The Lie of Thoughts and Prayers

I am one of those who suffer from the condition recently identified as mental illness, which means that I believe someone other than my mother has always heard my prayers. I will refrain from naming the recipient of my meager offerings of blessings, praises and requests in order to protect the one who has already been identified as being innocent of all sin. But for the sake of full disclosure I must also confess that I am not a gun owner. Not that possession of a lethal weapon other than prayer is the point of what I have to say. It is just that these two aspects of my mortal existence can be viewed as colluding in order to form a bias embedded into this week’s message. For what I want to write about is the lie embedded in the use of a specific platitude, when commenting on a tragedy such as the shooting of other innocents at a school, a concert or any other public gathering. Whether the comment is made when standing before the news cameras or fingered when taking refuge in a text message, the offending statement is expressed in the words about our thoughts and prayers being with the victim(s).

I can be sympathetic to those who feel that they must respond in the moment if only to prove that they are not callous to or unaware of the tragedy. But the T&P response now falters under the weight of repeated use given the absence of any action to even mitigate the onslaught of terror in our neighborhoods. As we all know, talk is cheap and clichés oft times represent the bargain basement version of our verbal wares. A sad countenance, the perquisite sagging of the shoulders as a sign of humility and the dilatory wringing of the hands have become an unintended array of mocking gestures, especially when aped by people who are in a position of authority – and therefore responsibility – when it comes to protecting the society they supposedly represent.

Given the nature of my faith I am especially sensitive to criticism of Christian politicians. But I also share in a non-believer’s skepticism towards those of us, who proclaim a charitable faith on the one hand yet seemingly bow at the NRA altar on the other. I would prefer that they acknowledge the true benefactor of their loyalty rather than mouth the T&P balm for inaction, for idleness in the midst of need is the antithesis of the Christian mission.

I base my perspective on a simple but compelling principal written at a time when we, as a prayerful community of believers, were once the intended target of madmen and stood in the direct line of their fire. Then the bullets came in the form of lions, gladiators and wooden crosses and our people made every sacrifice to end the violence, benefitting every sector of their society and creating a legacy of care and compassion, which should be at the symbolic heart of our spiritual family crest.

This principal I espouse is housed in the words Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well: keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?

James, the brother of Jesus, asked this question in a letter written to those who endeavored to establish a new way of living in keeping with the teachings of the one who chose to represent himself as a good shepherd and not a religious, military or political didact. If James were writing such a letter today he could easily substitute the phrase about our thoughts and prayers being with you for the equally obtuse I wish you well. Of course this is the same fellow who has made generations of callow Christians sweat by stating that our faith, without action, is dead.

This sentiment makes it seem like we have too many dead walking the halls of Congress. But I would be remiss if I failed to include the dead zone we call the newsroom. As long as the mainstream media, hiding behind its own platitude of the public’s right to know, continues to lionize the shooters as if they were sports heroes or rock stars, then the devious dreams of those who seek a separate kind of immortality will be played out for us in a never ending enticement for a repeat performance.

I started this year by making a commitment to accentuate the positive in these weekly writing exercises known as blogging. But there is just some news of which you cannot make light. Darkness prevails. And in this case it is a darkness of human spirit preventing the will from doing good. We should, as a caring people, be able to at least curb accessibility and the proliferation of firepower without doing any harm to anyone’s right to own a gun. And we should be able to show discretion in our reporting so that terror loses its appeal, while keeping people informed with regards to their own safety.

The lie of the T&P bromide is that we do indeed care, for caring is only displayed when seeing a brother or sister or school child in need and then doing something constructive to address that need. Otherwise, as the man said, what good is it?

So allow me to end on a somewhat positive note by quoting the words of one of James’ contemporaries; another disciple of the one, who modeled the power of caring for us through the ultimate display of personal sacrifice. This dreamer, by the name of John, wrote to his community of new borns in the Christian faith, Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and truth.

Please defy the mental illness label imposed on us and pray for the leaders of our nation that they will live this admonition to act instead of talk regardless of their own mental, emotional or spiritual intelligence. As James also wrote, The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

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On Earth As It Is In Heaven

Ever wonder what it would be like to live in a utopian society, a heaven on earth so to speak? A young teacher once proposed just such an opportunity, when – like the parents described in last week’s message, who invoked a divine spirit’s protective care for their daughters – he acknowledged the sanctity of just such a transcendent benefactor. And on that basis he asked that the will which governs the bliss of heaven do the same for a much troubled earth. Unfortunately the young man suffered a martyr’s death, effectively nullifying the fulfillment of his dream. This tragic event left it to his disciples to seek just such a solution to the world’s problems by following his oftentimes incomprehensible roadmap for our path to Nirvana, revealed through intriguing stories and visions of things to come.

For instance, the teacher said Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Spoken as a present tense condition, he intimated that these folks knew and possibly even enjoyed something the rest of us could not comprehend, let alone appreciate. No one wants to be poor by any definition, whether in spiritual, emotional or pocketbook terms. And while his pronouncement may have offered the hope of an earth-bound euphoria, his phrasing certainly worked counter to the concept of poverty in any form being a blessed condition.

The Greek world substituted for the teacher’s native Aramaic envisioned a beggar, cringing as he or she approached someone with an outstretched hand, soliciting the much needed alms for survival. He really could not have invoked a more disreputable impression in the minds of his audience unless he had said blessed are the lepers.

The act of begging is universal in the human experience. Beggars exist in every culture in every era of human history. It seems likely that we would even find them mucking about in prehistory, if we could only know all that our primordial ancestors were up to before they were able to stand upright to be up to anything. To say such a person was blessed, however, is absurd. Their struggle in life as a result of their meager condition and hopeless mindset inevitably marks them as someone to be pitied, while we try to stifle an innate tendency to view them with contempt as someone obviously deserving of their fate. So what are we to make of this proposition of the poor in spirit being blessed?

Apparently no one listening to this open-air, hillside sermon had enough courage or sufficient curiosity to interrupt him to ask for an explanation about how the unimaginable was possible, let alone desirable. It must have become more readily acceptable, however, to those who subsequently tagged along after him and listened to the full array of his stories. For those who survived him were certainly willing to lose all and become poor in order to prove the veracity of the young rabbi’s teaching.

One of those stories involved two men going to the temple to pray, one a member of the religious elite known as a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, a person reviled for being a lackey of the Roman government. The Pharisee prayed with pride about not being like such a vile person. The tax collector stood a a distance, refrained from even looking up as he prayed, beat his breast in a gesture of humiliation and asked for God’s mercy for being a sinner. Luke, who included this story in his gospel account, said it was addressed To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else. (Chapter 18:9-14)

Step one for the implementation of heaven on earth begins with the human heart. And in this case the desired status for a steady pulse rate imagined a most abject person as the exemplary citizen of this new kingdom. Arrogance has no place in paradise and those who were free from this malady were considered to be blessed in this new way of perceiving how the will of God could be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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A Blessing for Our Times

One of my favorite musicals is Fiddler on the Roof. I have had the good fortune to see it performed both live on stage and on the big screen in the lavish 1971 Norman Jewison production. The Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick songs comprise the best score of any musical ever, in my opinion. But I will readily admit that my exposure to the musical genre has been limited to such staples as My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, The Music Man, and Camelot. Therefore, my knowledge of and appreciation for such things can be considered by others as elementary and uninformed. So be it. My perspective on the Bock/Harnick achievement, however, will suffice for the duration of this message.

My favorite moment comes fairly early in the program. It shows the family gathered around the table at the start of the Sabbath. Golda, the mother, lights two candles and gestures over them with her hands in a gathering kind of motion, as if to summon everyone to her. Then she covers her face with the palms of her hands and feigns to weep, like Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted. It is then that Golda, with her husband Tevye, blesses their five daughters with the evocative song Sabbath Prayer.

Protection is their chief desire for their children; protection from shame, pain, strangers and the general unrest that can rob us of our peace and happiness. It is a blessing all parents of every place and every time can desire for their children. And daughters, especially, can evoke this type of sentiment as witnessed by the potency of today’s Me Too movement.

A blessing is not a prophetic statement, as some would believe. It is more in line with wishful thinking as illustrated by the words of the song with its final, telling plea O, hear our Sabbath prayer. Amen. We desire something that is beyond our means to provide for others, whether they are our children, other family members, our friends, or those who comprise the larger social circles of our neighbors, colleagues and fellow citizens. And so we speak a blessing – a type of request – to a greater god-like power, who can transcend our human limitations and effect a change in keeping with our heartfelt desires for what is good, compassionate and satisfying to our souls.

We consistently bless people without even giving it a thought. Comments at parting like good-bye, farewell, God speed and the sophomoric have a nice day are blessings. They express our thoughtless hope that the person we are speaking to will literally have a good departure accompanied by the unspoken wish that their journey will end with a safe arrival.

Beyond this type of banal closure to a meeting, our impression of a blessing – if we have one – is to say a prayer before consuming a meal. But blessings have the power to inspire us to strive to meet the vision someone else has determined for us. This may be a parent or a teacher or some other type of mentor, whose faith allows them to see the potential for a positive outcome to which we are blind.

In light of our current memo obsession (and many other phobic moments to be honest) we need a Golda and a Tevye to gather us around their table, to light two candles and summon us into a caring fellowship, to momentarily grieve over the disgrace of our actions, and then to sing a Sabbath prayer that intones on our behalf this time to Favor them with peace and then to solemnly close with their reverential appeal O, hear our Sabbath prayer. Amen.

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Conspiratorial Passion

I enjoy the prospect of watching, via the internet, the impact a flash mob performance can have on a group of innocent and unsuspecting bystanders. It is not that I have seen one live. And I have certainly not participated in one, as they require a certain talent either musically or vocally in order to help perpetrate a well-rehearsed semblance of impromptu virtuosity. It is just that even when removed from an event by time and space, the joy of the music being performed carries through the digital machinations of our technology to somehow caress a soul that inhabits an isolated place such as my home office.

I stumbled on my first internet encounter with a flash mob when researching my piece on Schiller’s, and subsequently Beethoven’s, Ode to Joy. One of the proffered links was to a scene on a plaza in Spain, where a little girl, putting money in a hat, launched an inspiring performance of Beethoven’s Ode. And even though I suspect she was a plant to get the process started, the resulting performance – with its ever increasing ensemble of musicians and singers – made use of this sublime theatricality to delight its audience with what the poet and the maestro intended, joy.

For whatever reason my convoluted thinking devolved to, I have come to view these performances as acts of compassion. The music is always uplifting, ranking Ode to Joy or Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus at the top of the chart of flash mob encounters. After all, you never see, or at least I have never seen, a flash mob dedicated to a rousing presentation on depression. Somehow the magic we can find in a hit-and-run collision with the type of exuberance found in Brahms, Bach, Beethoven or The Boss just doesn’t lend itself to the solemnity of a funeral dirge.

Compassion is literally translated as “co-suffering” or “suffering together”.  But I am of a mind that we demean passion by considering it to be the sole province of suffering, as in a passionate artist suffers for his or her art. I am just not endowed with a sense of agony being a perquisite of ecstasy when it comes to doing anything creatively. Therefore, if no one objects, I would rather think of passion as the euphoric force which compels us to do something positive (with its angelic provenance) as opposed to doing something from any type of excruciating zest (with its implication of demonic revulsion). This would make compassion an act of grace, whereby anyone – no matter their state of mind – would find their life enhanced by a virtue of no commercial value.

Flash mobs exemplify the power of positive tinkering with a spirit of exhilaration invading the mundane; carols, choruses and concertos being staged in malls, lobbies and on street corners. The secrecy with which they maneuver their audience into an unexpected and unearned chance at beauty makes them co-conspirators with a passion to charm the happiest as well as the most jaded of us. Unfortunately, unless we know someone in the band, we simply cannot plan to be in the right place at the right time in order to be surprised by joy. But we can always find complicity in the internet with its many links to the conspiracy of musical compassion. Enjoy!

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A Speaker’s Manifesto

Using the word manifesto in this week’s title may be something of a surprise given my previously stated intent of posting only positive content in this year’s catalogue of web log messages. The word is likely to conjure up images of political declarations made in opposition to the prevailing leadership. Many such statements have been made since the current presidential administration took office. But this one, while inspired by events emanating from that particularly whitewashed house in Washington, DC, has a far broader spectrum of applications, with its own redeeming qualities appropriate to my purpose.

A manifesto is a public statement of policy, whether verbal or written, and my policy – publicly stated in the previous weeks – is to follow Johnny Mercer’s lyrical advice by accentuating the positive. His song also included the concept of sharing joy to the max, but joy is a precious commodity and not easily produced without appearing to be a false sense of elation. So sticking to the more pervasive ways of positive expression is sufficient for this and other messages over the remainder of the year. And this week I would like to say something positive about the very act of speaking, especially speaking publicly, whether imparted as a manifesto or an ill-considered, throw away comment.

Recently much has been said about the President’s use of a certain S-word in describing some of this world’s poorest nations. And the blow-back of commentary has been overwhelmingly critical of him, including the excessive use of a certain R-word in an attempt to further marginalize him and – by inference – his supporters, the deplorables of pre-election fame. Sadly, the originators of the blow-back are responding in-kind and making atrocious use of our language containing all the earmarks of personal, political gain. The campaign for the 2020 presidential election appears to be well underway despite the media attention more sharply focused on the 2018 midterm elections this November.

The goal of my own message is to propose what I believe to be a basic speaker’s manifesto, a public statement about making public statements. And keeping it simple is an act of acquiescence to our capacity for stupidity. Unfortunately, the less complex the concept, the less appeal it may possess for those who need it most but try to prove their worth by adorning themselves with sophistication. So here is my recipe for putting word to tongue in hopes of making a valid point and providing sensible guidance.

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. What the President said was reckless and its ability to pierce was more in keeping with a guided missile rather than a sword. But the point, pun intended, is still easily understood with our 21st Century mentality. The point not made in this ancient aphorism is that the damage is truly self-inflicted with the inevitable collateral damage impaling one’s allies, the people we should commit to protect instead of marking them as the proverbial deer caught in the media’s headlights. It is the second half of this insight, though, that becomes the first item in our speaker’s manifesto: wise words heal. They do not infect, inflict or eviscerate our listeners.

Point two literally compliments our initial “talking” point. It says, Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Pleasant words are wise words. And a wise person does not need to blow smoke in order to speak pleasantly.  The best communicators will first find something of mutual value with their audience and then lead with that morsel of delectable delight as a means to create a taste and desire for what is to follow. Kind, even gracious, words can prepare the way for the more difficult topics, which require our attention, by first touching the soul with their gentle, sweet, and healing influence. And what a wonderful idea it is to consider that our words can bring healing to a relationship. It gives listening a better chance at demonstrating its ability to unify any gathering of human hearts.

Talking point three takes this idea one step further. The lips of the righteous nourish many. We all like to be fed. Satisfying our internal cravings, especially when the need is essential for survival, is the mark of a truly compassionate person and a great leader. Those of us who are ample in girth still need to be satiated mentally and spiritually. We need purpose and a meaningful sense of direction. Words can initiate the process with a power to inspire the will to accomplish our righteous goals. Consider the words from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address with its emphasis on the spoken word as the harbinger of a new generation’s commitment to the greatness of our American ideals.

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

My concept of a speaker’s manifesto is really not my own. I have shamelessly borrowed heavily from, you might say even plagiarized, the written words of a king, King Solomon to be exact. His insights from millennia ago are just as applicable today as they were then. And they carry the weight of a proven political leader as opposed to being the naive speculations of this stay at home blogger. He was Wisdom’s advocate, portraying it as a beautiful woman to be cherished, caressed and yielded to as if heeding the compassionate counsel of a loving wife.

His insights assure us that when Wisdom speaks out publicly she does so with a desire to reveal her heart and make her wise counsel available to all. Her words are always right and true and just. Her words, though forceful, are spoken with prudence and discretion. Her ways are pleasant and peaceful, offering others the promise of long life, riches and honor. Wisdom exalts and honors others and for those who heed her advice She will set a garland of grace on your head and present you with a crown of splendor.

“Splendor is hard work.” These are the words spoken by Catherine the Great, Empress of all the Russias, in Eva Stachniak’s historical novel Empress of the Night. The words are spoken as Catherine considers how much effort her maids-in-waiting must exert in order to make her presentable to her court. The frailty of human flesh must be hidden so that it does not betray the still palpable will of someone as powerful as an empress.

The splendor that can come from implementing my speaker’s manifesto is also the result of hard work. Speaking with the qualities promoted by King Solomon so long ago requires intent, practice, and a total disregard for the barbed responses for today’s media and blogosphere harpies, who cannot abide a concept for goodness not of their making.

But why wait for others to become dedicated practitioners of this kind of verbal art? We each of us can start at home and work outwards through the various communities we inhabit, such as school, workplace and neighborhood. Being the initiator will give us the opportunity to witness firsthand the efficacy of Solomon’s advice, both as it impacts others and even ourselves. And who knows what impact our example might have. When we choose to let the word go forth, let us do so with compassion, revealing the desire to heal and to nourish as proclaimed in our manifesto. For if we can do so with the added touch of love, perhaps we will find out after all that love is indeed and many splendored thing.

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Ode to Joy

When writing these messages I seem to be trapped in a musical infinitude. My creative imagining started innocently enough in December, expounding on the true meaning to be found in God resting us merry during the yuletide season. Then I progressed to reminiscing about Robert Burns’ toasting the absence of the old long since, or auld lang syne for those in need of a translation, which is how we traditionally close the old year.

I began the new one by formulating a resolution of posting a full year of messages based on the Johnny Mercer theme of accentuating the positive. And now I am stretching eclectic credulity to the limits by reaching even further back in time to build on the thought of sharing Mercer’s phrase, joy to the max, by relying on a true classic, Ode to Joy, for taking the next step in my quest to write fifty-two messages with positive themes.

My Pollyanna disguise this time does not really rely on Beethoven’s succulent riff in his oft performed 9th Symphony. Rather I am looking to his inspiration, Friedrich Schiller’s original but less well-known poem, to fuel my optimistic aspirations. Schiller’s Ode to Joy was written for a friend, who shared his reverence for the possibility of unity among humanity occasioned by the presence of Joy. Beethoven needed only to tweak a few lines to conform this utopian fantasia to his melodic sensibilities for a musical masterpiece to emerge, ensnare and enthuse a perpetually evolving audience, many of whom have no clue about what is being sung in German via allegro molto.

Schiller personified Joy as a beautiful woman the way Solomon envisioned Wisdom as a bride to be caressed. He praised her intoxicating ability to bind what human convention divides, everyone becoming brothers, “where your gentle wing abides.” Tenderness is her unstated hallmark for we consume her essence like infants suckling at her breast. Joy freely bestows her kisses upon us and we are adjured to live our lives, or run our race, “Joyful, like a hero going to the conquest.”

Schiller was a Christian romantic at odds with today’s religious skeptics, who view the overwhelming presence of their own personified deity of Evil as proof that there can be no eternally loving God. He inverted the concept and speculated that the pervasive presence of Joy, as evidenced by the persistence of brotherly love despite our shared afflictions, meant that “There must dwell a loving Father” in a nether region beyond sight, but not beyond feeling and the desire to share the blessing.

“This kiss is for all the world” is Joy’s unconditional gift for the taking. Graciously accepting what she so freely offers affirms our ability to choose, another quality which some would say supports the efficacy of a divine parent. The only important question for each of us to answer is whether or not we are willing to share her bounty. We each can ignite a sense of joy in another and illuminate their soul. A kindly spoken word will do. But a well-placed kiss, with Joy as our motivating spirit, would do even better. Give it a try and see if it doesn’t foster a sense of blissful unity with your beloved intended. It is a quest worth undertaking, joyfully.

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Joy to the Max

We are starting a new year with another musical tribute to the season. This one is not about Christmas, although joy is in the title. And it is not about remembering old acquaintances as the time for reminiscing is not really appropriate for the start of anything new. Instead the theme for this message, and in fact for the entire year if I can remain faithful to the concept, is to use a 1946 Johnny Mercer tune to guide us through 2018.

Back in those optimistic, post-World War II years, Mercer penned an upbeat song entitled Accentuate the Positive. His further counsel was to eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative and don’t mess with Mister In-Between. These lines are probably familiar to most people, at least those of us of an age to remember crooners like Bing Crosby and Perry Como, who wisely latched on to the popularity of this song to boost their own careers.

But my title comes from the first line of the less well known second verse. There Mercer encouraged us all to be proactive with his admonition You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum. Failing to do so might otherwise allow pandemonium to walk upon the scene. His playful but prescient comment would have captured the spirit of our times better if he had forecast that pandemonium would trampled the scene and not just walk onto it, for that is where we seem to be now. Words like collusion, tampering and impeachment in the political arena are being matched by claims of sexual misconduct among news and entertainment celebrities, who are supposed to report on or jokingly mock politicians, not imitate them.

My New Year’s resolution, then, is to follow Mercer’s advice and use my web log messages to accentuate the positive I see in this world, providing I can find it. That is a huge challenge, fifty-two messages of an uplifting, positive or joyous nature. And I am not talking about images of cute puppies snuggling up to their two-legged, diaper-clad counterparts no matter how good that may make you feel. My hope is to find substance in positive aspects of our shared experience and to spread the news for others to consider, maybe even adding a little joy to their day as well. Perhaps it will even improve my own disposition, for we are all in need of a little joy now and then to offset the barrage of negativism aimed at us by the Mr. In-Betweens of this world.

Therefore be of good cheer. Our battle cry for 2018 will be “Joy to the max! Joy to the world!”

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A Cup of Kindness Yet

The time for Christmas carols has passed, unless you are an ardent true believer in the Twelve Days of Christmas and still have cause for celebrating the birth of Jesus. For those of us who are not so traditional or who are less inclined to see any spiritual significance to the December holidays, there is still one more carol to sing. This one is attributed to the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, who openly admitted that he borrowed from an existing folk song, when he penned the words to his poem Auld Lang Syne nearly three hundred years ago.

Burns’ Scottish dialect is hard to pronounce, let alone understand. The version we now sing on New Year’s Eve is a more civilized, as in Anglicized, interpretation save for the oft repeated phrase Auld Lang Syne. Even here we tend to screw things up by pronouncing the last word with a “z”, as in zine, instead of with an “s”, like sign. But who cares? We are generally happy, with a touch of sentimentality in our tone, and likely retaining the one true element of Burns’ poetic imagery by hoisting a cup of some kind of liquid refreshment and drinking to the days gone by.

That cup, whatever its contents, may also retain the Burns insistence on kindness – that is for those of us who are not members of Congress, Antifah or the current administration. It is extremely hard, in fact, to reconcile the thought of kindness as a primary motivating factor behind any of the news that the media outlets, be they mainstream or also rans, present to us on a steady, even unyielding, basis. So maybe it is best to stay local with the people who are truly important to you and celebrate the good times, which have left you with good memories of this and every prior year of your lifetime, whatever its duration.

Lamenting the passage of time and our inclination to focus so intently on our current problems that we forget about who and what was important to us not so long ago appears to be a natural part of the human psyche. Prior to Burns another poet borrowed from the same folk tune and wrote about our tendency towards selective amnesia and asked “Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold, that loving Breast of thine, that thou canst never once reflect on old long syne?” Tweak these words written by James Watson in 1711 to reflect today’s calloused jargon and you will have an ode to isolation and disillusionment in keeping with much of what we currently hear in our pop culture renderings.

But this is the season to defy the spirit of all things dark and sinister. My advice is to find that cup which holds the magic elixir of kindness and drink your fill. Let it stimulate the memory of what a sweet Heart and a loving Breast most hold dear and use it to counter the inevitable assaults on the peace and good will we earnestly desire and also sing about at this time of year. Sorrow and selfish ambition may hold the media captive in their presentation of what is supposed to pass as news, but be of good cheer. You can overcome the media, if you choose. The “On” button on your remote also has the power to turn things “Off.” Once you have accomplished that feat, take a cup of kindness yet for your own sake as well as for the benefit of others.

God bless ye merry, everyone.

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Tis the Season

December is a busy month for celebrating. Just this past week we encountered the Winter Solstice, the official start of that cold weather season in the Northern Hemisphere, but a day important to those ancient tribes we now call pagan, who honored it as the indicator for the rebirth of the sun. The previous week people of the Hebrew faith observed their own Festival of Lights we know as Hanukkah. In a few days most of us will celebrate Christmas for either its religious attribution for the Christ child’s birth or its cultural role in having a wonderfully good time with family and friends. And then there is Kwanzaa, a late arrival to our holiday mix, but an important addition to our need to celebrate. It is the time of the year chosen to honor the many cultural contributions of the Pan-African community.

No matter your ethnicity, politics, educational achievements or social status there should be something in at least one of these four events that can spark a festive sensibility of even a brief duration. The traits they share touch on positive aspects of the human experience and for a time allow even the most jaded of us to glimpse a transcendent spirit that sees in the mundane a miraculous consequence. Life takes on the appearance of meaning, which gives virtue a logical place in our hierarchy of self-awareness.

The presence of light is a key theme in these December observances. The Hebrew menorah, the African kinara, the yule log and lights on an evergreen tree all impart warmth in the hearts of their respective adherents without overwhelming them with an oppressive brilliance. In fact the opposite is true. The subtle softness of the light from a lamp, a candle, a light bulb or the embers of a slowly burning piece of wood possess their own mysterious quality of assurance of human dignity and righteous purpose.

Food projects bounty in the same way song imparts harmony. Color abounds in the decorations, place settings, and seasonal clothing, while gift giving becomes a reciprocal response of the beauty within us answering the call of the external beauty displayed in these disparate celebrations.

If this be true, then perhaps we can put an end to the imagined conflict between seasonal blessings. Merry Christmas does not have a mandate for presiding as the only December compliment. Therefore, it is best to know another’s beliefs and preferences in order to express in their preferred idioms the blessings of the event they celebrate even when we do not share this precious aspect of their worldview. It indicates the depth of our care for them as friends, colleagues or acquaintances as we demonstrate our respect for their cultural practices by greeting them or imparting a blessing in the appropriate manner. Of course Happy Holidays will remain the safe fallback statement when another person is essentially an unknown entity to us. But don’t despair. There is always time to learn about the people we associate with and December affords us the best opportunity to do so. It is called hospitality and can be practiced in whatever location you call home.

May your days, then, be very merry and bright. And may you have a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

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Tidings of Comfort and Joy

It is still a little too early for me to get excited about the Christmas season, if excited is even the proper word to indicate how I treat this holiday in my old age. It holds a different kind of magic for me now in contrast to the exuberance I felt as a school boy. Then we were released from a relentless scholastic drudge to enjoy a blessed two-week reprieve from pretending to learn. The dream of seasonal indulgences such as having divinity to eat, decorations to bring out of the attic, and presents tactfully placed under a brightly lit tree, as if Santa had paid a visit to our house, was about to come true once again. And the singing of Silent Night never failed to add a spiritual dynamic to these material comforts.

Now I hold these things in memory and chose to shelter them there rather than attempt to replicate them.  I cannot bring back the people whose depth of compassion and commitment to family were the true ingredients for what made those days the delight of my childhood. The sadness of their absence from this life is fortunately countered by the gratitude I feel for having shared even a season of this life with them. Their mark on this and other holiday celebrations is as indelible as the imprint they left on my soul. The result is that I am content to leave it all to contemplation, a private reverie far more muted but no less rewarding as the joy of waking Christmas morning to prospects of gaining a childish wealth all wrapped and beribboned in token to a spirit of gift-giving that eluded me at a time when I was intent on being the recipient.

Of all the music associated with Christmas I still cherish the ones that celebrate the faith I grew up with and underscore who we were as we gathered around the table to enjoy a sumptuous breakfast feast my aunt and uncle provided each year as a gift of which we all could partake together. But one song has gained in significance for me as I have aged and hopefully matured in my appraisal of things. The first line of its refrain is the title of this week’s message and instantly hints at an archaic perspective on life. After all, who still uses the word tidings in their daily communications, although its meaning seems to be perfectly attuned to today’s Twitter culture.

Tidings are brief messages, their brevity meant to impart a sense of importance to us without having to endure a long-winded explanation about just how important we should appreciate the news to be. And in this case the news is a blessing; our own comfort and joy being the desired result of our verbal benefactor. These twin virtues stem from the song’s proclamation that our deliverance from evil has been secured through the birth of a child, whose entrance into this world we celebrate on December the 25th even though the actual month, day and year remain unknown to us. And, in fact, his birth is not the true cause of our deliverance, but his death. But the song betokens, for me at least, that same sense of anticipation I experienced as a child, waking to a blessing that would bring me a comfort and joy I could not fully appreciate at the time. Some blessings, apparently, fail to reach their full benefit until the recipient has grown in sufficient proportion to the magnitude of the tiding.

God rest you merry, everyone as the song’s opening line intends. May you both hear and speak tidings of comfort, joy, peace, love and all the other qualities which can make this time of year the blessed event we desperately desire it to be.

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