Be Prepared

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Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas. These words from Jesus in the Gospel struck me in a particular way: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” (Luke 21:34)

There’s not much chance I’ll succumb to carousing or drunkenness, but I have to admit that the anxieties of daily life often keep me up at night. Especially in the weeks before Christmas, I find myself lying awake ticking off my to-do lists in my head instead of getting much needed sleep. And all the busy-ness keeps me from focusing on what is truly important at Christmastime.

In the Church, Advent points not only to the arrival of a tiny baby in Bethlehem who will become the Savior of the world. It also points us to the end of our lives when we will be held to account for how we lived. How much did we love? How much did we give of ourselves to others? How much did we emulate the great sacrifice of Christ, who gave his very self for our salvation?

Even if you are not a religious person, it’s worthwhile to think about your impact on this planet and the people in it. Are you selfishly concerned only with your own gain to the exclusion or detriment of others? Are you so busy consuming that you fail to see the needs of your fellow human beings? Do you show kindness to others even when it’s difficult and inconvenient? How are you making the world a better place?

Advent invites us to consider our answers to these questions. As we prepare for the fun of the holidays – the family gatherings, parties, gift and cookie exchanges – can we take a little time each day to be reflective and consider how we might reach out to the poor, the lonely, the oppressed?

Are we content to let time just slip by as we engage in thoughtless pursuits? Or can we strive to live more meaningful and intentional lives? One of these paths leads to the greatest fulfillment both in this life and the next. Today I commit myself to taking that path and approaching Christmas by being prepared – prepared to open my heart to others, prepared to give more than I receive, prepared to make a positive mark on the world God has so graciously granted to us.

 

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NOel

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Yesterday a station on Sirius XM radio started playing Christmas songs. Mind you, not just the occasional festive holiday tune thrown in among other popular offerings. Nonstop, 24/7 holiday treacle. Is it cliche to scream, “TOO SOON!”?

It’s sometimes hard to wrap my mind around the fact that our society could take a  feast honoring a poor, imperiled Christ child in a manger and turn it into a shameless commercial bonanza. (Of course, the ancient Romans and Celts are rolling over in their graves at their “pagan” festivities being coopted by the Christians.)

Take something lovely and pure, and someone will try to monetize it. Romantic love? Let’s sell pricey roses, candy, and jewelry and make those items stand in for our feelings. Love your mom? Nothing says devotion like an overpriced all-you-can-eat hotel brunch, a $7 greeting card, and yes, more flowers.

So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a holiday involving the ritual of gift-giving would eventually get over the top. When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes buy our tree on Christmas Eve! Nowadays, people put their artificial Christmas trees up in early November, and I still see them in the windows on Valentine’s Day.

One of my favorite Christmas specials to this day is A Charlie Brown Christmas. In it, Charlie Brown is frustrated by the hoopla and commercialization of Christmas. Finally he cries out in frustration, “Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?!” His friend Linus, of course, adorably quotes the gospel of Luke, which describes the scene of Christ’s birth.

There’s so much to love about the Christmas holidays, so many fun and beloved traditions. But let’s wait until the leaves have fallen off the trees and I’ve gotten sick of pumpkin products. Let’s enjoy a fallow time between the excess of Halloween and the folderol of Christmastime. Let’s tramp through the leaves and enjoy hot apple cider by the fire with a good book or a good friend. Let’s plan our feast for Thanksgiving without the distraction of Christmas songs and pre-holiday sales and peppermint mochas.

Luckily there are dozens of other good stations on the radio to listen to during this wonderfully uncommercial season of the year. Beatles channel, anyone?

“Midwife” Delivers Nostalgia

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My sister and I share tastes in many things. We both love sweets, good books, and serious theater. So it was a bit odd that I didn’t immediately take her up on her suggestion that I watch the PBS series Call the Midwife. For the better part of two years, my sister would mention how much she loved this period piece about midwives set in London in the early Sixties. And for two years, the idea of the show lacked appeal to me.

Finally, I decided to give the show a try. I instantly fell in love with the nurses and nuns of Nonnatus House, a home for midwives in Poplar, a poor district in the East End of London. In each episode, these nurse midwives tend to the growing families’ needs for medical care, sustenance, and moral support in often rather grim conditions. Their life’s work is imbued with optimism and love, for both God and their neighbors.

The series, which completed its seventh season this past spring, also delves into the lives and loves of the Nonnatus House residents themselves. Based upon the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the series begins with Jenny moving into the midwives’ domicile and struggling to be accepted in the small world of Poplar – and in the world of the religious sisters themselves. One of the nuns struggles with her growing affection for the local doctor. Another shows a gruff exterior that hides a kind and caring interior. The non-religious midwives also have their trials and tribulations, such as alcoholism and the hidden love for another woman.

I love the faithfulness to the culture of the early 1960s, where abortion and homosexuality were illegal, birth control was in its infancy, and most women in the area of Poplar gave birth at home. The clothing, hairstyles, music, and topical references all add to the realism that transports the viewer to another time and place that many remember well. In the season seven finale, for instance, the Nonnatus House residents learn that President John F. Kennedy has been killed.

I’ve learned some interesting things from watching the series. For example, I never knew that there were Anglican nuns. The sisters and their religious devotion are treated with great respect in the series. The beauty of their rituals, the habits they wear, and the love with which they minister to the needs of their community are all lovely depictions of what a life of faith can bring to the world.

Call the Midwife is a deeply heartfelt paean to a world and a time and place that seem distant but in many ways are not so far from our own modern trials and tribulations. There is plenty of childbirth on screen, so the show is definitely not for the squeamish. But the series has evoked so many tears from me – tears of sorrow, yes, but also tears of joy.

When season seven concludes, it is 1963. I look forward to next spring when the residents of Poplar take on 1964 with the same cheek, gusto, drama, and neighborly love that they’ve shown season after season on this wonderful series.

Newcomers to the series can catch all seven seasons of Call the Midwife on Netflix. Season 8 will debut with a Christmas special on PBS in December, followed by season 8 in the spring.

As for me, I will never doubt that sister of mine and her conviction that I’d like something. When it comes to most things, we are two peas in a pod.

Road Not Taken

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A Facebook friend posted an interesting article about how most people misread Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.” The poem has been taken as an ode to individuality, to striking out on one’s own less common path. The final lines of the poem seem to confirm this: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”

In reality, the narrator of the poem acknowledges that the two roads are virtually the same: “Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same,/ And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black.” In other words, neither path was really an untrodden one, and the view that choosing one “made all the difference” is only seen in hindsight. It’s the story “I shall be telling … with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence.” In fact, there’s nothing in the poem that even indicates the choice was the better one – just that it was different.

We would all like to think that our decisions are momentous ones, and we give weight and significance to our choices because we desire more than anything that our life have meaning. The place we live, the jobs we take, the person we marry: all certainly force us to forgo other choices. Our biological children would not exist if we had not made certain choices in the past. While all of this is true, it’s not necessarily the case that we were meant for this path and this path only.

I’m a religious person, and I do think God has an overarching plan for my life. My faith provides an outlook that gives meaning and consequence to the twists and turns on the path I’m taking in life. But that does not mean there are no coincidences. It’s tempting to believe that God is literally putting joys and trials in our way as part of some divine plan for us. But that makes God more of a puppet master than a divine presence. Rather, our belief in God shapes the way we view our experiences. It imbues them with meaning instead of our concluding that, “All is vanity and grasping for the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

“The Road Not Taken” was written by Frost to tease a fellow poet and friend who was notoriously bad at making decisions when they went out walking. (“Robert Frost: ‘The Road Not Taken’,” Katherine Robinson, poetryfoundation.org) But it’s also a meditation on the fact that we all have to make choices, large and small. The narrator in the poem wants to go both ways, but he must choose only one. Like him, we all second guess our choices at times and wonder what our lives would have been like had we chosen the other path.

It’s comforting to realize, though, that however our lives turn out, we have the power through our own beliefs to give them meaning. And that makes all the difference.

Losing My Religion

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I’m heartsick with grief for the sexual victims of men hiding behind the cloak of the priesthood in the Catholic Church. The revelations that thousands of children in Pennsylvania were being abused by priests while the diocesan hierarchy essentially aided and abetted their crimes has truly left my faith shaken.

Growing up, I was taught to deeply respect priests for their dedication and closeness to God, for their role in the Church in persona Christi. My teenage sisters worked in the rectory office and sometimes served dinner to our parish priests. My mother sewed their priestly vestments. To imagine any of these men violating a child in such a manner sickens and horrifies me.

The breadth of the pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church is truly astounding. There seems to be no major diocese in the United States that has not been affected by it. Hundreds of priests and thousands of victims are involved. If this were any other kind of organization, there would be protests in the streets and calls for heads to roll.

Pope Francis has reiterated his sorrow at the horrors of priestly depravity, renewed his plea for forgiveness for the Church’s failures to stop it, and pledged that sexual abuse by priests will not be tolerated and that those in charge will be held accountable. But he has said all these things before. And few, if any, members of the Church hierarchy have been removed from office. Victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests have listened to our pope’s words and found them wanting.

What has enabled the flourishing of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is the all male, celibate priesthood. How else to account for the untold numbers of victims? Yes, other institutions have been found to harbor sexual abusers. But there is no comparison in the number of victims and the longevity of the problem to what has gone on in the Catholic Church for decades.

The Catholic Church must address the epidemic of sexual abuse of children head on, first of all by removing not only the offending priests, but also the bishops and other higher ups who shuffled them from parish to parish and otherwise allowed them to continue to abuse children. It is also time for the Church to allow priests to marry and to welcome women into the ordained priesthood.

I’m not saying that the condition of celibacy causes pedophilia. But I do believe that the requirement makes the priesthood attractive to men who are wrestling with the demons of their own predilection for young children, and they seek refuge there in greater numbers than in the general population. I also think the presence of women within all levels of church hierarchy would make the abuses less likely to be hushed up or tolerated.

It has been extremely difficult for me to attend Mass in my local parish since the latest revelations of sexual abuse by priests came to light. My membership in the Church gives tacit acceptance to what is being done – and more importantly, what is not being done – to address this horrible stain on the reputation of Catholicism.

I don’t want to lose my religion. My faith has been a grounding and inspirational force in my life, and I believe it can still be a force for good in the world. But more of us Catholics have to stand up and demand what is right and good and holy from our leaders. Only then can we carry on the sacred mission for which Christ died on the cross.

Suffer the Children

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Dear Jeff Sessions,

Here are a couple of Biblical quotations you might have missed:

Matthew 19:14: “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Mark 10:15: “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”

Don’t go quoting the Bible to justify the inhumane act of separating parents from their children. During the Holocaust, at concentration camps, the first thing the Nazis did was separate adults from children. As one victim of America’s shameful policy of Japanese internment pointed out, even he was never separated from his parents.

The spin being put on this horrifying immigration policy by the Trump Administration and the pundits on Fox News is making me want to vomit. Their excuses are simply lame.

The first one is that this is a long-standing policy that Bush and Obama followed. That’s just wrong. Except in extremely rare cases where the legitimacy of the parent/child relationship was in question, Hispanics crossing the border illegally were not separated from their children.

The Trump Administration’s second lame excuse is that the policy will deter illegal immigrants from trying to cross the border. Clearly that’s not the case when were are seeing literally thousands of children being warehoused in cages like animals.

The third excuse is that it’s all the Democrats’ fault! I’m surprised Trump hasn’t blamed Hillary and her emails for the policy. Seriously, Republicans. You are not going to weasel out of responsibility for this heinous violation of human rights that easily. (Of course, the U.S. has just left the UN Human Rights Council since it would be hypocritical to be a part of something it doesn’t actually practice itself.)

I’m not sure why, but when I picture Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Sessions cooking up this heartless policy in the Oval Office, I see them all in Nazi uniforms. I wonder if they stood at attention the way Trump would prefer all his underlings to do in front of him. After all, that wonderful guy Kim Jong Un gets that kind of treatment.

My favorite statement from these monsters was Sessions’ inane argument that if these immigrants don’t want to be separated from their children, they should leave the children at home. Say what?

I’d like Americans to picture the desperation a person must feel to undertake the perilous and difficult journey to come to America in search of safety and a better life. Now imagine how much more dangerous and difficult that trip would be with one’s own precious children. What the U.S. does about so many immigrants trying to obtain asylum in this country is open to debate. But whether or not to put their children in cages is not.

 

 

Doing Hard Things

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Years ago I stumbled across a book written by 19-year-old twins Alex and Brett Harris entitled Do Hard Things. Their thesis was that society expects way too little of adolescents and that is up to young people to rise above the low bar set for them by “doing hard things.”

I bought the book for my teenage sons, but reading it myself, I realized that all of us – not just teens – can benefit from raising our expectations of ourselves. The Harrises discussed pursuing excellence in school, standing up for moral values, and working to make a difference in the world as antidotes to a modern culture of pleasure-seeking and pain avoidance. As Memorial Day approaches, a day on which we commemorate the courageous sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, it might behoove us to think of our own contributions to the world in which we live.

Doing hard things can look like the parent who gets up in the wee hours of the morning or works a second shift to put food on the table. It can look like the schoolmate who stands up to bullies. Doing hard things can mean abstaining from unhealthy behaviors and completing grueling workouts to stay in shape. It can mean giving one’s time to an elderly relative, a sick child, or a friend in need. It can involve volunteering to feed the hungry, build shelter for the homeless, or tend to the sick.

Alex and Brett Harris draw on their faith in God to inspire them. Certainly, a rich faith life can impel us to see our role in the world as something larger than mere existence. But no matter what faith we subscribe to, or whether we have any religious faith at all, the concept of working hard for the betterment of ourselves and others is one that can enrich our lives and give it greater meaning.

The other day I read an essay that my son had written for a college philosophy class. In it, he described his understanding of existentialism as the idea that the world and our lives have no intrinsic meaning of their own, but that it’s incumbent upon each of us to create meaning for ourselves in the way we live. While I do believe that God invests our existence with deep meaning, I also agree that it is up to us to act, to make a world of which we are happy and proud to be a part.

I’m at a stage in life where it is tempting to sit back and take it easy. Certainly I don’t feel the pressures and drive I had when I was a young professional or the mother of young children. Yet it’s never good to become too comfortable with our lives. Comfort brings stagnation; growth involves hardship and pain.

I intend to keep growing by pursuing the hard things that give my life meaning.