Monday, December 6, 2010

We Need A Little Christmas Now

The Feast of Saint Nicholas,
4th Century Bishop

Today's observance is one that should not be overlooked.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

The passage of time may have obscured his life into legend, but the most important thing to remember today is that Nicholas, the archetype of our present-day iconic Santa Claus, was indeed a real person who walked the earth.

Wilson's Almanac is an online reference source I use when it comes to the lesser observed celebrations of the Season of Light. Here we find the following - and I've included just a few 'tip of the iceberg' tidbits:

Nicholas (Nikolaus) (c. 270 - 345/352) became a Bishop of Myra in Lycia, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) when quite young. Among Christians, he is known as the 'Wonderworker'. Several acts of kindness and miracles are attributed to him. He has always been a very popular saint: in England at least 372 churches are named in his honor.

Nicholas's early activities as a priest are said to have occurred during the reign of co-ruling Roman Emperors Diocletian (reigned 284 - 305) and Maximian (reigned 286 - 305) from which comes the estimation of his age. Diocletian issued an edict in 303 authorizing the systematic persecution of Christians across the Empire. Following the abdication of the two Emperors on May 1, 305, the policies of their successors towards Christians were different. In the Western part of the Empire, Constantius Chlorus (reigned 305 - 306) put an end to the systematic persecution upon receiving the throne. In the Eastern part, Galerius (reigned 305 - 311) continued the persecution until 311 when, from his deathbed, he issued a general edict of toleration. The persecution of 303 - 311 is considered to be the longest in the history of the Empire. Nicholas survived this period, although his activities at the time are uncertain. He was present at the Council of Nicaea (325) and it is said that he punched Arius on the jaw. (Arius was the promulgator of the Arian heresy, which was condemned during that council session.)

Enemy of the old religion

The destruction of several pagan temples is also attributed to him, among them one temple of Artemis (also known as Diana). Arguing that the celebration of Diana's birth is on December 6, some authors have speculated that this date was deliberately chosen for Nicholas's feast day to overshadow or replace the pagan celebrations.

Nicholas is also known for coming to the defence of the falsely accused, often preventing them from being executed, and for his prayers on behalf of sailors and other travellers. The popular worshipping of Nicholas as a saint seems to have started relatively early considering that Justinian I, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 527 - 565) is reported to have built a temple in Nicholas's honour in Constantinople, the Roman capital of the time.

But early in the reign of Alexius I Comnenus (reigned 1081 - 1118), Myra was overtaken by Islamic invaders. Taking advantage of the confusion, sailors from Bari, Italy, seized the remains of the saint over the objections of the Orthodox monks then caring for them. Returning to Bari they brought the remains with them on May 9, 1087. Some observers reported seeing myrrh exude from these relics, and 30 people were cured of diseases; ever since, the tomb of Nicholas has been a favorite of pilgrims.

He compelled thieves to restore some stolen goods to their owners, so became patron of thieves. Saint Nikolaus or St Nicholas is celebrated in several Western European countries. His reputation for gift giving comes partly from a story of three young women who were too poor to afford a dowry for their marriages:

Legend of the 3 dowries

A nobleman of Patara had three daughters; he was so poor he couldn't provide their dowries and they were going to have to go into prostitution. St Nick had inherited a large fortune, and he resolved to help, but secretly. As he went to their house at night, wondering how to do this, the moon came out from behind a cloud and lit up a window through which he threw a bag of gold, which fell at the girls' father's feet. This enable him to provide a dowry for his first daughter. The next night, St Nicholas threw another in, and thus procured a dowry for the second daughter. The father wanted to see the benefactor, so on the third night he saw St Nick coming and grabbed his cloak, saying "O Nicholas! servant of God! why seek to hide thyself?" The saint made him promise not to tell any one. From this came the custom on St Nicholas's eve of putting out presents for children. (This may also be where the custom of gifts placed in stockings originated.) For his helping the poor, St Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers; the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop are symbolic of the three sacks of gold.

Legend of the evil innkeeper (The Pickled Boys)

A gentleman of Asia sent his two sons to Athens for education, and had them stop to see the holy Archbishop of Myra, St Nick. They stayed in an inn where the keeper chopped them up and salted them down like bacon. St Nick was warned of this in a terrible vision and went and charged the landlord with the crime. He confessed with contrition and asked the forgiveness of Heaven. Nick did this and also restored the boys. In art, St Nick is often shown next to a tub with naked children in it.

The leap between sainthood and legend, between Sinterklaas (as St. Nicholas is called in The Netherlands) and Santa Claus, should be celebrated as part of our accumulated tradition. It takes nothing away from the observance of Christmas, especially when we realize that Nicholas was indeed a real person, and he embodied that which we are called to do. Sadly, it is often those who believe it is a duty to "keep Christ in Christmas" who lament that Santa Claus is part of the problem that we deal with this time of year. On the contrary - the beloved Jolly One in the Red Suit belongs here as he's based on a real-life person who did many things to be light and peace, and comfort and joy to people who really needed it. Doesn't that reflect what Jesus did? Isn't that what we who profess to be Christian are supposed to do? (Okay, maybe taking out those who spread untruths and tearing down pagan temples is a bit beyond where we are. On the other hand, how strong a stand do we take when injustice is blatantly promoted by the high and mighty?)

Just make sure you check your shoes and socks before putting them on later today or tomorrow. There could be a surprise there for you.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

People of Zion, Art Thou Fed Up With Gurnee Mills?

The Second Sunday of Advent

The Word:
Isaiah 30:15, 19-22 (Populos Sion)
Matthew 3:1-12 (The ministry of John the Baptist)

A song, for openers:

Scavengers and sycophants and flatterers and fools
Pharisees and parasites and hypocrites and ghouls
Calculating swindlers, prevaricating frauds
Perpetrating evil as they roam the earth in hordes
Feeding on their fellow men, reaping rich rewards
Contaminating everything they see
Corrupting honest me like me

Humbug! Poppycock! Balderdash! Bah!

I hate people! I hate people!
People are despicable creatures
Loathsome inexplicable creatures
Good-for-nothing kickable creatures
I hate people! I abhor them!
When I see the indolent classes
Sitting on their indolent asses
Gulping ale from indolent glasses
I hate people! I detest them! I deplore them!

Fools who have no money spend it
Get in debt then try to end it
Beg me on their knees befriend them
Knowing I have cash to lend them
Soft-hearted me! Hard-working me!
Clean-living, thrifty and kind as can be!
Situations like this are of interest to me

I hate people! I loathe people!
I despise and abominate people!
Life is full of cretinous wretches
Earning what their sweatiness fetches
Empty minds whose pettiness stretches
Further than I can see
Little wonder I hate people
And I don't care if they hate me!

If you recognize this lament as something Ebenezer Scrooge might have proclaimed, you're right - it's a lyric written by Leslie Bricusse which appeared in the 1969 film and musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Now just how does this tie in with today's passage from Isaiah, and the overall theme? Plenty.

In last week's post, inspired in part by my dear, loving wife, she referred to today as "people make me sick" Sunday. The holiday shopping season, now beginning its seventh week, and its second in high gear, is enough to make you wonder about our inner nature. For example, somewhere in these United States a Wal-Mart store advertised ham for sale, touting it as being "Great for Hanukkah." (I kid you not, the photo's cropped up on some of my friends' Facebook pages.) And even though Black Friday and Cyber Monday are behind us, there are still nineteen shopping days left with deals to be found and crowds with which to be dealt.

The Church really means for us to use this time to center our focus on the significance behind all the frenetic planning, but we are easily distracted. We need little help from the influence of retail outlets and their advertising; we're very easily distracted in the first place. I know this; boy how I do know this! Isaiah well understood this point as well, as he receives his words from God to the people of Zion (who live in Jerusalem):

For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies. But this you did not wish. "No," you said, "Upon horses we will flee." --Very well, flee! "Upon swift steeds we will ride." --Not so swift as your pursuers.

Yet the LORD is waiting to show you favor, and he rises to pity you; For the LORD is a God of justice: blessed are all who wait for him!

O people of Zion, who dwell in Jerusalem, no more will you weep; He will be gracious to you when you cry out, as soon as he hears he will answer you. The Lord will give you the bread you need and the water for which you thirst. No longer will your Teacher hide himself, but with your own eyes you shall see your Teacher, while from behind, a voice shall sound in your ears: "This is the way; walk in it," when you would turn to the right or to the left. And you shall consider unclean your silver-plated idols and your gold-covered images; You shall throw them away like filthy rags to which you say, "Begone!"
(Isaiah 30:15-16, 18-22)

I'm not suggesting we do away with our holiday preparations. After all, the shopkeepers invest (or is it gamble?) heavily on decking their halls, as it were. But the focus is meant to be on the end, the goal; not the mechanics of the race to get there.

John the Baptist had his hands full where that was concerned.

John was the first prophet in roughly 400 years (although the Maccabean period roughly halfway through that drought would indicate that some were indeed listening to God in that time). John was nothing if not austere; living off the land of the desert, dressing in woven camel's hair, and surviving on a diet of locusts and wild honey. Not surprisingly, his zeal (of all the prophets of the Bible, John showed no sign of reluctance to bear the message) sustained him where his diet might not - I am quite certain John didn't have a weight problem.

This also meant John did not suffer fools gladly. Perhaps his message had an even greater sense of urgency. He was not afraid to tell it like it was. And this was much more the message than the present "Keep Christ in CHRISTmas" movement:

"Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones" (Matthew 3:8-9).

Many have fallen into the trap of believing that, as Christians, that the Christmas event is an exclusive property. It is not, was never meant to be so, and will never be so. Perhaps that's why so many traditions have blended together over the course of human history. This time is not meant exclusively for one group or another, but for the good of all. Lest our preparations lead us into the trap that shopping is but one more task to be endured, we have missed the point. We have missed out on what the Season of Advent and the Season of Light is about; to be light and peace, comfort and joy.

Today I offered this prayer:
God our Father, in your infinite love deliver us from the distractions that plague us, and grant us the peace and security which you alone can give. Protect us from all needless worry and anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming in glory of Emmanuel, your presence among us; for even now you are indeed among us, waiting for us even as we await your coming. Remain with us always...Amen.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

What's This I Hear About Being Another Year Older?

Not to strut my stuff like a proud peacock (I've been known to do that), but today's my birthday! Let's hear it for me!

(smattering of hand-clapping among the chirping of crickets...Hey, I'll take that considering it's December, 28 degrees and snowing outside.)

Those among the readers who like me have their birthday fall in this Season of Light have yet another reason to celebrate. The older I get, and the more open I am to God's presence in and around me, the more I like this. Yet thanks be to God that I am still here and able to share what meager thoughts are in my head!

Some thoughts as I peruse the early round of well wishes on my Facebook page:

It's good to be alive and well, and not showing that much more the worse for wear at my age.

It's a blessing to have the ability to love who you are and what you do, and to be helpful to others.

It's a blessing, so the prayer goes, to stand in the presence of God (Who is everywhere) and praise Him in thanksgiving for the blessings above.

It's a challenge to look at the future. It's challenging to look around and know that my grandparents and many people I've known no longer walk in this world, and that my parents, my mother-in-law, and many of my contemporaries are struggling with concerns that might remain with them for the rest of their earthly life. I too struggle with the consequences of decisions I've made when I was younger and more full of myself than I was with others and with God. But I know that this too is a blessing. As time draws me inevitably closer to my appointment with the hereafter, I take the position that God is directing me toward those places and people I need to be among.

I give you, the reader, a gift of hope today. It comes in the form of an 18th Century hymn; and the story behind its composition could be likened to a setting in that time and place of It's A Wonderful Life.

The British hymnist William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote a total of 67 works over the course of his life. He was a contemporary of John Newton, the writer of Amazing Grace, penned after a stunning personal conversion experience. Cowper, whose fa­ther was cha­plain to King George II, went through the mo­tions of be­com­ing an at­tor­ney, but ne­ver prac­ticed law. He oft­en strug­gled with de­press­ion and doubt. One night he de­cid­ed to com­mit su­i­cide by drown­ing him­self. He called a cab and told the driv­er to take him to the Thames Riv­er. How­ev­er, thick fog came down and pre­vent­ed them from find­ing the riv­er (ano­ther ver­sion of the story has the driv­er get­ting lost de­liber­ate­ly). After driv­ing around lost for a while, the cab­bie fin­al­ly stopped and let Cow­per out. To Cowper’s sur­prise, he found him­self on his own door­step: God had sent the fog to keep him from kill­ing him­self. Even in our black­est mo­ments, God watch­es over us. This experience is reflected in the following text, reportedly the last hymn Cowper wrote.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

O fearful saint(s), fresh courage take;
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.


You Light Up My Life

(Hanukkah, not the Debby Boone song)

I've had quite the busy work week, so this post is a tad late. However, the Jewish Festival of Lights is eight days long, so...

To set the record straight, there is a biblical reference to this major event in my Season of Light. The two Books of Maccabees (apocryphal) introduce this festival, first observed "on the 25th day of the ninth month; that is, the month of Chislev, in the year 148" (1 Macc 4:52, which recalculates in our present calendar system to 165 BCE).

The original festival was to rededicate the (Second) Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by the forces of the King of Syria Antiochus IV Epiphanes and commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil". According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.

Perhaps the most central figure in the Books of Maccabees is Judas Maccabeus, who is neither king nor priest (he is the son of the high priest Mattathias), but a military leader, and likely the last heroic figure of the Old Testament. Indeed, this is the last historical event we can place with any accuracy before the events surrounding the nativity of Jesus.

The observance of this festival, however, is not the only thing by which Judas Maccabeus should be remembered. As the son of a high priest, he was gifted with a keen sense of knowing how to fight for a righteous cause, and for remembering the fallen in the aftermath of war (2 Macc 12:39-46). Specifically:

Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin. (2 Maccabees 12:42-46, New American Bible)

This is significant because it represents a paradigm shift in theology. The resurrection of the dead had not been mentioned so directly before now. It was hinted at in the writings of the prophets, but this indicates that those writings had gained acceptance. This has in turn been handed down to posterity, with the hope that goes with it.

The candles of the Hanukkah menorah represent those eight days when the light of the Temple sanctuary was in peril of being extinguished, and the miracle that it didn't. It also prefigures the light of Christ, the Morning Star which will never set. And they are also lights of hope; hope for a deeper sense of compassion, joy, and peace. May this light be aflame in our hearts and never be extinguished.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened While Waiting for Christmas

The First Sunday of Advent

The Word:
Isaiah 2:1-5 (O house of Jacob, come - let us walk in the light of the Lord!)
Psalm 122 (Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord)
Romans 13:11-14 ("It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep")
Matthew 24:37-44 ("Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come")

It should be no surprise to anyone that human beings are the most impatient of all creatures God put on this earth. Further, it should not surprise anyone that American humans - and I'm not speaking of the original natives -  are more impatient than other humans. Let's face it: Americans invented fast food, and online banking and shopping. Now you can handle all your financial and business transactions from your computer at home while in your pajamas, and then get dressed and grab a burrito at Taco Bell.

It's my understanding that in some locales one can attend a drive-thru wake. Here you don't get out of your car; you pass by the deceased's casket displayed in a bay window to pay your respects, and then head off to your next activity, be it the gym or the pub or your kid's basketball game.

Advent is a big part of what I call the "Season of Light," which starts with the fourth Thursday in November (US Thanksgiving Day) and ends with the Twelfth Day of Christmas, January 6 - the traditional date reserved for the solemn feast of the Epiphany.

Now here's a story in itself. Even Holy Mother Church has not been totally immune from the madness of impatience. Nearly fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council stood Catholicism on its ear by making a number of rather profound changes, most if not all of them important and necessary. But in the process of doing so, she may have inadvertently thrown out the Holy Babe with the Holy Bath Water.

Case in point: Epiphany moved was moved in the US from January 6 to the first Sunday following January 1. Why? At one time it was considered a day of obligation - and still is to most of the rest of the world's Catholics. But not here. We're just too busy. Our jobs are too demanding; our bosses won't let us take time off to attend Mass. Oh, and not to cast aspersions on my non-Catholic but still devout Christian friends, they don't observe any of the Catholic obligatory feasts; simply because that's one thing that their hierarchies decided dogmatically that they don't have to do.

Second case in point: The religious education program (which Catholics over age 50 will probably know as the Baltimore Catechism No.1) vanished into some sort of vacuum, leaving a huge void in its wake. Now the reasons at the time for abandoning the BC1 seemed sound; people just seemed too savvy and inquisitive to be handed the pat answers contained therein. Q: Where is God? A: God is everywhere. Kid in class: If God is everywhere, why doesn't he see all the bad stuff going on and do something about it? (And that's a nicer question than most kids might ask.)

The Christian Church is very, very rich in tradition. Unfortunately, much of that tradition has been swept aside in favor of minimalism; minimalism caused by impatience - ultimately, a failure to wait upon God in faith. My wife is a treasure trove of understanding this accumulated tradition, or at least knowing where to look it up. She knows more about the depth of Christian tradition than I - and she does not subscribe to the practices of Christian worship. She will keep my sense of duty in relative loving balance by reminding me that in another time, this first Sunday in Advent went by other names. It's been called "Stir-It-Up" Sunday in the British Isles, as on this day the batters for such holiday treats as plum pudding were prepared (and then allowed to ferment before the final preparation and baking).

It turns out that each of the four Sundays of Advent had a Latin name, each derived from the text of the Introit prayer of the Mass for that day. Here's the rundown, along with my wife's humorous commentary, lest I become too holy:

  • 1st Sunday of Advent: Ad te levabi animam meam (Psalm 25:1 - To you I lift my soul), which she calls 'Ad Te Levi' and states that today you relax in your jeans after surviving the Target 2-Day Sale and read the ads from the Sunday paper
  • 2nd Sunday of Advent: Populos Sion (Isaiah 30:19 - People of Zion, the Lord will come), which is locally translated as 'people make me sick' and seems rather appropriate given some shopping behavior at about this point in the season
  • 3rd Sunday of Advent: Gaudete (Philippians 4:4 - Rejoice in the Lord always); this is the only one that's easily remembered because the priests still wear gaudy or God awful pink vestments - priests will quickly reply that the color is rose, not pink
  • 4th Sunday of Advent: Rorate coeli (Isaiah 45:8 - Let the heavens rain down the Just One), loosely translated as 'someone hand me some Rolaids, and deliver me from this madness'
A vast library of music existed for these ancient Latin texts, and their use was more or less mandatory until the Second Vatican Council; after that, although the English translations of these verses still appear, they've been generally discarded for a (hopefully) well known hymn; again, in the name of simplicity or convenience; whatever, so long as we don't have to spend extra time preparing or even think about preparing.

A large subset of my so-called "Season of Light" contains the "Season of Wait." Waiting for Christmas. Waiting for it all to pass so life can resume to relative normal productivity. But most importantly, waiting for the prophesied and promised Second Coming of Christ - an event of which God has not given a timeframe to anyone; not to any of the Church Fathers; not even to Jesus as he walked upon the earth in 1st Century Palestine. However, when it is recalled and observed, the vast accumulation of tradition associated with this time of year does a great deal to take the burden out of the wait - and can even make the waiting fun, as you want to linger in some of them for awhile. Over the course of the last few years I've written a few things down about many of them; I'm going back to read them, and I'll try my best to point to them so others can read them for perhaps the first time. Why? Because in these days when daylight can seem not to exist, and while our bodies may start complaining of the need to sleep, there's too much to do to even consider it, we need to take up the slack, as it were, and 'be' light and comfort to others. That's the significance of the candles, the inviting light displays, the exchanging of gifts, the caroling, the foodapalooza gatherings laden with treats you should only eat once a year.

Please consider at least one of the above this year. Immerse yourself in it. God has never made it easier to enjoy the wait.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Do You Plan to Indulge in "Bird From India?" and Other Musings for Which I Am Thankful

Thanksgiving Day (US) 2010
The Beginning of The Season of Light

The Word:
Sirach 50:22-24 (Now thank we all our God):
And now, bless the God of all,
who has done wondrous things on earth;
Who fosters people’s growth from their mother’s womb,
and fashions them according to his will!
May he grant you joy of heart
and may peace abide among you;
May his goodness toward us endure in Israel
to deliver us in our days.

Psalm 136 (Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever)
1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (I give thanks always to God for you)
Luke 17:11-19 ("Ten lepers were cured - where are the other nine? Was there no one to return and give thanks to God except this Samaritan?")

I present a hodgepodge or potpourri of past and present thoughts as we enter the six week period I call The Season of Light (if for no other reason but to hold my sanity in place).

Evidence holds that what most of us look to as the first idyllic celebration of thanksgiving by the Pilgrims at Plymouth in Massachusetts in 1621 was a three-day foodapalooza with 100 last-minute guests (the natives)  prepared by five women. Yes, I'm oversimplifying. Those five women had no time to complain, which may be one reason why this festival has such endearing attachment to family and home, two things of which we should be thankful by default.

But back to those five ladies - I'm thankful for their culinary expertise, such as it was nearly four centuries ago. Their endurance eventually won out over Yankee vs. Southern political quirkiness - and due to the persistence of a sixth fine lady, Sarah Hale.

Now about that food fest - it came to my attention this morning that the average intake for the "traditional" Thanksgiving dinner is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4500 calories. Notwithstanding, my dear wife has signed on to an 80/20 plan when it comes to holiday dinners; meaning stay on a balanced eating plan 80% of the time, and simply enjoy the spread the other 20%, which usually falls around holidays and other significant personal events. (I'm not a nutritionist or a doctor, and I don't pretend to be either, so understand that certain conditions can rule out the 80/20 concept.)

I had a chance meeting with my sister while doing grocery shopping last weekend. She's one of the people for whom I've come to be very thankful, as she takes care of my Mom every day, most times twice a day, at the nursing facility Mom has come to call home in the progression of Parkinson's Disease. I found out that there's nothing special on the menu for the residents this Thanksgiving; so my other sister will pop in and bring her and my Dad more traditional fare.

By the way, I presume you know that the turkey is a native American bird. Benjamin Franklin attempted to promote it as a national symbol at the founding of our nation. But the reason it came to be called turkey had nothing to do with anyone living on the continent, natives or colonists. It has more to do with how the bird made its way across the Atlantic, as National Public Radio reported some years ago.

In the 1500s when the American bird first arrived in Great Britain, it was shipped in by merchants in the East, mostly from Constantinople (who'd brought the bird over from America). Since it wholesaled out of Turkey, the British referred to it as a "Turkey coq." In fact, the British weren't particularly precise about products arriving from the East. Persian carpets were called "Turkey rugs." Indian flour was called "Turkey flour." Hungarian carpet bags were called "Turkey bags." If a product came to London from the far side of the Danube, Londoners labeled it "Turkey" and that's what happened to the American bird. Thus, an American bird got the name Turkey-coq, which was then shortened to "Turkey."

The point is for 500 years now, this proud (if not exactly brilliant) American animal has never had a truly American name.  And just to keep this ball rolling…all over the world, people now can eat American Turkeys, but they don't call them Turkeys.
Across Arabia, they call our bird "diiq Hindi," or the "Indian rooster."
In Russia, it's "Indjushka," bird of India.
In Poland, "Inyczka"— again "bird from India."
And what, we wondered, do the Turks call our turkey?
Well, they call it "Hindi," again, short for India.
While on that shopping trip over last weekend, and in the presence of my sister, my dear wife suffered her knee giving out on her, and she took a fall behind my car. She's developed arthritis particularly in that area stemming from injuries long ago, before I knew her. She's recovering as expected, but can't stay on her feet long or unsupported; which means this year my son and I will do a lot of the cooking. My wife will direct us both, and will do some prep work from the table where she can remain seated; so it will be a team effort. I am deeply thankful that my wife didn't get hurt to the point where she would require hospitalization or surgery. I'm also thankful that my son has been able to step in and assist her. He's shown how much of a man he will be.

Yes, I'm thankful - very thankful - that my parents are still living, and managing the challenges set before them at this stage in life. I'm very thankful that my wife does what she does and is who she is, and that we morph and adapt and do whatever we can to make the best out of the challenges before us. I'm thankful that my son willingly accepted the call to be giving in need. He understands more than he lets on at times, and it makes all the difference in the world. I love them all.

Somehow, saying "thank you" in and of itself doesn't begin to cover how much you appreciate the love and connections you have with others. Sometimes you have to be brought to a very low place in life to fully appreciate the strengths you have. The rejuvenated spirit of that tenth leper made a big splash, and we don't even know his name! Still, I believe that sense of total gratitude was somewhere in Abraham Lincoln's thoughts when in 1863, as a war-weary nation was finding itself, he gave this address to the American people:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth."

--Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, 3 October 1863.

That, to me, is how the Season of Light should begin. It begins with understanding, even in the midst of whatever troubles we have, that there are people that share some degree of their life intermingled with our own. It should also serve to remind us that we should share something of ourselves with those in need; giving thanks by giving to others. In the overall scheme of the universe, there are many ways to do this. It is right that we offer thanks and praise, with hearts, and hands, and voices.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Finding Fault or Finding Faith?

We as people love to blame someone or something for the inability to deal with the troubles we run into from the challenges we face.

Let's take a look at the political arena for just a moment. The Democratic Party went to great lengths to blame Dubya's administration for the massive debt, the near collapse of the worldwide economy, and the rush to war on two fronts - Iraq and Afghanistan - which to date has really resolved nothing besides removing Saddam Hussein from power. Yet when given the opportunity to make change, the current Democratic administration under President Obama has scored only slightly higher than impotent, as judged by the Republican Party gain in congressional seats from the recent election.

The Church is not immune from similar seeking of scapegoats, or things or people to blame. The 16th Century Reformation was a result of finding fault with Catholicism of the time, and abuses of the Church therein, most namely a degree of scandal among the celibate clergy, and the selling of indulgences - the thought of buying someone's way into heaven, even posthumously. In the wake of the more recent clergy scandal spread over the last half-century, the finger pointing began again. Then there's been the ongoing issue of women's ordination. And what does our Catholic hierarchy spend it's time debating? Revising the English translation of the Latin liturgical rites, to make that translation less of a transliteration. It doesn't seem like that should take an upper position on the totem pole, as it were.

But if you thought Catholicism was the only denomination among Christians with unresolved issues, you'd be very much wrong. Episcopalians are going through their own schism due to the elevation to their office of bishop an openly gay man. And now I read most recently of my Methodist friends' troubles: Concerned that their numbers are dropping way too fast, their recent national conference debated a 'Call To Action' plan, filled with their own sense of pork projects and goals to 'revitalize' that Branch of the Vine.

I think somewhere along the way, the priorities got messed up. These are all issues to be sure, but it's obvious they aren't going to be easily resolved. The reasons for this are two-fold; there are two issues that seem to have become lost along with the general direction all Christian denominations share and should be following.

The first question that comes to my mind is: Where is the Holy Spirit in all this? Do we call upon the Holy Spirit for discernment and direction? Do we even acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit working in the world and among us? Should we not call as one of the first part of our action plan a suitable period of silent reflection to listen to what God is saying about our issues, and whether or not they stand up in a divine sense?

The second question is asked by Jesus himself, through Luke the evangelist: When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth? (Lk 18:8) It would seem we have lost a great deal of our sense of faith, and while there would be great reason for it to be so, it is only that way because We the People of God have allowed it to be so. We have allowed the actions and positions of a relative few take center stage. And We the People always get what they bargain for when they don't participate fully in an informed process. (Our elections are the best examples of this confusing smokescreen created by even the best well-meaning individuals.)

Let us pray that we stay focused on the two main issues while working toward resolution on the others that man has created in the wake of trying to do it all himself.

What A Concept

Daytime TV seems to have the answers to everything.

And when the subject matter isn't as shocking as it used to be, let's spice it up a bit by not only showcasing some new gimmick or product on the market - and proceed to give it away to everyone in the studio audience. Oh, and let's allow the first couple of hundred viewers at home to text something from their cell phones so they get in on the giveaways, too. Nice touch; keeps people watching.

First Oprah, then spreading to Ellen (DeGeneres) and even Dr. Oz - are all giving away stuff on a regular basis on their TV shows; and this isn't throwaway stuff, either. To start her most recent season (and her last on over-the-air TV), Oprah announced that she was taking everyone in the audience that day with her to Australia. Other big-ticket items have been cropping up as giveaways on the daytime shows, too.

So what if the concept spread to our churches?

How would you feel if on, let's say the First Sunday of Advent, the presiding minister announces that everyone in attendance at Mass or worship services has just been gifted with a new bedroom set? Or a car? Even the idea of a "Golden Ticket" randomly placed under one of the seats or in a bulletin? I solemnly assure you, attendance would go way up. And isn't that what our Church leadership wants - packed services every week?

(Now this is an offshoot of another subject about which I want to write more extensively, and I'm still formulating how to get it out there. Bear with me, it will get in the blog.)

The idea of attracting someone with a free gift is not new, you know. It's been around a long time...and it even has divine origins.

Think about it. God gifted the people of 1st Century Palestine with His very Presence. All those miracles Jesus performed, recorded in the Gospels - those up close who witnessed them were gifted with the grace to see that this was no one-time flash-in-the-pan experience. This was a paradigm. This was life-changing, with the potential for more life-changing, even to those who weren't present.

As people of God we are given the ability to shape our own destiny and influence that of those around us. We don't have to have amassed huge resources or sponsorships to do so - we've already been given them, and we don't have to go out of our way to share them. There are plenty of places to be better than we are right within our grasp.

God, let me be open to that concept today.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Name - Calling

The Solemnity of All Saints

What's in a name?

I don't really know and I can't guess how many times that question gets asked. In our modern society where everyone is represented by several strings of disparate numbers (Social Security ID, telephone numbers, bank and other account numbers, addresses and postal zip codes), it seems that unless you're among the famous, you're in a place far removed from that TV pub 'where everybody knows your name.'

The point gets hammered home on this eve of the midterm elections here in the US of A. Those of us planning to vote have been hit with a barrage of campaign ads, flyers, and blind robo-dialed phone calls urging us to vote for this or that candidate. Most of us probably know the major candidates running for office in their respective place; those running for state governor, US senator or Congress. Some may even know people running for office at the county level. But there's usually a lot more on your average ballot. There are judges to be retained or replaced, and propositions or referendum to be accepted or turned down. A list of names and items, from which one must choose with little or no knowledge of the people or issues and what the ramifications are.

One of the significances of this time of year is brought to mind quickly at the hand of Nature and her God. The daylight grows shorter, the temps get colder, and many plants go dormant as winter approaches. Ultimately this leads to reminders that we're not getting any older. The Catholic observances of All Saints and All Souls Day, the celebration of the D├Čas de los Muertos in Mexico, and the marking of Samhain in ancient Celtic culture all point to the bridge that, sooner or later, all of us will cross.

Yesterday, my Catholic congregation was read a list of the thirty-two parishoners who had died over the last twelve months. As the music minister most readily available on weekdays, I attended at least half of their funeral Masses. While I won't mention their names here, it did remind me again - much like my visit to the ancestral graves three weeks ago - that there's more to life than a string of numbers.

My given name (apart from my surname) and each of the myriad aspects of my life can be tied to the name of another who in some part did or had an impact on who I am and what I do today. These are, according to Catholic teaching, my patron saints. Their lives and their contributions are held as examples and inspiration to call upon as needed as each new day unveils its blessings and challenges.

My given names may have come from other ancestral family members, but they are also names of saints. One name is shared by both an apostle and a deacon. And my life aspects hold more:
  • Joseph  - husband and father
  • Stephen and Lawrence - deacons
  • Cecilia and Gregory the Great - musician
  • Benedict  - bereavement (he is the patron of a peaceful death)
Add the four from my given name, and there are ten whose lives all those centuries ago are at my disposal to guide and inspire me. These are toward the top of an much longer list of names; names of people I know or at least know about more than letters in a peculiar order on a page or screen.

Because the pace of life picks up speed in these last weeks of the calendar year, it is important to me to remember all of these influences now. I may be bringing them to mind with more frequency in the future. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Detail Oriented - Or, When You Can't See The Forest for the Trees

I am going to speak my piece about something that shaped and molded a large part of my childhood. Hopefully I'll stay focused and balanced and on the subject. Yes, it's very relevant to today.


As a scrawny, skinny kid who was bused to a Catholic school, I was well acquainted with bullies and who they were. As kids in the school often referred to my home town as the one 'with the mental institution' (actually it separated the city from its southern neighbor), I got picked on and bullied from both sides. I was involved in my fair share of playground and street fights. I can't say I started any of them, I was just an easy target who took everything personally and (sometimes) literally. In all that time, I never considered the thought of removing the pain and suffering by taking my own life. Today, everything is different - to the point that forty-one states already have anti-bullying laws to one extent or another on their books; and at least three more as well as the federal government are considering them.

The game, as it were, has become more of an open thing. As a youth, I always had the relative sanctuary of my home as a 'bully-free' zone. I didn't get or make phone calls to friends until I was 14. What friends I had until then were generally a knock on the door of their house. There were no cell phones, no text messages, no Internet on which to blog or to announce personal updates (factual or fictitious) to anyone and everyone. Like any human advance, what started out as a useful and practical innovation limited to the privileged few was abused and taken to the extreme when put before the masses, especially when the masses happen to be children. Most kids do not understand the full extent of ramifications and consequences of misuse of anything; and it's impossible to assign a generic time stamp that essentially states that they do.

Now, just as it was then, if you didn't fit the uniform of the times, whatever it consists of, you are considered an outcast by your peers. But now, unlike then, there is generally no more sanctuary.

If you're openly anything - be it geeky, devout in your religious beliefs, wear your hair too long or too short, you might as well wear a target on your person. Bullies will find you. They will not leave you alone. They will accost you verbally. They will inundate you with text messages. They will converse amongst themselves about you on social networking websites.

It has been said that some of this is just the way kids sort out their pecking order and test newcomers to the fold, and that it generally means no harm. And I might have agreed back in my childhood, if I'd had the experience of an adult's mind in my childhood body. But it's simply not true anymore. Teachers who were once able to instill the fear of retribution into 'problem' students can't do that now. Parents are often eager to take matters before the courts - because whoever has the power ultimately welcomes someone into their midst who willfully abuses it.

Between the pressures of fitting in and the pressure to perform well academically and the pressures of looming decisions over college and career choices, there is also the mass-marketing toward children and adolescents. What a kid has today is outdated the following week when the next 'new' thing comes along. Add on top of this the physical changes the body is going through at the same time. As they pass through these years, there's so much change going on, that kids have enough to do just to figure out who they are, let alone what they're going to do for (most likely) the rest of their adult lives.

The latest of these concerns - at least the one that seems to draw so much media attention - is sexual orientation. So many teens are 'coming out' as openly gay. It is not mine to judge whether this is a lifestyle choice or a predestined genetic condition. It is uncertain whether those who claim to be gay are doing so to get on some kind of social or antisocial bandwagon. Whatever the real truth is, the fact remains that this has become the latest vehicle for bullying teens to hijack.

At least six recent teen suicides have been of young men who had stated they were openly gay. It is not known if their attackers among their peers are of fundamentalist or other conservative Christian denominations. It would not be out of line to suggest this to be a cause. Regardless, whoever laid the burdens upon the victims most likely do not understand the repercussions or consequences of what happens when someone takes something too far.

An Internet movement is urging students and supporters to wear purple this Wednesday to honor the lives of the six boys who took their own lives as they succumbed to the pressures around their young lives. I intend to wear purple that day - not just for these six, but for all those who have lost their lives in a place where this kind of thing should never have a chance to happen. I will do it for the victims at Columbine High School and other places like it where innocent lives were taken. I will do it for those who have lost the understanding of innocence, both personal and as a virtue, at the hands of another student. I will do it because I could have been one of them.

But know this - laws meant to get down to the nitty gritty, as it were, generally never do. If we're still looking for answers as to how malcontent gets a foothold in the world, we've never had to look all that far. That is indeed the sad truth, one that no amount of legislation will change. To live and love in the ideal manner expressed in religious ideologies demands that intimidation, threats, and bullying cease to exist. No church or religious ideology has been able to stop it because all have used it to some degree over the course of history.

Perhaps it is because, in our zeal, we fail to see the forest....for the Tree.
Lord, help us all.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

He Who Sings Prays Twice; But Pray for the Dead and the Dead Will Pray For You

Every once in a while, my dear wife lampoons me modestly with a truthful barb. She sometimes refers to me as a 'bardic whore.' And I have to agree. Sometimes I have had the urge to print 'Have Voice, Will Travel' on business cards I keep handy to pass out when it looks like I could become a potential soloist, especially for liturgical functions. I blend in well with the surroundings, and I am not the main guest of honor. After years of doing so, the job or ministry (take your pick) suits me.

The line "he who sings, prays twice" is attributed to (Saint) Augustine of Hippo, one of the ancient Church fathers. He was the living example of Luke's 'prodigal' or wayward son, but ultimately had a conversion experience and became the writer of his time. Augie was apparently used to the idea of music in liturgy, even if it moved in and out of favor over the course of Church history.

But I digress. Over the years, thanks to the friendship and collaboration with other good church musicians, I have roots, as it were, in several places. Perhaps the single person most responsible for spreading the seed that established those roots is my friend Mike.

I have not given Mike enough credit; neither for the extent of his musical accomplishments, nor the pain and endurance that comes with the territory. To that I will write here that in my mind he is one of the top five greatest people I will probably know and work with in my lifetime. Because of that, I would do just about anything for him. He's been very considerate of my own situation and doesn't ask as much as he might have otherwise.

Mike and I share one ideal. As Christians, and especially as Christian musicians, we are all brothers and sisters in Jesus. Denominational boundaries are occasionally discussed, and we recognize that there are differences, but we accept them rather than tear down each other in futile quests to determine whose spiritual path is better.

As a musician, Mike has given several recitals over the years to showcase his own talents. Still, he recognizes that there is more than that to showcase. For the last year or so he attempted to put together a choral festival of sorts, featuring choirs from three churches. It looked like it was going to happen. At the end of this past  summer a date had finally been set, actual pieces of music were being discussed, the location of the concert had been agreed to and consent given, and I looked forward to it. The event was supposed to have taken place this afternoon.

Unfortunately, the plans were scrubbed about three weeks ago. See, this is Columbus Day weekend, a 'holiday' for students and bankers, and about the same time the peak of fall color is in our area. It was the director of music at the church which was to host the event who pulled out, claiming too many people were going to be out of town this particular weekend. I'm of Italian descent and the only reason I have a holiday is because I arranged to use 2 days' vacation time to shove around priorities so I could be free to attend the dress rehearsal and the concert itself.

Now ordinarily if someone canceled plans I would go back and resume my normal weekend routine. But as I had scheduled time off, and (miracle of miracles!) the weather was cooperating, my dear wife and I agreed that this would be a good time for another mini-break.

Our last, the first week in July in the Smokies, did not turn out as recharging as hoped for. I describe some of the experience in a previous post here. But what I didn't say then (because it was unknown at the time) that has been bothering me since was something else I brought home as a souvenir. Chiggers.

In consideration for the comfort of my family, while parked at the old Methodist Church in Cades Cove, a few of the nasty insects decided to make the floor of my new car their new home. From the time we returned until now, I have been affected by chigger bites, and I've suffered worse than average allergic reactions to them. It took this long to understand the source of the trouble because we weren't completely certain it was a cause to consider.

But again I digress. There were some things we wanted to do over this time as well, things we do this time of year, things that have affected who I am and what I do.

As a church musician, and one who has flexible hours to boot, I often sing at funeral services. This has had some very interesting side effects, stuff I won't go into great detail. But as a result I have become a fan, as it were, of another of the ancient Church leaders: Saint Benedict.

What I originally knew of Benedict, a 6th Century priest, was that he was the founder of the monastic movement. What I didn't know until recently is that Benedict is the patron saint of a peaceful or 'happy' death. My wife recommended that I wear a St. Benedict medal when visiting my mom at the nursing home or when attending a wake or funeral, so one of the planned stops was at a Catholic shrine and gift shop to stock up.

Also this weekend was a visit to the gravesites of our family ancestors. This ritual began for me not long after I met my wife, nearly 30 years ago. Every spring we would take her grandmother out to weed and decorate the family graves. It was an elaborate ritual that included going to a nearby nursery to load the car with geraniums - so many of a specific color which had significance. When her grandmother died 23 years ago, my wife and I more or less inherited the role of gravekeepers. And it's not such a bad thing. Despite what Hollywood and the thriller writers hit you with, cemeteries are generally very peaceful places. There is energy there, reminders of the lives of those whose remains are buried or remembered there; but it's not there to scare you (unless, of course, you want to be scared).

On occasion I would drive through the cemetery - at those times I was in my dress clothes for Sunday Mass and I didn't have time to do much other than acknowledge that without their lives, I would not have mine. Today, though, was the opportunity to linger in the spirit of the coming All Saints Day - also known as All Hallows; and its vigil, All Hallows' Eve, known more colloquially as Halloween.

I had forgotten what happens in modern cemeteries, with flat headstones designed so that groundskeepers can mow grass more efficiently. The headstones get covered up; some of them sink ever so slightly. I had trouble finding the graves of my wife's grandparents; they had become victims of nature and the lawn mowing. My wife can't move as well as she used to, and we weren't necessarily prepared for what we encountered; so I got down on my hands and knees and began to rip clumps of grass and dirt from the earth, and dug with a dinner spoon in an attempt to clear away the headstones to the best of my ability. It was mine to do, and will be mine as long as I am able - after all, this is a prerequisite. One must join in the dance of the dead in order to effectively console the survivors among the living. As macabre as that might sound, it is really not so at all. It is extending a bond that you began when both were living, and I see it as an investment toward my own afterlife.
Catholics believe in the intercession of the community of saints, those who have gone before us. And I have recently been reminded in other ways just how much God can multiply the smallest of efforts. It has been routine, especially since my father-in-law and my grandmother died in recent years, to remember them in my prayer time.

So I beg forgiveness among the living who today were expecting to hear my singing voice. I was really needed elsewhere. Everything is fine, and will be fine.

And Now...Page Four

Cripes! Has it been THAT long since I was brave enough to make a post?

I suppose there have been reasons. Mainly, I thought -at least for that moment- I had simply run out of things to say. That period is over. Now the issue becomes finding the time and energy to put my thoughts in order and get them on paper (as it were).

I want to take a step about the end of July. At that point in time I had learned that Bill, an old friend of mine, was leaving the country to teach third grade in Kuwait. Yeah, I was a bit stunned by this. I had barely understood the fact that Bill was teaching at all, let alone that he'd taken a job half a world away, all but cutting himself off from those of us who knew him...or in some cases, thought they knew.

I came to understand some of his motivation, and I didn't want to discourage him. Every person has multiple opportunities in life to make a difference - not only in the life or lives of others, but in his or hers as well. Most of us struggle every day of our lives with this, myself included, even though we may not see it.

I learned two days ago that Bill has been unceremoniously dismissed from his teaching job in Kuwait. I say this because it does not seem to have the earmarkings of a firing a la Donald Trump on The Apprentice.

Bill had high but guarded hopes when he accepted the job. There was every indication that he had the tools and ability needed. But after the first few weeks, the posts back to us were fewer and a lot less verbose. There were concerns and discouragement. Finally, the word came back that he was dismissed because he couldn't control his students.

At this point I want to address the Anonymous poster who replied to my July post as late as September 13, and who apparently commented on Bill's own blog to the point he deleted it altogether. Are you satisfied? Did whatever you say accomplish the intent for which the posts were made? Does it matter that you've "kept copies of everything?" For what it's worth, I don't think you had anything to do with the entire situation except put additional stress on an already stressful situation. There are more real reasons that don't involve outside interference.

Bill went to a country where, despite our diplomatic ties and the facade of a nation that would appear to be an ally, the overwhelming majority of the culture doesn't understand to dislikes to outright hates American culture. That is a handicap from the very start. People know where you're from and you represent all those things they don't understand and dislike.

That being said, I think that what did Bill in even worse is that the American educational model has gone to hell in a handcar. Bill is not the only teacher who has been unable to control a bunch of eight-year-olds. I daresay there are many right here who have the same problem. The reason they don't get fired is that their positions are protected by contract. Plus, we've allowed legislation and lawsuits to push the system to the point where American eight-year-olds often learn more about life on the streets than they will ever learn in the classroom. Add to this the stresses placed on both student and teacher to 'perform' (as in test) well by cramming for standardized tests that were not given when I was that age.

When I was eight, part of my education - and my learning - was fostered by the fear of God. My teachers were able to teach - but they also had the authority of an overseer - they could do something when kids got out of line, as they did even then. Today, the answer is to send them someplace else until nobody else will take them, and then simply deny them the education they by law are supposed to receive. The trouble is, very few are really receiving that sort of education anymore. This is not the reality in the rest of the world. For better or worse, other countries are doing better at preparing youth for life than we are. Perhaps that is what Bill did not understand. It is hard to say.

Bill is moving on. He has apparently accepted a teaching job in another country in another part of the world. I won't say where he is going at the moment. I believe this will prove better for him, but only time and his own experience will tell.

It is hard to know when being compassionate means having to be firm about an issue. It is difficult to, as I have been reminded to do from my Catholic culture, "hate the sin yet love the sinner." Still, to do otherwise does nothing to improve our lot in life.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Larry's Celebrity Roast

The Word:
Psalm 112:5 (Blessed is the man who is gracious and lends to those in need)

(Here's a synopsis for a potential Veggie Tales episode. Unfortunately, I don't think it will ever be used. Due to the nature of the true story on which this is based, while the overall ending is happy, and the intended lesson is taught, part of the storyline would most likely be deemed too intense for young or sensitive viewers.)

This is a story about riches, service, and one man's juggling of priorities to do, as is often said on VT, what is right.

Our story centers around Larry (played by Larry the Cucumber), who works for a business in Rome. He is an executive assistant to "Mr. Six." (who, after much discernment over casting, is played by Bob the Tomato. Or possibly Archibald, the Asparagus with the British accent who wears a monocle. I'm still not sure who would be a better fit.)

Over two hundred years have passed since the time of Jesus. Remember the story in the Book of Acts? From the time the first seven great assistants were appointed, their job was to keep track of the wealth of the Church, with a priority on spending that wealth on those who needed it - the poor, the sick, the orphaned, and the elderly - people who had nobody to care for or pray for them. As the church grew, so did its potential wealth - and also the people who needed it.

The Emperors of Rome (all played by Mr. Nezzer) never quite understood how some people were able to get rich. The Emperors amassed their wealth by taxing the people for nearly everything under the sun. And if you were not a native Roman citizen (meaning you lived in one of the territories or colonies claimed by the Empire), you tended to pay a lot more taxes. But that's really another story. The Emperors tended to spend their wealth on personal luxury; and when they needed more stuff, they would finance wars to extend their empire and collect more taxes.

By the time Larry and Mr. Six were around, the Empire was in financial straits. Things that had been built to support the Empire were in need of repair, and the Emperor was not about to give up his personal lifestyle or wealth to fix things. He wanted more money. And here was Mr. Six and his business, thought to have enough excess wealth to be able to feed the hungry, clothe the needy, and shelter the homeless. Mr. Six set aside any profit from his business to use in this way. Further, he set such a good example doing this that most of his employees chipped in extra, so they could rightfully claim they also helped.

Well, one day the Emperor sent out his prefect (played ubiquitously by Mr. Lunt) to Mr. Six, demanding that the assets of the company be turned over to the Emperor. In the Emperor's mind, this was just like any other organization within the Empire, of which he was top banana (or zucchini, or cucumber, or whatever) and whatever he wanted, he got; and if he didn't get it, he would take it by force.

As you might guess, the meeting between the prefect and Mr. Six didn't go well. Mr. Six knew that God wanted him to use the wealth he was holding - which wasn't his, after all, but God's - on those who really needed it. So he flatly refused - and was led away to jail, where he was sentenced to be executed (not made executive - there could be some dark humor there).

While all this was happening, Larry was out doing what was right - what God wanted him to do. He had spent the night at the home of a poor widow, fixing her the best meal she'd had in some time - as Larry was an expert in cooking on the grill. He also gave her house a good cleaning, getting help from some of the young boys in the neighborhood, whom Larry also fed. All the while, Larry would tell all manner of stories and jokes, as this helped to pass the time and lighten an otherwise heavy work load. Nobody seemed to mind. People had come to know that a visit from Larry meant at least a few hours of a really good time.

The following morning, Larry headed back to his office to do all the paperwork; but on his way there, he encountered the prefect and some soldiers, 'escorting' Mr. Six to a place from which Larry knew he wasn't returning. Larry, in shock, asked Mr. Six, "Where are you going, and especially without me? I have gone with you everywhere you wanted or needed to go." And Mr. Six, knowing that this was their last meeting in this life, had a message from God for Larry, told him to go to work and get all the paperwork in order, and that after three days had passed, the two would meet again.

Larry went about his work diligently, as he had been told. I don't really know if he knew what fate had come to Mr. Six, but I suspect he was aware of the possibility. Two days had passed and Mr. Six had not come into the office. And on the third day, Prefect Lunt shows up to see Larry. You guessed it - he was demanding that the riches of Mr. Six's company be turned over to the Emperor. Larry, in the meantime, had put in overtime paying out more bills, buying extra food and supplies and getting these distributed. He didn't want to have any assets on the books that the Emperor could claim. On the contrary, he wanted to demonstrate to the prefect and the Emperor what the company's assets really were.

Prefect Lunt ordered Larry to appear before the Emperor the next day, and at that time to surrender the wealth of the company. At the appointed time, Larry appeared, not with gold or jewels or the keys to his office or the deed to the property on which the business stood. Instead, with Larry were many of the people he had helped through the generosity of Mr. Six's employees. He defiantly told Lunt and the Emperor, "This is my master's wealth - and as such the company has greater riches than you!"

Well, as you might guess, the Emperor thought this was some kind of joke; and it could have been taken as one, as Larry was quite the teller of funny stories. (It had helped him immensely when he worked with others, and his sense of humor was keen. It was known that Larry did stand-up comedy at times to help raise money, and never took anything for himself.) However, as it became clear that Larry wasn't kidding about this, the Emperor decided to give Larry a roasting; immediately, and he was to be the guest of honor.

Larry, true to God and to his character, went to meet his Master and his boss in good spirits. While enduring his fate, he would quip that he needed to be turned because he wasn't quite done yet; and dared his tormentors to take a bite. (Roasted cucumber happens to taste quite good.)

As usual, the show would take it's turn at summarizing its main point ("God has a lot to say in his book"). So when Bob asks Querty for a Bible verse, I would use Psalm 112:5, above; or John 12:26, or 2 Corinthians 9:6-10. All of these speak of spreading God's wealth where it is most needed.

After what I've written in the last few days regarding pain and suffering as a Christian, and recognizing that this is an incomplete theology, Deacon St. Lawrence reminds us that many people died for their beliefs when the Church was in its early years. What percentage of the population went the way of martyrdom is not truly known; it's even possible that a similar percentage is destined to that end still today. It's generally not martyrdom alone that ushers these souls into God's presence; but the acts of charity worked in an environment opposed to such works.

So remember, God loves you - and everyone - very much!
Deacon Saint Lawrence, pray for us.

Monday, August 9, 2010


The Word:
Acts 15:1-33 (The First Council of Jerusalem)

After completing my previous post on Saturday, reflecting on the Keys to the Kingdom, I went off to Mass to sing, as it was my turn on the schedule. Little did I know that my prayers and reflection on the discovery of those keys would be answered.

My new Catholic pastor Fr. Bill chose to preach not directly on the selected Scripture readings for the weekend. He touched off briefly on the second reading, Hebrews 11:1-2 & 8-12, on Abraham as the Church's 'Father in Faith'; and then took off on the reason the Council of Jerusalem was gathered in about the year 50 CE.

The question before the council: How Jewish was the Christian Church going to be?
The issue: Peter and the other Apostles were of the Jewish faith, as was Jesus. While Jesus had often questioned the intent of the Jewish leadership of his time, he was nonetheless devout and maintained the required practices of the faith. The Apostles' preaching had developed a modest following in and around Jerusalem, though naturally kept in check by the political climate around the place. Progress was slow, and generally kept from overwhelming fanfare.

On the other hand, Paul of Tarsus had begun to spread the Good News, in areas apart from Judea. Paul, whose original intent had been to snuff out the Light of Christ, had instead become a most steadfast light-bearer. His message was not taken too well in Jerusalem (he was seen as a turncoat), so the Apostles sent him out to reach people elsewhere. And indeed, there were many people of the Jewish faith to be reached. But Paul welcomed all within earshot to hear the message he was sent to preach, and there were just as many, if not more, enlightened by the message of a resurrected Savior who brought life and hope to a troubled world. The question was the Jewish practice of circumcision. It was required of all Jewish men - they went through this painful surgical procedure a week after birth. Those who would convert to the community of The Way, it was thought, should be required to undergo this process as an adult.

(Okay, guys, this is about us, as we have the equipment. Ladies, please skip to the next paragraph. Guys, would you be willing to shed a portion of your flesh anywhere on your body - let alone one of the most sensitive spots??)

Pain and suffering. Isn't that what Jesus endured in bitter agony, anguish, and torment - so that the rest of us would not? (A very important point with multiple implications, that will be addressed further.)

After much debate (whittled down to a handful of verses by Luke), it was determined that the significance of the symbolism of circumcision not understood by the Gentiles paled in comparison to their potential lost support. Conversion meant lots of good things, not only to the people; not the least of which was mutual care and concern for each other. The Apostles were doing the math, as it were; calculating the potential as well as the risk. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church chose to take on the risk. After all, those who had walked in Jesus' company knew through direct experience that Jesus looked at the world differently. They saw his priorites as more important.

Fr. Bill then took us to the present. It is no secret that the Catholic liturgy is undergoing revision again. It has been commanded by the Powers That Be that vernacular translations of the Mass more closely match the Latin text of the Roman Missal, Latin being the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet it seems that neither Jesus, nor his disciples, nor the evangelists and writers of the New Testament, spoke or wrote in Latin. They spoke Aramaic or Hebrew or Greek. These texts were formally translated to Latin beginning in roughly the 4th Century.

Consider for a moment the humor found when one goes through several languages to arrive at a literal translation to important instruction. There are examples of it all over the Internet. Now consider that for Catholics, the 'new' translation of the Missal is not really new at all, but resurrects texts not used in nearly half a century. "The Lord be with you." But no longer "also with you," but rather "with your spirit." Wanna run that by me again? The body isn't good enough anymore?

The most contested of these texts is in the transliteration of the Nicene Creed. In Latin, the phrase Consubstantialem Patri; in our current English use, "one in being with the Father" becomes "con-substantive with the Father." As Fr. Bill quipped, when is the last time you used or heard the word "con-substantive" used in a sentence? (Reminiscent of watching the National Spelling Bee.) Then he continued to suggest that just maybe, considering the state of the Church and her priesthood, and the general state of the world, that priorities might not quite be in order.

That was the answer to my prayer. Compassion and mercy were still on top of the list where God was concerned. Yes, there would still be all these other things, and like Peter, our most well-intended thoughts and actions may get in the way of what we're called to do and to be. This reaffirmed what I had tersely written at the conclusion of my last post. I must first be open to receiving God's compassion and mercy, understand I have already received it, and spread it in every possible way. The lines in the sand that humanity insists must be drawn will always be there. Jesus showed us that these lines must not become too solid, lest we forget our own ultimate destiny on life's pilgrimage.

And then Fr. Bill finishes his homily, and invites the congregation to "profess our faith...before we change our minds." This causes one of the loudest outbursts of laughter I've heard in a Catholic Church in a long time...which makes me wonder if I can possibly sing the remainder of the service and keep a dignified face. God provided the grace, as always.

On Sunday, it was out to Cornerstone, the Methodist congregation I have come to consider a second spiritual home.

On the plan for the day - the sermon from a missionary to, of all places, Lithuania. I was intrigued for several reasons. One, the missionary is from the Cornerstone congregation; two, Lithuania's demography is 95% Christian (and likely 90% Catholic); and third, the music director at my Catholic church is a Lithuanian immigrant. There are fewer than 700 registered Methodists in the entire country, and only six pastors; yet, people there refer to the Methodist Church as "the little Church that cares."

Given the demographics, the preacher wondered why he was being sent to Lithuania. Then he began to research the country's history of struggles and occupation. Territorial ownership changed many times over the last 700 years; the last, as one of the Soviet Russian republics, was thrown out nearly twenty years ago. Under Soviet and Communist rule, Catholicism was left barely intact as the state religion. Even so, many churches were ordered converted for secular use, including one cathedral which became an atheist museum and cultural center.

A popular shrine in Lithuania is the (English name) "Hill of Crosses." Wikipedia states that as of 2006 there are an estimated 100,000 crosses of various sizes and styles that have been left there for just as many needs and intentions. Looking at the pictures provided by Wikipedia, and one other provided by the missionary during his sermon, it is clear that a majority of these crosses bear the body of the crucified Jesus, something particular but not necessarily limited to Catholicism. Given their history, Lithuanian Christians have been immersed in the aspect of Jesus as the Suffering Servant; and with it, the theology that one can expect to live this life in misery in anticipation of a glorious life in heaven.

Catholics in America should also recognize this theology. Until about fifty years ago, pain and suffering was as standard fare in preaching as is daily Holy Communion. Even today, Catholics confront that part of their identity during Lent. Many of us have an understanding now that this theology, while indeed accurate, is incomplete.

Straddling the fence as I do, I know that this is preached even today. Still, I also take this with an understanding that this is how many people have come to cope with life; and that a majority of Christians will resonate with it at least once in their lifetime. That there is a "little church that cares" is by God's design. Not that big churches don't care; I can confidently say they do. What holds things back are the things of our flawed humanity, and the weaknesses permeate everything of this world, just as do our strengths and triumphs.

In 1991 Lithuania broke away as a Russian territory and reestablished itself as an independent state. It was a courageous move. More courageous still will be the day when we're all aware that it takes joy and triumph as well as pain and suffering to exalt every valley and straddle the mountaintops, to make the crooked roads straight, and the rough places plain. How we will do it will depend on the priorities we set; but the greatest of these -for me- will be in the tender compassion of God, as the dawn of a new day breaks upon us. May it shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and may it guide all of our footsteps in the way of everlasting peace.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Keys to the Kingdom

The Word (Matthew 16:18-19, NIV):

"I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

I was helping my dear wife the other day. Our dining room table has a compartment below its surface, and it has to be cleaned out periodically as table crumbs from our meals get down in there and accumulate. It was my intention to get this out of the way and not procrastinate in this tedious but necessary task.

While going about cleaning there were the usual discoveries: a few instruction booklets and warranty cards from small appliances we no longer owned, the stray pen or two that no longer worked, and a few other things that we were ready to discard. Likewise, there were other things that needed to be kept and if possible relocated to other storage places.

We were nearing the end of the job when I discovered a set of keys on a fob my wife had made. Because this was her handiwork, I thought the keys were hers - to someplace like her parents' house, a place we don't normally need keys to get to but should have should there be an emergency. But no, these weren't hers, she said.

I took another look at them. A couple of them were stamped as having been duplicated by the locksmith in town. And then it hit me. These were the keys to the church building where I had served as a deacon until eleven years ago, that part of my life I wrote about in this blog and behind me; at least that's what I thought.

But keys are generally carried on a man's person, and carry all the energy - good and bad - that accumulate over time by the person bearing them. Flood gates were released, a wound was reopened, and with it, the haunting notion behind Jesus' words, quoted by the apostle Matthew.

Most traditional Christians and especially Catholics are aware of the symbolism behind Peter's receiving the keys to the Pearly Gates. By these words he becomes the gatekeeper. He also becomes the rock, the foundation, the leader, of the early Church. No matter how many times he would do something of questionable or dubious thought througout  the Gospels, here it is made clear that Peter is to inherit the mantle of leadership.

But there's more. In undertaking this role, Peter is given carte blanche authority in making decisions. Whatever you declare lawful on earth is lawful in heaven, and whatever you declare unlawful on earth is automatically unlawful in heaven. Phenomenal and absolute power! Many times, of course, Peter demonstrated in both strength and weakness that Jesus had chosen from the beginning of time the right person for this arduous task. Then you consider the concept of apostolic succession, meaning all Peter's successors as popes of the Church assumed the same authority and power - and to an extent, every bishop as well.

I thought of these verses and the implications therein as I stared at the keys in my hand, with a sense of near burning heat to them. I was reminded that I was far from perfect, and I will one day have to account for my imperfections and lack of full discernment. Much that has transpired over the last eleven years from a faith perspective could be questionable according to whose rules I am judged.

I've lost track of how many times I've holed myself up privately to throw my life at Jesus' feet and beg for mercy and compassion - because I indeed believe and surely trust in those attributes above just about everything else I've been taught along these lines. But is that all lost in the final analysis due to what Jesus said to Peter? That judgment is already determined?

I cannot, I must not read too much into this. I still trust in God's love and mercy. And to assure that it is there, I must act as if I have already received it, which indeed I have. I must show others as best I can the depths to which that mercy and compassion can reach. Here, in this life, this is not a simple thing. The keys remind me of that. In our existence, there are impenetrable fortresses, deep chasms, and all manner of locks and blockades and red tape and policies and procedures and code that would make one think that any attempt to break through is useless.

But one candle's light penetrates the darkness, and one simple act of kindness has the potential of unlocking so many doors that will otherwise remain closed. The evidence in these times prove it out.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Third One's The Charm

A month has passed since the Methodist and Catholic pastors under which I've served for years have moved on from their long-held posts. So far, the gracious people sent to replace them have tread softly among their respective new congregation, and both have been a bit more conservative in their approach, probably out of necessity more than anything else.

It's been interesting listening to them preach. Pastor Lisa at Cornerstone has been a larger standout to me, of course, because she is the first woman in that role I have observed directly. But neither she nor Father Bill (pastor at Ascension) has yet to show themselves in any contrary way. As Martha Stewart might say, "that's a good thing."

A third person's influence returned and just as quickly passed from me in the last two weeks. And his story is as unusual as the transition with my pastors has been more-or-less smooth.

I first met Bill (the third person) when I left the parochial school environment for public junior high school in the seventh grade. I'm not sure now what we saw in each other. Perhaps it was that we were both something of social outcasts from quirky school cliques. Perhaps it was that we both lived in the same town. It may have simply been that our last names were virtually next to each other alphabetically. Whatever the reason, Bill was one person out of hundreds of unknown faces, one who didn't shove me in some useless hole. I would walk or ride a bike up and down the steep hills in our river-straddling village to see him. Later in high school we wound up traveling together  - as he was a full year older than me (yet in the same grade), he got his driver's license and had access to a car long before me. We worked in our first two jobs together - at the McDonald's across the street from the high school we attended, and our first job utilizing computers - as we sorted out punch cards to run the school's daily absentee report. Bill and I somehow got into the mindset that our careers would be in the vast and rapidly expanding territory that would become dominated by computers. Only in 1970, this was before the personal computer (IBM or Mac), or Microsoft Windows, or the Internet. 'Blogging' had not been coined yet; journals were still the product of handwritten notebooks. 'Word processing' was still being done on a typewriter, and copies were the domain of the mimeograph machine, complete with its piquant aroma.

After graduation, Bill and I made the transition to junior college. Fate would take us in different ways; both of us somewhat delayed in finding the right career path. Bill wound up working as a security guard; I started working for a retail inventory service. Bill still studied programming numbers; I was crunching them. Both of us found girlfriends and were dating. He married in 1975; I married six years later.

And that's where all similarity ends.

When Bill got married, he moved in with his wife's family - the intent being, as is the case with so many young couples struggling in difficult financial waters, to start a life of their own as soon as it was practical. But it never got that way. Bill was looking for an opening in his chosen career path, and he eventually made his way through it; but never looked back to put that in place as an anchor around which to build a place for his growing family. Instead, it eventually got too crowded and too tense to handle. His wife divorced him, moving out on her own. He continued to live with his now former in-laws. As his parents had also divorced (before I had known him), this new arrangement seemed to be normal to Bill - but not to nearly anyone else whom we mutually knew. And the new addition to the environment was genuinely tough on his three children.

As we continued to move through our separate lives, we naturally drifted apart and didn't see each other for longer and longer periods of time. I confess that my previous face-to-face encounter with Bill was about eight years ago, when another of our intimate circle of high school friends passed away, a victim of Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS.

It was about a year ago that I was encouraged by yet one other of our intimate circle to open a Facebook account. Where MySpace is overrun with teens, and Twitter the online roost for celebrity gossip, Facebook appears to be more middle ground for the average, computer-literate Joe and Joanna. After a bit of trepidation (I wasn't sure as to what kind of Pandora's Box I could be opening), I opened the account. Within a few hours Bill caught up with me.

Seems that at some point over the last eight years, Bill went through a metamorphosis of his own. (As did I, and have chronicled here.) He explained to me that he got squeezed on his rise up the corporate ladder. A project he and some colleagues had sweated over was completed ahead of schedule and within budget, yet he received no credit or recognition of the effort. His last performance review was essentially copied from the previous year. He had risen to the highest he could go, and would have to stay there or jump off and start again. He took the leap.

I started reading through some of Bill's comments (brief, as deemed necessary by the restrictions of social networking etiquette). He had gone through a major career change. He had entered the 'ed biz' (as comic songwriter Tom Lehrer once put it). He had been to China! I presume the latter had at least something to do with the former. Out of all the career choices Bill could get into, teaching was one of the last of which I could picture him in my mind's eye. Still, though this seemed to make no sense, there was some logic to this choice. Teaching is a lucrative profession from the perspective of how much you can earn. Public school teachers' salaries in and around Chicago are all over the place, and some teachers command annual pay in the six-figure range. Then there's the perception that teaching work is a fairly easy job - a perception that by and large is patently false, as the best teachers (in both home and institutional education) will tell you. Then there's a third piece of logic; an old maxim: "Those who can, do...those who can't, teach"...

I read these posts about the same as most I read, grateful that the world was still spinning on its axis and in the orbit God had ordered before our footprints touched the landscape. I was content that Bill was still alive and in relatively good health, and that his life was moving in a forward direction. These things become all the more fragile the older we get.

The latest bend in the road came just over two weeks ago, when I received a 'wall-to-wall' post from Bill. He had found a teaching job and would be moving away; and wanted to get together one last time before he left. Sure, why not? After all, we've known each other for over forty years and with many of our circle scattered across the country (not to mention life everlasting), it was important enough to offer him my best wishes over dinner.

Oh, I almost forgot. Bill's teaching job is in Kuwait.


Well, Bill told me that he's going to Kuwait to teach because the economic recession sharply reduced his chances of finding a job locally. He has a point, particularly in Illinois since the state is in financial straits and has delayed payment of tax subsidies to school districts here. (Here, a chunk of property taxes is the basis of the subsidy paid to public schools.) But why Kuwait? Wasn't there anyplace else in the USA looking for teachers? 

Bill mentioned that the school where he'll be teaching is paying for his relocation, that is to say, his airfare. He's not taking much in the way of personal possessions; I recall him saying that he's got a grand total of three or four suitcases, and two of these are carry-on bags that include his laptop computer. He believes he'll earn enough to cover his basic expenses; and he has enough reserve cash saved in the event something goes wrong. His research indicates that health care coverage is better there than here; that the cost of living will be better there than here (since he will not have a car, that improves the bottom line). From what he told me, he spent several months researching and preparing for this, and he believes he has all the big bases covered. While there were still some issues pending as of Sunday, when he left here, there were temporary workarounds in place which would suffice until he got there and worked with whatever powers or agencies necessary to have everything in proper order.

After this, knowing he's going through with this no matter what my feelings or opinions are, and knowing he has family, I asked what I thought was the big question. Not why he was doing it or whether or not this was overreaching, but something more important to me.

What do Bill's children think of Dad leaving the country and not likely to return for nine months - or perhaps at all?

He fidgeted for a bit before answering. "I really didn't tell them," he said. Then he added that his daughters found out about it, but his son still doesn't know and he has no intention of telling him.
That said a lot to me; a lot that I was hoping I wouldn't discover about my longtime friend. Sure, his children are all of adult age now; so the relatively quiet departure is not an abandonment, not in the legal sense, anyway. Any real abandonment took place long before now.

I looked at Bill from a distance, removing for a moment all that we did together those many years ago. I first approached his decision to undertake this venture as something of a noble gesture; sure, it was something he found he could do, and to take it outside of the box (he also did a teaching stint at a Native American Reservation school for a year, working for a non-profit company). To receive the cooperation and respect of young, malleable, moldable children and put their futures in motion in a positive way is indeed a great and honorable way to live life. I have great respect for my many teachers, and not all of my teachers have been in the classroom. But institutional education, for all its prominence, is a forced society. Many of my classmates discovered this for the first time while treading the hallowed halls of high school, only to sell out the minute they graduated; and then reawakened when they got married, had kids, and had to start sending them to schools now having to prove their ability in the wake of standardized test scores and the "No Child Left Behind" laws.

While I wish Bill success in his new venture, I can't help but wonder if this is an attempt to succeed on one level where he did not at another; a gesture that, cast against the larger picture of his life, would look to be some sort of self-serving 'repentance' that barely scratches the surface where true repentance is concerned. Even here, I have cast judgment that is really not mine to make.

I reflected when I arrived home after our parting dinner that 'education' and 'learning' are two separate and distinct things. In America, 'education' is mandated. 'Education' is the process by which static knowledge is passed on with the hope of retention, sort of like playing Trivial Pursuit. 'Learning' happens when you discover something important about yourself, or the way something impacts you and those you love, and that is stored in your memory in such a way that you can recall it without having to go to a computer, database, or encyclopedia and look it up. 'Learning' is the more important of the two, and it shouldn't be hard to see that; yet, for each and every one of us, the mandated 'education' ends at age 18, but the opportunity for 'learning' lasts until the mind fails due to trauma, or even worse, lack of use.

I took the opportunity to send Bill an e-mail thanking him for the opportunity to get together and chat; after all, it is the right and proper thing to do. While saying thanks and offering best wishes, I wrote that he has a wonderful opportunity for learning in this process. Such learning has the potential to change lives. In looking back over my years of direct contact with Bill, and with Pastor Paul and Father Damien, not to mention the 30+ years I've been happily married to my loving wife, I've learned and re-learned a lot that defines who I am and where I stand; what I do and why I do it the way I do. That will remain with me forever.

Indeed, all true 'learning' changes your life. If it doesn't, it's just chalked up as getting an education.