Friday, November 20, 2009

The New Holiday Card Etiquette

We are receiving a growing number of Thanksgiving cards instead of Christmas cards from businesses and community organizations. I am guessing this trend is centered in a desire to avoid offending people of various faiths (or no faith at all) who do not celebrate Christmas, and perhaps also to avoid offending certain devout Christians who object to the manner in which a religious holiday has morphed into a generic season of good cheer and power shopping.

Since it is presumably good for business to send clients an occasional greeting of some sort, Thanksgiving is ideally situated to provide this opportunity. After all, the message most organizations want to convey to clients is “thank you” for your business or your support. I suspect we will see more of this in the coming years, and that individuals may ultimately embrace the practice along with businesses. In the years where we send actual Christmas cards instead of letters, we always purchase one box of “generic” cards for our non-Christian friends and still sometimes agonize over the etiquette of sending one at all.

In recent years some Christian groups have raised quite a bit of fuss over the way Christmas has been broadened into a holiday that includes everyone, Christian or not. They get their pants in a knot when someone says “happy holidays!” rather than “merry Christmas,” and go to the mat to keep the manger display on the town hall lawn. Their rallying cry is “put Christ back into Christmas!” I am not entirely unsympathetic to their cause; at least insofar as the efforts speak of resisting the crass commercialization of a sacred celebration. Yet I do not believe that specifically Christian symbols belong in public settings, particularly governmental ones. It is an ongoing tension—the month of December is a sloppy mess in which the sacred and secular are all tangled up and the very best and very worst within us are both more evident than at any other time of year. Baby Jesus claims Christmas Eve and Santa owns Christmas morning (along with most of the four weeks preceding it). I choose to view the entire sloppy mess as more positive than negative, but my inner Grinch still surfaces from time to time (I am not entirely certain the Grinch is mentioned in Luke or Matthew; I need to check).

Somehow Thanksgiving has managed to stay above the fray. Sure, there are parades in the morning and football games the rest of the day, and people eat more than they think they should (which is what a feast is supposed to be about). But the heart of the day manages to remain focused on the core virtue of gratitude, arguably the greatest virtue of all. Truly thankful people will not be consumed by greed or envy. Grateful people do not solve legitimate differences through war or violence. Thankful people willingly share their bounty with those who have less. It is a wonderful day to gather with friends and family to give thanks. Any maybe the ideal day on which to send our friends a card that says “I am grateful for you!”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Waiting for the Grandchild

We just learned that our daughter is on her way to the hospital, confident that her contractions are the Real Thing and the baby is on his way. If so, our weekend plans are out the window and we will be heading for Minneapolis to meet our first grandchild. We’re not excited or anything…

In the course of more than thirty years of parish ministry I baptized at least 500 babies, likely many more. In my role as pastor and now Goodwill chaplain, I have been shown an uncountable number of pictures of newborn children and grandchildren, always making appreciative remarks about how amazingly beautiful the baby was.
Confession time—in truth, all newborn babies look pretty much alike to me. They are cute, of course; it is a baby’s job to be cute. Some are darker or lighter in complexion; some have full heads of hair while some are nearly completely bald. I can sometimes discern, or at least convince myself that I discern, specific features that relate to one of the parents (“He has his father’s nose!”). But most of the time a newborn baby resembles, well, a newborn baby.

What’s more, newborn babies do not do much that is particularly interesting. They sleep, they cry, they eat, they cry some more, they squirm, they poop. That is pretty much a baby’s entire act. They do not play Parcheesi, disagree with umpires’ calls or discuss literature. They become more interesting about the time they learn to play peek-a-boo, but until then they simply look adorable (except when they are crying) so that we can admire them.

None of these things will be true of my grandson, of course. He will be beautiful, and he will look like no other baby ever born. I am guessing he will look very much like me. He will be very clever and utterly fascinating from the moment of birth. I will swear up and down that he smiled at me and no, it was not just gas. I will carry pictures of him and insist that you look at them and pretend to see how unique and wonderful he is. After a lifetime of looking at pictures of other peoples newborn grandchildren, it is payback time!

Grandparents, in the end, are the ones who have it right. Each person is beautiful, each person is precious, each person is unique, each person is of infinite worth and each person is to be loved not because of what they can do or how they look, but simply because they exist. This is a core conviction of religious faith, one we too easily forgot in a divided and violent world. Babies, in their helplessness, remind us of this essential truth. So when I show you pictures of my grandchild, I will be acting as spiritual teacher. Honest.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Magical Leaf-Raking Fairy

We spent this past weekend at the cabin, cleaning up the leaves. The discouraging weather forecast proved to be accurate—the temperature Saturday was in the thirties, accompanied by steady, light rain mixed with a bit of snow. But it was the only weekend we could clear for the task, and we have dealt with similar conditions in the past. The new wrinkle this year was my hernia repair less than three weeks ago. I am restricted to lifting no more than ten pounds, and am supposed to limit twisting and turning my torso. Which pretty much precluded raking wet leaves, and absolutely meant I would not be heaping them onto a tarp and dragging them across the road and into the woods. My strategy was to have Susan spread the leaves out as best she could while I mulched them with the lawn tractor. It was slow work—the tractor was straining at its very limit mulching several inches of wet leaves—but after more than ten years together my lawn tractor and I are One. I was glad that I had given it a tune-up and oil change; grateful than Mike and Brad had installed new blades for me. Over the course of nearly four hours and several gallons of gas, I managed to reduce wet leaves to a thin layer of disgusting gook. Mission accomplished.

Susan was not at all certain that wrestling with the lawn tractor was a particularly wise thing to do while recovering from surgery, and she had a point – that effort, along with the other small tasks I could not quite manage to resist, left me fairly sore, as I had expected. I prefer a bit of soreness to facing an acre of soggy leaves next May. But I was pretty uncomfortable driving home on Sunday morning, and found myself thinking about the yard full of leaves I would find in the yard when I reached home. Somewhere around the Wisconsin border we had one of those marital debates that I knew I was not going to win. Susan had school work that she simply had to get done, so (he argued, logically) there was no reason in the world why I could not do it. It was a perfect day for raking—dry with a bit of breeze, so the leaves would be light and easy to rake. I would be very mindful of how I used my body, raking only in a straight line. Susan was having none of it.

When we pulled into the driveway the entire front yard was already neatly raked! Magical Fairies had come and done the job for me! I was profoundly grateful, but also eager to thank whoever had done me this kindness. There was no note in the door, no message on the answering machine, no email or Facebook posting. My mysterious benefactor was choosing to remain anonymous.

I confess that I am not at all comfortable with circumstances where I cannot repay a debt, or even express my thanks. So I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and considered various suspects. I finally settled on a certain neighbor as the most likely candidate. When I bumped into his daughter walking her dog later in the afternoon, I asked her what she might know about Magical Leaf-Raking Fairies. She likely now regards me as the slightly deranged neighbor.

Today I got home from work and found Dan, another neighbor, mulching and mowing my side yard. In this case I was able to express my thanks, and asked him if he had observed a Magical Fairy raking my yard. He had, but did not recognize him. He (the Fairy) was bundled up and using some sort of cart; Dan was pretty sure he was not my prime suspect.

If my mysterious benefactor reads this, I would be grateful if you would come out of the closet and confess that you are a Fairy. But if you choose not to, know that I am grateful!