Month: December 2020

New Year’s Eve

Howard Thurman (1899-1981) lived the biblical faith, faced the issues of his day, and embraced the future “ahead of his time.” He was a mentor to many and his writings continue to shape later generations.

His poem, The Work of Christmas, is powerfully relevant for the new year:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

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 people,

To make music in the heart.

From “The Work of Christmas: The Christian Imperative,” by John Zehring, The Christian Citizen, December 25, 2020 (Photo by Ben White/Unsplash)

Our disconnect from reason

Long ago, the church operated as arbiter of truth. Gutenberg‘s printing press led to DIY Bible interpretation and (more subversively) to alternative sources of authority. People began to base convictions and arguments on reason, which led to the Age of Reason.

The exact date is hard to pinpoint, but the Age of Reason ended sometime between the invention of cheese puffs and Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.

Two November events demonstrated our disconnect from reason. The first was a November 1 rally for Mr. Trump in Opa-Locka, Florida. The crowd chanted, “Fire Fauci,” rejecting the government official who has most consistently offered reason and wise counsel about COVID-19. Opa-Locka’s chant reminded me of a chant from a crowd long ago in Jerusalem.

The second event was the widespread endorsement of Mr. Trump’s mail-in ballot conspiracy theory. Attorneys can get in trouble for lying in court, so his legal team was careful not to allege fraud in court, because they had no credible evidence. Their choice of theatrics over reason was etched in my memory by photographs of Rudy Giuliani at a November 19 news conference. The plot for the conspiracy drama was disclosed in a Twitter post by journalist David Freedlander on October 31, three days before the election:

The courts agree Mr. Trump’s legal strategy is disconnected from reason. But, by dragging it out, Mr. Trump gains crucial time and invaluable publicity to reap a fund-raising bonanza. At no cost to him, he uses Twitter posts, email solicitations and news reports. He uses various political groups to generate tons of direct mail solicitations to support his new PAC, raising many millions of dollars from his supporters for him to spend at his discretion. He’s causing great harm to this country, but apart from ethical considerations, Mr. Trump’s ability to milk this for personal gain is quite reasonable. From a distance, it’s humorous. It must seem hilarious in Vladimir Putin’s place on the Cape of Idokopas. The joke’s on us.

Our cultural disconnect

Will Campbell (1924-2013) described himself and his dad as “deep water Baptists.” He once asked his dad if he believed in infant baptism. He said, “Believe in it? Son, I’ve actually seen it.” (I’ve cleaned up the quote a bit.)

This small planet houses vastly different religions, politics and cultures. I’ve seen things I never expected to see in church, at political rallies and in our diverse sub-cultures. When my friend Stephen tried to explain to me physicists’ theories about parallel universes, I thought of the diverse views of reality that exist side-by-side. I thought of the “culture shock” of two New York City aristocrats who discovered a different universe when they moved to the country in the TV sitcom “Green Acres” (1965-1971).

My early TV exposure was a limited introduction to cultural diversity, through a generally W.A.S.P. lens. I saw New York City through “I Love Lucy” (1951-1957),”The Amos ‘n Andy Show” (1951-1955), “The Honeymooners” (1955-56) and “Car 54, Where Are You?” (1961-1963). I saw Los Angeles through “Dragnet” (1951-1959), “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (1952-1966), and “The Beverly Hillbillies” (1962-1971). I saw rural America through “The Real McCoys” (1957-1963), “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-1968), and others. I saw small town America through “Father Knows Best” (1954-1960), “Leave it to Beaver” (1957-1963), “The Donna Reed Show” (1958-1966), and “My Three Sons” (1960-1972). My early diversity exposure occurred within a relatively narrow cultural bandwidth.

In 2020, we’ve witnessed our national diversity through a national election, coronavirus scenes from hospitals and nursing homes across the U.S., and protests by Black Lives Matter and opposition groups. Some of our many differences have been bridged. Many of our different realities exist side-by-side, waiting to be properly introduced, waiting to connect.

A thin slice of the American Pie, 1960-1964, “Route 66: The TV Series,” from Road Travel America

Critters help us connect

My cousin Ed sent the graphic below. I don’t know the origin, but in a quick search I found it within a larger piece from a December 2013 post on a blog site named Going Forward that includes a touching story about a blue heeler puppy that adopted a new family.

Friar has made friends with two of Alabama’s court dogs, Willow and Fitz. They’re neither republican nor democratic, though one is a yellow dog. As a state, Alabama sometimes is among the least progressive, but it’s leading the pack with court dogs. I believe there are now eleven, with one more to come. Each dog covers a region of one or more (sometimes several) counties within the state.

Alabama’s district attorneys work with Canine Companions for Independence and several child advocacy groups. CCI places these “facility dogs” at no charge. When someone, such as a child, needs to provide a difficult or painful deposition or testimony before a jury, the court dog spends some with the child before the testimony to make sure he or she is comfortable with the dog. If all goes well, the dog is present with the child when he or she gives the testimony. The dog’s presence enables the child to speak with more confidence about a difficult subject.

If it’s a jury trial, the court dog is put beside the witness chair before the jury arrives and remains silent and unseen as the witness arrives and gives the testimony. The dog is present for the witness to touch or pet during the testimony. The critters bring comfort and a bit of healing. They help us connect when a tragic disconnect has occurred. Alabama’s court dogs are helping the state’s humans be more humane.

A Christmas card from Alabama’s Court Dogs

Our social disconnect

We have felt the disconnect of social distancing. It has disrupted life and isolated those who are more susceptible to the coronavirus. It’s difficult even when friends and family are “on the same page” about the need to distance and mask, and it is a double disconnect when loved ones disagree philosophically.

Differences about distancing and masking have exacerbated our divisions. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising because we haven’t mitigated the virus. During World War II, Americans enlisted in the military, took “Rosie the Riveter” jobs, bought bonds, endured rationing, and united to defeat fascism.

We’ve had a disconnect between leaders of government, business, education and religion–offering discordant messages about how to beat the virus. If we fight over staying 6 feet apart or wearing a mask, could we unite against a common foe as the “greatest generation” did against the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo?

From “For some, forgoing masks in public during the coronavirus pandemic has become a political statement,” by Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune, May 22, 2020

The winter of our disconnect

Sometimes a word floats in my head looking for a place to land. Yesterday’s floater was the word “discontent.” It’s not a bad word. Our discontent can help us seek change. One word may hook-up with another word before the two of them lodge in a crevice of my memory or on a launching pad of hope for a better world. Yesterday, when Friar took me for our afternoon walk, discontent was joined by a companion word, “disconnect.”

I believe unity is the purpose and destiny of the Universe. Thus, discontent is what happens when we experience a disconnect. I believe I could build a case for this thesis based on ancient scripture and modern psychology. Yesterday’s cold, windy walk inspired me to recall the title of John Steinbeck’s 1961 novel (and the 1983 TV film): The Winter of Our Discontent. I can’t think of a better description of this season in America.

Misery abounds. We’re contracting COVID-19 at the rate of a million or so cases every five days. The vaccines better hurry, or we may achieve herd immunity the hard way, at a staggering human cost. Economic and political discontent reach from the halls of Mar-a-Lago to the shores of Cape Flattery. In this polarized winter of growing discontent, we are disconnected from each other. More about this tomorrow.

Very little and always enough

Christmas is about little things. Ordinary things. Taxes, a census for the empire. No room in the inn but a nameless host finds a spot. Shepherds hear music. Strangers see a map in the sky. A paranoid prince creates needless danger. An odd couple has a baby to birth. A visionary old man, a wise old woman, a pauper’s offering. The ordinariness of it all is stunningly remarkable. Yet, the world goes its way, for now.

This time next year, some of us won’t be here. That’s always true, but this time next year, more of us won’t be here to see this pandemic through. Lives disrupted. Jobs lost. Deaths hastened.

Life is about little things. Ordinary things. Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree can be as regal as Rockefeller Center’s. The noise of princes soon fades, but we remember the kindness of a host, the joy of those who hear music we cannot yet hear, the mystical trek of those who follow maps we cannot yet see, the wrinkled wisdom of the old, the generosity of the poor. We go our way, for now. Stronger. It’s always enough.

Christmas Eve

In 1969, Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) decided he wanted to paint a Christmas scene from Bethlehem. He flew to Jerusalem with his wife Molly and his photographer Brad Herzog. From the roof of a Bethlehem hotel on Christmas Eve, he viewed the pageantry of the ancient Church of the Nativity (built from 527 to 565) and directed the scenes he wanted his photographer to capture.

The final result, which involved some negotiation with the art director of Look, is the painting below, “Christmas Eve in Bethlehem,” which appeared fifty years ago in the December 29, 1970 issue of the magazine. The procession of cardinals, bishops and priests is in the background, with their shadows cast on the wall of the Basilica. A family of tourists watches and takes photos from the rooftop, alongside armed soldiers who are kneeling. The art director wanted Mr. Rockwell to include just one soldier, but the observant artist said in Israel he always saw soldiers working in pairs. Also, he was asked to remove the person standing on the far left, but he wanted to depict Jews, Christians and Muslims together.

I’m glad Mr. Rockwell kept them together. My hope for Christmas Eve 2020 is that we can keep it together, too.

You can read more about the painting at the website of the Normal Rockwell Museum

Mr. Adams

An essay about our second president by historian Ted Witmer was published in the Wall Street Journal on December 4, “How John Adams Got Over Political Defeat.” Dr. Witmer accomplished the task of a gifted historian by accurately describing long ago events and “connecting the dots” so those who are living can see the relevance of those events to our present situation.

Mr. Adams was the first president to lose “a fraught election that exposed internal rifts among Americans.” It was 1800. There was racial anxiety “beneath the surface … with Southerners and Northerners already beginning to move apart.” Thomas Jefferson defeated his former (and future) friend by eight electoral votes, 73-65, in a protracted and rancorous session.

“Angry and sullen, …. On the day that his successor was inaugurated, Adams left Washington at 4 a.m. (for) his farm in Quincy, Mass.” Our first one-term president “found losing painful because no one knew exactly what an ex-president was supposed to do.” Twelve years later, “Adams finally snapped out of his funk and sent a letter to his old rival, offering Jefferson best wishes” and two books by his son, John Quincy Adams.

“For the next 14 years, … their correspondence retained a grandeur befitting two patriarchs….” They both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. “That stirring coincidence amazed Americans, including a young reader in southern Indiana named Abraham Lincoln, who was beginning to bring into focus his own thoughts about the Declaration and its promise of human rights for all.”

Adams, even after a very ugly election, showed that we could accomplish a peaceful transfer of power. Years later, after his graceful letter, “the friendship that Adams and Jefferson formed in their old age…showed the world that Americans could lose gracefully and find comfort in their commitment to shared principles.”

From the Wall Street Journal article linked above, left to right, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson working on the Declaration of Independence during the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, 1776, (the Everett Collection)

One day, two opinions

On December 11, two days before his 100th birthday, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by George Shultz entitled, “The 10 most important things I’ve learned about trust over my 100 years.” He wrote, “When trust was in the room…good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen.” Here’s one example:

In 1973, when I was treasury secretary, I attended a wreath-laying ceremony at a World War II memorial in Leningrad with the Soviet foreign trade minister, Nikolai Patolichev (who) described the staggering death toll in the Battle of Leningrad. Tears streamed down his face, and his interpreter was sobbing. When we were about to leave, I said to Patolichev, “I too, fought in World War II and had friends killed beside me.” Looking out over the cemetery, I added, “After all, these were the soldiers that defeated Hitler.” Facing the cemetery, I raised my best Marine salute, and Patolichev thanked me for the show of respect. Later on, to my surprise, I learned that I had earned the trust of Soviet leaders as a result of this visit.

On December 11, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Joseph Epstein, 83, “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.,” which began this way: Madame First Lady–Mrs. Biden–Jill–kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. I think Mr. Epstein intended to be humorous, mentioning his own limited academic credentials. But tone matters, and humor, especially sarcasm, sometimes backfires. His column was widely panned, but it motivated more than a few women who hadn’t used the prefix to say that now they will, in light of his essay.

From “Op-Ed Urging Jill Biden To Drop The ‘Dr.’ Sparks Outrage,” by Rachel Treisman, NPR, December 13, 2020