Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas is Not Over; the Work of Christmas has Just Begun

President Barack Obama and his family were to have returned early from Hawaii to Washington for fiscal-cliff talks (they didn't; however, the constant wording that they were on “vacation” bewildered me. I mean, when families, (such as mine) came from the warm Southwest to frigid, snowy Iowa for Christmas, the place they grew up, they don’t tell their friends they are going “on vacation.” So why, every year, are the Obamas “on vacation” when they return to the place of Baracks’ birth for Christmas.

And yes, almost every year, someone feels his “vacation” needs to be “cut short” because of business. Not that the work of being president does not go with him wherever he goes, and not that most of us don’t go back to work shortly after our particular religious holiday, but there’s often a “crisis” that stops President Obama from having the rest he needs for the responsibilities he carries.

But he is portrayed as being “on vacation” rather than celebrating Christmas in a state where many consider he was not even born. And some of these same people declare there has been a war on Christmas for the past few years.

I wonder. . . . Who won the war this year? Or was there a war at all?  If so, perhaps it was not an assault from the outside, but apathy from the inside.  Perhaps we could measure the outcome by how quickly many (most of whom were not called back thousands of miles to handle a work crisis) “cut short” or literally threw away Christmas. We need to be clear, this is a pluralistic country.  For many, many people, Christmas is not a religious holiday and should not be imposed as a “decoration” or “consumer” requirement.  But for Christians, I noticed trash was piled up at the curb the next day when it was not even trash pick-up day. 

December 25 is the first of 12 days of Christmas, coming to a conclusion with Epiphany on January 6. Time to celebrate, remember, worship as well as live our daily lives. There were, of course, those whose main belief was conspicuous gift-giving consumption, or, rather, purchase- on-sale-competition and, on the 26th the Ritual of Return.

But at a deeper level, churches were full.  Families did re-unite.  I heard small children listen to the Christmas story and sing more verses of carols than they thought they knew, because they had been hearing them all their lives.  And I saw these same children knowledgeably select chickens, ducks, fruit tree seedlings, and health care kits from Unicef and Lutheran World Relief and ELCA  gift catalogs to give to children around the world, because, this, too, they had been doing each year since they were old enough to choose by pointing their little finger to a gift catalog picture and say, “duck.”

Christmas, I believe, was more than a vacation for the Obama family, and more than a vacation for many families. And while work calls many of us back, Christmas need not be over.  I want to go back to when President Obama lit the National Christmas tree December 6.

He said, “For 91 years, the National Christmas Tree has stood as a beacon of light and a promise during the holiday season.  During times of peace and prosperity, challenge and change, Americans have gathered around our national tree to kick off the holiday season and give thanks for everything that makes this time of year so magical -- spending time with friends and family, and spreading tidings of peace and goodwill here at home and around the world. . .

"Each Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a child who came into the world with only a stable’s roof to shelter Him.  But through a life of humility and the ultimate sacrifice, a life guided by faith and kindness towards others, Christ assumed a mighty voice, teaching us lessons of compassion and charity that have lasted more than two millennia.  He ministered to the poor. He embraced the outcast.  He healed the sick.  And in Him we see a living example of scripture that we ought to love others not only through our words, but also through our deeds.

"It’s a message both timeless and universal -- no matter what God you pray to, or if you pray to none at all -- we all have a responsibility to ourselves and to each other to make a difference that is real and lasting.  We are our brother’s keeper.  We are our sister’s keeper.

"And so in this season of generosity, let’s reach out to those who need help the most. . .”

And so it is back to work. That’s clear. And President Obama is very clear. He clearly states that he is a Christian. And just as clearly says that this is a nation where many diverse people hold many beliefs and sets of values. Each of us, as we carry out our work in daily life, have responsibilities to our brothers and sisters here and around the world, and especially to those who need help the most.  

It’s too soon to throw out the tree and those words.  There’s work to be done.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Letter to Malcolm in Prison on the death of Mandela

Dear Malcolm,
      I received your letter and wanted to respond now, after hearing of the passing of Nelson Mandela. You have been in prison so many years, Malcolm. You know I have kept your letters and the total fills many file folders.  And I know you have kept my letters, except for when you were moved to a different prison on a moment’s notice. Your words ring true, “Please don’t despair. We are linked in Spirit so at times words understood need not be spoken.”
     Yes, I see from the change of return address that you have been moved once again, and this time even further from your family, 4 ½ hours from home. “It seems like the closer I get to the door and the more good I try to do the worse things get for me.” Malcolm, I remind you of what you have done through the years while in prison. You counsel younger men coming in, you teach, help men with family problems and make sure they have what they need.  I rejoiced with you that in the past year you were able to become a leader in a program that helps men find new lives of peace and purpose once they leave prison. And, yes, I can just see you intervening on behalf of the young man to right the wrong done to him. I’m glad you were successful with the prison administration. I think they may have been fearful of you having that much influence and that may have resulted in your being transferred.
     I hear your words, Malcolm: “I am tired, Norma. I’m not about to quit, but I am tired.” Don’t quit, Malcolm. Even though I live so far away now, further than your family, I am encouraged by your words, “I still seek opportunities to do what I do and be who I am. I am able to teach some classes and assist men with getting their lives together.” Take courage, Malcolm.  Know that you are not alone, even though prison walls and distance separate us. You say that my words comfort you, Malcolm, but it is yours that strengthen me as you write, “My trust is in the God of Justice and grace and love and compassion and hope. It is because of this compassion that we are not consumed.”
     Nelson Mandela fought apartheid in South Africa and was imprisoned for it, coming out 27 years later to continue the struggle and then become president of his country.  He is said to have been the greatest leader of the second half of the 20th century. It would be easy to not see the man behind the icon. Those 27 years in prison took so much from him during the prime of his life.  You, more than I, Malcolm, know that.  The world watched as he came out of prison, not knowing what he would look like, not seeing even a picture, not knowing which direction he would turn and lead. And then we saw: towards “Truth and Reconciliation” which kept that country from being torn apart in violence and civil war as apartheid was ending.  And you, Malcolm, have participated in your own “truth and reconciliation” initiatives in prison, particularly a few years ago.
     President Obama described Mandela as, "one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages. Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa and moved all of us. His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings and countries can change for the better."
      Malcolm, we know that South Africa continues to face its own struggles and that the United States is not a post-racial society, not when with “The New Jim Crow” such a large percentage of black men are incarcerated. And the gap between rich and poor grows. Mandela worked to free and reconcile oppressed and oppressor. We aren’t there yet, are we Malcolm? But, here we are, over 40 years after our families, one white and one black, lived around the block from each other in Detroit. Nothing can separate us. You closed your letter with, “Give my love to the rest of the family. Take care of yourself and make sure you get some rest.”  I will. And, Malcolm, I received the picture your mom sent of you, Greg and her when they visited you last month.  I’m glad they could make it that far. You look good. The years in prison can’t take that away. Keep on keeping on. God’s strength.