Sunday. Easter. Holy Week.

Holy Week. Holy –!

I can tolerate Palm Sunday without a Procession of the Palms. I can even tolerate – barely – Easter without trumpet, choir, full-on-“smells and bells,” etc.

But Holy Week without my church family?

This…is gonna be a challenge.

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It’s not the music. While Maundy Thursday is filled with music I love, most of it is easily translatable to guitar. It’s not even daily church attendance, as I don’t make it on the Monday or Tuesday. I do love the Tenebrae service on Wednesday, though.

Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what it is, except that the prospect of missing it leaves me feeling a bit lost.

Well, maybe feeling a bit lost is what Holy Week is all about.

I should know that; I’ve written songs about it. Yet this feeling of loss and of being lost are different. I know it’s nothing like Christ’s disciples felt: After an enthusiastic welcome into Jerusalem, their whole world fell apart as they watched their beloved rabbi captured, condemned in a farce of a trial, tortured and crucified. They watched, helpless, without the knowledge of what was to come. How can my own feelings possibly have anything to do with what they were experiencing?

How can my own feelings be even remotely related to what Jesus suffered and what His followers felt?

Perhaps those are questions to ponder during this upcoming Holy Week.

Our Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Jacob Owensby (affectionately known as “Bishop Jake”) sent out an email to members of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana this week, stressing the need to stay home and reminding us that we don’t stay put out of our own desire for self-preservation. Rather, we do so in order to slow the spread of the illness and to not overwhelm our medical system. He points out “This makes it possible for those needing a hospital bed and life-saving equipment to have access to them. We will literally be saving our neighbors’ lives. That sounds like love to me.”

That sounds like love to me.

Amen.

Epiphany welcomes all to our virtual worship. I’ll be posting them here.

There is a Well

Yesterday’s Gospel reading was about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, and their subsequent conversation. I’ve always been fascinated by the Samaritan woman (as you can tell from the title of this blog). She was pretty fearless.

She recognized first that He was a prophet, and when He began to speak of Spirit, she tested the waters (no pun intended) of the Messiah issue. She didn’t quite come out and say “are you the Messiah,” but spoke of the Messiah

Jesus confirmed that I who speak to you am He.

The woman left her water jar behind, a significant act in itself. Not only did she abandon her task (a critical one that had to be fulfilled on a regular basis), she abandoned her tool. Simply reading the words as written, we may get the impression that she set down her water jar and wandered into the city and chatted with some folks on the street corner.

I rather have the idea that she was blown away enough to drop everything and run. Wouldn’t you? How long had they been waiting for a Messiah? She had the proof she needed.  Not only had He spoken to her, He had spoken to her as an equal, an individual capable of grasping deep truth. He immediately treated her as a disciple.

She ran to the city. Can you imagine her breathless as she told people (the men, as John tells us, another important point) to come, see a Man who told me…could this be the Christ?

She must have had a reputation for being truthful, as people believed her words. Later, when they had seen for themselves, they came to believe what they had seen.

I wrote the lyrics first for There is a Well:

There is a well inside of me, never gonna run dry;
a deep well that’s flowing inside of me, where my soul does lie.
Some days it’s clear fresh water
Some days it’s sweet red wine
That makes my head start spinning with a love divine.
There is a well inside of me, never gonna run dry.

Well, I left the village, to fill my jar
with a thirst throughout my very soul.
And I met a man (can you understand)
He said “my water will make you whole.”
He said, You been thirsting,
I know you’ve been looking
and you’re not the only one……
so go back to the village, and sing it on the streets
the Son of Man has come!

There is a well inside of me, never gonna run dry;
a deep well that’s flowing inside of me, where my soul does lie.
Some days it’s clear fresh water
Some days it’s sweet red wine
That makes my head start spinning with a love divine.
There is a well inside of me, never gonna run dry.

Oh I thought I lost out on Salvation’s call
because a sinner oh, that’s what I am
But I drank of his living water and I heard him say
“Sister, you’re a part of the plan.”
He said, It’s a hard life
That you’ve been living
And sister, I know you’ve got the blues
But it was a new day dawning, when you woke up this morning
So go out and tell the good news!

There is a well inside of me, never gonna run dry;
a deep well that’s flowing inside of me, where my soul does lie.
Some days it’s clear fresh water
Some days it’s sweet red wine
That makes my head start spinning with a love divine.
There is a well inside of me, never gonna run dry…
There is a well inside of me, never gonna run dry.

The words came easily, but I struggled with the music for a while. Then, I realized:

She had five husbands. Obviously, this was meant to be a blues song.

CD COVER only front

And a blues song it is. You can listen to the song here.

Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving, and – dare I say it – a very American holiday. We’ve seen decorations of pilgrims and pumpkins, corn and horns of plenty. We’re used to our holidays being commercialized, and today is particularly a good day to reflect on what, exactly, this holiday means and how it began.

In 1789 (over a hundred years after “the first Thanksgiving”), George Washington issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation. I think it is particularly important to consider this document, as we are inundated in the media by claims that “God had nothing to do with the founding of America.” A recent “man in the street” video piece by The College Fix asked students whether or not it was acceptable to celebrate Thanksgiving.

“ooo. I’m leaning towards no. I feel like with, you know, the historical context, the, kind of, you know, the really awful oppression of, you know, indigenous peoples, is like the holiday is really like, praised by I think, people more like the conservative side of things, to like uphold that sort of tradition…”

“Well, the entire thing is sort of based on indigenous peoples, and [shrugs] murders of indigenous peoples”

“Ummm, no. I mean, it’s probably not as bad as Christmas or Easter…”

The reporter was at a small Christian private college in Minnesota. Are you freaking out yet? I am, and not just because of the fact that these students obviously need to take Speech 101 and remedial English. Some of the students even admit that their “standard public school education” Thanksgiving story was this great meeting between the pilgrims and the Indians where “the Indians showed ‘em how to plant corn, and obviously that’s not true.”

I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. I doubt that they learned about George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, issued 3 October 1789:

GWashThanksgiving

“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor —and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

The Proclamation goes on to specify the date of the holiday, and then that the day “be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be…”

Washington’s proclamation came a little more than a hundred years after the arrival of the Mayflower. He was closer to that history than we are, and no doubt was aware of the dreadful first winter the Pilgrims endured. He would also have been aware of the history of the native tribes that played a role in the lives of these early settlers and the warring between them. The Wampanoag did work with the settlers, and were no doubt glad to have help in their own struggles with the Iroquois (who were warring with the Wampanoag and others).

The_Mayflower_Compact_1620_cph.3g07155

The Mayflower Compact by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

The travelers had set up an agreement based on Biblical principles that would establish how they lived and worked when they settled in the New World. Laws were established that would apply to everyone, regardless of political or religious beliefs, and all property would be community property. Basically, “from each according to his ability, and to each according to his needs.” Sound familiar?

Well, after a dreadful, difficult voyage over, they settled in and got to work. And you know what happened? Their setup didn’t work. They had created this “group venture” so as to be able to repay their sponsors back in England, but it was failing, because there really wasn’t any personal responsibility.

And…this was happening with a group of Christians who believed in sharing and caring for one another. It wasn’t a bunch of criminals or shysters; if any group could have made such a socialistic setup work, it was this bunch. Fortunately for us, John Bradford, the colony’s governor, realized it wasn’t working. Instead of beating a dead horse (possibly not a metaphoric saying in this instance), he started over. Each family received a plot of land, and was able to use it as they saw fit. If they had surplus, they could sell it. If they didn’t have enough, they could buy what they needed. They had a basic capitalistic society, and it worked.

To be sure, the Wampanoag had pitched in to help them survive their first winter, and had a good relationship with the colony. But it was more than just their assistance that helped the settlers at Plymouth survive and build a colony. Religious freedom and the right to work and make one’s own success also had a lot to do with it.

For anyone disturbed by the “Americanism” of the holiday, I will remind you that while Washington himself had the good of America as his primary concern, he didn’t close out the rest of the world as he encouraged prayer to God:

“…to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Amen to that. I wish you a happy Thanksgiving.

To read George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation:

https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0091

On the 12th day of Christmas…

When asking someone “how was your Christmas?” we often receive a reply along the lines of “it was lovely! And I’m so glad it’s over!” I heard that just this morning, and on this, the 12th day of Christmas, I was reminded of something I read recently on Twitter.

It was a retweet of something posted by @theodramatist: “What are some ways that we can start reclaiming/celebrating ALL 12 days of Christmastide?”

nativity dog

How can we keep the magic of Christmas?

Responses to this tweet included ideas old and new, and some great ones at that. While the Christmas theme continues in church until Epiphany, the secular world has mostly moved on. Retailers put Christmas stock on sale Dec. 26th, and – for the most part – wishes of “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” has become “Happy New Year!”

Christian churches do, of course, stick to the liturgical calendar. And while I understand that Christmas is a busy and exhausting time for staff, how about keepin’ it “high church” for a while if that fits your congregation? (Um, incense is optional.) I had a crazy idea of a midweek carol sing – a week after Christmas. (Why not? Everyone finally has time for it!)

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A Nativity scene made from cypress knees on display at Epiphany Church, New Iberia (2018)

In recent years, my church has started doing the children’s Christmas pageant as an Epiphany pageant, which I think is a great idea. My own home decorations stay up until Epiphany. Here in the the sugar country of south Louisiana, families whose lives follow the calendar of grinding often find alternative dates to celebrate when grinding isn’t finished by Christmas (often the case).

But the feeling of relief that “Christmas is over until next year – WHEW!” is a little sad and bittersweet.

To be sure, Christmas IS a sad time for many, filled with bittersweet moments for nearly all of us. We are reminded of loved ones who are no longer with us; we are reminded of the changes in our lives and the lives of those around us. We look at the changes in the world, and (human nature being what it is), we focus on the things we lack and the things we miss while often glossing over the positive changes.

nativity 4

a handmade clay Nativity displayed at Epiphany last year

Even the wonderful things about the Christmas season (time with loved ones, community worship, giving) tend to overwhelm us, and I think it’s because we try to squeeze it all into such a short period of time!

Shouldn’t that be a good reason to remind ourselves that yes, there are twelve days of Christmastide, and we all pretty much get started celebrating Christmas during Advent anyway. So why all the stress?

Maybe it’s because we want to ignore the things that hurt us, the painful memories, and the wondering-what-next-year-will-hold. The sad irony is that the very gift of Christmas, the miracle of the Incarnation, should be the healing salve that tends the wounds of the less-than-Hallmark-perfect holiday – and so often we forget about that miracle.

nativity 1

One of the many Nativity scenes displayed at Epiphany church on our feast day

I’ll be packing up my Christmas decorations today and tomorrow, with the exception of the Nativity. (After all, the wise men don’t arrive until tomorrow, anyway.) As I do so, I’ll be revisiting the memories of Christmas past and be grateful for them. I’ll challenge myself to bring the beauty and miracle of the Incarnation into all of 2019. Tomorrow, I’ll watch our Epiphany Christmas Pageant, sing Christmas carols, and enjoy the first king cake of the season – and maybe find a plastic baby Jesus inside the cake.

I’m welcoming baby Jesus into my heart, and hope that you do, too.

Merry Christmas, and God bless us everyone.

Love came down at Christmas

Last night at the Christmas Eve service, Fr. Matt gave his usual children’s sermon about the young boy, Emmanuel, who wanted to know what language God spoke. The answer, of course, is that God’s language is love. The “grown-up sermon” changes each year, but we’ve heard Emmanuel’s story before and I’m always glad to hear it again as the message remains fresh.

Some years Christmas is hard. For some people, it’s always hard. It’s a time marked by memories and traditions, and traditions change out of necessity as life changes us and our circumstances. The season smacks us in the face with happy-ending-miracles on the Hallmark channel, and we are drenched with messages of the perfect family and the happily-ever-after. Real life is so much more messy, as families deal with dysfunction, illness, division, poverty, and those loved ones who are no longer there. (Then, there are those who have no family.)

Christmas whispers in God’s language to our weary souls, and it can be hard to hear those whispers over the din of the season. Christmas whispers of hope in a broken world. Christmas reminds us that in the face of all of the messy-ness, the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential event brings love and light. I think that God often hides miracles in plain sight. Maybe Christmas will bring healing to the sick, dignity and sustenance to the impoverished, and reconciliation to the divided. Or, maybe not just yet.

If we listen, though, Christmas brings hope, light and love. We are broken, and remain in this human condition. The media’s message of Christmas is perfection in an imperfect world; the real message of Christmas is love and redemption in spite of our imperfection.

Love came down

What a relief. I invite you to let go of the “if onlys” and the “what ifs” this season. Think about God’s gift of love to the world, even if it doesn’t seem very evident to you

Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine; Love was born at Christmas, star and angels gave the sign. – Christina Rossetti, from “Love came down at Christmas”

May you have a blessed Christmas, filled with love.

image from the Graphics Fairy blog

Paper Clip Miracles: The Children’s Holocaust Memorial

While I am a regular congregant and chorister at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in the deep south of Louisiana, I have sung for my “other church family” at Temple Gates of Prayer. The setting of the season of High Holy Days is a perfect time to share with you a miracle – that to me, just goes to show (again) how much God can do with the smallest, simplest things.

 

Over two months have passed since Joshua and I visited the Children’s Holocost Memorial in Whitwell, Tennessee. I can still barely find the words to write about it.

 

This amazing memorial is at a middle school in the mountains of Tennessee, northwest of Chattanooga. Friends Diane and Vickie suggested we visit there after we’d spent time with the sisters of the Community of St. Mary in Sewanee. I’m glad I had that dose of peacefulness to strengthen me before visiting the memorial, which still has me in awe.

 

Over the years, the 8th grade classes at Whitwell Middle School have learned about history, prejudice, and the holocaust through this amazing project that has changed hundreds of thousands of hearts and lives.
 
Whitwell pause sign

Sign at the entrance of the Memorial.


 
“You should go see this,” said our friends. “It may not be open right now, because it’s at a school, but you could at least try” and they tried to describe the Paperclip Project. In the end, Diane sent us off with a DVD that we watched later that evening.

 

Neither Bubba (Joshua) nor I said a word as we watched this nearly 2 hour long documentary. (We are never at a loss for words.) As the credits rolled, we said in unison, “we’re going.”

 

I will quote the Whitwell website to give you an idea of the Memorial:

 

“In 1998 eighth grade students at Whitwell Middle School began an after-school study of the Holocaust.  The goal of this study was to teach students the importance of respecting different cultures as well as understanding the effects of intolerance.  As the study progressed, the sheer number of Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis overwhelmed the students.  Six million was a number that  the students could not remotely grasp.  The students asked Sandra Roberts and David Smith if they could collect something to help them understand the enormity of this extermination.  The teachers told the students to ask permission of principal, Linda M. Hooper.  She gave the students permission to begin a collection, IF, they could find something to collect that would have meaning to the project.  After some research on the Internet, the students decided to collect paper clips because they discovered that 1) Joseph Valler, a Norwegian Jew is credited as having invented the paper clip and 2) that Norwegians wore them on their lapels as a silent protest against Nazi occupation in WWII.”

 

The rest, as they say, is history. The students began collecting paperclips, with the goal of 6 million paper clips. After a slow start, the idea exploded, with help in part from a German journalist husband and wife team who were working in the United States.

 

Over the following years, the students collected over 30 million paperclips from all over the world. In 2004, a documentary film was made (the DVD that Diane loaned us).

 

The project expanded exponentially, and became much more than just a class exercise. The project came to change the entire town, and impact everyone who has seen it.

 

The day that Bubba and I went was a quiet summer day, and Whitwell is off the beaten path and away from the tourist attractions of Chattanooga and Nashville. The town and school are not diverse in population, which is initially one reason why the school chose to learn about the holocaust. In addition to learning about history, there were lessons in tolerance to be learned as well.

 

We found the school, nestled on the outskirts of town. The gates to the schoolgrounds were wide open, and they were beautiful gates with artistic butterflies incorporated into their design. As we rounded the bend in the driveway, I began to wonder aloud where the memorial (which, we’d been told, was in an authentic cattle car – yes, one of those) might be near the school, behind the school, or…
No need to wonder:
 
Whitwell LS for blog

Still, no words.


 
We drove up in silence. The car sat on a length of track, which rested on limestone. A wheelchair friendly ramp led to the open door of the car. Butterfly bushes were planted nearby, and mosaic butterfly stones and sculptures were around the car, as was an iron fence.
 

 
On a granite monument, we read the words of the poem, The Last Butterfly:

 

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone…
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
kiss the world goodbye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto. 

 

This was written by Pavel Friedmann, dated 4.6.1942 . Pavel was born in 1921 in Prague, and was deported a couple of weeks after the poem was written. He was murdered in Auschwitz in September of 1944.
 

 
After spending a long walking in silence around the outside of the fence, Bubba finally spoke.

 

“Want to go inside?” he said. “But it’s locked,” I replied. “We can get the key. Look.” He pointed out the sign on the gate that I’d missed; the key was available at a local grocery.

 

We drove into town, sharing few words. The grocery was on the main thoroughfare, and I pulled in next to a motorcycle. “I’ll get it,” I said, grabbing my wallet. After all, they would want some ID, right?

 

“Hi, is this where I get the key to – “ the young lady smiled, said “yes m’am, here you go” and handed me a key (on a giant paperclip keychain). I stopped in midsentence.

 

“Do you need an ID, or do I need to check it out, sign anything?”

 

“Nah, just remember to bring it back when you’re done.”

 

Wow. Thank you. I got back in the car, unused to this simple, honest, open greeting.

 

We drove back to the Memorial. I walked over to an area near the parking lot, with stones lining a drainage ditch, and selected a small, smooth one. I walked along the sidewalk, and also selected a piece of limestone. We unlocked the gate, and stepped in.

 

Whitwell CCar 1
I don’t know how long we stayed . There was no sense of time. I walked around, finally getting the nerve to touch the cattlecar. It had been cleaned, repaired, and “disinfected.” The car had been used for the most nefarious of work, bringing innocent souls  to the slaughter of the camps. Blood, tears, secretions of body and of spirit were soaked into the wood. After the war, it had been adapted to use for hauling grain.

 

From hauling innocents to death, to hauling food – grain. Was it on the path to being forgotten? Or was this a metaphor as well?

 

Whitwell door

 

I expected the wood to scream at me, saturated with grief and terror. Yet, it didn’t scream as I’d anticipated. It whispered, and I couldn’t quite make out the whispers. It wept. I walked around the outside of the car, the open doors eye level with me. I left one piece of limestone on the outside of the car, and saw where many other visitors had left their stones of remembrance.

 

Whitwell rocks

 

I saw life in the butterfly garden. One memorial stone was placed in honor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were murdered by the Nazis. Coincidentally, about the same time as I visited this memorial, my mother was back home, having coffee and visiting with a relative from New York – the daughter of a cousin who was a Jehovah’s Witness.
 

I finally walked up the ramp and into the car. The doors were both open, and the sides were partitioned off by plexiglass.

 

Behind the plexiglass were 11 million paperclips.

 

Whitwell not forget you

 

Clearly, the paperclips were from all over. Not all were “standard American paperclips.” There were plastic ones, differently-curved ones, from all over the world. Tucked in with the paperclips were other memorials:

 

~A vintage, battered suitcase from a school in Germany filled with letters from German students, written to Anne Frank.

 

~Kippahs from Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, adorned with paperclips.

 

Whitwell kippahs

 

~Books, and a copy of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

 

Whitwell Mourners Kaddish
~A beautiful Mezzuzah, sent from a Jewish Congregation (in Ohio, I think) was on the door of the car. God’s word welcomed all who entered, regardless of faith.

 

Whitwell Mezzuzah

 

Above the paperclips, a sign read:

Whitwell inside

Sign above the paperclips, and the suitcase from schoolchildren in Germany. My own reflection, witnessing.

 

Standing in this car, I wondered how many thousands of souls were forced to ride it, in misery and terror. Today, this cattlecar stands as testimony and reminder: Never again. It serves as a focal point for former, current, and future students who are all involved in the Paperclip Project. Students greet visitors, give tours, answer questions. The heart of this project has grown to encompass the entire community of Whitwell, and people all over the world; art blossoms at this Memorial, reflecting the desire to be a part of this reminder, this hope, this healing.

 

Whitwell my rock

 

I left another stone at the edge of the paperclips, and prayed. As much of the Mourner’s Kaddish as I could remember,  Hail Holy Queen, and the words of my heart. (After all, what else is an Episcopalian with Catholic roots who says “my other church is a synagogue” going to do?)  It’s all God, after all, and prayer is prayer. I prayed, and I listened, actually somewhat confused at what I was feeling and at what I was not feeling. One thing was certain: I will not forget. 

 

I was anticipating angst, fear, horror.
I felt horror…but also some calm, peace, hope, and healing.

 

The lives lost can never be regained. Yet the healing power of this project which grew into an international effort cannot be denied. I was left awestruck by the power of a simple paperclip and a desire to make a difference, no matter how small.
Whitwell touch
As I write, I recall reading something about a man who bartered his way to a house, starting with only a paperclip. The students of Whitwell Middle School started with an idea, and a simple paperclip. Even the smallest thing, teamed with love and vision, can make a huge difference.

 

We were leaving, and had locked up the gate when another car drove up. Somehow, we found our voices to greet the newcomers.  “Get ready,” Bubba said to them. “It’ll hit you.”

 

“I know,” replied the young woman. She told us that she was a teacher, who came to visit the Memorial every summer.

 

We unlocked the gate for them, and brought the key back to the grocery. “We unlocked it for someone who got there when we were leaving,” I told the young lady at the register. “They said they’d lock it when they left, unless someone else came by.”

 

“That’s fine,” she said.

 

“Thank y’all for keeping that key available,” I said as I left. “Being able to walk inside was – incredible.” She smiled. I had no words; it was hard enough to find those.
 
Whitwell childrens sculpture

Artwork at the Children’s Holocaust Memorial

I’ve thought of two words to describe the Children’s Holocaust Memorial: Healing Miracle.

 

Beyond that, you’ll have to visit it yourself, and I urge you to do so.

 

The Last Butterfly accessed from:
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