Tag Archives: christmas

The Mood of Christmas

Thurman QuoteOn this Christmas Eve, I share with you the Prologue to Howard Thurman’s wonderful little book, “The Mood of Christmas.”

Christmas is a mood, a quality, a symbol. It is never merely a fact. As a fact it is a date on the calendar — to the believer it is the anniversary of an event in human history. An individual may relate himself meaningfully to the fact or the event, but that would not be Christmas.

The mood of Christmas — what is it? It is a quickening of the presence of other human beings into whose lives a precious part of one’s own has been released. It is a memory of other days when into one’s path an angel appeared spreading a halo over an ordinary moment or a commonplace event. It is an iridescence of sheer delight that bathes one’s whole being with something more wonderful than words can ever tell. Of such is the mood of Christmas.

The quality of Christmas — what is it? It is the fullness with which fruit ripens, blossoms unfold into flowers, and live coals glow in the darkness. It is the richness of vibrant colors — the calm purple of grapes, the exciting redness of tomatoes, the shimmering light on the noiseless stirring of a lake or sunset. It is the sense of plateau with a large rock behind which one may take temporary respite from winds that chill. Of such is the quality of Christmas.

The symbol of Christmas — what is it? It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding. It is the cry of life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live. It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life. It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.

Bring on Christmas

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I confess that I like Christmas. I typically resist all things popular, but if that ever happened with Christmas it won me over anyway.

The attraction surely has nothing to do with massive commercialization; nor do I need a specific holiday season to remember the birth of Jesus. Red and green are not my favorite colors. I’m pretty sure I would choose fasting over fruitcake and egg nog. And although falling snow is undeniably a beautiful sight, I would easily choose a warm-weather locale to a winter wonderland.

I still really like Christmas.

There is a hard-to-identify loveliness to the season—a “mood” as Howard Thurman once described it. Words like joy and peace define Christmas, actions like giving and singing are ubiquitous, and it is a time both to remember and to hope.

I grew up in a tiny house with a wonderful family and not much in terms of material possessions. Still, we celebrated Christmas each year, and I always had presents to open. I distinctly remember the time my Dad rushed in a couple of weeks before Christmas and breathlessly exclaimed, “Santa Claus was just here! He was in my bedroom!”  Well, away to my parents’ bedroom window I flew like a flash, and as fate would have it, I just missed seeing Santa. But he had obviously been there since a huge gift-wrapped present was there with my name on it! To this day I cannot believe Santa was able to sneak that massive present in our tiny house in broad daylight without getting caught.

Did I mention it was a tiny house (with, for illustrative purposes only, no room to store a large present for a couple of weeks until Christmas)? And did I mention that I may have been a rather naive child?

I love imagining today the laughter my parents shared alone in their tiny bedroom that night. (And since the gift was a set of drums, I love knowing that someone else had the last laugh. That Santa is such a jokester!)

I am ready for Christmas.

Now, when I walk through the house and see our tree, it calls me back to Christmases past and propels me forward toward Christmases yet to come. Time marches on. My parents are now gone, my sisters are now grandmothers, and my daughters are now adults. But very soon my wonderful wife and our wonderful daughters will be together to celebrate that special day together and make more memories for future smiles.

Bring on Christmas.

Star Searching

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“Christmas comes during a season when the Earth is in its darkest time.”
– Melissa Etheridge

We have three Christmas parties on the calendar this week and three more next. I used to make fun of such things, but not this year. This past season has been rough, and we are more than ready for a season that is merry and bright.

So do what you will, but I suggest: Decorate the tree. Play the music. Bake the cookies. String the lights. Wrap the presents. Wear the sweater. Watch the movie. Mail the cards. Hang the wreath. Dream the dreams.

Does this make everything magically wonderful?  No, I’m afraid not. Is it simply an act of denial? Well, not necessarily. What I’m suggesting is to look despair in its face and proclaim hope. We will not live in the darkness forever. There will be light. We expect it. In fact, we are counting on it.

I am reminded each year that the story behind the Christmas season does not actually feature Jimmy Stewart. Instead, it is of a displaced family in a barn delivering a baby in a feed trough—and against all odds that turned out to be the hope of the world.

There were a few wise dudes back then with enough hope in their hearts to scan the night sky for a star. They spotted it right away, and I suspect it’s because they were looking for it.

So join me in some star searching this year. Because this year I’m going to look up so that I can see it, too.

Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

Christmas PictureThere is much on my mind this Christmas Day, including the great joy to have my little family together and the deep sorrow for friends experiencing great loss, and my best response is to share three short poems from Howard Thurman’s “The Mood of Christmas” — a unity in trinity:

Christmas Is Yesterday:
The memories of childhood,
The miracle of Santa Claus,
The singing of carols —
The glow of being remembered.

Christmas Is Today:
The presence of absent ones,
The reminder of the generous act,
The need to love —
The need to be loved.

Christmas Is Tomorrow:
The miracle of faith,
The fulfillment of ancient hopes,
The reign of God —
The dying of Death in the land.

Christmas is yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Invisible Places

jailLike any good American, I went to jail the day after Christmas.  Well, maybe it was a strange thing to do.  My youngest daughter, a college sophomore, crawled out of bed on a Monday morning to join me because she just might share my unconventional approach to interesting holiday activities.  But you have to give us the “interesting” at least.  When our host asked his colleague at the beginning of our tour if an older gentleman escorted past us was the murder suspect, we were pretty sure we weren’t returning gifts to Macy’s.

The Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine Law has conducted conflict resolution trainings for the LAPD over the past couple of years—a most important work to be sure.  As a result, several officers have enrolled as students in our Master of Dispute Resolution program, including the officer that commands the particular LAPD jail that we visited.  In our interactions at Pepperdine, he offered to give me a tour, and I jumped at the opportunity.

The jail we visited is one of several that process and hold arrestees for a couple of days until their court appearances, which means that all manner of folks pass through, from benign offenders to death row convicts.  We saw everything.  On the lighter side, we played with the equipment, tried on riot gear, held a Taser, and posed for smiling pictures behind bars knowing we were free to leave.  On the sobering side, we saw the padded cells and the strip search rooms, but more poignantly the prisoners who were not free to leave: the voices yelling for attention; the disembodied hands sticking out from behind the bars, one my daughter saw mimicking a gun; faces behind the glass that embarrassingly felt like zoo exhibits, including the bloodied face of a man booked for assault with a weapon who looked like he lost the assault.

I didn’t feel like saying Happy Holidays very often.  I was impressed by the professionalism of the staff.  I felt, almost surprisingly, a measure of pride in being an American, what with the processed turkey dinner served on Christmas as opposed to the regular fare, the prominent posting of prisoner rights throughout the complex, the attention to cleaning the facility (despite the horrid smell by the shower in the men’s block), and the detailed cataloging of the personal items of the prisoners.  Gary Haugen taught me that the developing world rarely needs better laws, just (non-corrupt) law enforcement, and I was pleased to see a place led by an officer dedicated to enforcing the law with integrity.  But, still.  A jail is intentionally not a happy place to be, which was psychologically jarring on the day after Christmas.

Our world is full of unsettling, invisible places.  There are things we would rather not see, but we don’t have to travel far to find them.  We just don’t hang out in jails very often.  We rarely visit hospitals or nursing homes.  We avoid the homeless and hungry and lonely and stay away from poverty-stricken parts of town.  Heck, there are parts of ourselves we choose to ignore.  If we don’t look, I guess we can pretend these places don’t exist, which I’m fairly positive is a less than healthy approach.

In the women’s block of the jail, we met a young female correctional officer completing the probationary portion of her new job.  She was impressive in uniform, professionalism, and personality.  We instantly liked her.  She is also twenty years old, basically the same age as my daughter.  This young officer sees (and does) things in her work every day that I would rather not think about very often, if at all.  We learned that the LAPD desperately needs more female officers like this, and it struck me that the world must need lots of public servants in lots of invisible places.

I am humbled by those already there.

In 2017, I intend to spend more time in invisible places.  The tourist spots are just too crowded anyway.

When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled – by Howard Thurman

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On this day after the celebration of Christmas, I share this fine poem by Howard Thurman for your thoughtful consideration:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

From “The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations” by Howard Thurman. © 1985 by Friends United Press.

Peace on Earth

img_4126Thanks to our friend, John, and the Pacifica Institute, we recently hosted Muslim families for a Christmas dinner at our house.  That’s right, Muslim families for a Christmas dinner.  It was wonderful.  The stated purpose of the dinner was to build bridges of respect, understanding, and friendship between Muslims and Christians—and it sure worked.  We instantly have new friends and were honored to accept a return offer to visit their homes in the new year.

All of our guests came to the United States from Turkey, and as we talked over dinner it was sobering to sense the sadness in their hearts when they spoke of conditions related to terrorism in their home country.  And it was even more sobering to sense the fears they live with in this country when the actions of religious extremists lead others to associate such terrible violence with the religion they practice and love.

Possibly my favorite moment of the evening came when one of our guests slipped money to our youngest daughter when she shared about her work in Kenya last summer with street kids from Nairobi slums.  It seems that our guest has a soft spot in his heart for poor African children, and he couldn’t help but give money to support the Christian organization when he heard about the good work it is doing.

I shared with our guests the story from Kenya at this time last year when the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, commandeered a bus that held Christian and Muslim passengers.  The terrorists demanded that the passengers separate by religion so they could execute the Christians, and the Muslim passengers, mostly women, led the refusal to answer by saying that if they would execute one they would have to execute all.  They were neighbors after all.  Miraculously, no one was killed.

Our guests had not heard the story and were visibly encouraged by it.  One of our new friends said that such reactions should be the standard response.

I sense that many are wary of the concept of interfaith dialogue, thinking that it means a dilution of religious conviction—a sort of “I’m-okay-you’re okay” approach to religious belief.  If you spend much time with any religious belief system you’ll realize that would be sort of silly.  Instead, I have to wonder what is terribly wrong with moving toward a world where we have “join us for dinner” relationships across all sorts of lines that purport to divide us.

Sharing dinner in our homes with new friends would sure go a long way toward a world where the scene that occurred on that Kenyan bus will be the standard response to those who deal in violence.  Not uniformity or watered-down beliefs, but neighborliness and solidarity for peace on earth and good will toward all.  I am a Christian, and at this time of year we remember an angelic proclamation to a group of shepherds about such things.  This particular dinner sure felt like a step in that direction.

Special Memories

familyMy parents’ birthdays are two days apart in early December.  Well, technically, sixteen years and two days apart.  My dad turned down an appointment to the United States Naval Academy in the late 1930s but enlisted alongside thousands of other Americans when Pearl Harbor was attacked the day after his twenty-first birthday.  Meanwhile, my mom celebrated her fifth birthday in the Arkansas hills the day after the attack.  While my dad headed off to the Pacific Theater to defend America’s freedom, my mom was a little girl having her freedom defended.

This week, were they both living, my dad would celebrate his ninety-sixth birthday and my mom would celebrate her eightieth.  Ninety-six and eighty are just numbers, but they are hard-to-believe numbers.  Where does the time go?

The last time I saw my dad alive he was in a hospital bed facing a wall in the fetal position and fighting the pain.  The last time I saw my mom alive she was weak and yellow and exhausted sitting in a lift chair in my sister’s living room.  When you go to check out of this life, the checkout counter is just awful.

But that’s not what I remember on special days like birthdays.  What comes to mind are happy and healthy times—and smiles.  Like the only time I remember being angry at my dad when he couldn’t suppress laughter after a bird pooped on my head.  Or my mom’s beaming face when she had the opportunities to spend time with my sweet daughters.  That’s what I will remember this week.  The smiling people who gave me an enjoyable life.

These milestone days come and go, which must explain the shocking numbers.  My sisters and I will text each other in sacred commemoration on December 6 and December 8.  I may or may not mention either day out loud to my wife or others.  But I always notice, and always remember, and never know exactly what else to do.

I do have an idea this year.  This year, I think I’ll plug in the Bing Crosby Merry Christmas CD that I kept from my mother’s things and close my eyes and be transported to another world.  I’ll picture being a kid again in that tiny house on West Mueller Street.  Mom and Dad are both there in the living room with me.  The stove is glowing orange because it is cold and snowing outside.  I can see it out the picture window when I squeeze around the Christmas tree.

I’m going to listen to that Bing Crosby sing about Christmas and travel away to that special world of memories.  And in particular I will smile when his distinctive baritone voice delivers the signature lines from that old World War Two classic, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

Loving the Unlovable

screenshot-2016-11-21-09-50-561479743611447It’s a peculiar commercial any way you slice it.  Frankenstein’s monster might have ordered any number of products with his Apple iPhone from his secluded mountain cabin, such as a packet of Aveeno Positively Radiant Makeup Removing Wipes, or any number of Swiffer products to help out around the house (aren’t they fantastic?).  Maybe even Everybody Loves Raymond: The Complete Series on DVD.  But no, he simply ordered two Christmas bulbs, one red and one green, and they were dropped in the snow at his private residence by an invisible delivery service.  And, of course, in the only part of the commercial that made perfect sense, even if you just have two Christmas lights, there is always one that will not work properly.

But that’s not all.  As the story continued, Frankie made his way into town and scared the bejeezus out of everyone before using his iPhone as a karaoke machine to sing a sweet little rendition of Home for the Holidays with an adorable girl who apparently has a magic touch with those infernal Christmas lights.  Then he cried.  It’s peculiar, I say.

I first noticed the commercial on Thanksgiving Day amid a houseful of guests, so I didn’t hear any of the words yet seemed to get the message anyway.  At the end of the short story, after the villagers accept the monster through the example of the little girl and the camera fades to a glorious view of a magnificent Christmas tree, Apple offered the following request in simple script across the screen: Open your heart to everyone.

Whatever you do, don’t miss Apple’s message at this special time of year:  Instead of purchasing one of their products, buy a couple of Christmas lights and let your children sing duets with perfect strangers.

Ha!  No, seriously: Open your heart to everyone.  I absolutely love it.

It is a sweet message in a carefully scripted commercial with a somewhat lovable monster limping into town with a tear in his eye and a desire to be loved, but it is significantly harder to swallow when the monster appears, well, more monstrous.  But I think the message is even more important then.  Not because monstrous behavior is excusable.  Just the opposite.  It is because love is the hope of the world, and the coldest hearts need the most love to have any chance at thawing.

Besides, loving the lovable is far too easy, and wouldn’t you rather have a challenge?

Indomitable Freedom

post1Christmas added several items to my sports movie collection, and the first new flick into the DVD player was The Hurricane, a 1999 movie featuring Denzel Washington as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer and convict whose triple murder conviction was set aside after decades in prison due to the love and dedication of others. It was Rocky meets Shawshank Redemption meets To Kill a Mockingbird, which is quite the inspirational combination.

The most memorable scene occurs just prior to Carter’s exoneration when he and his young friend, Lesra, have a brief conversation through prison bars. Carter utters the most famous line in the movie: “Hate put me in prison; love’s gonna bust me out.” His young friend brazenly-yet-facetiously responds, “Just in case love doesn’t; I’m gonna bust you out of here.” Carter erupts in laughter, and then, tenderly, reaches through the prison bars to wipe tears from his young friend’s face, and says, softly, “You already have.”

Yes.

This entire blog is predicated on the idea that humanity can be liberated from any circumstance that aims to imprison us—that in our hearts, we can rise above anything. I believe that in the depths of my soul. Argue with me all you want.

But even those who buy the premise may want to argue with me on how we rise above our circumstances, but as we square off, know that my contention is that it is love that busts us out.

Hate imprisons. Love liberates.

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• Click HERE to see Bob Dylan in 1975 singing his protest song, “The Hurricane,” while Carter sat in prison (and remained there for another decade).