Don’t Prove Yourself: Be Yourself

Stop! Stop! Stop!

I wanted to scream at the cynic talking to the young artist last week. The cynic was saying, in effect, “People creating art in South Dakota are just fooling themselves; they aren’t doing anything of worth. Art only matters if it is validated in major art centers like New York City.”

When I tried to offer another perspective, he talked right over the top of me. I finally pointed out that I listened when he spoke, and asked him to listen when I spoke. He agreed, but couldn’t seem to help himself. I was not allowed to complete an entire thought.

I finally got my message down to a sound-bite: “better” is not a word you should bring into a discussion about creating art.

My art is not better than the work that dear friends create, nor is their work better than mine. Our work is not better or worse than well-known artists working today. Rather, our work is different.

Even artists creating work within the same movement have individual, recognizable styles. I can tell a Monet from a Renoir even if I am not familiar with the individual pieces. That’s the beauty and joy of being an artist — that the medium we choose gives voice to what is in us, gives voice to who we are as remarkable individuals sharing a journey through life.

After that discussion, which disturbed me more than I could articulate at the time, I found myself thinking of my artistic journey. I stumbled into being an artist. In my heart of hearts, I longed to create images from the time I was young, but I didn’t have much natural talent. Still, when the opportunity arose, I took a design class, thinking a design class wouldn’t require talent, that I could learn something about creating art without revealing how hopelessly inept I was.

What I found was a mentor, though Signe would probably not see herself in that way. Signe helped me to see that art went far beyond what I imagined. After the design class, I took a drawing class, a color theory class and a painting class. With that foundation, I just began to practice.  Signe believed in painting from life, so I painted still lifes — often fruit and vegetables, but also plants and pieces of pottery or copper from my kitchen.

I would challenge myself with color exercises, limiting my palette to three or four colors plus white to see what I could accomplish. I would paint at night after my children went to bed, first at the kitchen table and later in a studio I set up in the corner of my living room. I would paint to find a center of peace that existed no where else in my chaotic world.

My abusive marriage was ending; I was a single parent; I had dreams of becoming a university professor but didn’t know how to get there. In the midst of all that, I had to provide emotional stability and a home for my children. I also had bills to pay, and little money with which to pay them. When I painted, all that dropped away and I entered into the present moment in a way that healed and strengthened me.

I have often joked that I paint to stay sane, but it’s not really a joke. It was my truth then, and it has been my truth every year during which I have painted since that time. Granted, sometimes I’ve allowed life to send me on a meandering detour which took me away from my brushes and easel, but when I paint, I am whole and more authentic than when I am not creating art.

It’s not about the art. It’s not about the validation of public recognition. It’s not about proving myself; it’s about being myself. It’s about being authentic, about being the person I was created to be.

I was well into my 30s when saw a major art exhibit for the first time. A friend and I went to the Chicago Art Institute and I saw the work of Cezanne for the first time, and Renoir and Seurat and Monet and Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe. I saw other works as well, but it was a piece by O’Keeffe that tipped the scales for me.

The Modern Art wing was under reconstruction so “Sky above Clouds IV” was hung over a doorway. I looked up and thought, “I could do that.” I’d been at the museum for hours by then, and was suffering from what I’ve since learned is called museum fatigue. My response probably seems disrespectful of a great American master, and I could probably claim fatigue.

In truth, something else entirely was happening. An inner shift was occurring. Having studied the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists intensely, I’d strolled casually through the other galleries, pausing here and there to look at work by an artist whose name I recognized. I was saturated with richness of it, with the diversity of styles and images, with the timelessness of it.

I had realized that creating art is about bearing witness. Creating art is about staking a claim in the great ocean of time and saying, “This is where I live. This is what I see. This is what I experience as true in this place and time.”

When I said, “I can do this,” I wasn’t talking about replicating that piece. I was acknowledging my call to be an artist, to be a witness. I knew in that moment that unless I created art, my life would be wasted.

Nearly 30 years later, I feel the same way even though entire years have passed when I have not picked up a brush. I feel that creating art has given meaning to my life even though I’ve not gained national, international — or even regional — acclaim. My art — and my writing — are my legacy, but they are also more than that.

Creating art is an honest and public acknowledgement that I am living in this world in a way that is authentic, that uses the gifts God has given me and allows others to bear witness with me of life in this place and this time through one set of eyes. That’s enough. That’s all any of us ever needs to do.

We just need to live authentically. We just need to be ourselves.



No Place Like Home

Finally! By the end of today, I will have everything I own under one roof. 

When I decided to move back to South Dakota in July, I had no idea what I was going to do. Worst case scenario: move into income-based housing and take early Social Security.  Ideal scenario: get another newspaper job. Workable option: get a clerical job of some sort and move back to Pierre. 

Pierre was the home of my heart. In that community, more than any other place else in my adult life, I had found a place to belong. I knew people, they knew me, and for the most part, we liked each other. Leaving Pierre is a decision I have never ceased to regret. I thought I needed a newspaper job; what I really needed was that home.

To begin yet again, I packed my stuff in a moving van — getting rid of living room furniture and dressers, so there was room for what was important: three desks, four easels, all my art and all my books. I drove — yes, me alone in a 16-foot moving van, the largest I was willing to tackle — through two mountain passes and across the never-ending (or so it seemed) terrrain of Nevada and Wyoming.

When I arrived in South Dakota, I dumped most of my stuff in storage, and moved into a friend’s guest/storage room. Within weeks, I was working — in the newspaper business, a real godsend. I rented a cozy cottage (i.e., small house with tiny bedrooms and kitchen that may — if I am lucky — hold half of my baking stuff) and have been rebuilding my life.

The challenge has been getting my stuff out of storage. Drenching rain, work and a bout of some kind of croupy cough that knocked me out for two weeks have all worked against me. I bought a small dining room set at the thrift shop across the street from work, so I had a place to sit, eat and write. I bought first an air mattress and then a futon, so I’ve had a place to sleep.

One weekend, I made plans to move, but ended up losing my help. I used the rented truck to move my art, the clothes I could find and what I thought were kitchen supplies. Unfortunately, I have no need for bundt pans, cookie cutters and a mixer at present, so the kitchen boxes weren’t terribly helpful. However, with that move I was able to get art on the walls and begin to envision how I wanted to live in this space.

But, when I got sick and had to buy not only the ingredients, but also the pot to make homemade chicken soup, I decided I couldn’t afford to wait much longer. Buying stuff might be good for the economy, but it isn’t  good for my bank balance. With winter coming, I will need snow tires and winter clothes. I can’t afford to spend money unnecessarily.

Equally as important — perhaps more important — is the need to create a home, to stop living transiently. I am not a terribly materialistic person, but I find comfort in surrounding myself with things that both reflect me — books and art — and reflect back to me evidence of the life I have lived. I sit down to eat a meal on Corelle plates with the iris pattern and I remember the friend who gave them to me. I look at the raku-fired bowl I made at a weekend gathering of artists and remember the fellowship of those years.

These small things are a bulwark against the never-ending march of time and all the changes it brings. These small things offer comfort in the midst of life’s inexplicable hardships and disappointments. These small things strengthen my emotional and psychological armor in a world that feels more threatening every day.

However, my need also makes me acutely aware of how blessed I am in this moment, despite the inconveniences I have been experiencing. So many people have lost so much in recent months. Hurricanes and wildfires have wiped out all evidence of the lives they have lived. 

And with disaster after disaster hitting our nation, we cannot even respond to all the  needs being created, to all of the trauma being experienced. There is too much. We want to turn in upon ourselves. We want to turn our backs on others. But we will pay a great price if we do that.

We will lose that within ourselves which makes us human, which makes us good. Our true home isn’t the roof over our heads or the things we own. Our true home extends beyond our local communities.

Our true home is the human family. Our true home is the world in which we live. We have to care. We have to bear witness to heartache and loss. We have to share resources rather than hoard them. We have to live with hearts and arms wide open to our brothers and our sisters.

We have to love.

Common, Ordinary Things

“Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you….'” – John 13:8

I know it’s Easter — and Sunday at that — but I am still stuck on Holy Thursday and a phrase from the gospel which tumbles around in my head and heart: ‘Unless I wash you.’

I was eating Corn Chex during hurried morning devotions when the phrase first drew my attention. I’d read that passage in John’s gospel many times before — and heard it proclaimed. That phrase was just part of the exchange between Peter and Jesus where Peter goes overboard again, as usual. But Thursday morning, it led me on a journey of the heart.

The Good News translation is more specific. ‘If I do not wash your feet,’ Jesus answered, ‘you will no longer be my disciple.’ However, the New International Version and the New American Bible simply say, ‘Unless I wash you.’ That was the translation I heard a second time as I drove to work, and continued morning prayer with an audio meditation at ‘Unless I wash you.’

I simply cannot imagine that Jesus and his disciples had begun their supper without washing. Transportation in those days involved walking or using animals which left smelly piles in their wake. Even though the Passover dinner was to be eaten ‘with your lions girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand’ (Exodus 12:11), they must have washed their feet and ritualistically washed their hands before sitting down to eat.

But Jesus loved these guys. John tells us this at the beginning of the passage, ‘He [Jesus] loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end’ (13:1). Jesus knows what’s going to happen. He knows he’s angered authorities; he knows Judas is going to help officials arrest him — because folks were identified differently 2000 years ago when photographs, fingerprints and DNA evidence weren’t around to help authorities. How is Jesus going to show his disciples his love?

The twelve chosen as apostles weren’t twelve whose lives had been changed by the miracles Jesus worked. None had been blind. None had been leprous. None had been healed. They were presumably present when he fed the multitudes, and some of them had undoubtedly been present to witness some of his miracles — for example, when he healed Peter’s mother-in-law, who then served them. But, what had he done for them?

I imagined Jesus, as we all do when we know death is approaching, remembering times when he felt loved. He remembered his mother tenderly washing his feet when he was a boy and came in after a rambunctious day outdoors. ‘Jesse,’ she would say as she held both of his feet in her hands, ‘sit still. Unless I wash you, you will not be able to sit down to eat with Abba and me.’ He remembered squirming around, anxious to be off and running again, not understanding why his feet had to be clean to put food in his mouth. He remembered his mother’s patience as she waited for him to settle down so she could wash his feet, and the peace that flowed through him as her love was expressed in that ordinary activity.

I imagined the memory prompting Jesus to get up, take off his outer garments and tie a towel around his waist. He would express his love for his disciples in a privately meaningful, but very ordinary activity. He would wash their feet as servants in the home of a wealthy man might wash the feet of their master, his family and their guests — or as a mother might wash the feet of her beloved son. He was touching them as he had never touched them before, with loving hands on their tired and calloused feet. He was caring for them, not with a grand miracle, but with a personal touch.

I was reminded of a quote from a slim volume by Kathleen Norris. In QUOTIDIAN MYSTERIES: THE LAUNDRY, LITURGY AND ‘WOMEN’S WORK,’ she writes, “We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were. We must look for blessings to come from unlikely, everyday places … and not in spectacular events.”

The washing of his disciples’ feet was the most ordinary and everyday of events, and yet it has, over time, become one of Jesus’ most powerful teaching moments. He went on to say, ‘If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow’ (John 13:14-15). We are to care for one another.

We are to show our love by caring for each other in the most basic of ways, in ordinary, everyday ways. That’s it. Folks don’t need us to work miracles; they just need us to reach out with love to open a door, extend a smile, offer a listening ear. They need us to recognize their humanity and to reach out to them with ours.

But, we can only know this in our hearts if Jesus has washed us, because that is what opens our eyes.



Evacuation Blues

Five days a week, I slide into my Honda Fit around 6:45 AM, pull out of my assigned parking spot, enter Forestwood Drive from the parking lot, and turn left at the corner. A few blocks later, I turn right, cross the Queens Street bridge over California Highway 99 and enter the freeway with a left turn. An hour later, having left Highway 99 ten miles south of Yuba City and picked up Highway 113, I exit the freeway at Davis in order find a parking spot on the UC Davis campus and go to work.

I’ve been doing this for nearly two years. I’ve driven on dark winter mornings when the fog was so dense the trees which line one stretch of 113 were hidden and only the white dashes down the center of the road kept me going in the right director. I’ve driven during pounding rain with wind so fierce I was afraid I would be blown into oncoming traffic. I’ve driven at dawn when the rising sun glinting across flooded rice fields turned the world to gold or cast color across the cloud-dappled sky like spilled strawberry milk.

I know that road well. I know how long it takes to traverse in all kinds of weather. I had no idea how an evacuation order could change things.

I have to confess, I wasn’t watching developments at the Oroville Dam in Northern California. Even though I was transplanted from South Dakota nearly four years ago, I still don’t know the geography of the state. I knew Oroville lay to the north of Yuba City because I pass the Oroville exit once a month when I head for Chico to see my spiritual director. Beyond that, I had no knowledge of the community, and had no idea the tallest dam in the United States held back a vast reservoir in that area.

Late Sunday afternoon, my neighbor knocked at the door to tell me that he was “bugging out,” and advised me to do the same. The expression on my face must have told him I had no idea why I should leave my home. He told me the Oroville Dam was in danger of giving way. I thanked him for the news and checked the news on my iPad. The evacuation order at that time — approximately 5:30 — was for communities in the Feather River basin. Although Marysville, across the bridge from Yuba City was on the list, Yuba City was not. I decided to go to Walmart to pick up a second cat carrier and a few supplies I might need for an evacuation.

The Walmart parking lot was nearly empty and exiting employees told me an evacuation order had been issued for Yuba City. I checked the news again, and discovered that in the 30 minutes it had taken me to change and drive to Walmart, the situation had changed. I drove home, packed a bag with clothes for a week, picked up my personal computer (heaven forbid I lose the book I’m writing!), caught my cats (which took time because they were terrified by the sirens), and began a drive so familiar to me I could almost make it in my sleep.

An hour later, I had managed to drive six blocks. Traffic from Oroville, and all the small communities between Oroville and Yuba City, was heading south on Highway 99. Although I didn’t know it, evacuees from Marysville were being routed through Yuba City because Highway 70 lay along the Feather River and was closed. And, of course, Yuba City residents were heading out. At that point, I made a mistake that cost me two hours.

I was two blocks from the entrance ramp to Highway 99, and ignorant of the traffic gridlock associated with evacuations. Keep in mind, South Dakota has a population of approximately 850,000 people; an estimated 180,000 people — more than 20% of the population of South Dakota — were being evacuated along one highway. Vehicles were crawling — and stopped at those junctures where a driver pulling an RV decided to block an intersection rather than follow state law. I checked Google maps which advised me to take Highway 70 instead of Highway 99. Google maps didn’t know Highway 70 had been closed hours earlier.

I zipped across town, only to discover the bridge blocked and myself at the end of a slowly moving queue of vehicles miles from the highway entrance ramp. At approximately 10:30 PM, three hours after getting into my vehicle, I made the left turn which allowed me to enter the flow of traffic on Highway 99. Three hours after that, I reached Woodland, approximately 40 miles to the south of Yuba City. After six hours in a small car with discontented cats, my legs were cramping, my back ached and I had a headache pounding loudly enough to accompany Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

I still had 20 miles to drive, and had realized during my drive that I had forgotten a few important things, which meant I needed to make a stop at the 24-hour Walmart store in Dixon before going to my daughter’s house. I arrived around 2 a.m., unpacked the car, settled the cats, and finally crawled into bed around 3 a.m. I was too exhausted to be concerned about the future. I had to be at work at 8 a.m., and I just wanted to sleep, and sleep I did, deeply and soundly.

That was a little over a day ago. I haven’t checked the news this morning. As of last night, the evacuation order remained in place. Some news sources reported that Yuba City was under an evacuation advisory, not an evacuation order, but with the highway closed, that’s a moot point for me. If you can’t go home, you can’t go home.

Contributing to concerns at this point is another storm expected to arrive later this week. The design of the emergency spillway has concerned folks in the area for at least 10 years, but the folks operating the dam hadn’t been concerned. In their defense, until the recent storms (which have pounded our drought-stricken area for weeks), water had never in the dam’s history reached the current levels. So, now we have a damaged spillway, a damaged emergency spillway, and little more than sandbags and rocks standing between a huge reservoir of water and major disaster.

Hope rests in lowering water levels enough to avoid a disaster if Thursday’s storm brings the anticipated precipitation. If it doesn’t, even UC Davis may have to be evacuated. Having coped with one evacuation, I’m hoping — really, really hoping — that sandbags and lower water levels are enough!

Wisdom of Solomon

Then the king said: “One woman claims, ‘This, the living one is my son, the dead one is yours.’ The other answers, ‘No! The dead one is your son, the living one is mine.'” The king continued, “Get me a sword.” When they brought the sword before the king, he said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other.” The woman whose son was alive, because she was stirred with compassion for her son, said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby — do not kill it!”  (I Kings 3:23-26)

When I was growing up, I didn’t want fame or fortune; I wanted wisdom. From the first time I heard the story of King Solomon and the two women related in I Kings, my heart yearned for wisdom. This longing was reinforced in junior high when we studied Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Great Stone Face.” Wisdom, it was apparent to me, was the most desirable attribute we could cultivate in this life.

Wisdom is one of the spiritual gifts, which is convenient for me, since my spiritual journey is the defining characteristic of my life. Wisdom, as a spiritual gift, is the ability to see things from a divine perspective, to see the big picture beyond all of the earthy ephemera. Or to put it another way, wisdom is what exists when you shove aside the veil of dollars and cents that colors our perspective in this world.

My dear friend Merriam-Webster defines it in a slightly different way. He says, wisdom is “the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand,” or “knowledge of what is proper or reasonable, good sense or judgement.” That definition will enable some folks to say that dollars and cents are a big part of what makes the world turn and must be considered in every decision.

So, it’s clear that there’s not even any real agreement, from an objective point of view, about what I yearned for as a child and never stopped seeking. From a subjective point of view, though, I will say that I lean toward the initial definition.

This is important! I am not splitting hairs here because I enjoy mental gymnastics. I am establishing the very foundation of my point: perspectives differ. That is part of the human experience, part of life’s richness, part of the savory stew of existence that God created. He wanted this diversity so that we can learn from one another, and grow by reconciling our differences in order to find healthy ways to exist together.

We’ve never quite mastered that knack, though. The bible is full of death and mayhem, and history is full of death and mayhem, and our times are filled with death and mayhem. Some days I do no more than read headlines because I simply cannot bear to know the details. “I cannot do anything about this, Lord,” I will pray. “Please inspire those who can do something to step up and make a difference, and forgive me for having such a small heart.” At other times, I see something which calls me to action, and I devour the details as though I were starving and needed to know everything in order to live.

More and more I become aware that the gift of wisdom I yearned for as a child and sought as an adult has become a necessary skill. When I was a child, the line between a credible news source and an unreliable news source was a hard line and easy to discern. Daily newspaper – credible; National Inquirer – unreliable. We could trust what we saw on the news; we may not have liked what we saw, but we could trust it was reliable. Similarly, news magazines might have a liberal slant or a conservative slant, but both reported essentially the same facts — interpreted differently, but with the same foundational information.

The internet has changed this. Anyone can post anything, whether it’s true or not, and that psuedo-information can go viral, with thousands — even millions — believing what was bogus in the first place. During the election, I saw a post on Facebook that said the Pope endorsed Donald Trump — total fabrication. In fact, when asked about some of Trump’s rallying points during the election, Pope Francis indicated those positions did not reflect a Christian attitude. That is clearly not an endorsement.

This past week, I posted an article from a credible news source with a quote from the article and a statement about why I felt it was an important article. A friend responded in a manner that baffled me. I had never thought of this person as an extremist, but the comments were so far right, it was past alt-right. In my responses, I kept trying to clarify my position, because I was sure some kind of miscommunication was occurring. Finally, it dawned on me that either (a) he had not read the article I posted in the first place, or (b) he had read an article from a fake news source about the same issue which was intended to elicit the kind of response he demonstrated.

This saddened me more than I can express in words. My heart ached.

When two women came to King Solomon with one living child which both wanted, Solomon could test the veracity of their statements. Both claimed the child was hers; he tested those claims. Today, our news sources are like those two women. Both credible news sources and fake news sources are engaged in telling the American people the other is attempting to mislead them. Most people are simply choosing to believe what reinforces their existing biases. They are like slave owners before the Civil War, reinforcing one another’s belief that African Americans were animals not people. They are like industrialists before child labor laws were passed, reinforcing one another’s belief that children needed to work rather than to be educated.

The similes could go on and on, and they would not be flattering. We cannot afford to simply believe something because it reinforces what we want to think. We must challenge ourselves to be smarter than that, to be wiser than that. We must challenge ourselves to pursue the truth — even if it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient. We must, in other words, sober up. Right now, we’re like a bunch of drunk drivers — which is a disaster waiting to happen.

We have the ability to stop that disaster from happening, but will we use it?

What is Real?

Juliet thought a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Today, if she made that comment, a controversy would be unleashed. First of all, there would be a problem with the generalization; while there is a scent recognizable as “rose,” not all roses actually smell the same. Then there would be folks who have a problem with the whole identity aspect of the statement; names do matter — there is a huge difference between calling someone morbidly obese and saying the person has generous proportions; change a name and you change how something or someone is perceived.

Few, if any, would even remember that Juliet was actually saying, “I love a boy who will be rejected simply because he was born into the wrong family.” No one involved in the controversy unleashed by a young girl’s longing to get past cultural barriers will consider how she is affected or how the boy is affected. They will become entrenched in their positions and set out to annihilate one another.

Oh! Right! That is the dynamic that Shakespeare was exploring in one of his most popular tragedies, “Romeo and Juliet,” the way our allegiance to ideas can destroy what we love. When it happens in our personal lives, it can lead to remorse and personal transformation, but what happens when it plays itself out on a larger stage? Anytime groups of people are involved in this destructive pattern, the conflicts have a tendency to escalate.

I have been ranting for years about the destructive polarization we find in our nation today. I have been angry at every leader who has contributed — including the Catholic bishops who have misled the faithful in their dioceses, telling them to vote based on one issue only, which is not consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. [I believe they are going to be held accountable before God. After all, Jesus did say, “If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6, NIV).]

In recent months, it’s become glaringly apparent that information and misinformation have been used to reinforce entrenched allegiances and exacerbate the polarization. The GOP has denied the economic recovery to such an extent that 60% of folks who voted for Trump didn’t even know that economic indicators demonstrate we currently have a strong economy. I suppose that was a face-saving measure. After all, it would have been pretty humiliating to say, “Despite everything we did to thwart him, the current president’s administration has succeeded in cleaning up the mess made by the last Republican in office.”

Who benefits from this practice of denying facts? From denying the truth?

No one benefits. It’s that simple. No one benefits when important decisions are made as a result of misinformation. We create a self-perpetuating cycle of escalating violence until people are worn out by the pain and suffering, until there is nothing left from what anger has wrought except despair.

The Internet has a lot to do with the dissemination of misinformation. Folks can post anything they want, and fabrications can go viral, misinforming thousands — or perhaps millions — of people. However, distrust of the mainstream media also contributes. People are skeptical — due in part to the fact that it’s easy to label reporting which doesn’t reinforce our opinions as biased, but also due to the fact that bias does exist. What most people don’t realize is this: that bias is a reflection of our humanity, not as a result of a desire to mislead.

This blog reflects that bias. I am not Republican, and I have been appalled by some of the decisions made by elected officials who are Republican. Because some of these decisions have violated my core value system, I am hyper-alert to other transgressions. I cannot tell you nearly as much about what Democratic candidates said during the last interminable presidential campaign as I can tell you about the outrageous comments made by the president-elect. He offended me, and I watched him closely to make sure I had complete information regarding his unsuitability for the office he will — gag — hold.

That’s human nature. Because every reporter is human, every reporter is going to bring to every story values and biases that have nothing whatsoever to do with misleading or misinforming anyone. The filter through which they perceive information shapes the story they write. But, the same is true for all of us; unfortunately, few of us have the capacity to recognize this. Few of us can step back and take a good hard look at the way we process information.

So, what I am trying to say is this: Yes, the news we receive will be biased, and we’re going to hear things and read things we won’t like because we’re also biased. But, we have keep making the effort to educate ourselves; we need to reject “news” sources which are actually disseminating propaganda (or at least recognize the nature of the information we receive), and we need to be diligent in pursing stories that interest us — preferably by checking several sources.

Once we have educated ourselves, we need to make sure we are not using information to arm ourselves against others. We need to explore ways we can use the information we acquire to build bridges. For example, I will never be persuaded that cutting taxes for the wealthy or paying CEOs exorbitant salaries is beneficial to the common good — and that’s my criteria for good policy, something that works for the common good. However, I agree entirely that government has become so unwieldy it’s a joke. So, now, I have found common ground with my Republican friends — and I do have them, surprisingly — so how can we build on that point of agreement?

The more we work to educate ourselves and the more we work to build bridges, the more likely it is that we will avoid destroying what we love. And that, my friends, is real.


“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1:26-29)

Mary was perplexed at the angel’s greeting. Personally, I would have been perplexed to find myself speaking with an angel.

Of course, it’s possible, the angel appeared in human guise. That’s not outside the realm of possibility. A popular television show, “Touched by an Angel,” chose that approach, and God does have a tendency to use themes in his creation. Horse, donkey, zebra — different, but with evident commonalities. Lion, tiger, domestic house cat — different, but with similar characteristics. It’s entirely possible that when angels make their presence known, they look enough like us to be indistinguishable from us.

If that were the case, the greeting would have been perplexing. If, during an ordinary day, when I was about my ordinary business, a stranger greeted me by saying, “The Lord is with you,” I would feel a shimmer of disconnect. I hear a similar phrase when I attend Mass — “The Lord be with you” — but that’s part of the liturgy, and doesn’t set me apart from others who worship. To hear it not as part of a liturgical prayer, but as a statement of fact would be disconcerting.

The Lord is with me? Why? Why me and how do you know? Yet, during this Christmas season, isn’t that the message angels bring each of us? The Lord is with you.

We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born; his birth wasn’t registered at the local courthouse with parents identified and attending physician noted. We celebrate shortly after the winter solstice because, for us, he is the light which shines in the darkness, a light not overcome by that darkness (Cf. John 1:5). It makes sense that we would name clearly what ancients only intuited and celebrated by other names.

However, none of us can fully grasp the mystery of God with us in a newborn child. We can’t even grasp the mystery of wonder we feel when our children are born, when we hold our grandchildren for the first time, when we see a stranger’s child in the grocery store. Something within us — spontaneously, without intent or choice — honors the miracle of that child’s life and inherent dignity. We are drawn to the hope each child signifies; God is not done with us.

Jesus — who would die for us and rise again to show us death is not the end — entered this world in exactly the same way, as a newborn child. We are told there was no room at the inn, but I suspect that was a euphemism rather than the literal truth. Joseph would have had relatives in Bethlehem, but his betrothed — a very pregnant Mary, who would undoubtedly have been condemned by gossip as an adulteress, even if Joseph did not put her aside — would not have been welcome in any “decent” home.

The innkeeper had probably been apprised of the situation and discouraged from taking them in. I wonder if it was the innkeeper who had a heart, or if it was his wife. I wonder which of them said, “Maybe we can’t give them shelter inside, but we can’t turn them away, either. It just isn’t right, especially with that young woman being so close to her time.”

And so it was that Jesus came to be born in a stable, as an outcast. But God was so proud of his plan unfolding, so proud of the son born into the world, so proud of the way generations would be transformed by that pivotal moment in time, he made the announcement to those who would listen — shepherds who kept watch by night. They believed, as do all of us who know the darkness and long for the light.

Not one of us has lived without suffering. We all can name a loss, a disappointment, a closed door, a death, that changed us irrevocably. But, unless we are still in the midst of our grief, we know the suffering, in time, eases. We know that morning follows the darkest of nights. We know a day will come when we are no longer suffocated by pain, and can take a deep breath again. That is God with us. That is the child coming into our hearts as he came into the world.

But his birth was not just a metaphor, it was a reality. His mother felt the crushing pain of contractions and spread her legs so that Jesus could slip from God’s dream for us into the world he created for us, a world in which we are shaped by choice and chance, by his hand working through the natural order of things and our responses to them. We can be like the relatives who did not make the child welcome, like the innkeeper who found a place — not an ideal place, but a place nevertheless — for the child, or we can be like the shepherds who put aside what they were doing and sought him.

When we hear the proclamation, ‘The Lord is with you,’ we have that choice. Which do we chose?