Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Hopes and Fears at Christmas

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight

She pushes the button by the miniature piano and begins to jump up and down as Frosty sings his seasonal song. Her younger sister follows her lead. Then the music stops. But they press the button and the happy tune resumes. From tree to fireplace, one decoration to another, our granddaughters light up our home.

The Christmas story is of course about a child. Everyone can identify with the joy of a newborn child. Adults everywhere love to give gifts to children—just to see the sheer delight that comes when preschoolers unwrap a new surprise.

The Bethlehem Christmas carol mixes light and dark images. The forces of good and evil are present. And hopes and fears become focused on one small child born in Bethlehem ravaged by war for millennia. Will the forces of eternal light overcome the evil Roman Empire?

Now as then, death and life meet at Christmas in profound and unsympathetic ways. In many towns Christmas will evoke tears. Fears have overwhelmed hope for those who lost a family member. Many of us can connect to that first Christmas when a loved one went—especially if the passing was unexpected as it is for all those families whose loved ones have been gunned down by terrorists.

Former President Jimmy Carter- Grandson Died, 2015

That Unexpected Call

Like many, I’ll not forget the Christmas my father died. I was 32 and busy as a school administrator. Our usual round of December parties was at an end. Christmas was only a few days away. And Christmas was in view at our house as it always is thanks to my wife’s forward thinking. Our son was 5—a great age to record the joy of Christmas.

The unexpected call came in midday. My father died of a heart attack. My mother found him on the floor when she came home from work. It was the 20th of December—only five days until the biggest and happiest holiday of the year in the Christian world.

I went straight to the Columbia, MO airport and arrived in Philadelphia that night. A childhood friend took me home. I sat and listened as my mother recounted the sad story, which she would retell many times in the next few days. Friends came by with food and hugs. Cards poured in. Flowers and plants appeared.

Our only U.S. relatives drove down. Thanks to Uncle Tony who also died this year and my Cousin Pam. Aunts, Uncles, and cousins called from England. A friend cared for our son during the funeral and everyone tried to help our five-year old enjoy the holiday.

All around us people are trying to keep on going for the sake of young children—the hope of the future. But in their private moments, the deep darkness can be overwhelming. Grieving people need support. And immigrants like us often have only a few family members to gather round them. Local friends become family.

When Joy Isn't in the Christmas Photos

The grief of those who lost loved ones in mass shootings seems incomprehensible. How does any parent cope with the death of a child or spouse? How do loved ones embrace joy when a parent or sibling committed suicide? Each year military families struggle with loss. There are co-workers who lost spouses to disease; children whose parents died in an accident; large families whose gatherings will be marked by an empty chair—where a grandparent always sat.

Holidays like Christmas highlight our losses—especially when our loved ones die so close to the date.
They are supposed to be here—but they are absent;
Their presents are unopened;
Their usual words, smiles, unique contributions are gone.

For many, death meets life at Christmas. There’s a coffin alongside the crèche. A graveside scene replaces a nativity scene. Pictures of sadness replace smiling faces.

At My Father's Grave December, 1982

Most of us find ways to keep on going. The energetic hopes of our children help a lot. The comfort of close friends and family distract us from our grief and remind us that we are not alone in this world. I realize many will say God is there but people are the presence of God—they give the hugs and mirror our tears.

For most of us, the light shines again. Some look forward to a heavenly meeting. Others celebrate a life well lived—no matter how short. Some invest in meaningful projects to save the lives of others. Still others act to make life better for someone else in whatever way they can.

Many visit a cemetery and leave a flag or flowers. Some of us flip through old photo albums and recall the good times. It’s important that a person’s life has meaning.

Hopes and fears often comingle. Hope and fear are powerful forces.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend, Mike Jaffe, mentioned he finished a spiritual memoir. He added, “I mentioned your dad.” It was only a few years ago that I met this man and learned how my dad played a supportive role in his life as a young man.

Death takes lives away but it doesn’t cancel the goodness they left behind.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight

Helping a Grieving Friend or Relative

Grief and Loss information at the American Psychological Association

This post by Megan Devine offers suggestions on helping a friend.

This post by Katherine Britton suggests what NOT to say to a grieving person.

Bereavement counselling in the U.K.

Bereavement counseling for U.S. Veterans and their families.

And remember immigrants and refugees may feel especially lonely when families are thousands of miles away.

AP Photo

Saturday, December 19, 2015


The Men Who Restored Christmas

A great Christmas story combines warmth, kindness, generosity, traditions, and a memorable event—especially one that brings hope against the backdrop of an evil empire. A true story describing how a few soldiers from the 28th Infantry Division restored Christmas for the children of Wiltz, Luxembourg ranks with the best.

In late 1944, the allies had the German soldiers on the run. By December, some men were sent to Wiltz, Luxembourg for a much needed break. The townsfolk were grateful for the liberation from five years of Nazi rule including the ban on their Christmas tradition. This year they planned to restore the celebration of Saint Nicolas (Klees’chen) on 6 December but they were at a loss for gifts and treats.

Jewish Corporal Harry Stutz meets with the local priest, Father Wolffe, and other town leaders to see what could be done. He then plans a party with help from fellow soldiers who cook doughnuts and gather donations of sweets and items sent to soldiers from family and friends. Finally, he turns to friend Corporal Richard Brookins to play the role of Saint Nicholas. A bit reluctant at first, Brookins agrees then dons the priest’s garb, a worn rope beard, and a broken staff. After a sleigh ride via Army Jeep through town, the children and their families join the soldiers at Wiltz Castle.

Alas the war was not over. The Germans initiated a final resistance effort (Battle of the Bulge). Allied bombers responded and many in Wiltz lost their lives along with much of their town.

But after the war, the joy and hope of that special day was remembered. The celebration of 1944 was recounted far and wide. After some effort, connections were made with Corporal Brookins and some others. They returned to a warm welcome by the children who never forgot. 

Last year (2014) 94-year-old Richard Brookins joined in a re-enactment—riding again in a jeep as he had 70 years ago.

I saw the story on PBS presented as The American St. Nick. There is also a book by Peter Lion, which I haven’t read. Here’s a link to more on the story at the WW II Foundation.

PBS promo

Clip from the wartime film

The book cover

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Call to Arms: Christianity and Patriotism

Inciting Christian Violence

A Bible cut to look like a gun! So cool!: Holy Bible, Bible Screensaver, Loves Christians, Christian Wallpaper, Christian Quotes, Bible Cut, Jesus Loves, Bible Trolling, Bible S Violence

"I always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill…"

Jerry Falwell Jr. (4 December 2015, CNN).

To loud applause, Falwell encouraged his students to arm themselves. The remarks were related to the latest mass shooting in San Bernadino, California.

It didn’t take long before other Christians proclaimed their outrage. Well known progressive Christian leader Brian D. McLaren published an open letter (December 7, 2015, Huffingtonpost). He advanced the progressive view that “authentic Christianity is the loving, peaceful, just and generous way of life embodied in Jesus. It is characterized more by self-giving than self-defense, by pre-emptive peacemaking rather than pre-emptive violence.”

Also opposed to Falwell’s remarks was Shane Claiborne writing for RNS (05 December 2015). Claiborne cited the usual texts emphasizing Jesus ethic of love and his blessing on peacemakers. See the link for more details.

It wasn’t long before Liberty University professor, Daniel Howell, made news (RNS 7 December, 2015) with a commentary explaining why Christians view self-defense as a “God-given right to all creatures, including man.”


It’s easy to see that people who identify as Christian disagree about almost everything when it comes to moral issues, including killing people. This is nothing new. Church history is rife with arguments over interpretations of Scripture. Verbal and physical violence drip blood through Christian history. There are so many Christian groups that separate themselves from others based on a few distinctive teachings. Whether Christian or not, it's good to know how different groups come up with different beliefs.

Some key Bible texts in the debate

Buy a sword. Luke 22:36-38. Jesus tells his disciples to buy a sword. That’s like a green light to buy a gun for contemporary Christians. Christians use the text to support self-defense. Those opposed to using weapons say Jesus was speaking metaphorically.

Cheek turning. Matthew 5: 38-48. I asked a friend his view of "turn the other cheek to an enemy." He quickly responded that this is a one-time offer. Another friend was appalled at the one-time idea. Others suggest it only makes sense in a Christian community. The pacifist position is perhaps best argued by John Howard Yoder.

Jesus a warrior. Revelation 19: 11-21. Jesus is the heavenly warrior who attacks with the righteous wrath of Almighty God. After the battle, people are invited to eat the flesh of the vanquished. Many Christians have a literal view of Jesus returning as a mighty warrior to defeat the forces of evil. Despite the aversion some Christians experience when linked to the Medieval Crusades, "Crusaders" remains a popular name for Christian sports' teams. Progressive Christians interpret the Revelation texts in a variety of ways, including viewing the storied victory as a spiritual battle over evil, rather than a literal blood bath.

War stories. There are plenty of biblical stories of battles between the Israelites and their neighbors. God is the warrior who leads them into battles. Heroes like King David are esteemed for their killing of thousands of enemies. One Christian woman told me she gave up on the Old Testament (Christian name for the Hebrew Scriptures) because of the violence. Atheists print a lot of attacks on Christians because of the horrific carnage depicted in those old stories. Many point out that Christian preschoolers learn that violence and killing are justified, when they hear stories about God’s people killing other people.

The bottom line – fundamentalist Christians view the entire Bible as God’s Word. If God can order his ancient people into battle a few thousand years ago, and if God never changes, then God can lead people into battle today. For good measure you can add the theological truth that Jesus is God, and was with God since the beginning, so Jesus as God has always been a warrior.

I once asked a conservative theologian if it was possible that the ancient stories, which report God ordering people into battle, were just what the Israelite tribal leaders said to motivate their troops. Surprisingly, he didn’t brush off my question. I see no reason why ancient religious leaders would not use God to suit their purposes, even as leaders do today. Notice that this interpretation does not challenge the authenticity of the text--a worry to many fundamentalists.

Consider this. It is not easy to get ordinary people to kill other humans in close combat as with swords and knives. The people in close kill situations suffer more PTSD than do those in distant and noncombat roles. Killing takes a toll on most killers. I don't think human nature has changed much in a few thousand years so, you can expect tribal leaders had to work at motivating their men to fight. (VA PTSD information)


There are several reasons why the religious war of words will never end. I'll name a few. It's going to look bleak. Perhaps I am wrong. But I'd rather face reality, then see what I can do about it. So following these downside perspectives, I'll offer some ideas.

Emotions will win the day. Fear is more powerful than love. Most creatures have built-in quick and unthinking responses to threatening stimuli. It seems like people are wired to "Respond first and ask questions later." The basic psychology of fight or flight motivates us to save our lives. Leaders who offer defensive strategies will be the most popular. People don’t want to send their kids off to war—unless really necessary. Turning the other cheek to a killer sounds like madness. Buying a gun seems "emotionally reasonable" in this fear context, even though the lack of knowledge about gun use and carelessness can put inexperienced gun owners at risk. Gun control will eventually happen when more and more people get so sick of mass murder that they put pressure on lawmakers to change the law. The U.S. Constitution has been amended before. And this week, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a gun control law to remain in effect (NY Times).

Love supports self-defense. It may seem odd to think of love supporting the angry rhetoric aimed by contemporary Christians against religious terrorists. Love binds us to our family members and kin. When expanded, we love our friends. Love motivates us to protect and nurture those we care about. Threats stimulate fear of others identified as threats by our societal leaders as well as a desire to hug those closest to us. Observe the common reports of family members hugging their surviving relatives after any mass shooting. And witness the rise in gun sales after mass shootings in the U.S.

Cognitive bias will persist. Our brains have a confirmation bias. When it comes to the lengthy biblical text, it’s easy to focus on those segments that support the reader’s perspective, and ignore those that support an alternative perspective. Our brains are not neutral when it comes to thinking.

Strong leaders win when people are under threat. Weapons represent strength. Falwell’s indication of the gun in his pocket aligns him with the power of death over life represented in his power to take another’s life. The current popularity of Donald Trump has persisted despite his harsh words towards foreigners and outsiders represented as threats to U.S. citizens. He incites fear. Then he projects personal strength-- a savior in uncertain times. He also projects himself to be a man of action and ready to solve problems now. It matters not to many people that Trump's ideas have not been battle-tested. (The research base supporting our desire for strength comes from studies of Terror Management Theory, recent post).

Human brains are mostly lazy. The loudest voice in touch with the sentiments of the people will prevail as the guiding force in any society. In general, we live life as we always have. Thinking is taxing—it literally drains biochemical resources. To weigh the pros and cons of any arguing leaders requires effort. It’s easier to follow a leader who appeals to what we like to hear. The best explanation of this thinking problem is in Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Although the president of the U.S. is but one person, that person carries the hopes and dreams of many wealthy and influential followers into the offices of the most powerful nation on earth. So, do what you can to support wise voices.

Peace comes in cycles. When people are fed up with war, a long peace can prevail. We’re 75 years out from the World War II devastation. That’s a long peace since some 70 plus million were killed in a few years. True, there have been many conflicts since then, but not on such a substantial scale, even though the power to kill is significantly more enhanced than it was 75 years ago. So, things look bad in many parts of the world, but we are not near the levels of destruction that touched most human beings 75 years ago. Reasonable people have not unleashed nuclear weapons to destroy entire cities.

The Violence of recent wars is among us. It is well known that many soldiers struggle to return to normal life after deployment. It’s especially hard for those in close combat positions. Not only do many soldiers struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but they also struggle with violent impulses. Sometimes they kill themselves, and sometimes they kill others. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is present, and it will continue to affect the lives of many veterans and their families. Of course, the problem will grow, and more people will be affected as conflict increases. References: Morris, 2014; Pishko, 2015).

Hate will grow. When Christian and/or political leaders identify target groups as the problem, the people in those groups naturally turn to each other for support. The angry rhetoric like that of Jerry Falwell Jr. and Donald Trump can produce fear among Muslim citizens in the U.S. Mosques become targets. For example the disgusting pig's head at the door of a Philadelphia Mosque on 9 December 2015 (CNN). The conflict Islamic terrorists would like to see, becomes reality when Christian leaders cast suspicion on law-abiding Muslims. It's a classic "Us vs. Them" scenario. And hate can lead to increased violence.

Good News

The good news is that, despite understanding how many people will follow unthinking pathways that promote violence and hatred, no one has to follow those paths. We can choose to set aside our biases and leave the arguing to others. We can choose to emphasize the good in Christianity.

Although I understand the basis for the angry rhetoric by many Christians, I choose not to accept their interpretation of Scripture as valid for my life. I choose instead to emphasize peaceful ways of resolving conflict. I advocate for peace through strength. I choose to point out the difficulties with violence to those who will listen. I find the majority of the Gospel stories illustrate Jesus' compassion for those around him.

But I also understand human nature. People will always kill other people. Therefore, we will always need a strong police presence, a strong military, and vigilant intelligence personnel. We need to be guided by policies that limit force to that which is necessary to protect our citizens. We will sometimes need to go to war to end the lives of those bent on violence. The infrastructure of terrorists must be constantly monitored and destroyed.


My ideas toward a more safe and peaceful existence in the United States

1. Realize it's usually a waste of time, and can cause excessive personal distress, to argue with someone advocating suspicion of all members of groups of people like Muslims, promoting the use of high powered automatic or semi-automatic weapons that can kill dozens in a few minutes, or the other extremists who think only nonviolent solutions are best. We don't need to enhance anger, hatred, or fear. It is incredibly difficult to change emotionally driven arguments using reason. But we do need to act.

2. We can promote peace and well-being by supporting refugees wherever they are. See previous list of ideas.

3. We can teach people about conflict resolution strategies. Here's one program at Wheaton College.

4. We can choose to promote stories of peace and friendship rather than death and destruction to our children.

5. We can choose games that do not promote violence. The link between violent video games and behavior is summarized by the APA. See the 2015 APA report.

6. We can advocate for laws that at least insist on gun safety and keeping lethal weapons away from identified violent and impulsive people.

7. We can support our veterans struggling with PTSD symptoms and problems managing anger and aggression through effective programs, and the use of local resources when a VA facility is not nearby. Helping our veterans, helps prevent violence. Similarly, we can provide mental health services to civilians who struggle with a variety of symptoms or conditions, including PTSD and anger management.

8. We can promote sensible self-defense. For example, we should screen immigrants and refugees. But we should also screen other people who have access to lethal force. We ought to screen people who carry weapons at work. We need to ensure adequate cell phone communication services and more video cameras in public places so people can call for, and receive help and protection.

9. We can teach people what to do in an active shooter situation. There are guidelines and videos on this topic. Knowing best practices is a practical way to help yourself and others.

10. We can remember to honor Muslim Veterans along with Christian, Jewish, and Atheist veterans who gave their lives in support of our country.

11. We can support political and other societal leaders that offer reasonable ideas to keep our society safe and advance a morally and scientifically sound approach to reducing harm to all persons and promoting equality of all persons.

12. We can participate in interfaith events. We can all do more to connect with people from different faiths or no faith at all. Friendships build safety. And in my view, reaching out to others represents the preponderance of what we know Jesus actually taught in both word and deed.

13. We can tighten physical security at public places using metal detectors, searches, and other screening procedures.

14. We can help parents raise respectful and responsible children. Use Discpline with Respect or some other consistent, kind yet firm, approach to child discipline at home and school.




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