On this 4th of July, bitter divisions are markedly and grievously evident among so-called fellow Americans. Is the Covid-19 pandemic intensifying in our country? Or is it actually winding down? Do some of our methods of governing, policing and even voting exacerbate inequality ? Or is the playing field, in this land of opportunity, truly and gloriously level for all Americans?
More than ever, answers to such questions depend upon our perspective. Our perspective, more than ever, influences where we choose to find our information, and what we perceive as fact or fiction. And where we choose to find our information, in turn, reinforces our perspective. If we associate almost exclusively with those whose opinions echo ours, our perspective is further fortified, and our views increasingly justified.
Have you ever held firmly to a belief, certain without a doubt of the righteousness and correctness of your conviction? And then, perhaps in response to an unexpected observation, or a comment by a friend, or a passage in a book, be prompted to rethink that conviction? And in so doing, to watch the sure foundation develop cracks and crumble to dust?
I’m recently been reconsidering some of my long-held viewpoints. Most of us probably hold fast to some beliefs that need to be reevaluated. Some of the “truths” we espouse may be opinions based on flawed premises. An openness to new ideas implies a willingness to rethink. Changing one’s mind may not be evidence of weakness of will or intellect, but instead, of humility that leads to wisdom. We should be wary of those in leadership positions who claim otherwise. Let’s not be led astray by those who actively seek to magnify rather than diminish the divisions between us.
On July 4th, we celebrate our nation’s founding principles of liberty and justice for all. Shouldn’t we ask ourselves this: Do we really want these ideals to apply to everyone? Or only to ourselves? Is it liberty and justice for all? Or liberty and justice for me? Let’s reexamine our perspectives. Let’s be humble as we try to understand those of others. We can work toward unity while honoring diversity. Our country has done this before. We can do it again.
Oh beautiful, for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.
Memorial Day has one foot on solemn, hallowed ground and one in a carnival tent. It’s a time for honoring and remembering those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in serving our country. It’s the kickoff to summer fun. It’s flag-draped coffins, wreaths laid on graves, and quiet green fields marked with rows upon rows of neat white stones. It’s barbecues, pool parties, and family reunions. It’s a time to mourn. It’s a time to party. It’s a time to raise a glass in a somber, earnest toast. It’s a time to drink with joyful abandon, perhaps to the point of forgetting.
This Memorial Day is unlike no other. It’s topped with an extra layer of melancholy. The number of American lives lost to Covid-19 approaches, in less than three months, the inauspicious milestone of 100,000. As of publication of this post, the figure stands at 98,034. Among the deceased are those who survived past wars but were no match for this invisible enemy, a shape-shifting virus.
Today, when we honor our war dead, we also pay tribute to those who have lost their battle with a new, confounding foe. We lament the fact that this summer is likely to be short on carefree fun. But it could be empowering to view our actions (and our avoidance of certain actions) as tactical responses in our collective Covid fight. Every time we wear a mask at the grocery, or don’t get together with a big group of friends, don’t travel to visit family, every time we keep plenty of space between us and those we meet, we’re being zealous soldiers. We’re fighting the good fight. It may also help to remember, when we forego an activity that used to give us particular pleasure, that we’re fighting not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones and neighbors.
What I missed most, this Easter during Covid-19 isolation, was singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” among my fellow worshipers at my home church. I missed looking around during the joyful song, exchanging smiles with friends who have become family over the past twenty years. I missed seeing our modest, pleasant sanctuary nearly full for a change. (As in most mid-sized churches in our area, attendance declines yearly.) Charles Wesley’s majestic hymn, the words written in 1739, remains the quintessential anthem of Easter triumph. Our talented organist knows how to do it justice. I can hear the music resounding beyond the church walls. I can imagine that those walking by outside wonder, momentarily at least, if they’re missing something worthwhile. My favorite verses are the second and third:
Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once he died, our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!
This Easter Sunday, during Covid-19 isolation, our family didn’t go to church, of course. Instead, church came to us. My husband, our daughter, my mother and I gathered in front of the TV for our local church’s online worship service. After that, we joined former neighbors remotely for the service from the Atlanta church I grew up in. We got a special treat when the pastor made a tour of our old Morningside neighborhood, the familiar parks and streets of my childhood quiet and uncrowded during this unprecedented time. We felt a renewed connection to dear friends, and to a place we called home, which we haven’t seen since my mother’s relocation to Virginia nearly three years ago. We heard two pastors speak movingly of the renewing, life-giving power of God’s love.
Across the country, ministers, church staff and dedicated volunteers have been scrambling to “do church” in a social distancing world, and it’s a challenging work in progress. But by its very nature, online worship, extending any local church’s reach far beyond the boundaries of any brick-and-mortar sanctuary, should send this emphatic message: If God’s love can’t reach across the miles and over the ages to warm cold hearts, change attitudes and offer hope, then what can? In the words of the classic children’s song: The church is not a building. It’s certainly not supposed to be a cushy clubhouse for an exclusive clique of like-minded, self-congratulatory, dogmatic ideologues. Yet that is the impression that some of the loudest voices identifying as Christian are spreading, if perhaps sometimes unwittingly. What church-goer has not heard the criticism of Christians as judgmental hypocrites? What church-goer can wholeheartedly profess that such a criticism is unwarranted? Can we seize the moment and actively work to chip away at this image? Could it be that the new reality of Covid-19 is the prompt, the burr under the saddle, that will get us moving to change this perception?
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted an uncomfortable truth that most of us would prefer to ignore: health and long life are not guaranteed, not even to the youthful and hearty. Confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US have exceeded one million. Nearly 62,000 Americans have died from the virus. While some people may feel a sense of security because their community, far from Covid hot spots, has remained relatively untouched, this could change. The safety net, if not illusory, is fragile and easily torn. Death is no longer the rare visitor, as we like to pretend. Instead, it lurks nearby, sometimes brushing elbows with us when we least expect it. Many people are alone, and lonely. Some struggle with despair and depression. Others are sharing uncomfortably close quarters, and nerves are fraying. Some may be justifiably fearful, as domestic violence is on the rise. Many are plagued by financial insecurity made extreme by sudden job loss. Thirty million people filed for unemployment in the last six weeks. Others, still employed, risk their own health daily as they perform their “essential” but poorly paid tasks. The mood of anxiety is not likely to lessen as states open or prepare to do so. It will not be “business as usual” for a long time.
If only the sad and the hurting could receive a message of love, of assurance, of hope. If only there were some group of unique individuals who might send out such a message, to help transmit rays of much-needed light and comforting warmth when they are so badly needed.
If only churches and those who used to find themselves regularly in church on Sunday mornings could rise to the challenge.
Let’s give it a try.
Let’s emulate the example of Jesus in our words and actions. Like the friend, brother, teacher and savior we honor in our name as Christians, let’s live by the words of the prophet Micah (6:8), and “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Let’s embody kindness, empathy and compassion. Let’s leave aside our tendencies to debate the fine points of theology, and maybe even our determination to prove that the Bible (and therefore “we” as opposed to “them”) are “right.” Let’s refrain from referring to people with whom we disagree as “Godless.” Let’s try, even when it makes us squirm as we abandon our customary high ground, to leave the judgement to God. And let’s ensure that our church’s online presence is in sync with our actions. That it emphasizes forgiveness, inclusiveness, and transformative love.
May we “church folks” be a light in the darkness as we share the hope that springs from the certainty of God’s abiding love and saving grace for us, his flawed, often flailing, and all too human children. Who knows how many worried and sorrowful hearts we might touch?
It’s January 7th, 2020. The Christmas season is officially over. For our family, it was a happy and busy one. We felt fortunate to welcome our daughter home from college for an extended stay, as well as to have my mother living next door. I didn’t find the time for writing more than one quick Christmas post. But the message of Christmas is one to live by every day. And the gift of Christmas is persistent. It waits to be received, regardless of the time of year. So, a look back on Christmas Eve, and a look ahead, with hope for the future.
The familiar, expected beasts were all there at the nativity on Christmas Eve. There was the furry, gray-brown burrow, always a crowd favorite. The humble image of patience, fortitude and forbearance, this little donkey reminds us of the one that may have carried young Mary and her unborn child to Bethlehem many years ago.
Two fluffy sheep quietly munched on hay. The two goats took more curious notice of the onlookers around them. They remind us that ordinary farm animals likely witnessed the holy birth.
There were a few dogs, including Kiko, who was fortunate in meeting a kindly shepherd girl who allowed him to wander at will among the other furry creatures. Maybe those original shepherds brought with them a sheepdog or two? I’m not certain where the scholarship stands on this point. No shepherd would benefit from a dog like Kiko, who lacks the herding instinct as well as any semblance of a work ethic. Come to think of it, our dog’s interest in other living beings is confined largely to the smells they leave behind.
Sweet Delilah the camel, on the other hand, seems to truly enjoy social interaction with her animal companions, as well as with her human admirers. This year, as always, she snuggled enthusiastically with kids and old folks, and posed for endless pictures.
With such a remarkable menagerie so close at hand, the human presence may take a back seat at a live nativity. But those wearing the costumes of Mary and Joseph remind us that God chose to send his son to be born not to the rich and powerful, but to a couple who counted themselves among the working poor. Those dressed as shepherds recall the lowly field workers who were the first to be summoned, and by angels, no less, to receive the joyful, life-changing news of a savior’s birth. The so-called Magi, like their camel, would not have made an appearance at the stable in Bethlehem. These wealthy pagan astrologers from the East arrived months or perhaps even years after the birth, when Jesus and his parents were living in some modest home, perhaps in Nazareth. But they’re included in nativity scenes to signify that this baby, born to obscure observant Jews of the artisan class, is God’s gift to all people, regardless of heritage or ethnicity, and to all generations.
The point of the Christmas narrative, of course, is this baby. In our nativity, the newborn Jesus is represented by a mere doll, which, in terms of purely visual interest, cannot begin to compete with so much furry, four-legged charm. This unremarkable doll is an inadequate place-holder not simply for a real baby, but for a miraculous union of the human with the divine. The baby Jesus is, according to the Gospel of John, God’s Word, the Word through which everything was created, newly manifested in human form.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. –John 1:14
God loves us so much that he sent his son to live out the human experience as our brother and friend. Jesus pointed the way, through example, showing us how to claim our kinship with him and our inheritance as children of God. Jesus didn’t bring a message of complicated theology and countless esoteric rules to follow. The essence of his message, emphasized repeatedly throughout the years of his earthly ministry, is disarmingly simple:
Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. –John 13: 34-35
The essential message of Christmas is simple, too. God’s great love breaks down all barriers, of geography, race, gender, of social and economic class. We humans are skilled builders of artificial and arbitrary barriers, but there is not one that can withstand the sheer force of goodness that is God’s love. God loves us all. And he wants us to love each other.
He has created us to do so:
In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. –John 1: 1 -5
So therefore, the light of God is present in all creation.* I like to think I can sense the divine spark shining within every humble beast at our live nativity, as well as in all our animal friends. What are they, anyway, but God’s beloved creatures?
That seed of holy light has been implanted in every one of God’s human children. With the kindness and compassion that have their source in God our Father, let us do our best to kindle the divine spark within ourselves. Let us nurture and share the warmth of that light with our neighbors, near and far. With those who look and think like us, and with those who don’t. Let us resist quick judgement, avoid pettiness, and act with generosity of spirit.
Let us love one another. We were made for this.
*This idea is explored powerfully and beautifully by Richard Rohr in his 2019 book, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe.
December, always the quickest month, has flown by with even greater speed than usual this year. Suddenly, our daughter is home, half-way through her third year at the University of Virginia. We’re wrapping presents. And it’s Christmas Eve.
Kiko, as usual*, has positioned himself squarely in the center of it all. (He’s the Milford Plaza of dogs.) Evidently, he suspects something very good is brewing. If only he could stay awake But the pull of sleep is strong and inviting. His head nods, and his body sways as he attempts to resist.
Sleep wins out.
Rolls of decorative paper make a comfy pillow on a sun-drenched carpet. I finish the wrapping, walking carefully around him. Soon I’ll wake him up and we’ll head over to the live nativity at our church. And that means it’s really, truly Christmas Eve.
On this Veterans Day, on the Main Streets of small towns across our country, banners honoring currently serving military men and women continue to fly from flag-decked lamp posts. Typically, these hometown hero banners wave from May to November. In the charming Eerie Canal village of Spencerport, New York, they had been newly installed when we visited family over Memorial Day. As the leaves fell, the weather cooled and the time changed, I wondered if the banners were still in place. My sister-in-law Julie told me that they were indeed there along Union Street, and she sent some pictures.
Spring and summer have come and gone. Fall has all but made its exit. In upstate New York, as Thanksgiving approaches, a gray icy chill descends. Snow, and lots of it, is likely on the way. And still the soldiers gaze down on the streets of the towns they call home. They’re mostly young. They wear their dress uniforms. What’s in their expressions? Hope, apprehension, dread, determination, courage, trepidation, resolve, regret?
Here in Northern Virginia, Kiko and I spent some time in a small cemetery near our home on this unseasonably warm Veterans’ Day. The customary sounds of a suburban autumn–the leaf-blowing, tree-trimming, power-washing, and traffic–they’d fallen silent for a while. Kiko surprised me by not insisting on trying to venture out into the street beyond. Instead, he settled on a hill. Beside him, flags decorated several graves, as did one little pumpkin. Except for the occasional rustling of a falling leaf, the stillness around us was deep and comforting, like a blanket.
Veterans Day here in America evolved from Britain’s Armistice Day, first observed on November 11, 1919, to commemorate the cessation of fighting in World War I, which had occurred a year to the day before. It has come to be known as Remembrance Day in Britain. President Eisenhower changed the name of the US holiday to Veterans Day in 1954, designating it as a time to honor all our military men and women, including those who fought in World War II and Korea.
Veterans Day serves as a reminder of the very human cost of war. May we be resolute in our honor of those who have served and now serve in every branch of our military. May we remember that, as the seasons change, our soldiers yet remain far from home, in remote and inhospitable locales, often perceived as the enemy even when their mission is dubbed a peacekeeping one. Many hometown heroes banners are likely to be removed soon to make way for Christmas and holiday decorations. Let us not forget the ongoing sacrifice when those bright young faces no longer look down on us from Main Street flagpoles. And may we use the power of our vote to demand that we reflect on the past and learn from mistakes. May we elect representatives who seek to comprehend, and when possible, avoid, the truly inestimable cost of war.
For my Memorial Day post from Spencerport, see here.
Last year, Slim and the pack managed to fit in a quick road trip to Charlottesville on Halloween afternoon to mix with the University of Virginia community during Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn. This year, due to the threat of severe thunderstorms, the event was postponed until November 1. While the Skeleton Crew wasn’t in attendance, our daughter was, and she sent some photos.
The evening was clear, chilly and gorgeous in the wake of the previous night’s heavy rain. It attracted a big crowd from the university and the town.
Since the 1980s, the University has invited Charlottesville families to bring their children to trick or treat at each of the rooms on the Lawn and the West Range. These are the historic student accommodations dating from Jefferson’s original plan for his University’s Academical Village. Candy is donated by many student organizations.
The Rotunda, glowing like a lantern in the dusk.
Our daughter and a friend.
The moon rises. Twilight deepens. Time for little ghouls and goblins to head home. If my college experience counts for anything, I’ll assume that, for the students, Halloweekend festivities were only beginning.
For last year’s post on Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn, see here.
On Halloween night, the storm held off here until our last trick-or-treater had come and gone. The torrential rain and howling wind that followed only heightened Slim’s jubilant mood. He gleefully deemed it perfect Halloween weather. Well, it was too hot, he admitted, but that just made it feel more eerie.
When Friday arrived with a crisp chill and glorious sunshine, Slim was equally bubbly. “Now this is fall!,” he exclaimed. “Feels like October! Or November!” And when my husband presented him with a Washington Nationals cap, he had yet another cause for celebration.
Slim was thrilled to be out and about during such an unprecedented sporting event. Did I know Slim had some amazing baseball stories? Including some involving a few of his buddies who happened to play with the Senators during their greatest year in 1924? I do now.
He and the gang had been in a deep sleep in May of 2018 during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory, so this home team win was all the more precious. When Slim learned that the Caps were playing in DC on Sunday night, with the triumphant and festive Nationals in attendance, he caught yet another wave of enthusiasm. Soon he was outfitted in a combo of Caps and Nats gear. He pleaded and cajoled to try on my husband’s hockey skates, but H, accommodating though he may be, had to deny the request. He’s picky about blade maintenance. Our daughter’s were off limits for the same reason. I volunteered my figure skates, but Slim kindly said no thanks.
Slim’s many talents do not include hockey, but he has been a superb skater, in the Hans Brinker style. Some of his favorite memories involve skating on the frozen river, with my maternal grandparents, in Kentucky when they were teens. One year it got so cold that they could skate from Bradfordsville to Louisville. Oh, the bonfires along the banks! Oh, how Slim (and Sam, my grandfather) impressed the pretty girls with their style and speed!
Slim hadn’t seen a hockey game in decades, and the nonstop action had him on the edge of his seat. He made us promise that, come spring, if the Capitals are in the playoffs, we must wake him up!
From Slim and the pack:
Congrats Nats! Fight finished! And belatedly, congrats, Caps! Rock the Red!
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.