Christmas in Wonderland

The blocks surrounding Fifth Avenue and 50th Street were closed to traffic. The cars on the streets that were open crawled forward one block at a time. Thankfully, in Manhattan, even if all you do is crawl slowly forward in traffic, there is still plenty to see and hear and remark upon.

Finally we arrived and parked in the vicinity of Rockefeller Center. There were crowds and more crowds. The people-flow was beautifully orchestrated by the NYPD. The smell of stoked fires from vendor trucks blew through the air. Mmm. Shish Kababs, pretzels, hot dogs.

It was cold. Groups of people were wearing warm looking floppy wool hats and serviceable long knit scarves with fringe that announced to the rest of us that they were Out of Towners.

In the line to see the windows at Saks there were wives with fancy haircuts and expensive earrings. “The line is worth it, these windows are beautiful!”, one wife ahead of us urged. Her husband looked dubious about it and gave us a shrug and a grin. We admired the crystal strappy sandals worn by one mannequin, and my 14-year-old niece dreamed out loud of wearing a different window designer’s gown to her prom. One-of-a-kind beauty.

Near the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center a crush of us milled around shivering in the night. In the crowd, an Hispanic youth, with a bubble jacket, a Bronx accent and an authoritativeness born of growing up in the City, opined, “This tree is small. I thought it was going to be bigger.” I shook my head in agreement. The tree did look grander on TV. A college student passing around my sister and me called out loudly, “Go Red Storm!” My sister works at St. John’s University and was wearing a red team jacket. We all smiled at each other. I would have expected more people to be skating in the ice rink below. But hardly anyone skated. We all preferred each other’s company it seems. Crowded, cheerful, community.

We stopped by the lighted angels positioned on Rockefeller Plaza snap some photos and heard “Hark to the Bells” begin to ring out. There was movement, camera flashes, and “Ooh”-ing and “Oh”-ing going on around us. Turning around and looking up, we faced the Saks Fifth Avenue snow flake light show. Simply. Wonderful.

At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, evening mass was underway. The herds of picture-snapping observers wafting through the rear of the cathedral during mass was a wonder to me at first. I stood near a waist high marble font of holy water. Inexplicably, my right had itched to dip. I refrained. There were candle stations. At one station a worker serviced the candles, scraping and scooping out old wax and setting out newly refilled candles in red glass. The new candles were rapidly lit by visitors. My sister, who is not Catholic, lit a candle in honor of her friend and co-worker, who was sweeping her own kitchen floor a few months ago when an aneurism ended her life. My sister held back tears as she remembered Adelaide, and placed two single dollar bills in the bulging collection bin. Sanctity in Wonderland. (One of the bills, we figured out the next day, had actually been a Benjamin and not a Washington).

As we walked the few blocks back to the lot where we were parked, the first snowflakes of winter settled gently on the night.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

From O Little Town of Bethlehem!
by Rector Phillips Brooks (1835-1903



Recently I sent around an email joyfully reminding the recipients that “It’s Advent!”

Today I found this link which is worth passing on:

Election Eve
































It would be remiss of me to fail to recognize the occasion of one of the most historic elections in American history.  Such a time as this demands nothing less than a retrospective glance at the events which have brought us to this moment.  My recollections follow.


The primary season

Democratic contender Hillary Clinton enters the race with the expectation of certain victory.  She is chagrined and alarmed to find herself challenged by newcomer, Barack Obama, who quickly outpaces her.  She leaves no verbal trick in her political bag in her attempts to best this adversary.  The more spectacular of her verbal missteps include:


[On talk of Obama being Muslim] “There is no basis for that…as far as I know.”

[On discussing why she would stay in the Primary race though trailing badly] “My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.”

[Citing an Associated Press analysis to support the viability of her candidacy though trailing badly] “[The analysis] found how Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.”

Barack Obama stumbled badly as well–Jeremiah Wright lives on in our memories.  I must say that the brouhaha over Wright had the effect of getting me to tune in.  I had less than a care about the Democratic contenders before the JW flap.  After the JW affair, though, I was interested.  Obama’s response was princely.  It moved us collectively forward in our dialogue about race in America.


After reading a magazine profile, I realized that, had I a chance to re-vote, I’d cast my (then Republican) Primary ballot for Mike Huckabee.  I regret my better-the-devil-you-know vote in McCain’s favor.


Post Primary Season

After hearing Obama give his North Carolina primary victory speech, I became infected with hope and magnetized by his magnetism.  My newfound fervor, for a Democrat in particular, troubled me.  Maintaining my objectivity was extremely difficult when my senses were being bombarded with linguistic weapons detonated by a handsome man’s charm.  I decided to stop watching and listening to Obama and to stick with written reports and transcriptions of his speeches.


John Edwards, one of the final three Democratic presidential hopefuls, publicly confesses that he cheated and lied, but insists that the kid is not his.



The Conventions

Hillary’s female supporters resist reconciliation with Team Obama.  PUMAs (“Party Unity My Ass”) start a movement.


Hillary, eyeing 2012 and/or 2016, is a good, though understandably bitter, soldier throughout the Democratic Convention. 


Obama chooses Biden, and not Clinton, as a running mate.  What I know about Biden at that point in the election cycle:


A couple of months previously, during the heated Primary season, President Bush addressed Israel’s Parliament and, without using names, decried Obama’s position on certain foreign policy matters.  It was a wholly inappropriate forum for such a strike.  Sen. Biden’s response: “This is bullshit, this is malarkey. This is outrageous, for the president of the United States to go to a foreign country, to sit in the Knesset … and make this kind of ridiculous statement.”  Plainspoken.  Direct.  On point.  From a seasoned politician, no less.  I liked it.


The choice of Biden didn’t jive with the Candidate of Change, but the solid, everyman background of Biden did add reassuring experience to balance the ticket.


McCain chooses Sarah Palin as his VP.  Upon first hearing I think McCain may yet win be back.  I heard: Gov of Alaska, moose hunter, mother of 5, energy expert who fought corruption on the way up, champion of special needs children being the mom of a son with Down’s Syndrome.


After the initial trumpeting of Palin, though, the public learns that her eldest daughter, 17, is expecting a child and is also expecting a marriage.  That Palin’s education is patchy; that she hasn’t spent much time at all beyond U.S. borders; that she is open to book banning; that she delivers vitriolic speeches; and, most damning of all, she seems not bright.


Nonetheless, Palin brought a younger, female, solidly conservative, outsider’s freshness to the ticket, which energized the race.


The Race

McCain attempts to co-opt Obama’s brand and portray himself as the maverick agent of change that this country needs.


Obama attempts to co-opt McCain’s brand and portray himself as a bi-partisan facilitator of legislative action.


Biden shows himself to be a debater par excellence, when, with the utmost cordiality to Palin, he skewers John McCain.  The most magical moment of the VP debate occurred when Biden trumped Palin’s working-mom card with his own tragic-single-dad card.  Brilliant.  (Yes, I’m cynical enough to believe that every sniffle and tear was made for TV).


Obama reveals that he is a smoker.


McCain reveals that he does not know how many homes he owns.


I listened to Debate One on my car radio as I rode home from church.  It seemed pretty close as to who won, with McCain having a sharp edge.  Watching the post-debate analysis at home, I was surprised to learn that vast majorities of viewers thought Obama won.  I watched the debate replay and marveled at the difference that facial expressions and demeanor make to the spoken word.  Our perception shapes our hearing.


McCain, trailing badly in the polls shifts his campaign focus and goes negative.  He paints Obama as a friend of domestic terrorists.


Obama, leading with help from a devastated economy, continues to follow through with his incredibly well planned and executed election strategy.


General Colin (“The Godfather”) Powell endorses Obama.  Says he is troubled by the direction of the Republican Party.


Which brings us to Election Eve.


From my porch, McCain’s politics are petty, he lacks vision, he promulgates fear, loathing, and distortions of the truth.  I do not trust him; he’s proven a lack of trustworthiness on issues that are vitally important to me.   As my friend Debs said, better care is taken in selecting a dog-sitter than he took in selecting a VP.  What happens to America if Palin has to step into the breach?


Nor is Obama an ideal leader.  He has done nothing noteworthy as a legislator to date.  In the middle of the greatest economic crisis of our generation he offered us silence–until it was safe–and then said the easy things.  I do not trust him.  He is an African American with no African American ties beyond his wife.  Who is his tribe?


I do believe that Obama is the smartest man at the table.  I am terribly impressed with his campaign.  There was forethought, planning, innovation, strategy and execution beyond compare there.  I do have confidence that having gotten himself, Barack Hussein Obama, to this point against the likes of Hillary Clinton and John McCain, formidable and politically pedigreed opponents, that he will competently, possibly exceptionally, lead this country into the next era.  I’m voting for an African American Democrat for President of the United States of America.


Election 2008.  A first for America.  A first for me.


Hooray! It’s Halloween!



 It’s Halloween. Once again good Christians everywhere have grappled and come to terms with the “to celebrate or not to celebrate” conundrum.

Naturally, we who love Jesus do not believe in/support/encourage the celebration of Halloween. We are opposed in principle to the demonic premises and the pagan historicity which undergird this annual ritual. (Certainly we cannot call it a holiday; or can we?) Yet, in our hearts, we who love Jesus do also love childhood innocence, imagination and play, and handfuls of free chocolate.

This dilemma, pagan ritual vs. free chocolate, has fostered the last, great, ongoing Church fiction of our time. We censure the practice of Halloween celebrations, while commending ourselves to “Harvest Parties,” “Hallelujah Parties,” and, the newly promulgated, “Reformation Day Parties”. Everyone knows these are Halloween Parties in thin disguise; the Christian, October, version of the Hanukkah Bush.

 I think we should come clean.

 The Church should finally confess that we, too, are Hallowed Eve celebrants. We delight in seeing our children in fireman and princess costumes; we are enchanted by their make-pretending. We love walking our children door-to-neighborly-door on brisk fall evenings, helping them to amass their bounty of sweets. We love the duty of the safety inspection of the sweets after our walks have ended. We even love the bartering and bargaining over the consumption schedule of all that candy. This day for us is a treat!

The redeemed, of all people, should especially acknowledge the ghoulish–the ghosts, goblins, witches, spirits, and spooks, whose appearance proliferates around this day. Our unified voices should broadcast far and wide the fact that the fantastic images on parade are but faint, faint representations of a demonic realm that is very real. Just as the sight of orange jack-o-lanterns and cardboard black cats cannot be avoided, so pervasive and unrelenting our message should be: UNBELIEVERS YOU ARE BEING TRICKED. BE AFRAID. HELL IS REAL.

Let us rejoice on Halloween. Let us hold our gatherings, play our games, eat our food, and even, yes, purloin the snack-sized chocolate bars that are heaped upon platters for just such a purpose.

Halloween is a day to remember the spiritual world, and the spiritual Life that we have been given free of charge. How sweet is this Life. How abundant. How amazing the change in us, that we are now princesses and from us, and not fire hoses, rivers of living water gush.

How terrifying and dark is this day, and all days to come, for those who do not believe.


The Politics of Christ

On 9/11 I was disgusted.  I feel better now; less alone in my chagrin.

Last Sunday my senior pastor preached about Jesus and the woman at the well.  The sermon was a part of his series through the book of John.  The pastor noted that Jesus bucked the traditional Jewish behavior of the day: he walked not around, but through, Samaria; he talked to a Samaritan, who was of all people a woman; and he implied that he would drink from the receptacle of this Samaritan woman.   The pastor reminded us that in Jesus’ day, the religious community disdained women and shunned Samaria and Samaritans altogether.  Jesus’ behavior in associating with a woman, much less a Samaritan in Samaria, was astonishing.  The pastor exhorted us that in this tumultuous election season, we ought not to have an allegiance to a political party that exceeds our allegiance to Christ.  He urged that in all our disagreeing we should not become disagreeable.  He acknowledged that it was embarrassing and shameful to observe some of the behavior of some of us in the Christian community as it pertains to the upcoming election.

It’s not just me, then.

Evil: We Have Not Yet Resisted


It’s 9/11.

And there is still evil in our midst.

7 years later though, I am no longer terrified.  I am disgusted.  Disgusted at the subterfuge and diabolical strategies that our fellow Americans engage in for the glory of personal gain.

Enron, Worldcom, and Tyco are not isolated examples of poor corporate governance.  They are examples of a corporate culture run amok.  Run amok with a nod and a wink from our fellow American leaders in industry and government, no less.

The mortgage industry meltdown did not occur in a vacuum.  I recall at the height of the real estate frenzy, our fellow American leaders in government enthusiastically championed the housing market as the primary stabilizing force of the American economy.  This despite the opinions and warnings of some very smart people that a time bomb was being created through the combination of inflated housing prices and lax underwriting standards.

It is the tenth anniversary of the home run rivalry between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa.  Both aimed to break the record of single-season home runs hit.  I am not a baseball fan, yet even I remember fondly the race to the end of the season.  Mark McGuire’s record breaking 70 home runs was overrun a few years later when Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in a single season.  In the end it turns out that all three of these athletic wonders, these multimillionaire sports entertainers, were liars, and cheats, and steroid abusers.  A flim flam was pulled on the American public, and those that knew, or should have known, looked the other way. 

This war that America is fighting in Iraq was supposed to have something to do with national security in the wake of 9/11.  Now, in spite of the fact that this effort of ours in Iraq is fantastically and mind bogglingly costly to the American tax-paying public, its purpose and objectives have changed, and have still not been made clear to the American people.  The great U.S. spending machine is in motion in Iraq, and its engines are not likely to be shut off any time soon–whether or not there is any return on all the money spent.

Nearly $4 for a gallon of gas.  We are led to believe that this pricing outrage is about gas shortages and the need for more oil drilling.  But my $80 tank of gas is not about drilling.  At root it is more of the same unregulated, free market, wheeling and dealing that is the problem.  This time it is oil futures speculation that’s making the rich richer.  Yet we are told, by a unified chorus of voices in industry, government, and media, that it’s more drilling that will allow us to afford to heat our homes this winter.  We are being led like sheep to the slaughter on this oil/energy issue, all for the benefit of those who control the means of oil production.

The most disheartening thing of all, though, is that many of these people who are making poor decisions and taking misleading positions, stand very close to, if not among, those who are called by the name of Christian. 

If these represent Christendom, surely we are doomed.

I am disgusted by self-proclaimed Christians who, in the name of values and principles, betray all they claim to believe.  I am astonished that these self-proclaimed Christians are able to perpetrate such frauds, and yet not incur censure from we the church.  Instead, we applaud their decisions, any and all, as long as they do not involve a compromise of our sexual mores. 

There is evil in our midst.  It is not the terrorist, nor the Muslim, nor the liberal.  It is us.

Clay as Liturgy

L.L. Barkat’s provacative post, “Liturgy”, prompts this response.  She wrote about a book that detailed the joy of formal liturgical practices, like using a traditional book of prayer.  How wonderful, that author relayed, to pray a Common Prayer in concert with the fathers of the faith and believers all around the world.  L.L. struggled with this idea and shared how her personal liturgical rites are more relaxed and include Earl Gray tea, mornings on her porch, and observing the pageantry of nature.

I was reminded of the disdain that I once held for the highly liturgical among us.   “How can there by any vibrance in prayers read from a book?”  I had thought.  Amanda’s wedding changed my mind.  It was held at Grace Church (Episcopal) , one of those astonishingly beautiful Gothic edifices. (“The revival of Gothic architecture in America and England, particularly for churches, was a conscious effort to restore solemnity, awe, and even some “distance” (the notion of God’s transcendence) to worship,” reads the church website.) Before the ceremony the best man and I were led to a side room where the priest had us add our signatures to a huge, ancient, volume, as witnesses of the union he was about to officiate.  I was awed and humbled by this tradition.  In signing my name I felt connected to the thousands of witnesses and spouses who had gone before me in signing that great volume.  I felt an awareness of the enormity of the church’s history, and my small, small place in that history.  During the wedding ceremony, the priest read inspired prayers of beauty and gravity over Amanda and Colin.  I wept, realizing for the first time that even such prayers as these, found in a book written by mere men, are sent from heaven.

Then, thinking about L.L.’s liturgical informality, I recalled the most informal liturgical experience in which I have participated.  I was on a women’s retreat.  We were working at coming to terms with the wretchedness in our pasts.  The retreat leader gave us colored clay and asked us to use the clay to create an image depicting the impact our pasts had had on our lives.  I took my beautiful red, my bright yellow, my true blue clay, and all the rest, and smushed each one with black colored clay until there were no distinct colors.  Each color of clay had been turned into a black-marbled mash.  I then took these individual mashed colors and rolled them into solitary balls, which I stacked into a kind of pyramid.  A sombre and gloomy tomb my completed project turned out to be.

I looked at my project and asked of God, “What about my red?  Look at what’s become of my red.  I so like yellow.  I want my yellow back, Father.  And can You also give me back my blue?  Is it possible for You to un-smush these colors and make them bright and true again?”

The next challenge the leader gave us was to deconstruct our ugly clay representations and, using the same clay, to create an image of what our lives could look like, despite our pasts, because of Christ.   I looked at my clay tomb and saw ruined clay.  What could I possibly do with this?   Well.  I began the assignment and witnessed moment by moment the un-ruination of the clay.  The streaked, yellowish clay turned into an image of the sun, which went into the top corner.  The reddish clay was rolled out into a skinny line and used to spell my name in cursive.  My red name found it’s way to the center of the page.  There was a purple-ish hue, which was converted into an exclamation point at the end of my spelled-out name: Alease!  The greenishness became grass beneath Alease!, and the blueishness turned into birds above Alease!.  When the project was done, the black-marbled tomb had been utterly and completely transformed into an ode to life with Alease! at its center.  My clay had gone from a dark, gloomy, balled, enclosure, to a picture of airy, colorful, growth and flight. 

My fingers and heart had described to God, in clay, what it felt like to have had my colors marred and adulterated.  God used these same fingers and heart, and this same clay, to answer my prayer to be true blue again.  His answer, that He can use bright yellow, or streaked yellow, or even black-marbled-mashed-up yellow, and create with it the unmistakable image of the Son/sun, brings me joy even now.  

Yes, traditional liturgy is wonderful.  Yes, extemporaneous liturgy is glorious.  Personally, though, I’d love to pray more with clay.