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Beauty from Tragedy

December 25th, 2015 No comments

The Civil War: beauty from tragedy, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

The Washington Times, Thursday, December 22, 2011 – The Civil War by Martha M. Boltz

VIENNA, Va., December 22, 2011 — Many musicians and writers of poetry will admit that some of their finest work comes when they have experienced a death or a tragedy of some kind, that the writing of poetry has an almost cathartic effect on the writer.

Such is the case of one of the best known and most beloved carols associated with Christmas, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which came from the pen of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) and was written on Christmas Day, 1864.

His had been a tortured life in last few years before that day. On July 11, 1861, his wife Fanny had clipped some long curls from the head of her seven-year-old daughter, Edith, and wanting to save them in an envelope, melted a bar of sealing wax with a candle to seal the envelope.

Somehow the thin fabric of her clothing caught fire, and she quickly ran to Longfellow’s nearby study for help.  He immediately tried to extinguish the flames with a small rug, and when that failed, he threw his arms around Fanny to smother the flames, causing him to sustain serious burns on his face, arms, and hands. His heroic act did not suffice, and Fanny died the next morning of her injuries. Longfellow was unable to even attend the funeral.

Photographs of Longfellow taken or made after the fire usually show him with a full beard, since he was no longer able to shave properly due to the burns and scarring.

The coming of the holiday season in the Longfellow house became a time of grieving for his wife while trying to provide a happy time for the children left at home. It was during Christmas 1862 that he wrote in his journal, “A ‘merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

He had also suffered another disappointment when his oldest son, Charles Appleton “Charley” Longfellow, quietly left their Cambridge, Mass. home, and enlisted in the Union Army much against the wishes of his father.

In mid-March, Longfellow had received word from Charles, saying, “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave, but I cannot any longer.”  The determined young man continued, “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”

He was 17 years old and went to Capt. W. H. McCartney, who was in charge of Battery A of the 1st Mass. Artillery, asking to be allowed to enlist. McCartney knew the boy and knew he did not have his father’s permission, so he contacted the senior Longfellow to see if he could obtain it on his behalf.  Longfellow conceded and acceded to the request.

It was only a few months later that Charley came down with typhoid fever and malaria and was sent home to recover, not rejoining his unit until August 15, 1863.

Following the Gettysburg battle, which Charley had fortunately missed, the conflict made its way into Virginia, and it was at the Battle of New Hope Church, in Orange, VA., part of the Mine Run Campaign, that the young Lt. Longfellow sustained injuries, which seriously disabled him. He was hit in the shoulder and the ricocheting bullet took out some portions of several vertebrae. It was reported that he missed being paralyzed by less than one inch.  Longfellow traveled to where his injured son was hospitalized and brought him home to Cambridge to recover.

The war for Charley was over.

And so at Christmas of 1864, a reflective and sad poet sat down and began to write the beautiful words that we sing each Christmas:

 I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 

And in despair I bowed my head:

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

 Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Till, ringing, singing, on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Remembering that this was written during the Civil War, even though not published until 1872, we see the concerns of the War were much on Longfellow’s mind and heart. Thus there were two other verses that appeared in the original as verses four and five and are not song today, since they emphasize his feelings surrounding the War:

Then from each black accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound,

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn,

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Longfellow’s heartfelt words of loss and hope were published and well received. John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), an English composer, was similarly affected by the poem, and it was he who penned the music that we know and sing today, slightly rearranging the verses or stanzas as he did.

While he was an organist and a music teacher, Calkin probably is best known as the composer of the music for Longfellow’s poem.

It is a glorious carol and provides the enduring concept that despite tragedy, loss, and even warfare, there is within most of us the hope and wish for “peace on earth, good-will to men!”

The War on Christmas

December 24th, 2015 No comments

war on christmas

If you get to the heart of it, the Christmas event is about rescue. Most of the time we don’t feel we need to be rescued. Many of us have never experienced the need for rescue. And certainly the spiritual aspects of the Christmas event are overshadowed by cultural expectations. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has ever felt a need to be rescued from “Xmas”.

What do I mean when I refer to “the Christmas event?” Yes, it is the familiar story of the birth of the Christ child in Bethlehem. But that story is the climax of a larger one: the story of humanity’s waywardness and rebellion and God’s barely fathomable mercy. I say “barely” because if you have kids you know that you are willing to forgive much. The Christmas event is the turning point in the movie. Do you remember the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, at the very end, when the last petal fell off the rose and there was no longer any hope, and all of the kids in the theater were crying, and suddenly – a miracle! Everything came back to life. Better than ever. It’s that.

Since I have come to have a sense of the historical and theological significance of Christmas I have been somewhat of a Scrooge. Because I can see very clearly that whatever it is we are doing between Thanksgiving and Christmas has little if anything to do with the Christ event. At its finest point, where it is most accurate, it is a generic sense that we ought to be good to each other. But we don’t need the sacrifice of the creator of the universe to tell us that. We already know that.

In the end, Christmas is not about saying Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or Happy Festivus or about red coffee cups with or without snowflakes or holiday parades or a Charlie Brown Christmas performed with or without the scripture passage from Luke. Anyone who is disturbed by anyone else’s celebration or non-celebration has completely missed the point. Christmas is about rescue.

Most of the time we don’t feel we need to be rescued. Yet we are beset by the worst of human depravity. It is not only exterior threats but the evil we carry within, that we make manifest in our responses to our fears. We are afraid.

One of the most prominent criticisms of Christianity that I have encountered is exclusivity. Christians are quite certain that Christ is the only way. This offends modern sensibilities because in a pluralistic democracy we ought to be able to choose our own way. The celebration of rugged individualism has brought us to the point that we have our own radio stations, our own TV stations, our own Social Media presence, our own everything. Personalized just for me. And so we sit isolated in our virtual worlds hoping desperately someone will notice us by clicking the “Like” button. This is hell. Or we respond to the constant onslaught of terror and temptation by giving in to our basest instincts. And we discover that this, too, is hell. Our abyss may look different from others’ and from our forebears’ but the experience of separation and fear is the same.

The significance of the Christmas event is that God himself provided a way out of hell. The moral of the Christmas story is not “believe in Jesus or go to hell”, it is “you are already in hell, let me show you the way out.” If you don’t think you need to be rescued from hell, Christmas in the Christian sense is meaningless.

The heart of the Christmas story is that God suffered spiritual self-immolation to rescue people who would beat him and mock him and nail him to two pieces of wood and spit on him until he died. And having suffered that, because he is God, he rose from death and offered his life to those same people (us). Like Jesus, if we are to rise we must die. And like Jesus, when we rise, we rise to the life of Christ. When we are rescued, we become the rescuer. That is why the sign of those who are rescued by the Christ event is self-sacrificing love.

One way that love can be manifest is in letting people celebrate (or not) as they see fit. There isn’t any war on Christmas. If there is a war, it is in your own heart. No one can separate you from the love of Christ. I have a friend who once remarked, “Other people really enjoy Christmas. Why don’t we let them?” Amen.

Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

December 19th, 2015 No comments

the-truth-is-out-there

Whether one is Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian, how you live your life is proof that you are or not fully His. We cannot condemn or judge or pass words that will hurt people. We don’t know in what way God is appearing to that soul and what God is drawing that soul to; therefore, who are we to condemn anybody? – Mother Teresa

In response to the question about whether Muslims worship the same God as Christians, we want to find an answer that is supported within the realm of our dogma and tradition, that can be seen as authoritative, that is based on more than just wishful thinking or emotion. For many, the question is neatly answered by referring to one or all of the following New Testament scriptures:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 NABRE)

“There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:12 NABRE)

For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human. (1 Tim 2:5 NABRE)

 

In these citations we focus on what it means to come “through” Christ, what it means to be saved by the “name” of Christ, and what it means that the man Christ is the “mediator.” All of these things are related. In mainstream Christian theology, the human dilemma is that through willful disobedience humans have created a chasm that separates them from God that cannot be bridged by any human action. There is a lot of discussion to be had about the nature of the dilemma but for our purposes we will cut to the heart of it and acknowledge that it exists, and that the mission of Christ is to provide a way whereby humans can once again be in full communion with God.

The primary attribute of God is love (1 John 4:8). This love is not the pink hearts and valentines love of our modern culture, but a complete self-sacrificing love that seeks only the well-being of the beloved. The sin that separates humanity from God is that they choose to love themselves and created things ahead of God (Ro. 1:20-22). Since this is not a self-sacrificing love, but rather a love that seeks self-satisfaction, it alienates humanity from God. Humanity’s dilemma is that they cannot not choose to love themselves and created things. Or, to state it positively, they cannot choose to love God wholeheartedly.

The Christian solution is for God to do what humanity cannot. If by a created man the love relationship between God and humanity was broken through disobedience, then it will be required that a created man by obedience pay the penalty in full. But since no created man after Adam is able to be completely obedient to the point of utter self-annihilation, the remedy must be accomplished by God. Christ is unique in cosmic history because he is the only one who is both created man and God. So Jesus is the one who can bear humanity’s penalty. Christ’s death on the cross, which is significant in his abandonment by the Father (Mt. 27:46), paid the penalty in full. But it left Christ dead. When Christ rose from the dead, communion with the Father was restored. It is in this living Christ that the hope of Christians rests, because Christ did what no one else could, and that is to rise from death.

That resolves the dilemma for Christ, but not for the rest of us. Because Christ is God, however, humans can be united with him through the Spirit he sent at Pentecost. Receiving the Holy Spirit unites humanity with Christ. The ritual of baptism symbolizes being united with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. All of those who have been baptized then in  theory compose the real body of Christ on earth. That means the Church, but not in a sectarian or denominational way. It means all of those who are in union with Christ. This is what it means that Christ is the mediator.

Interestingly, and this is something far too many professing Christians miss, the proof of whether or not one is “in Christ” (or in the Church) is not participation in a ritual or a solemn declaration but a life devoted to Christ’s mission. Too many focus their religion on the possibility of personal salvation as the end, while Christ’s mission was not personal salvation but the salvation of the world. Christ still exists in the world and continues his mission of salvation through his body: the Church. The personality of Christ doesn’t change when Christ exists in the world as the Church. So the way to recognize the Church as the authentic body of Christ is to see Christ’s ministry continuing through those who are united with him. When the world sees Christ’s true Church in action it recognizes Jesus himself.

This is why on the night before he was crucified Jesus commanded his disciples: “34 I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. 35 This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NABRE) Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to have affection for one another, he tells them to love “as I have loved you.” How is Jesus’ love manifest? It is primarily through the cross, the complete self-sacrifice for the sake of humanity with no expectation of reward. Jesus is calling his disciples, and through them his Church, to complete self-negating self-sacrifice for the benefit of humanity.

I think we should notice here that Jesus didn’t die for Christians. Jesus died for all who are separated from God (1 Tim. 2:4), which pretty much encompasses everybody then and now. Notice also that Jesus indicated the world would identify his followers through love, not by what was done or said (rituals and declarations).

Thoughtful Christians have always acknowledged it is impossible to know who is saved and who is damned because it is impossible to know the mind of God. It is entirely possible that someone who professes to be a Christian may not in fact be a follower of Christ by his definition, and it is just as likely that some who do not profess to be Christians are in fact followers of Christ by the commandment noted above: Christ-like love.

So then we come to the task of reconciling the assertion that one might be a follower of Christ without professing Christ with scripture which declares that it is only through the “name” of Christ that one can be saved. This requires some explanation. Most of us don’t know what Jesus’ “name,” in the sense of the language syllables that identified him, was. In Hebrew, it was ישוע which is pronounced “Yeshua.” The fact is that only a tiny fraction of Christians, when presented with the Hebrew script, would be able to either recognize or pronounce the name of Jesus. The name that comes to us in English is a translation of the Greek Ἰησοῦς, pronounced “Iesus.” So if we call upon the name of Jesus using the word “Jesus,” are we calling upon the actual name of Jesus? Do the syllables even matter when we name Jesus, or are we speaking about something deeper?

The Bible often uses the word “name” differently than we do. In the Bible a name is more than a label. It signifies character. This is why we see God beginning even in Genesis changing the “name” of those he interacted with when their character changed. In the Gospels Jesus changes the name of Simon to Cephas (Peter), because Peter (which comes from the Greek word for “stone”) is the stone upon which Jesus plans to build his Church. So we see that the fundamental character of the man changes from Simon the fisherman to Peter the fisher of men.

When we call upon the “name” of Jesus, we must be calling on more than a label. We must be calling on the character, the essence, the fundamental nature of Christ. And what is that? “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Love as Christ’s love. So one who loves with Christ’s love is in the “name” of Christ. I think we can see that what Jesus has done here is to take salvation out of the realm of religion and placed it in the realm of action. Remember the Jews with whom Jesus contended and who ultimately had him executed were the most religious men in Israel. Christ’s salvation is not contingent on adherence to any theological dogma but rather on acting in the name of Christ: with self-sacrificial love.

When we consider what the Bible truly says in context, we see that certainty about who is saved and who is not must be tempered by our lack of knowledge of scripture in context (in other words, on failing hermeneutics) and by our inability to know the mind of God. The truth is that if we are to use the Bible as our only guide, the only people we know with certainty are in heaven are Jewish: Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and two thieves. All of them worshipped God in fundamentally different ways, and none of them (other than Jesus himself) professed the name “Jesus” in any language. We can learn to better understand the context of scripture but the mind of God remains alien to us. Rather than placing ourselves in judgment of our neighbors, we are far better off adopting the humility God calls for through his prophet Isaiah:

Seek the Lord while he may be found,

call upon him while he is near.

Let the wicked forsake their way,

and sinners their thoughts;

Let them turn to the Lord to find mercy;

to our God, who is generous in forgiving.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways,

my thoughts higher than your thoughts.  (Is. 55:6-9 NABRE)

 

Lifting the worship of God out of sectarianism renders moot the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As Christians, following our own scriptures, we must acknowledge that this is a question we are not equipped to answer. What we know is that we are called to love as Christ loves. That is what determines whether our actions are in tune with the will of God.

Make America Great?

December 17th, 2015 No comments

For those of you who get aroused listening to The Donald foam at the mouth about how he’s going to “Make America Great” again by keeping out Mexicans and Muslims, here’s a critical thinking challenge for you. Listen to this speech, being careful to listen only to what the man says, then comment about what you disagree with in the speech. I don’t mean that Obama’s father was a communist nazi Muslim from Kenya and his mother a five tentacled alien from Venus. Just the contents of this speech. Then compare with Trump’s bigotry and tell me which one knows about what makes America great.

Confessions of a Reagan Republican

December 12th, 2015 No comments

crazy

This may come as a surprise to some but I was once a staunch Republican. I became particularly supportive of the Republican Party during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. This was partially because I was in the military when Reagan was elected, and the military tends to be more conservative. Also, I served from the Nixon Administration through the Carter years, when the military got almost no support, and Reagan was pro-military, so we loved him for that.

Ideologically, I supported the Republican Party because I believed in the ideal of advancement by personal achievement, individual self-support, an almost religious devotion to the ideal of liberty and the US role in defending and advancing it, equal opportunity, and equality before the law. One of the forgotten incidents of Reagan’s Presidency was when he learned that a black family had moved into a white neighborhood in Maryland and were being harassed, he landed his helicopter on the family’s front lawn and personally welcomed them to the neighborhood. I also remember how he demonstrated his vision of the nation by recalling an incident in which a Southeast Asian refugee wanted to board an American naval vessel calling out, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.” He was a master at symbolism, and those he used represented the highest ideals of the nation. He was also instrumental in deregulation on the principle that the government shouldn’t interfere with private businesses. I supported the principle, but didn’t know very much about either economics or history, and could not have imagined where his policies would eventually lead us.

Well Reagan was elected 35 years ago and I know I have changed. I got out of the military, earned five degrees (a BS, a BA, an MA, an MDiv, and a PhD) and finally settled into comfortable semi-retirement as a part time history professor and full time beach bum. I am much more concerned today about issues of social justice than I was then. I can see that there are ways in which government can and should stand for inclusion and public support. In the last presidential election, I switched party from Republican to Democrat, even though there are many policy positions of the Democratic Party I disagree with, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t vote for a Democratic President if the candidate had the last name Clinton.

But the Republican Party has changed more than I have. Can you imagine any of today’s candidates doing what Reagan did? Reagan was able to work with a Congress controlled by the opposition, the current Republican Congress has made obstruction and refusing to work with the President a standing policy. Reagan spoke about the United States as the land of freedom and opportunity for everyone. Today’s Republicans are the party of fear and exclusion. Reagan rebuilt the US military to oppose and defeat totalitarianism. Today’s Republicans want to squander the lives of American soldiers as a means of padding their pocketbooks, and ironically applaud the actions of the kind of thugs and gangsters Reagan courageously spoke and acted against. (Did you notice that Putin and El Chapo are now darlings of the right wing?) Reagan used the power of the federal government to denounce racism. Today’s Republicans use racism as a tool for political advancement. And all of this leaves aside the destruction of the middle class that is being abetted by a Republican Party bought and paid for by Wall Street. I think Reagan probably had a hand in that at the beginning with deregulation, but I wonder how he would feel about where it has led us today?

So I will admit that I have moved far to the left. I’m actually proud to say that the man I support for President calls himself a socialist. But I think the Republican Party has moved so far to the right it has fallen off the edge. I wonder if it will find its way back, or if the country will go off the edge with it?

We Are All Guilty

December 5th, 2015 No comments

culture of violence

As I was drawn into the conversation about the event in San Bernardino I found myself caught up in a well-rehearsed dialog that leads to paralysis. We are too often compelled to debate gun violence. It is a difficult subject because it contains so many facets. We focus on so-called “mass shootings” (a shooting in which 4 or more people are killed) because they grab the headlines. But mass shootings occur for various reasons. Some are driven by ideology, some are driven by revenge, and some are driven by motivations we can never discover. So our knee-jerk reaction varies depending on what we learn.

For example, last week there was a mass shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. The perpetrator was a white male. If we can believe reports in the mainstream media (and it’s a big if), he seems to have been motivated by an anti-abortion agenda. So the response centered around conservative hyperbole about Planned Parenthood, baby parts, and Christian extremism. A gotcha moment for liberals that left conservatives momentarily disoriented in their response.

Then there was the massacre in San Bernardino, perpetrated by two Muslims (one US born and the other an immigrant). We still don’t know the full story of what motivated them (and may never know), but we have a different script when Muslims are involved. What happened in Colorado was not terrorism, it was an insane act by a troubled individual, but what happened in California was terrorism, part of a worldwide conspiracy to impose Islamic law, abetted (incredibly, I actually saw people openly argue that Obama was to blame) by the President of the United States.

I don’t have to go into the details of the arguments, we all pretty much have them memorized. If we were to look at each one rationally (rationality being an ingredient in grievously short supply in American rhetoric), we would find most of the arguments ridiculous. But rationality no longer matters. We are scripted. The scripts are written by political hacks and media pundits and repeated parrot-like by partisans on either “side” of the national discourse.

One way we can realize the extent to which we are manipulated is by the fact that we react to mass shootings but don’t bat an eye at the fact that close to 100 people a day are killed by guns in the United States. We have to wonder whether if those 100 deaths all occurred in a single event our response would be so muted.

But anyway, I found myself getting caught up in an argument about statistics. It is a pointless and unwinnable argument because we can always find statistics to confirm what we want to know, and even if not we can make some up, which occurs far more often than we would like to admit. But arguing about statistics misses the point entirely. What arguing about statistics does is draw people into unwinnable arguments that they eventually tire of, and gun violence continues unabated.

So, rather than falling into the same old pattern, let’s try something different. Rather than pointing the finger at those we live to disagree with and obfuscating, let’s see if we can agree on anything.

Can we agree that gun violence is a problem? Leave aside whether guns kill people or people kill people. Leave aside whether more or less than 100 people are killed by guns every day in any other country. Is it acceptable that close to 100 of our fellow citizens are killed every day by guns? If you think that’s OK, then the conversation is over. If there isn’t a problem, then why waste any effort trying to solve it?

If we agree that gun violence is a problem, can we agree that we must act to solve the problem? Leave aside, for a moment, what the solution might look like, but just consider whether it is worth our time and attention to try to solve the problem. If we believe the problem is insoluble, then the conversation is over. Let the blood flow.

But if we can agree on these two things: gun violence a problem, and we should act to solve it, then the next step is to have a dialog about what the solution might look like. Not a finger pointing contest, a dialog.

Many believe restricting or banning access to assault weapons is the solution. Others see any attempt to restrict access to guns as a violation of constitutional rights. Neither one of these is accurate (assault weapons account for about 1.5% of gun deaths per year, and the Second Amendment has never been interpreted by the Judiciary to guarantee unrestricted access to weapons), but if we entrench on these points, we can never find common ground.

The dilemma we are facing has little to do with law and much to do with heart. We condemn mass shootings but probably never stop to consider how many people are killed every day in our entertainment media. Nearly every television show ends with a car chase and a shootout. If the good guys win, what’s wrong with gun violence? Youth culture venerates violence, from gang motivated music to increasingly realistic “games” where players can live out bloody fantasies. No, TV shows, youth music, and video games aren’t the problem. They are symptoms of the problem, which is that as a culture we glorify violence. If we are going to address gun violence, we are going to have to address the overall culture of violence. Which means a cultural change of heart.

At first glance it seems impossible, and no doubt the undertaking will be daunting. But Americans have been able to address destructive attitudes in the past. Americans have been able to come to substantial agreement and make real strides in reducing deaths related to tobacco and drunk driving. Americans have erased from law and have been able to make substantial progress in erasing from fact the stubborn racial prejudices that have plagued our nation from the beginning. None of these problems have been “solved,” but as a people we have agreed that they need to be solved, and acted on that belief, and made progress.

There are things we can do to address gun violence. We will not be able to “solve” it but we can make progress. Indeed, we are compelled by concern for our own and by our concern for humanity to address this issue. Wake up people. As we hide in the comfort of our ideological trenches, our fellow citizens are paying the price in blood.

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