Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Real Christmas

Every year we hear about how Christmas has become too commercial, about all the wrong things, and every year the evidence of it is all around us. The music starts playing on the radio and in the stores a day or two earlier every year, having long-since jumped Thanksgiving and pushing in on Halloween now, with Labor Day in its long-range plans, no doubt. Retailers place all their year-long fiscal hopes into that final burst of sales, politicians exploit it to fit whatever message they are trying sell, and the rest of us very often allow ourselves to get caught up in all the sentimentality we have come to associate with the season, still missing what the day means at its very simplest, undecorated core. And even when we are stripping away all the trimmings of the season, forming what we think is a more pure idea of the meaning of it all, we still so often miss the mark.
Christmas is not about a cheerful spirit. It is not about family. It is not about giving.

Not at its core, at least.

Instead, Christmas is about redemption. It is about each of us as individuals. It is about receiving.

Was the past year a difficult one, perhaps filled with loss or frustration, confusion or hurt? “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute…” sounds like a nice remedy for it all. Still, it will be as fleeting as the turning of a calendar page if all that Christmas means is to be of good cheer. Instead, there is the hope of The Child, born in the humblest of surroundings and circumstances, showing us that great things come from struggle, and that God does His greatest work in the most trying of times.
Don’t have the family pictured in a Norman Rockwell painting? That’s all right, because the Real Christmas is not about that. It is about the redemption granted to each one of us broken people in this broken world. There in The Child is the humility to forgive others, knowing we are all in need of mercy. There in The Child is the courage to accept forgiveness, helping us become more willing to forgive others. There in The Child is the strength to forgive ourselves, understanding that grace is the greatest of gifts…and there is more than enough to go around.

All the decorations and carols and gifts in the world will not fill the voids within us. But The Child will, bringing gifts of hope, redemption and faith, needing only open hearts and humble souls to make it so.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Loss of Special

Driving yesterday afternoon, perhaps four o’clock or so, I came to a particularly stubborn red light…the kind that makes you wait for a mythical flow of traffic in the opposite direction that isn’t really there and seems like it never was or never shall be.  But I digress.  You see, almost immediately after I stopped, a big black SUV pulled up next to me, just a few feet beyond me actually, so that when I glanced over I was looking in the second row of seats.  There were two computer-size screens mounted in the roof and they were each playing “A Charlie Brown Christmas” for the two kids harnessed into the back seats with more protective equipment and nylon strap restraints than the Apollo astronauts had to hold them in place.  And I felt sad for those kids, just a little, because I don’t think they’ll get to know what special really is.

Let me explain.  When I was a kid, something like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was what you would call special, meaning that it aired once a year - on CBS, if I recall - and that was it.  If you had the school Christmas concert (back when there were such things) or a CYO basketball game that night, then it was “Wait ‘til next year” (a mantra that would come in quite handy in the life of a Mets fan).  But the absence of DVDs and digital downloads and all things “4G”, meant that there was such a thing as special.  Of course, I sound like a curmudgeonly old man in saying all this, but I heard a U2 song on the local “Oldies” station the other day and I’m pretty sure Turner Classic Movies recently aired “The Breakfast Club”, for cryin’ out loud.  So allow me this rant before I’m put on the ice floe and set adrift once and for all.
Things that used to be seasonal are less and less so in these days of hyper-convenience.  Walk into any supermarket and you can have practically anything you want at any time of year…whatever fruit or vegetable you want, shipped in from halfway around the globe where they actually are in season.  Want to see any movie, listen to any piece of music?  It’s just a download away.  Wait a few minutes (seconds if you’ve got 4G!!), and there it is.  You can watch “Dances with Wolves” right there on your three-inch phone screen.  Or listen to Mozart’s 40th Symphony on the very same device…hell, make it your ringtone while you’re at it!  I suppose the convenience of it is meant to make up for any of the artistic splendor that might be lost in translation.

As a kid, I remember seeing my father reading a book and coming upon a word with which he was unfamiliar.  So he put the book down, walked over to the bookshelves, pulled out this massive unabridged dictionary we had, and proceeded to flip through its pages until he found the word in question.  Then he wrote the definition down on a scrap of paper and inserted it into the book he was reading before resuming.  I guarantee you my father remembered that definition…maybe for the rest of his life.  There was something in the attaining of it that made it a true acquisition.  But such a simple action is already a thing of the past.  And in this Age of Everything, with all the information we could ever want and a thousand times more at the touch of an “app”, what is lost is the very essence of exploration, of learning, of process.  Of special.  And that’s too bad.

For the record, I once saw “Dances with Wolves” at the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C….70 mm of wide-screen magnificence enveloping the audience.  And I once heard Mozart’s 40th performed at the Kennedy Center.  Special.  Like an apple pie in the fall.  Or a peach in summer.  Or “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, once a year.  If you didn’t have a basketball game instead.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Merry Christmas? You Can’t Say That!

Last year on December 23rd, my last day of seasonal shopping (which, as ever, was also my first day of seasonal shopping) the red and green sweatered woman at the register finished the transaction then looked at me with a smile and said, “Merry Christmas”.  Just threw it out there.   Now what the hell did she mean by that?

Bewildered, I fumbled for a response and ended up saying something like, “happy....days.”  I may have even given her a Fonzie thumbs up, I don’t recall precisely…it was quite harrowing, after all.  Clearly this woman had not received the memo, or if she had, she had chosen so brazenly to ignore it.  Suffice to say, this gray-haired, grandmotherly monster must be stopped. 
I don’t know exactly what year it was that the scourge of all things religious was finally removed from the month of December (and November…as previously discussed).  I remember as a kid seeing T.V. station promos along the lines of “Merry C-word to all of your family from all of our family at WPIX”.  Or, “Happy (other C-word…the Jewish one), from all the folks at Channel 5.”  There was even a brief window where you might see a “Happy Kwanza (sorry if I am wrong in writing the word all the way through…I meant no harm) from all of us at WOR.” 

Oh, the horror of it all.  Such gratuitous disregard for the potential damage these words could cause.  Thank Go-----…that is, thank goodness, that we, as a society, have come to our senses.  (I do apologize for the near slip with the G-word…..and when I say “thank goodness”, please know that I do not venture to define goodness in any way, nor do I necessarily espouse goodness over so-called “badness” or anything in between.  I am quite neutral on it.  Really.)  Fortunately, we’ve moved past all those once-upon-a-time relics of infernal religiosity, and have evolved as a society to the point where no one has to be subjected to such hateful words.  But of course, there is more work to do. 
For starters, there should be some form of punishment for mavericks like that elderly woman at the store.  Perhaps I could file a suit against her, and the store, while I’m at it (‘cause at minimum wage and social security, it’s not like she’s got much money to pay for damages).  But besides that, don’t we realize all the other potential disasters waiting to happen?  Newscasts callously cover “Black Friday.”  Radio stations insist on playing “White Christmas.”  Excuse me?

Santa Claus keeps getting all kinds of press in the last two months of the year.  And exactly what holiday is he supposed to be connected to?   And if you’re OK with that, you’re clearly an insensitive Neanderthal.  (My apologies to all Neanderthals and descendants of Neanderthals.  I meant nothing by it.  I love Neanderthals….some of my best friends are Neanderthals!)  And what of the fascists at Rockefeller Center?  Sixty-five feet of bathed-in-light, trauma-inducing, Douglas fir smack dab in the middle of Manhattan.  And an ice skating rink right beneath it?  Really?  Like we need to be reminded the polar ice caps are melting. 
Anyway, Rhode Island has now joined the flood of municipalities across the country callously putting up “Holiday Trees”…as if we don’t know what they’re doing.  Oh, and what “holiday” might that be?  Even the expression “Happy Holidays” reeks of insensitivity.  Holidays, plural, implies what?  New Years and take your pick…the C-word, the other C-word (the one Adam Sandler made a cool song about…unless that offends you, in which case it is an awful song), or perhaps the K-word (just playing it safe).  And are you really comfortable with wishing someone a “Happy New Year?”  As if the Gregorian calendar is the only calendar anyone could follow.  And happy?  Why must it be happy?  What of those suffering from depression…as if they need to be reminded of it.

Yes, the world is still a cruel and dangerous place indeed.  But this December 23rd…..or 1 NivĂ´se CCXX, if you choose to follow the French Revolutionary calendar, which is your right, of course…anyway, on that day, I will take my cash (focused only on the front of the bills lest I be subjected to the “In G-word We Trust” sprawled across the back), and I will walk back into that same store.  I’m sure they will be playing Johnny Mathis blurting out “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” insulting the entire non-chestnut-eating population, as ever.  And I will seek out that horrible woman all decked out in red and green with the little jingle bell broche her granddaughter made for her out of construction paper and popsicle sticks pinned right there for everyone to see.  I will smile at her, all the while secretly filming our transaction (got to get me one of those 4G gadgets)…and when she inevitably blurts out the C-word again, visions of zeros on my settlement check will be dancing in my head. 
Happy Days, indeed.  (Unless you were a Laverne and Shirley fan, in which case, my apologies.  I meant no offense.  Really.)  

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Faith and Religion in the Modern World

So after delving into the world of politics for a couple of posts, I figured I’d tackle something less-controversial this time around...faith and religion.
Please don’t tell anyone, but my book is actually about faith.  It is the first of a trilogy in fact, with the other two book themes being hope and love (if you’re gonna “borrow” ideas, might as well “borrow” from some of the best, no?).  Anyway, I say don’t tell anyone because I don’t really think the modern world has any idea of the difference between religion and faith.  And true to form in this ten-second sound bite world where our limited attention spans require quick and precise categorizations, any people who speak of faith in this country are automatically lumped together. 
So by my mere mention of faith, I would be put in the company of say, Tim Tebow, kneeling on the sidelines of a football game as if summoning the Almighty to lead the Broncos to victory.  I was not aware God was a Broncos fan, but apparently He is, since Tim is so quick to thank Him after every victory and the team is 5-1 since Tim took over as quarterback.
Or perhaps then, I would be put in the category of the Pat Robertsons or Jerry Falwells, spewing what seems to me to be anything but what faith is all about.  Or throw me in with those who talk about what devout Christians the Founding Fathers were when in fact so many of the most prominent among them had a particular distrust of religion. 
But I am not any of these people, nor do I espouse their ideas of what faith really is.  I do not see faith as a competitive endeavor.  I do not see God standing behind one segment of His creation enabling them to smite or exclude another part of it.  Not in war.  Not in society.  And sure as hell not in a football game.
I believe that faith is of God’s creation, and religion is of man’s creation.  People have been slaughtered and cast out in the name of religion for thousands of years.  But faith does not lend itself to anything of the sort. 
I believe that faith can reach the soul in many ways...perhaps in hearing a sermon, perhaps within the structure of religion, but in other manners as well.  The character of Micah in my book is the one whose journey towards faith is most pronounced, most clearly defined.  And like myself, when he demands the answers from God, he hears only the reverberating sound of his words, and nothing more.  But in the quieter times, when we remove ourselves from the “discussion” as much as possible, faith comes.  That’s how it did for me, anyway.
So yes, my book is about faith.  It does not carry with it the message that “everything happens for a reason”, but rather “everything happens”.  And all of it is part of life, threads intertwining in a vast tapestry, the good along with the bad, usually right alongside each other, it seems.  And faith is about seeing the entirety of it for what it really is, or at least accepting that we will one day be able to see it as such.  That is what I believe.  That is my faith....my faith...and though it may be too little for some of you and too much for others, that does not matter.  That is between me and God. 
The book is meant as an expression of that faith...not evangelization, not with a mind towards convincing anyone of anything.  Indeed, you’ll have to look closer than most of the people who’ve read it so far to see the supportive strands of faith running throughout.  But they are there.  Softly.  Amidst the quieter moments.  The way faith so often is.