Saturday, December 20, 2014

"We Gotta Pray" and the meaning of Christmas


Alicia Keys is right. “We gotta pray.”

Keys released We Gotta Pray after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict a white New York police officer for the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in a stranglehold. The Staten Island decision was the second decision in a matter of weeks that sparked protests and raised questions about racism, law enforcement and the administration of justice in the United States.  Keys tweeted that she had written the lyrics sometime ago, but “the lyrics have never meant more to me than during this time.”

While fans posted favorable comments on music sites, We Gotta Pray received a mixed reaction on YouTube, where more than a few intolerant and racist comments appeared. These comments, ironically, expose the need for artistic expressions, like this one, that capture both the failure and success of humanity to rise above its ignorance and hardness of heart.

We Gotta Pray conveys a message about change
The video version of We Gotta Pray conveys a powerful message about systemic injustice around the world in modern times. The video maintains a hopeful tone through images that depict prayer and peaceful protest. The inclusion of archival photographs of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Gandhi remind viewers that change is possible. Taken together, the lyrics and the video communicate the message that all individuals have an extraordinary capacity to become agents for change, a change that begins in the heart with the transformation of one’s attitudes and behaviors.

The video references two quotations that drive this message home. A quotation from Gandhi emphasizes forgiveness, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Another, from Martin Luther King Jr., speaks of loving your enemy as a pathway to peace, “Non violence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him”. 

To carry the spirit of Christmas forward, we gotta pray for a change of heart
The message of We Gotta Pray is a good reminder of the ‘reason for the season’ that we are preparing to celebrate. During the Christmas season, goodwill, random acts of kindness and messages of  “Joy to the world” and “Peace on earth” abound for at least a few days.  But, in order to carry the spirit of Christmas forward into the world as a force for transformation, “we gotta pray” for that change of heart if we want “to get ourselves back to the garden”, to quote from another protest song. 

While the lessons of human history teach us that there is no easy way back, no quick fix to repair the brokenness of human relationships, a visit to a stable where a babe is laying in a manger may help to soften our hearts.

Nativity: Gustave Dore

At the stable we discover our potential for goodness
In the Christmas story as retold in the Gospel of Luke, angels link the birth of this baby to peace on earth and among people. Papal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa reflected on the relationship between Christmas and peace in a recent Advent homily.  The coming of Jesus ushers in a new age for humanity and teaches us “the first peace is the vertical, between heaven and earth, between God and humanity. From it depend all other forms of peace.”  This peace comes not only from the subsequent death of Jesus on the cross, said Cantalamessa, but also from the gift of grace that came into the world with his birth.

In the manger where a tiny, perfect, yet utterly helpless babe lays, we recognize that we too are vulnerable, and that we hold within our self a tremendous potential for goodness. Through the diversity of the group gathered around the manger - in the baby’s Jewish parents, in the poor shepherds, and in the rich magi of the East who come from a different religious tradition - we experience equality and mutual respect.  We gain insight into the way of peace as we discover the graciousness of God who welcomes and honors us without distinction based on race, religion or socio-economic status.

Grace and peace are the gifts waiting for us at the stable. These are the gifts that lead us to a conversion of the heart and that can guide us back to the garden.  But, we gotta pray.
















Saturday, December 13, 2014

Charity at Christmas has a long history


Spend, spend, spend!
Since the middle of November, my inbox has been cluttered with emails designed to entice me to spend, and despite repeatedly hitting ‘delete’, the pressure from retailers to shop, either online or in person, has been relentless.  Retailers’ claimed that Cyber Monday was my last chance to save before Christmas, and then continued to bombard me with sales. Soon, those same retailers will begin emailing me with their pre-Boxing Day and then Boxing Day sales pitches.  They must not be subject to the same anti-spam laws as not-for-profits because on Giving Tuesday, only one charity emailed me.

Giving Tuesday
Giving Tuesday began in 2012 as a response to the consumerism that follows American Thanksgiving and has spread to Canada and across the Atlantic. According to the Giving Tuesday website, it is a “global day dedicated to giving back”, and everyone can take part, “Just find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to come together to give something more. Then tell everyone you can about how you are giving.”

Gift giving from the first Christmas and beyond
There is really nothing new about practicing charity in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  The idea goes back millennia, and may have had its origins with the magi who gave gifts to the baby Jesus.  The magi believed that they were in the presence of a king, despite the unassuming and humble circumstances of the baby’s family and home. The men honored the little, but relatively poor, prince with the giving of expensive gifts.

Fast forward to the 10th century in medieval Europe. As the Duke of Bohemia, more famously known as Good King Wenceslas, was surveying his lands on the day after Christmas, he encountered an improvished peasant. Moved with pity, the duke returned to his estate, got the leftovers from his Christmas feast, and trudged through a storm to deliver food and drink to the peasant. While the story may be more legend than fact, Wenceslas did have a reputation for generosity and almsgiving.  Some historians think that Boxing Day, which was traditionally a day for charity, originated with Wenceslas.

Boxing Day was originally a day for charitable giving
There are two traditions from English history worth mentioning in the context of Christmas charity. They, too, are associated with Boxing Day, which overtime morphed into a consumer holiday and has little, if anything, to do with charitable giving.

In the Middle Ages during the liturgical season of Advent, the Church of England placed boxes in its churches to collect offerings for the poor. On the Feast of Saint Stephen, December 26, the boxes were opened and the monies were distributed to the poor. This was the day that the poor received the bulk of charity for the year. December 26 was also the day that the British aristocracy gave gifts, in boxes, to their servants.

Charity as a means of healing spiritual and social poverty
In the Victorian classic, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens exposed the selfish greed of the affluent who ignored the poor at Christmas. Through the transformation of Scrooge from a bitter, greedy miser to a warm-hearted philanthropist, Dickens imprinted on our collective imagination the role of charity in healing spiritual poverty, as well as alleviating the ills of physical poverty.

"Ignorance and Want"
Scrooge meets the social consequences of his greed
Woodcut by John Leech 1843

Today, ethical giving at Christmas time is gaining in popularity as baby boomers and seniors come to the realization that they have more stuff than they want or need. Ethical giving involves buying a gift through a non-governmental organization for an individual, family, community or project in the global south. Popular gifts include things such as seeds, farm animals, birthing kits and mosquito nets.

Those who prefer the traditional gift exchange with family and friends, but still want to shop altruistically, often purchase items produced in artisan or farming cooperatives in the global south.  Gift options range from fair trade coffee to high-end items like quality hand made leather boots or bags.

Charity at Christmas is a long established tradition. While I am unconvinced that we need a specific day dedicated to giving, Giving Tuesday can serve as a reminder that the Christmas season is not just about shopping for the best deals; it is also about recognizing and honoring the princely dignity that resides within every individual.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Let's talk about dying ...just shoot me is not a plan


According to a 2014 Dying with Dignity Ipsos-Reid Survey, 84% of Canadians agree “a doctor should be able to help someone end their life if the person is a competent adult who is terminally ill, suffering unbearably and repeatedly asks for assistance to die”.  While the push to legalize physician-assisted suicide has Canadians passionately debating the right to die and what it means to die with dignity, the debate has had little effect in motivating those who are healthy to prepare for their own eventual date with the Grim Reaper.

We communicate our fear of dying in subconscious ways
Research indicates that most people are fearful of suffering during the dying process. I think we communicate this fear subconsciously through actions that let us believe we can cheat death. These actions are not necessarily bad for us, and may even motivate us to continue living life to our fullest, but they do nothing to ease the way into death or make our dying easier for those we love.

One way we may communicate our fear of dying is to pretend that we are not getting older, obsessing over aging, or jealously guarding our independence, symbolized in our reluctance to surrender our driver’s license, or downsize our home.

We avoid taking practical steps to make our death and dying easier for others. Only 56% of adult Canadians have a signed will, and less than 29% have appointed a power of attorney; fewer have designated a substitute decision-maker for personal care and health matters.  We are highly unlikely to preplan our funeral, even though 75% of us believe doing so would make things easier for our family.

Even our spiritual preparation for death can be limited to our last days when our families seek out the priest to hear our deathbed confession and administer the last rites. 

We think we have lots of time to prepare ourselves to meet our maker and to get our affairs in order, even though death is the one certainty in life and the Grim Reaper lurks in the shadows.

Creating an Advanced Care Plan
The Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association, partly in response to the public discussion about euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, wants to shift the public conversation towards the importance of quality hospice palliative care and away from some of the more negative views of death, which, in my view, have played a significant role in shaping Canadian support for physician-assisted suicide. The organization has a suggestion that can help us prepare for our own death and dying.

It recommends that we start talking about end-of-life issues with our family, friends and health-care providers, and suggests that individuals create an Advanced Care Plan (ACP) that will provide direction for our care when the time comes. An ACP can guide us in articulating our personal beliefs and values, and can help us clarify our own attitude about dying and what constitutes a good death. It gets the discussion moving about the types of medical interventions that we would accept or reject if faced with a chronic illness, or a life-threatening illness or injury. And, it provides information on the legal requirements and documents that will enable others to act on our behalf.  An ACP is not a sign-up sheet for physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia; it is a comprehensive plan that can help us live out our life until its natural end.

While the public discourse has Canadians talking about the death and dying of a small minority, most of us skirt around the topic of our own mortality. We avoid planning for that unavoidable dance with the Grim Reaper.

The Grim Reaper can be a motivating image
The Grim Reaper, incidentally, became embedded in the European psyche during the bubonic plague of the 14th century, when no one could forget the reality of death. It was sometimes depicted in an embrace with a young woman to symbolize that death is an integral part of life. Rather than frighten us, it is an image that can remind us to live well, to never give up on the journey towards wholeness and holiness, and to follow confidently in the footsteps of Jesus who embraced the world from the cross and shows us the way through suffering.

The conversations I have with others about death are largely superficial because the topic can become morbid and depressing. We talk about avoiding suffering, and we would prefer to die in our sleep after a long, healthy and happy life. And, should we become decrepit or senile, we joke about telling our kids to “just shoot me”, which really is not much of a plan when it comes to preparing for death and dying.






Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Lest we forget"


"It may be more accurate to say, “Lest we block it out” when we speak of the necessity of remembering..." 

By chance, I met a Holocaust survivor
I met a Holocaust survivor on a warm August day in Chamonix, France as we were doing the tourist thing, wandering about in the shadow of Mont Blanc, and searching for a place to eat.

We finally decided upon a bustling café that had a large outdoor terrace. As my mother took her seat amongst the cramped tables, she accidentally knocked her fork onto the ground A soft-spoken older gentleman at the table beside us reached down to pick it up, politely suggesting that she might like to ask the server for a clean one.  A conversation ensued. 

We learned that the man lived in Paris, and was visiting Chamonix with his grandson, who had taken the gondola up one of the mountains.  As the conversation progressed, we learned that the man was Polish. Two years before the end of World War II, the Nazis had imprisoned him in a concentration camp. He was fourteen years old at the time. Of the twenty-nine members of his family sent to the death camp, only he and his father survived.  He mentioned this horrific period of his life in passing.  Seventy years later, the power of the memory caused his eyes to fill with tears, and he fell silent, lost for a moment in the past.

"Jewish families with bundles of belongings during deportation from the Kovno ghetto to Riga in neighboring Latvia. Kovno, Lithuania, 1942."
Photo Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_ph.php?MediaId=1883

Some memories never heal
When I think about this gentle man, wearing a long sleeved shirt on a warm August day, perhaps to conceal a number tattooed into his flesh, my mind wanders to the past, to a dark period in human history that I had previously encountered only in books and film. Then, with a jolt, my mind returns to the present, and I think of the son of a friend, who served as a peacekeeper in Kosovo and did duty in Afghanistan, and whose experiences in those places have changed him and his family forever.

I think of the gentle souls, for whom some memories will never heal, and I wonder at the words “lest we forget”, that, here in Canada, we associate with red poppies and the act of remembrance.  For, as my chance encounter with the man at Chamonix illustrates, war is impossible to forget for those who live through it. It may be more accurate to say, “Lest we block it out” when we speak of the necessity of remembering and the importance of passing down those stories that can orient our hearts towards peace.

“Lest we forget” makes me think of an old veteran that I once saw interviewed around Remembrance Day. For the first time in his life, he spoke about his wartime experience. He broke down on national television as he expressed his feelings of guilt for having survived when most of his comrades had died.  He must have spent a lifetime trying to forget; and although he had tried to block the experience, it hovered over his life threatening to destroy the normalcy he feigned.

There was a time when society expected this old veteran, like so many others, to block the bad memories, when being a man meant ignoring the trauma and getting on with life. Today, we recognize post-traumatic stress disorder, and we are learning that unhealed memoires can reoccur at the most unexpected times and at the slightest provocation – a sight, a sound, a smell, or even a chance encounter with strangers at a café.

The broad strokes of man's inhumanity to man are layered with detail
On Remembrance Day, I will stand with others at the cenotaph, not because there is any danger of forgetting, but because it is important to remember. The broad strokes of man's inhumanity to man are layered with detail. As I stand in silence remembering, I will see, on the canvas of war, a gentle man who bent down to pick up a fork, and touched our hearts that day in Chamonix.  

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Belief and doubt in "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"


The Halloween classic  still gets high TV ratings
Almost fifty years after it first aired, the 1966 Halloween classic, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, remains popular. Despite the simple plot and rudimentary animation, it gets higher television ratings than more sophisticated shows. Its humor and pathos, which communicate some realities of human behavior and experience, may account for the cartoon’s appeal.

The plot is straightforward. Linus believes in a Great Pumpkin, a Santa Claus like figure who rises up from the most sincere pumpkin patch on Halloween to drop toys to faithful believers.  The rest of the Snoopy gang mock and insult him. Even little Sally, who adores Linus, abandons him after waiting in vain for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin.  A secondary plot line deals with the bullying of Charlie Brown, by both his peers and the unseen adults who put rocks, instead of treats, into his bag on Halloween night. The show ends with Charlie Brown and Linus working through their disappointment, and with Linus vehemently asserting his belief that next year the Great Pumpkin will come and everything will be different.

Belief  and doubt are bedfellows in the cartoon
The cartoon touches on a variety of themes.  One of these themes is the relationship between belief and doubt, and it anchors the story. In “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, belief and doubt are bedfellows, existing in relationship, not in opposition, to one another.

Linus holds fast to his belief in the Great Pumpkin despite the overwhelming evidence that refutes its existence, and the crushing disappointment he experiences annually when the Great Pumpkin fails to appear. Yet, Linus moves back and forth between certainty and uncertainty as he struggles to overcome the doubt that threatens to swallow up his faith every Halloween. The letter Linus pens to the Great Pumpkin sums up his painful struggle to reconcile his belief and doubt, “If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

"True faith is about doubt negotiated..." 
Linus is not alone in the struggle to reconcile belief and doubt.  From the great prophets to doubting Thomas to Pope Francis today, spiritual seekers have always recognized the presence of doubt and its importance to the spiritual life.  To quote author and social psychologist, Diarmuid O’Murchú, “True faith is about doubt negotiated, not doubt avoided.”  And as Pope Francis has said, it is important to leave room for doubt in the quest for God; there are dangers in certitude.

The cartoon probes the foibles of adult behaviour
The cartoon also uses the actions and frequently comical dialogue of its child characters to subtly probe the foibles of adult behaviour.

There is the example of Sally, who blames Linus for her decision to join him in the pumpkin patch. Angry and disappointed because she missed the fun of Halloween, she threatens to sue Linus, shouting at him, “You owe me restitution!” While her reaction is comical given her tender age, it pokes fun at the adult world. Sally’s desire to get even, through the courts if necessary, mimics a litigious adult society as well as our reluctance to take responsibility for our actions and to consider the ways in which we may have contributed to a problem.

Linus and Charlie Brown, like Sally, have great expectations that quite literally fail to materialize.  Linus comes away empty handed from the pumpkin patch; there’s no reward for his sincerity, belief or good behavior. Charlie Brown ends the night with a bag of rocks, although he had every reason to expect a bag of candy. In their disappointment, we might recognize our own feelings of disillusionment when life treats us unfairly, and when our actions fail to produce the desired results.

We have packed around that bag of rocks
In Charlie Brown’s bag of rocks, we find a symbol for rejection and bullying.  Everyone can relate to Charlie Brown’s experience of standing on ‘the outside looking in’. We have packed around that bag of rocks.  Or, maybe we have thrown rocks into someone else’s bag.

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” holds a mirror up to human behavior and experience in an understated, sensitive and often comical fashion. This may explain, in part, its enduring appeal despite its straightforward story and rudimentary animation in an age of superior technology and elaborate plot lines.