Monday, November 30, 2015

Maybe Holidays Don't Come From a Store. When It Comes to Gifts, There Just May Be More

“He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. Maybe Christmas, he thought... doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps... means a little bit more!”      
  --“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, 
Dr. Seuss


That’s the amount of money you and I, as average American consumers, are each forecast to spend on gifts this holiday season. Collectively, if that number holds up, we’ll pay cash or credit totaling some $630 billion, all to celebrate the winter holidays. That’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of gifts. Toys. Clothes. Christmas baubles and trees and lights.  Electronics. Food. Name a consumer item and someone, somewhere will no doubt either purchase it as a gift to give, or covet it as a gift to receive.

Because aren’t gifts what the holidays are really all about?       

Now that I’m well north of fifty years old, I’ve probably received upwards of 1,000 Christmas gifts through those five plus decades: a boatload of books, a sleigh full of sweaters, stockings stuffed with so much stuff.  But I must confess. For the life of me, I can’t remember 99 percent of all the things I’ve ever gotten, all those gifts. Even the things I so anticipated receiving as a kid: those too are mostly lost in the mists of memory. I know there was a bike one year and definitely, a Big Hoss action figure from the TV show “Bonanza”. Yet looking back, most of those presents seem buried now, under piles of wrapping paper and bows.

Not that I haven’t been blessed by some pretty amazing Christmas gifts through the years. It’s just that those presents most often were not things or gadgets or the hottest new toy, but instead the gifts were about people and relationships. And those gifts are unforgettable.

Like the year a snowstorm was forecast for Christmas afternoon and so my perfectly planned Christmas dinner was hastily transformed into Christmas breakfast, with waffles and roast beef and lots of laughter. The Christmas, when in a fit of nostalgia, my big brother gave me a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot Set and in return I gave him a Chia Pet.  Good times! The Christmas when me and members of my church youth group gave a sweater to Norm, a tug boat captain, who had to work at sea for the holidays. He said it was the best gift he ever received. The Christmas each year I shop for a little boy or girl whom I “adopt” through a local social service agency.  That day I always love going to the mall.

Because there are holiday gifts. And then there are holy day gifts. The hard part about our annual year end consumer spending frenzy is to be able to tell the difference between the two.  So this month, before we rush out to buy even more gifts, perhaps we can also commit to giving gifts that are priceless, gifts that the world really, really needs. Gifts that last a lifetime. Gifts that won’t break or be lost or end up being returned on the 26th. 

Maybe it’s the gift of time that calls out to be given. Who in our lives needs, not another present under the tree, but instead just our love and attention? So visit a nursing home. Spend the day with an aging parent or an elderly neighbor, your son or daughter home from college. Call an old friend. Track down someone you’ve been in conflict with and then be reconciled. Pray for the refugee, the orphan, and for peace on earth and goodwill to all people.   

Maybe the gift we need to give is service to a neighbor in need.  Buy a bag of groceries for the local food pantry. Serve a meal at a homeless shelter.  Send an extra check at years’ end to a favorite charity, and even better, make it anonymous. Imagine what might happen if only a fraction of our $600 billion dollar holiday shopping bill was instead given over to the poor, the hungry, and the forgotten ones.  That’s a Christmas gift this world would not soon forget.

Maybe the gift we need to give ourselves is to return home to our faith tradition or find a new spiritual path. After all, the original human impulse to give in December was found in faith stories.  The story of ancient travelers, who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to a poor little infant boy, born to an unwed mother and nervous father, 2,000 years ago.  The story of believers thousands of years ago, who trusted in God to not let the oil in their lamps run out, a God who was ever faithful. I think we forget this sometimes.

So even though there are only 21 shopping days left to buy all those gifts on your list, fear not. Because the true gifts of the season, like peace, love, joy and hope? We can give those gifts away all year long.



Monday, November 16, 2015

After Paris: If We Hate, We Lose

Hate (noun) 1. intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury                
 --Merriam Webster Dictionary

Beirut, November 12th, suicide bombings: 43 dead, more than 200 injured

Paris, November 13th, suicide bombings, direct assaults: 129 dead, more than 300 injured

In just two days last week, that’s the carnage from the Islamic State’s (Daesh’s) war on anyone (including moderate Muslims) who does not give complete fealty to their insane brand of radical Islam. It was the bloodiest 48 hours of terror and terrorism in recent memory. 

We felt deep sadness.  We were outraged.  We are now very angry and so we want to do something, anything in response. 

Yet before we do, consider this. Daesh’s attacks are all designed to get “us” to hate “them” and split the world into two warring camps, in the warped and barbaric hope of igniting World War III. The end of this world as we know it. That’s the ultimate goal of Daesh. A world aflame. They seek nothing less. That’s why what western governments and peoples choose to do in the days ahead is so fraught with danger. How will we respond?

Will we hate in response to the hatred and barbarity of Daesh?

Daesh is too small a movement to wage a conventional war.  They have no military infrastructure or heavy weaponry in the traditional sense, no western like government institutions. They control territory in the Middle East but their most powerful weapons are fear and an insane willingness to die for their beliefs, all in one hope: to start a global war.  As Daesh wrote in its English language magazine “Dabiq” in February 2015, "There is no grayzone in this crusade against the Islamic state....the world has split into two encampments: one for the people of faith, the other for the people of kufr (disbelief), all in preparation for the final malhamah (great war).”

But their “great war” can only happen if we hate. If we imagine, for example, just shutting down mosques in the cause of “security”.  If we lash out in anger at all Muslims, allowing a handful of radical extremists to determine what we believe about the 1.6 billion followers of Islam worldwide. If we indiscriminately round up those whom we now fear as potential enemies. If we shut down national borders, and view with suspicion and terror any folks who are not like “us”.

If we hate.

Of course we are frightened right now.  On edge. Wondering, worrying, if, when, Daesh might strike again, even here in the United States.  Of course we must protect ourselves.  We must work in partnership with allies like France to take out Daesh: its training camps, its terror cells, its oil fields which finance terrorism.  We must act strongly and directly to support and defend liberal democracy and freedom here at home and everywhere.

But hate?

I pray to God that we will not allow ourselves to be seduced and tricked by Daesh and play directly into their apocalyptic and chilling fantasy about their war to end all wars.  That is precisely what Daesh wants us to do.  They want us to hate them. They dare us to hate them and add more fuel to the fire of an already red hot war on terrorism.  They want us to ignore the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the globe who reject Daesh and all it stands for.  As Faraz Sattar of San Ramon, California tweeted in the #notinmyname campaign last week, “As a Muslim, I condemn such acts of terrorism and killing of innocent people. No religion teaches violence and killing of people. These barbaric people are not Muslims and they will be defeated. Together we will succeed in eradicating terrorist and make it a safe place for all our children.”

As a person of faith, it frustrates and angers me that folks like Daesh and its followers use the false cloak of God and religion to justify their evil actions.  I’ve no doubt that God in heaven weeps at their heinous cruelty.  But I’ve also no doubt that God finally and fully rejects hatred in all its forms.  As the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King once wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

So may we all pray for Paris. May we all pray for Beirut.  May we all pray for the broken places in our world torn asunder by extremism and violence.  And may we all pray for the courage and the commitment to reject hate, now and always.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Christmas Creep: It's BAAAAAAACK!

Christmas creep (noun) 1. the phenomenon whereby the beginning of the Christmas shopping "season" begins earlier each consecutive year; i.e. in 2015 Kmart ran its first Christmas TV commercial on September 1, 116 days before December 25th.

Call it anything you want but please don’t call it Christmas. Not now. Not yet. Not until the eve of December 24th, which by my calendar is 43 days away. 

Until then it’s not Christmas, not really.

I’m still loving mid-November. The yard is buried under a ton of leaves.  There’s still a chance we may get one last taste of Indian summer, balmy temps before the first snow falls. I’ve barely made Thanksgiving plans. Haven’t worn a sweater yet. Just put down my storm windows and put away the air conditioner. I haven’t even finished eating the last of the Halloween candy. 

Yet a full six weeks out from Christmas and our wacky culture is already kicking into Christmas high gear.  TV commercials in September. The Lifetime cable channel aired its first cheesy Christmas movie weeks ago. It was a three hanky a tale about a single mother/father, beaten down by losing a job/getting a divorce/facing terminal illness, who miraculously remembers the true spirit of the season when the neighbors/long lost relatives, arrive on the 24th to save the day. A radio station in Richmond, Virginia began airing Christmas music October 7th .  Said radio host Jack Lauterback, “Some people aren't too pleased. One woman even said that she hated us. But that's okay. The Christmas spirit isn't for everyone, sadly.”  

And it wouldn’t pre-mature Christmas without the first salvo fired in the culture’s supposed “War on Christmas”, the conspiracy by secular folks and businesses to kill any talk of Jesus’ birthday. Starbucks unveiled its new holiday cup last week, a deep red design devoid of any snowflakes, reindeers or Christmas trees. In response one eggnog overdosing Christian, Jacob Feuerstein, launched a protest, saying the coffee chain, “wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups. That’s why they’re just plain red.”

I can’t make this stuff up. 

This would all be very funny if it weren’t so sad, this transformation, conflagration, mash up and take down of Christmas, more and more each year. Christmas. One religious holy day, one day. To remember the birth of a child 2,000 years ago.  As a man, he would later teach us about God’s dream of peace, joy, hope and love for the entire world. In response and thanks for this gift, some folks who believe in this story, give to others in gratitude to God for this birth. They feed the hungry.  Comfort the lonely.  Work for an end to war. Seek out the lost.

And that’s it. That’s Christmas. Nothing more, at least from a faith perspective.     

The other stuff?  Overblown consumption, a financial hangover on the 26th. Too much food and drink and activities stuffed into too few days to get it all done. Too much pressure to have a “perfect” holiday, whatever that means. Too many hard memories for lots of folks whose losses are magnified in December.  Too many arguments about which schools do or do not sing Christmas songs.

It’s enough to give us all holiday indigestion.

I do love Christmas in its right time.  Love seeing family and friends. Love the twinkling lights that push back the darkness and warm my heart. Love the time after the 25th when the world stops and it is finally quiet. Love the moral and ethical truths embodied in that little baby boy, who is the center of my faith tradition. 

The rest of it all, that other stuff which also labels itself as “Christmas”? For me it is mostly noise, a strictly secular affair.  It is fun for so many and so I say “Go for it!” and have fun.  Deck the halls. Wear that Santa Claus sweater. Make the party rounds.  Give away gifts galore.  Dive right in, right now, in November, if you like. If you enjoy making the season last all year long, that’s your right and your privilege. I won’t stand in the way.

Nor will I call it Christmas.  That’s on December 24th and 25th and the days after, some 1,042 hours in the future. Until then, I still have some leaves to rake.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Casinos In Massachusetts: There's a Reason It's Called Craps

Snake Eyes (noun) 1) A throw of two ones with a pair of dice, the lowest possible score;  also refers to bad luck; from the apparent resemblance of a throw to a snake's eyes, or from the association of snakes with treachery.

Maybe it’s called “craps” for a good reason. 

Craps is a game of wagering money. Folks roll two six sided dice and then bet on the outcome of number combinations. The worst possible roll is snake eyes, a pair of ones. Toss that result, the odds of which are one in 35, and your chances of winning plummet. That’s why Snake Eyes is considered one of the worst wagers on a craps table. 

Snake Eyes.

Massachusetts rolled the dice on legalized commercial casino gambling in 2011. Remember? Back then the politicians on Beacon Hill were positively giddy in their predictions. Gambling revenues would just pour into state coffers, save the budget!  Unions loved casinos because of the jobs they promised, thousands of good paying gigs, right? Desperate urbanites in Springfield and Everett envisioned gleaming high rise hotel towers, luring gamblers and tax receipts into their blighted downtowns.

What could go wrong?

Four years later, just about everything. Only the one slots parlor is open, in Plainville. After the rush of the first few months, revenue has fallen and continues to miss hoped for projections.  MGM has backed away from its initial vision for downtown Springfield, shrinking its plans. The casino in Everett is caught up in lawsuits and litigation.  And now there’s a chance that not one, but two casinos might spring up in Brockton and Taunton, the latter being built by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which recently received tribal recognition by the federal government. There’s more bad news.  In New England, casinos are springing up like weeds, threatening to over saturate the market for folks willing to roll the dice and lose their money.

Snake Eyes. 

I’m no gambling Puritan. I’ll buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot soars, just for fun.  Lotteries actually paid for the construction of many churches in Massachusetts in the 19th century.  It’s not that Bay Staters don’t already like to roll the dice: per capita sales for lottery tickets here are among the highest in the nation: more than $700 per person.  Only Rhode Island beats us out at more than $800 for every citizen of the Ocean State. 

Yet to me, as a person of faith and proud Bay Stater, there is still something tawdry, creepy, and very sad about a people or a place depending so much upon the financial losses and misery of its citizens, to fund the government. In gambling the house always wins. That’s a sure bet. So we fund our schools when a senior loses their Social Security check in Plainville.  When a low income Mom spends hundreds of dollars on a false dream and a handful scratch tickets.  When a suburban Dad spends the mortgage money on a trip to the race track.

Think about it.  Is that right? Is that good? Or is gambling instead the moral equivalent of Snake Eyes, ethical craps?

There is something shameful about the fact that in America’s 43 states where the lottery is legal, we already shell out $70 billion a year on this losing proposition.  That’s more than we spend on any other leisure activity: movies, music, sports, or books.  There’s something weird about the fact that America’s newest betting obsession—fantasy sports gambling on sites like the locally based Draft Kings--these are bankrolled in part by the very same people who own the sports teams, like the Kraft family who control the New England Patriots.

In the end, here’s a sure bet.  Gambling is always built on an illusion, the lie that if we spend enough, have good enough luck, others may lose, but we will win. We will beat the odds. We will roll the dice and avoid snake eyes.  Gambling promises financial gain for little or no work. Gambling preys upon our deepest economic insecurities.  Gambling is the laziest form of economic development.  

So now that Massachusetts is “all in” when it comes to casinos, the results are starting to become clear, and so far it’s a losing proposition. Snake Eyes.

Why am I not surprised?