Ice and Tears

Perhaps you are one of thousands, if not millions, who spent a few hours watching that old movie, “White Christmas,” with Bing Crosy, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Vera Ellen. You might have noticed, while checking your weather report, that yes, this year, in Vermont we are having a White Christmas.

Well, that isn’t exactly what we’re having. It was an ice storm. Folks like my partner and me, with disabilities and limited funds for emergencies, have been inside for about a week now, avoiding all that beauty like the plague. The white in my Christmas this year comes from tears. Tears among my in-laws-to-be, as well, because the local grandchild, and her beloved parents, have had to stay home in Maine. Santa Claus even phoned on Christmas Even, to reassure the family that he would be arriving as scheduled. Lynne and I made it out that night, too, for worship and fellowship, despite the cold.

But a lot of New Englanders spent the holiday in shelters, thanking God that at least everyone is okay. One person died of carbon monoxide from running a generator in a garage. The local channels now run warning signals across the bottom of the programs, that if we feel woozy or our pets are acting weird, we need to open the windows and turn off the generators. This does not affect my family, but one worries for the others.

I did see, at Christmas Community Breakfast at church, a few ski tags on coat zippers; this does make fun and money, just as the movie explains. But right now, it’s all about the sadness of a lost holiday.

I haven’t made it out to the sales yet, despite the tempting ads: I went to the food co-op, because it looks like we’ll have more snow on Sunday. Hopefully, it will hold off until after church.

What Is He Wearing for Christmas Mass?

It has been almost thirty years since I dropped what used to be a closing ritual for my Christmas Eve observances: watching the Papal Mass from St. Peter’s. I loved the glitter, I loved the image of a world gathered in one location. It’s glittery. My ears danced with the variety of languages and accents.

And then came the revelations of hierarchical cover-up, even reassignments, of priests who traumatized children and families who trusted them. John Paul II talked and smiled and sang like some strange amalgam of troubadour, rock star, and cantor, but the substance of his papacy solidified theological and cultural discriminations which did not have roots in the Bible as I understand it.

And so, for decades, Christmas Eve midnight faded in brilliance. It fit with the changes in my family, which eased the way the shadow fell.

But now comes Francis I. He is terrifying the global vulture class because, as Rabbi Edwin Friedman pointed out, in Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, the only one who can change is a dysfunctional group of people is a healthy person in that system. All change comes from within.

It kinda makes sense that the Catholic Church should be the self-nominated healer: it has, after all, been the legal entity in this country calling most stridently for its right, as a corporation, to assert its conscience over its employees. Unlike Walmart and Exxon, the Catholic Church considers itself accountable to a document which says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

For the past thirty years, the Church in this country has taken that second sentence — “Against such things there is no law” — and ridden it hard against many options for family formation. Later eras — if there are later eras for this civilization — will rank this with the persecutions of Galileo and other scientists who proved that the Earth revolves around the Sun. As this misguided campaign eroded the Church’s public stature, the hierarchy increased its reliance on pomp, glamor, and the pastoral liturgies it does so well. So Pope Francis’s removal of this approach to ecclesiastical stature, the whole world holds its breath. Hope stalks most of the planet: what tools for validation will he use instead?

John Paul II used style — the velvet glove over the iron fist of Cardinal Ratzinger. If Francis follows this superficial path, hope will quickly fade.

There are many who hope that Francis’s passionate pastoral lifestyle — connection with real people — will lead to reforms on issues regarding women’s rights, birth control, even gay rights. How could he not have seen the agony resulting from these positions? Yet for those who hope — at this moment — that Francis will The removal of Cardinal Timothy Burke from the Council for Bishops, in favor of a more moderate bishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl suggests that once again, we can anticipate the path of style disguising substance. Cardinal Burke urges the Church to deny communion to Catholics whose personal decisions reject Church teachings on women’s and family rights. The Pope, and Cardinal Wuerl, teach that communion is an offering from God for healing sinners, and not to be denied because sinners have sinned. But does that change the definition of sin? On the contrary, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, Cardinal Wuerl published a guest editorial in The Washington Post insisting that men and women are uniquely different from each other, with equal dignity through different forms. This means, to Cardinal Wuerl, that the institution of marriage (which has been a sacrament only since the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215) is natural, ancient, sacred, and cannot be changed. Civil marriage can do what it wants: the Church has made its decision.

It’s worth quoting the words of this cardinal, because he has just been made the chief officer for selecting bishops all over the world. 

“Marriage goes to the nature of the human person. Even if individual men and women are unable to have children for some reason, still it is the nature of man and woman to complement each other in such a way that is fruitful and capable of children. Two persons of the same sex, on the other hand, can never have children by the very nature of such a union.

“No matter what a court, legislator, president or voter may claim to the contrary, the essence of marriage cannot be redefined. Its meaning is intrinsic, grounded in human nature and discoverable by human reason with or without the aid of faith.

“A culture based on the truth of marriage affirms that men and women are equally important, that they have equal dignity but are not the same. The recognition of the difference between a man and a woman is neither discrimination nor bigotry. It is a statement of reality, of fact.

“What the court has determined demonstrates the limits of civil legislation. We all recognize that the word “marriage” is being used in many different ways. All that civil government can do is address the legal consequences of any specific union it has chosen to call marriage. While there are many other words to describe other human unions, “marriage,” in its intrinsic meaning and basic integrity, will continue to be understood by most people as the coming together of a man and woman committed to live together with the possibility to generate and raise children.”

But if Francis is pulling back on this topic, early signs suggest he is keeping his powder dry in order to inveigh more effectively against economic greed and injustice. This would have value for most of us, and for it, I would give thanks. What he wears for the Midnight Mass at Christmas will signal the ferocity of his intention in this regard.

But there is a third category of authority, the place where greed and family models come together. This article, from Washington state, clearly lays out the way Roman Catholic hospitals are buying out smaller secular providers and imposing their rules on women’s reproductive choices. 

So this is my litmus test. If the Church continues to pay for its era of abuse by depriving women of our health care options, it will only have substituted one group of victims for another.

On second thought, maybe it doesn’t matter what he wears on Christmas Eve.

Captivities at Sixty — and Releases

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel…”

So far this Advent I haven’t been called to join formal worship, but this song — and the prophecies of Isaiah — ring strong in my heart and soul. My life, as I turn sixty, has so many worldly captivities, but my soul finds freedom at this rickety old computer, where I connect with kindred spirits on Facebook and blog rolls, where I read newspaper articles, even where I yesterday had a pleasant day managing recent photos. No, my body may be trapped by my partner’s illness, but my soul is rooted, a firm, strong tree lifting wider and wider branches to greet the snow.

So why was this phrase coming to me? The captivities that bother me are those that bothered Isaiah: the poor, the disabled, the encumbered, all suffering rejection from those whose assets — financial, physical, social — could make them whole. No, those whom God has given the means to provide completion have instead diverted these gifts into a system for grotesque self-fattening. I get angrier and angrier about this; I hope Isaiah is right.

But at sixty, I’m well aware that I cannot save the world. All I can do is turn my waning talents to strengthen my own group of assets toward the stewardship for which God intended them. At sixty, I have put aside the lifelong demon of curiosity. My next transition will not be a new career, a new home, but, as this one has been, to deeper zones of soul, higher zones of relationship. 

The tree, in other words, has finally found its patch of ground. My crown will reach up to higher suns, but my roots with thirst or thrive with their current ground. That ground might not be physical, but rather, the family, the friends, even the congregations and cultures, that turn out to have been my succor these closing decades already.

So last year’s experimental abandonment of The New Yorker and The New York Times were failures; nothing replaced them, despite my good faith efforts to graft and fertilize. My research and writing will stick with polity, history, civil religion, and Unitarian Universalism. My centerpiece remains Christianity, although my branches have spread far past it now.

It is telling that when I sat down to plan the spiritual and social observances of this season, which for me now begins with Canadian Thanksgiving and reaches to Epiphany’s opened light, I could see themes for the first month — friendships — and the second one — closing the garden and changing over the fall clothes to deep winter warmers. And then I stopped. What comes next?

It was a Homer Simpson moment. Doh! 

That third month is December. Its focus is Advent.

And so, despite so many and eclectic faith sources, the trunk declares its species. 

The leaves trust in the warmth beyond the snow. We will all be free. 

Right Thing to Do?

Right Thing to Do?

Here is Scruffie-cat, sitting on the blue tub I have lined with insulation and fleece to keep him warm through the brutal Vermont winter. For a second or two last night — as the temps dipped below zero – he tried to come into the house. The real house. But he can’t do it. I won’t let him, and his feral instincts won’t let him, either.

Today I’ll add a good wool blanket and blue vinyl tarp around the outside. He’s already surviving, but he’s not thrilled, so maybe this will help. What wouldn’t they give for this blue tarp?

But God made cats, too, including Scruffie-cat. So I guess this will be okay.

But it makes me wonder: shouldn’t I give this blanket to human strays? Many of them have the same feral instinct as my Scruffie-cat.

When Math Was a Capital Crime

It’s impossible to remember all the books I’ve read, all the stories they contained, but I do try to combine my memory of stories with the books and authors who brought them to my attention. Alas, that does not apply to this story. But the truth of it has been borne out many times.

The Sharecropper Era was a terrible time in United States history. Not all sharecroppers were former slaves, many were also former smallholders who could not compete economically against the large landowners who undersold them by exploiting the sharecropper system. “Exploit” here does not mean “they employed that system;” it means, “they controlled it, manipulated it, and violated every safeguard by which the sharecroppers ostensibly had the right and power to earn their way off the land.” Some of their tricks could be readily spotted: the false weight scale, the healthy product discarded for imaginary imperfections.

But then, there was also “the tab.” Miners would have had the same problem. If you couldn’t add up what you spent in the company store and subtract what you paid back, with a record verifiable by outside impartial witnesses, your chances of earning your way out of bondage went way down. When The Freedmen’s Schools went up, “writing” did not mean poetry, it meant “record-keeping.” “Arithmetic” did not mean equations, it meant household financial transactions. And lynch “mobs” knew who the really outstanding students were.

This was the story that stuck with me. My father had lived in the south for much of his adolescence, and believed the myth that lynch campaigns (we now know there was no “mob” — “impassioned lack of discipline” — about them) devoted their attention to those who disturbed the public peace with violence: housebreaking and such. But no, it was those who disturbed the ancien regime by helping their friends and family keep proper records about weights turned in, money paid (or, in the case of wages, not paid), and then, what was charged and paid back in the stores.

Other than actually picking cotton and tobacco, this doesn’t strike me as very different from how the powers-that-be run our nation today. Do we really know the terms and exclusions of our credit card bills, our health insurance, our mortgages? Do we know who we owe, how much we owe them — and what we are paying back? For many of us, the answer to that, is “no.”

So when Americans fall behind the rest of the world in math, the most important problem is not that employers are forced to accept less effective employees. The most important problem is that the average American, as a householder, as a voter, as a public watchdog, has no idea who owes what to whom. No idea how it was accrued, and, above all else, when it will be paid back.

I take this to be some of the frustration behind Tea Party anger. Most of them appear to have grown up with an expectation of controlling all these numbers, these budgets, these decisions. Beyond the issues of racism, of sexism, of skill levels, I share with them this simple pain: we have absolutely no power to put this back into simple, solvable math.