Wednesday, December 26, 2018

At the Holidays, Pass the Traditions Please!

"Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can't even describe, aren't even aware of."  --Ellen Goodman


For the uninitiated, tourtiere is a meat pie made from a pie shell filled with pork or veal or beef, that sometimes also includes potatoes and other vegetables. It's traditionally eaten at Christmas and New Years by French-Canadians, those up north over the border in Quebec, and by folks who immigrated down into New England, as my relatives did in the early twentieth century. So this week I'll enjoy, maybe even make for myself, this most traditional meal, use the recipe that was passed down to me from my Mom who got it from her Mom who got it from great grandmother, Memere.

I love tourtiere because of its simplicity. Just five ingredients--a pie shell, browned pork, cinnamon, salt and pepper.  I love how the spices infuse the pork, married to the freshness of crumbly fresh baked pastry. But why I really love tourtiere is tradition: the fact that when I eat it, in a mystical way, a profound way, I get to sit at the holiday table with my late grandfather again, who every Christmas day celebrated his holiday with a slice of that pie and a side of sweet pickles.

For me it isn't Christmas, it isn't the year's end unless I partake of tourtiere. That's my tradition, one among many traditions that mark the holidays for me.

There may be no more tradition filled time of year than right now. Traditions around food: toll house cookies, fat laden eggnog, black eyed peas, fish on Christmas Eve, maybe a big roast on New Year's Day. Traditions around decorations: some love "tasteful" white lights and a single spotlight illuminating a perfect wreath on the front door. Others go big: an oversized blow up Santa on the front lawn, a red and white visage so large and bright it can be seen from space. Traditions around faith: the holy quiet of a silent night with candles in hand or the lighting of the menorah around the family table, that holy object passed down from one generation to the next.

In a world that can feel as if it is changing so fast, too fast, traditions give humans a place to stand in this life, to depend upon even as so much else comes and goes, fades away. What's trendy today is so often passé tomorrow. Tradition gives us a place to reconnect with our cultural and familial roots, to remember where we came from and those who sacrificed to get us to this place. Tradition remind us that we are a part of a story--a faith story, a family story--so much bigger than ourselves, a story that began long before us, and, God willing, will continue after we are gone. Thus in my religious tradition, the story of the Christ child we celebrate and remember each December is more than 2,000 years old, ancient, yes, but trustworthy too, having survived the test of time. 

Not all traditions are meant to be carried on unthinkingly, unquestioned, or uninformed. In my house one of our childhood "traditions" was that of my Mom having to do essentially everything to make the holiday happen. By Christmas Eve she was always exhausted.  That's one tradition we've thankfully let go of. We all chip in to help now. In the past our holiday was so much more about gifts: giving and receiving. But now?  It's a gift to just be with each other.  That's a great new tradition.  So too the best traditions must be embraced by the next generation, made their own.  Hopefully one Christmas day I will sit at my niece's holiday table and eat a slice of tourtiere that she made.  But that's up to her.

I cannot imagine this life without tradition. Can you?

As Tevye, the main character in the play “Fiddler on the Roof”, proclaims, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” So go ahead: admire the delicate glass ornament on the tree, the one that came from Grandma. For fifty years it's marked this day in December. Return to your faith, and hear again the old, old story, one that still speaks to a world in desperate need of peace on earth and goodwill to all people.  That seems to never change.  Introduce the youngest to tradition: invite them to be a part of an unbroken chain of memory and life.

And that tourtiere?  Line a pie plate with pastry dough, hand made or store bought. Brown a pound and half of fresh ground pork, adding 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 3/4 of a tsp. of salt, an 1/8 of a tsp. of black pepper and a cup and a half of water. With a slotted spoon fill pie shells and add a little of the juice from the meat. Cover with the top crust. Cook at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Optional: add sweet pickles as a side and pork gravy.  YUM!   

Happy holidays. Happy traditions too.



Monday, December 17, 2018

The Human Yearning to Make It Home for the Holidays

"The desire to go a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be of the world, that center called love."    --Rebecca Solnit, author

Home. Home for the holidays.

In the coming days hundreds of millions of us will hit the road or fly the skies, or take a train or board a bus, or travel to the next town over or travel across the country, all to get home. Home: a physical place, a real point on the map, the three decker house in the city where we grew up, the leafy suburban neighborhood where we came of age, the place we had to leave in order to grow up and then come back. So our kids will return from college, our adult children will come carrying tons of presents with their kids in tow, or we will pile into the car and drive. 

That trip home will be spiritually bumpy for some of us. We miss a loved one who won't be at the holiday table this year and our hearts break at their absence. We are in conflict with a loved one and so we stay away or they stay away. We are just too far away and can't get home. We are among the hundreds of thousands who don't get a day or a week off: soldiers on the front lines, nurses at the hospital, firefighters staffing a quiet station, folks who serve tables and drive the bus and pump the gas and pour the coffee.

Still everybody wants to get home.

No matter what the ideal vision of home conjures up for each of us this twelfth month, always as humans, there is this deep desire to go home and to be at home in the world. Home: not just a geographic location but even deeper, home as a place in the heart, a state of the soul called home where we feel loved and accepted and welcomed, fully, completely, for who we are. No questions asked. Home: where we are safe, where we are found, and with a bit of God's grace, we know joy. Home: where someone knows our name and knows our story and welcomes us in.

In the church I serve, on the eve of the 25th, our pews will be much fuller than usual, as candlelight flickers in the frosty windows. It happens every year. I will look out upon the well dressed congregants holding squirmy kids, and families sharing a hymnal, and travelers coming in for the first time, and I absolutely get why they come. They seek a home in something bigger than themselves, in a power greater than themselves that somehow holds all Creation together. They seek the comfort of the carols they've sung year after year on a silent night.  They want to come home and to be at home in a 2,000 year old ancient story. They hope to find a home in the very heart of God. 

It's a universal yearning, a tug within the soul, especially in December.

Yes, we are so different from each other, we humans. We are poor and rich, gay and straight, married and single, immigrant and blue blood. We have lots of kids or no kids. The tables of our holiday feasts are packed with so many relatives or feature two or three gathered as family, some bound by blood, some by memory and experience.  We are Christian or Jewish or Muslim or agnostic or maybe even not so sure about this God idea.

Yet still we all seek just one holiday gift: to find a home and to be at home.

So my prayer and hope for all of us, dear readers, is simple. May we all get home this holiday, in these holy days. May the roads we travel bring us to a place of spiritual calm. May the joys and the sorrows of this season open our hearts to realize the miracle that is daily life.  In the words of the poet Max Erhman, from his poem "Desiderata": " at peace with God, whatever you conceive [God] to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your still is a beautiful world."

There is no place like home for the holidays so may God bless all of our journeys.



Monday, December 10, 2018

Chaos, the Game of Life and the Truth That Anything Is Possible

Chaos (noun) 1. a state of utter confusion 2. a state in which chance is supreme  3. the unorganized state of primordial matter before creation


That was the scene at the crazy conclusion to a football game this past Sunday afternoon between the teal green uniformed Miami Dolphins and New England's own red, white and blue Patriots. Even if you're not a football fan, it was hard not to be in awe of the chaos contained within just the blink of an eye, something you had to see to believe.

With just seven seconds left in the game, with just one play left for the Dolphins, with millions of Pats fans ready to celebrate another victory, I like so many others was sitting in my Lazy-Boy and thinking, "What could go wrong?"

Try everything.

Pats up 33-28. Miami's last chance. Sixty nine yards to go. No way! Then chaos arrived. The ball was hiked; a pass to one Dolphin who then tossed the ball to a teammate who then hurled the ball to another teammate who then zigged and zagged and scrambled into the end zone.  No time left. Dolphins win. Pats lose. The play looked like one I might have executed in a backyard pick up game when I was ten years old. 

Crazy. Cool. Nuts. Chaos.

What were the actual chances of that happening? Football statistics geek Brian Burke, on his website Advance Football Analytics, reports a team in the Dolphins position had a less than a one percent chance of winning. But then chaos comes, an ever present possibility in football, in life. A Pats player stumbles on his own feet and misses the tackle by a fingertip. A Dolphin runner cuts left. His opponent lunges right. Touchdown. The Fish win 34-33, thus proving that in chaos anything is possible.      

Chaos: the power hard wired into everything in life, from the beginning of life. It's the possibility in any given moment or situation for millions, even billions of outcomes to happen. Chaos is the reality that we while we mortals may think, presume, and assume we absolutely know a sure thing, a safe bet, or a clear conclusion, this does not always happen. Sometimes that's a good thing. Ask the Dolphin fans, some of whom consider their win a miracle. (Something tells me God doesn't much care who wins a football game.)  Sometimes it's a bad thing. Just ask a heartbroken Pats fan this week. Better yet don't. They're still recovering. 

What that game's chaotic ending reminded me, is that...we humans never know. Never know how things might turn out or shift or change or flip or zig even when we are sure life will zag.  It can be something as inconsequential as a football game. It can be something as profound as our health or a relationship or the direction of a country or the fate of the world itself.                   

Is chaos good? When a chance encounter with a stranger at a friend's party leads to love, marriage and family, yes!  When a random investment in an unknown stock called Amazon in 1997 leads to unexpected wealth, yes! When a midnight stroll under the stars happens the same night as a rare aurora borealis bursting in the sky with a technicolor God show, absolutely, yes! Bring on the chaos.

Is chaos bad? When health worsens, hurts us or a loved, yes. Chaos stinks. When politicians can't see beyond the self interest of their own politics or their own desires for power, even thought this guarantees worldwide upheaval, is chaos scary? Yes. When a tornado touches down, a hurricane howls, a blizzard blows, chaotic weather that cannot be predicted or tamed, is this a gut punch? Yes. No thank you chaos.

But still we can respond, in faith, to chaos. Accept chaos as a given, baked into Creation from the moment God formed the world out of the formless void of chaos. From chaos comes creation, then and now. Chaos humbles, reminds us that ultimately we as a species do not run the whole show. Chaos brings us together, pushes us to rely upon each other in community and mutual support. Chaos means anything is possible: the good, the bad, everything.

Chaos is.  As a Pats fan I know this is true. The good news? There's another game next Sunday. Who knows what might happen?

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Fact: The World Is Warming. Opinion: It's Not Such a Big Deal!!

"They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace." --Jeremiah 6:14

I'm in the belief business, have been for almost thirty years as a teacher and a preacher of the Christian faith.  To believe: that is when you or I trust something as true, and in the religious realm, when we have faith in the veracity of a spiritual claim.  Like, say, the statement, "God exists". The thing to remember about this truth claim is that it always relies upon the sincere belief of an individual or a people or an institution and is not necessarily based in verifiable, scientific or provable fact. So I have good friends who are atheists or agnostics who wouldn't agree with my unshakeable belief that God does exist. I have Muslim, Jewish and Hindu neighbors who do not understand Jesus in the exact same way that I do.

And that's okay.

Because when it comes to certain kinds of belief, it is always more about faith than facts. More about mystery than mathematics. More about profound feelings than concrete scientific law.  Unlike, for example, what we as humans, or what our "leaders" might "believe" about something like, say, climate change. 

Last week a team of more than 300 researchers and scientists from thirteen federal agencies issued a report about where our nation stands vis a vis the effects of global warming. It includes comments from more than 1,000 participants in forty workshops held in cities around the country and was peer reviewed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Global Change Research Act of 1990 mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) issue this report to Congress and the President no less than every four years.

The news is not good. Highlights of the report include these facts: the earth's climate is changing faster than at any other time in recorded history and this most likely results from human activity. Average temperatures in the U.S. have increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit in just 100 years. Climate change could cut gross domestic product by 10 percent or two trillion dollars by 2100, losses comparable to the Great Depression.

News flash: I believe in the climate change described in that report, but not as a matter of faith. Not as an opinion. Not as a polemic or a political posture. I believe in climate change because I believe in the integrity of and I trust the overwhelming majority of scientists worldwide who conclude that global warming is real, is man made and is a dire threat to our existence as a species.

Too bad our Commander in Chief doesn't "believe" the report, nor so many other folks in the media and politics, who pushed back last week, labeling the study a fraud or false or somehow a conspiracy on the part of scientists who are all making this stuff up. Yup--that's what was said and I can't make that stuff up. So even though global warming is real, is a fact scientifically, some in power still refuse to believe this. This fact perhaps scares me even more than the increasing frequency of super storms or the reality that in mere decades, the Back Bay of Boston might become an actual bay again.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, absolutely; no one is entitled to their own scientific facts. I wish those who refuse to accept the reality of climate change would be honest about why they really so vehemently oppose the report's conclusions. To so many of them, profits always matter more than people and stockholders more than the environment. The earth is a human owned resource to be sucked dry and exploited for economic gain at any cost. And since we are still okay in this generation, what's the big deal? Let future generations deal with it.

In the story of Creation, when God finishes making the universe and the heavens and earth and all that is within it, God makes a beautiful and simple declaration. "God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31)  My faith tells me that this belief is indisputable. I believe the world is a very good place, is created perfectly, and is ours' for a home, but only if we are very careful and wise stewards of planet earth.

Fact: the world is warming. Fact: left unchecked this will eventually damage Creation beyond repair. Fact: if our leaders do nothing, we are going to be in very, very deep trouble, and very, very soon. 

And those facts? Not very good. No.  Not at all.