Hug It Out

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I’m thinking of setting up a “Free Hugs” booth somewhere in downtown Chicago – a busy train station, say, or Daley Plaza (once the weather gets nicer). I recently read the about the physical and emotional benefits of hugging.

Hugging stimulates the production of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes well-being and reduces feelings of anxiety and stress. Oxytocin is the hormone that helps mothers and infants bond, for instance. And studies have shown that hugging can help the heart and the immune system, making it not only a pleasurable activity but a potentially life-saving one.

I’ve noticed that as I get older, my opportunities for hugs have diminished. When you have little ones at home, you are constantly holding and hugging them, and being hugged in return. As they get older, kids often attempt to individuate by keeping their physical distance. And while I hug my husband on a fairly regular basis, I think I’d like to become more demonstrative with friends, even ones I see on a daily basis.

Amid the current divisiveness in America, I think it would behoove us to hug each other more. I’m reminded of a protestor approaching riot police in Charlottesville last year and offering hugs. There was also an instance of a black man hugging a white supremacist outside a Richard Spencer event. The black man kept asking the white man, “Why don’t you like me?” The white man had nothing to say until the black man hugged him and whispered the question again. The white man admitted, “I don’t know.”

Americans are much less physically demonstrative than many other cultures. Decades ago, psychologist Sidney Jourard studied how often friends from different countries touched each other. He found that Americans touched each other about twice an hour whereas the French touched each other an average of 110 times an hour. Puerto Ricans touched more than 180 times an hour. (“How Hugs Heal – Have You Had a Hug Today?,” articles.mercola.com, May 20, 2017)

In doing some web research, I found out that I’ve just missed #NationalHuggingDay, which was January 21. It’s interesting that this year the date happened to correspond to the Women’s March and followed on the heels of the March for Life, both events where like-minded people gathered in large groups for a common cause. No doubt there was plenty of hugging to go around.

What I’d like to see, however, are more healing hugs, where people take the risk to reach out and connect heart to heart with someone different from themselves, whether racially, politically, religiously, or ideologically. So maybe my Free Hugs booth is not such a bad idea. Or how about a social media phenomenon akin to the Ice Bucket Challenge from a few years ago. People could gather donations for every random hug they gave and posted.

Hugs are warm and life-giving acts, and I plan to start giving out more of them. How about you?

 

 

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Let Them Eat Cake

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The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case to determine whether the Constitution protects the rights of a baker to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The baker insists that as an artist (of cakery, presumably), he is protected by his First Amendment right to free speech.

I’m sure there are laudable arguments on both sides of this Constitutional question, and I’m neither qualified nor interested in engaging in them. But for crying out loud, baker, it’s a cake!

I’m sure in the course of their day to day business, bakeries make cakes for all kinds of morally questionable people. Generally, businesses don’t require their customers to pass a moral litmus test in order to serve them. A cake made for a gay couple would have all the same ingredients and requirements that the baker would use for a  heterosexual couple. There is absolutely nothing morally compromising for the bakery here.

After all, it’s not as if refusing to make the cake will cause the gay couple to decide not to get married. I could understand if a Christian minister refused to marry two men or two women. But a cake is just a traditional aspect of the celebration part of the wedding. It’s not marched down the aisle as part of the actual marriage ceremony. So the idea that a baker’s making a cake for a gay couple would compromise his or her religious beliefs is ludicrous.

Let’s face it. The baker saw two men in love walk into his bakery, and it disgusted him. He didn’t want any part of their business because he didn’t like what he saw. This is the same situation blacks faced at lunch counters all over the American South in the Fifties. Refusing to serve customers because of their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation is illegal. It’s that simple.

So I have a solution for the squeamish baker: Let gay couples have their cake and eat it too! Just tell them they need to supply their own same sex cake topper.

 

Hope

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With everything going on in the world these days, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Greed, intolerance, partisanship, abuse, and violence have all cast a pall on my holiday spirits. I have several friends who have stopped going on Facebook to avoid the constant bad news and negativity. To add to my feelings of despondency, I learned that a little boy from my town lost his battle with cancer last week.

But then at Sunday morning Mass, something happened to me. I was watching parishioners file down the aisles after receiving Holy Communion, and a tiny feeling lit up my heart: hope. All these people, young and old, had given up their cozy beds of a Sunday morning and come together to pray. We were there because we have faith that goodness and love are stronger than evil and hatred.

Faith is the ” realization of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) This past Sunday, the first candle was lit on the Advent wreath, its light a reminder of that tiny flame within each of us that can kindle hope.

Hope looks like Sisterhood Soap, a collective of Iraqi refugee women living in the direst of conditions who are taking charge of their destiny by making and selling soap. Hope resembles the unlikely friendship between an 81-year-old white woman and a 22-year-old black man, who met playing the online game Words With Friends. Hope is the dominant spirit at GiGi’s Playhouse, a nonprofit that works toward achievement and acceptance of people with Down’s Syndrome. Hope is Operation Christmas Child, a mission to spread joy and faith throughout the world with boxes full of goodies for impoverished children.

Hope is the sound of the Salvation Army bell ringing out on the cold, busy street. Hope is the light in a young child’s eyes when he sees a brightly wrapped package on Christmas morning with his name on it. Hope is abundant as families gather at the holidays, break bread, and share their love for one another.  Hope is the babe in the manger, the unlikely harbinger of peace on earth.

With a spirit of hope, let’s move through the Christmas season, spreading joy and kindness, and doing good for friends and strangers alike.

 

Countdown to Christmas

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On December 1, my kids would all jockey to be the first – that is, the first one to open a door on our Advent calendar. For me, December 1 begins the frenzied (for me), agonizing (for kids) countdown to Christmas.

Prior to Thanksgiving, I would admonish my children that they were not allowed to utter the “C” word until after we had stuffed ourselves with turkey and made our way home from Grandma’s house over the river and through the woods. But on December 1, I began to pull out all the stops.

Large red plastic boxes made their way up from the basement. Cookies dusted with red and green sugars appeared in the pantry while candy bowls got filled with peppermints and Hershey’s Kisses. The Christmas music I had refused to play prior to Thanksgiving now wafted regularly through our house.

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. There are so many good things associated with it: twinkling lights, cookies, gifts, and Santa Claus. People somehow seem more cheerful going about their business with the background sound of jingle bells. And the season of Advent gives us a whole month of delicious anticipation.

When my kids were young, they would spend hours on their Christmas lists. Sometimes their wants were quite simple. One year my son asked for underwear and a Santa hat. Sometimes their requests were grander: a Brio train set, a play kitchen, a bike. My daughter has still not forgiven Santa for not getting her the My Size Barbie she asked for at age 6.

But more memorable than the gifts my children longed for were the traditions we kept each December. One of them was rolling out and decorating sugar cookies, some of which we would save for Santa. Our kitchen would be a flour- and sprinkle- infused disaster area. My son would pile his cookie high with frosting and sprinkles and then happily demolish it in minutes, red and green festooning his adorable face. We also attempted, sometimes successfully, the ubiquitous gingerbread house. I would scour the holiday candy aisle at my local grocery store for the colorful hard candies I remembered from my own childhood Christmases. These we would use to decorate our little houses, trying to make them enticing enough for Hansel and Gretel.

Another tradition of ours was to pile in the car on a wintry evening and drive around looking at Christmas lights. I’d keep the car nice and toasty for my pajama-clad kids, and we’d pass by our favorite streets and particular houses that really did Christmas in grand style. Afterwards we’d stop at a nearby Dunkin Donuts for a donut and hot chocolate before returning home and getting everyone tucked into bed.

There were fun holiday specials to watch each December and a huge Christmas tree to decorate. We’d play one of Amy Grant’s wonderful Christmas albums, and the kids would reminisce as they unwrapped special ornaments given to them or made by them in Christmas seasons past. I can remember Decembers when I would run myself ragged trying to collect all the Disney ornaments offered in McDonald’s Happy Meals.

But the tradition that really helped us anticipate the coming of Christmas was the aforementioned Advent calendar. It was a wooden box with a green wooden tree on top. Each morning a different one of the kids took his or her turn opening the designated door and placing another ornament on the wooden tree. Before long, the tree was filled with decorations, and it was clear that Christmas was almost here.

We also had a Jesse tree, which is a religious Advent calendar with 25 ornaments depicting the Biblical origins of Christmas. Each evening after dinner, we would read the Scripture passage on the next ornament and place it on the Jesse tree, and it gave us a chance to talk about Jesus’s origins as a descendant of Abraham and of the great King David, Jesse’s youngest son. This tradition gave us a glimpse into the true meaning of our waiting and anticipating: the coming of Christ on Christmas.

My kids are mostly grown now, but we still enjoy our traditions: homemade cookies, a new ornament and pair of pajamas for each kid, a Honeybaked Ham dinner on Christmas Eve, gift giving, and, of course, Christmas Mass, when “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” turns into:

Behold,
I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all people.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born
who is Christ the Lord.
(Luke 2:10-11)

May your anticipation of Christmas be happy and  holy as you count down the days of December.

 

Alabama Pastors Show Politics Trumps Faith

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You’d think evangelical leaders in Alabama would be brandishing their 10-foot poles in order to distance themselves from the child molesting Republican candidate Roy Moore in the race for the U.S. Senate. You’d be wrong.

David Floyd, for instance, pastor of Mervyn Parkway Baptist Church, rationalized that “all of us have sinned and need a savior” in his statement defending Moore. “I’ve prayed with him. I know his heart.” (“On morality, evangelicals get religion,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 19, 2017) Of course, Floyd was not so forgiving of President Bill Clinton back in 1998 when he told church members that Clinton had to go because of his sexual dalliances. Apparently Floyd is confusing himself with Jesus because he believes he has the right to judge who is morally worthy and who is not.

Moore himself brandished a list of 50 Alabama Christian pastors who still support him despite the growing number of women who say Moore made sexual advances upon them when they were teenagers.

What is happening here? The answer lies in an “end justifies the means” attitude that many Christians took to the polls with them to elect Donald Trump in 2016. Because Trump said all the right things about abortion, he passed the evangelical litmus test for office. Since his election, he has cemented evangelical support by appointing a conservative justice of the Supreme Court and coming out against transgender individuals in the armed forces .

With reference to Moore, evangelicals see him as a man who “hold[s] positions close to ours.” (Tribune) So they give him a pass on behavior that does not even meet legal standards, never mind moral ones. As evangelical professor John Fea states, “What you’re seeing here is rank hypocrisy. These are evangelicals who have decided that the way to win the culture is now uncoupled from character.” (Tribune)

But the hypocrisy goes deeper than that. Evangelical Christians also tend to be politically conservative in other ways, and so this latest instance of propping up a morally corrupt leader serves to advance the conservative agenda on other issues, such as taxes and immigration. Proof of this is something Pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas First Baptist Church reminds us.

Said Jeffress, “A watershed moment was 1980. Evangelical Christians chose between a born-again Baptist Sunday school teacher and a twice-married Hollywood actor who had signed the most liberal abortion bill and whose wife practiced astrology. And evangelicals chose Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter.” (Tribune)

It’s clear that Roy Moore has no intention of stepping away from the Senate race in Alabama. And although many evangelical leaders there have denounced his candidacy, many others justify their support in this hypocritical manner. Whatever happens in Alabama, this abdication of moral authority will ultimately backfire on religious leaders, especially with the next generation, whose hypocrisy radar is often quite high.

But the American people may ultimately pay too high a price if we continue to choose politics over character in our leaders.

 

The Supremacy of Hate

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It hurt my heart to watch HBO’s coverage of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, on its news series VICE. The white supremacists wore their naked hatred towards Jews and people of color as a badge of honor.  While Donald Trump blamed the violence on “many sides,” it was the Unite the Right demonstrators who came armed to the teeth with bats and guns, helmets and shields. They were clearly spoiling for a fight.

Add to the mayhem the sight of a car plowing into the crowd and dozens of injured on the ground crying and screaming in pain. A black woman cried out in anger and frustration that this terror is what she and other blacks live with on a daily basis in an American South that is still nursing its wounds over the Civil War.

Leaders of Unite the Right ominously promised that this was only the beginning of their quest to “take back” the country for like-minded whites. One of them, Christopher Cantwell, spoke of his disgust that Trump would allow his daughter Ivanka to marry a filthy Jew. He proudly displayed the personal arsenal he was bringing to future demonstrations and predicted that many more people are going to die.

I feel as if a time machine has transported us all back to the 1950s. The threat of nuclear war hangs over us as our president gets macho with the unstable North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. And torch-wielding mobs of white men menace Southern towns.

Two days after I began writing this post, another scene of terror unfolded in Barcelona, Spain. The agent of death was the same: a motor vehicle plowing into a crowd. Yesterday 13 people were killed in that horrendous attack, and many more were injured. The terrorist group ISIS has claimed responsibility. Once again, an armed group of (mostly) men expressed their hatred for the “other” through violence and the threat of violence (fake suicide vests).

In my present mood, I am hard pressed to believe that “Love trumps hate.”

 

Mass Appeal

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If a church is God’s house, a cathedral is His mansion. Yesterday I attended Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul, a magnificent edifice in the city of the same name. The church is a massive stone structure with a dome that dominates the skyline of St. Paul, the Twin City on the Mississippi River regarded as the little brother of Minneapolis.

There was quite a crowd assembled for 10 am Mass. I found a seat and gaped at the ornate marble altar, the stained glass windows, and the ceiling of the dome, adorned with gold-leafed paintings of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove along with its seven Heavenly gifts.

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What moved me the most, though, was when the Mass began and the sound of organ music and song soared up through the expanse of the cathedral. I experienced the otherworldly nature of a communion with God. As I joined the congregation in prayer and singing, I felt a sense of true and profound worship in this magnificent place  dedicated to glorifying the Creator.

The building of cathedrals in medieval times was truly a labor of love and devotion. With  virtually no machinery, thousands of men toiled to build these imposing stone structures. Thousands of artisans fashioned altars and shrines, frescoes and statues. While the Cathedral of St. Paul was built much later, in the early 1900s, the intentions were the same: to create a sanctuary worthy of the Lord and a place for believers to gather and worship.

As the Mass ended, I found myself wishing I could spend every Sunday morning at such a beautiful and spiritual house of God. But knowing that “wherever two or more of you gather in my name, there I am in the midst of you,” I will be content to give praise in my own humble home parish.