Time to Go Forward

Time to Go Forward
New Year’s Eve
Christmas Seven

New Hampshire author and conflict resolution trainer Dr Tammy Lenski is an expert at helping families diffuse holiday stress. But what about the holiday stress that we take into the New Year? At a time when a great many people are celebrating the birth of a prophet who preached universal love, we see people being bullies and harsh in both their judgments and their behavior towards others. Right after another religion has celebrated a miracle of one day’s worth of oil burning for eight days, we hear nothing but despair and negative expectations for the upcoming New Year.

One of the most common New Year’s resolutions is to lose weight, to watch what one eats. However, this can often led to conflict. “The self-control needed to deal with anger and aggression takes energy and our brains get that energy partly from glucose,” Lenski explains. “If we haven’t eaten properly, low blood sugar makes it harder to deal with confrontations and can cause us to lash out.”

Ina world that seems to require us to do more and move faster, the term “multi-tasking” has become synonymous with living. The fact is that we can do a great deal but we can only do some well. No one is everything nor can one person do everything in a short time span. We often set ourselves up for failure. A tip borrowed from the dog-training world, “trigger stacking” is the gradual build-up of anxiety from a series of events. It’s why otherwise mild-mannered dogs unexpectedly bite, Lenski explains.“Research has shown that trying to regulate our thoughts and feelings all day saps our willpower, and eventually we run out of it,” Lenski says. “When that happens, we can snap, too, just like a dog.”

We need to be aware of our environment and how we react to it. Similarly, we need to expect criticism. After all, no one human being is perfect. We all have those things that stress us and knowing what they are can help us prevent them and better react to them when they are unpreventable. “We see ourselves as competent, likable, dependable, having good character, and capable of standing on our own two feet,” Dr. Lenski explains. But when someone suggests we aren’t, we can get ‘hooked’ by conflict. If we have a difficult history with someone, we’re more likely to interpret their comment as a deliberate insult, when the same comment from someone else might not even register on our internal Richter scales,” she says.

Another buzz word of the twenty-first century is “venting”. While it is good to acknowledge one’s feelings, let’s get real. Venting is just another word for complaining but calling it “venting” seems to make it okay. The notion that venting reduces anger is a myth,” says Lenski. “The venting myth persists because we associate feeling less angry and aggressive with actually being less so,” she says. “Research has shown when you just sit quietly for two minutes after an angering event, without thinking about anything in particular thing to think about, anger and aggression levels decline.”

What we need to do is take the beauty and meaning of this season of holidays into the New year without adding any stress to them. Fortunately, none of us exist alone. Whether you have a deep-rooted spirituality or faith or consider yourself simply a member of the family of man, you are a part of a family. None of us walks alone along the path of life. Find a local charity to volunteer. Every city has either a Red Cross chapter, Salvation Army, or locally-sponsored soup kitchen that could use your help. If construction is your forte, offer to help winterize the homes of senior citizens or low income families. If teaching was your career, volunteer at a local college to help adults receive their GED or be a reading tutor at a local elementary school. Humane societies welcome “petters”, those people who simply come and pet the dogs and cats awaiting adoption.

The reason for the season, regardless of what you call your season, is living. Move forward into the New Year with as little stress and as much hope as possible. The family of man needs you and has a place for you!

Time to Be a Village

Time to Be a Village
Christmas Six

It is an old African folk tale set to music. The father is out in the field and the mother is at the well. The grandmother is at the market hoping not only to purchase but also to sell. A neighbor is watching the children who are playing out in the yard. An old man comes by and stops to tell them a story because he likes to make them laugh. His story has a moral, though, and that is when they are down by the river, they need to look out for the crocodiles. The moral of the song is the unity with which everyone comes together for the children. In Africa, there is an old saying: “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”

This past summer the town of Ocean City, Maryland celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of its Play-It-Safe Ocean City program. Designed for graduating high school seniors, the three week-long program involves area merchants, local volunteers, state and county agencies and volunteers to assist with the free events for the young people. Seniors can come for one week and are given a booklet with free coupons for food and a schedule of events, all designed to help seniors celebrate their high school graduation in a drug-free environment. Free bus passes are included to help those participating navigate the city. Free events available to the seniors include free roller coaster rides, tye-dye t-shirt events, pizza eating contest, dance party, tennis tourney, laser tag mini golf, regular mini golf, dodge ball, Splash Mountain, 3-on-3 basketball tourney, beach volleyball, wind surfing, kayak relays, moonlight bowling, and karaoke.

In a world where many feel afraid of their neighbors, Ocean City, Maryland had adopted the African slogan and made it a celebration. This past summer of 2014, as they celeb rated their twenty-fifth year, they had seniors from sixteen states and the District of Columbia attend. Sixty thousand brochures advertising the program were sent out and twenty thousand Passport to Fun Booklets distributed. There were over forty-eight planned drug-free and alcohol-free events for the eighty-three hundred-plus attendees at no charge. This was made possible by the over three hundred businesses, organizations, and individuals who contributed services, money, and prizes. Over three hundred and fifty volunteers, private citizens, assisted as well as the employees of state., county, and municipal agencies. Over two thousand hours, half by volunteers, make this village-sponsored event a reality.

During Kwanza, seven candles are lit, the first being the black candle. The remaining candles, three red and three green flank the black candle. The red candles represent the principles of self-determination, cooperative economics and creativity and are placed to the left of the center black candle. To the right are the green candles which represent collective work and responsibility, purpose, and faith. This is to show that people come first, and then the struggle and finally, the hope that comes from the struggle.

The program in Ocean City, Maryland, is not simple. I can assure you that there are struggles. Weather delays are just one of the many surprises that life sometimes offers. However, year after year, the people and the agencies of the area continue to do this for students from outside their neighborhood. All this from a town of less than eight thousand year-round residents serving more than that to provide high school seniors a safe yet fun way to celebrate their high school graduation.

The world with all the modern technology has gotten smaller and now it is as easy to travel half way around the world as it was for our parents to travel one hundred miles to a cousin’s house. The celebration of Kwanza is not just for those of African descent but for us all. We all need to remember that we had help getting to where we are and that we need to help others. Television has many so-called reality shows about people who want to live “off the grid” and yet, they are so popular because these people end up needing someone.

Life is a team sport and perhaps, as we take part in the festivities of the season we need to remember that we also take part in the family of man. It really does take a village, not only to raise a child but to help an adult in their living as well.

Time for Family

A Time for Family
Christmas Five

If you are following our winter holiday day count, then you know that today, December 29th, is the fourth day of Kwanzaa. What day it is in Christmastide is a different matter. For some it is Day Five, “five gold rings”, or Day Four “four calling birds”. Why the discrepancy? Because how the days in Christmastide are counted depends on who you are and who your family is. It is, fittingly enough, a matter of Ujamaa, the fourth principle of Kwanzaa that discusses social economics. That economics, however, is based upon the family.

In the late 1960’s an African nation gained its independence from Great Britain. Its president sought to develop a consciousness that would encourage his country and his countrymen to feel united, work together, and recognize that they were all family. Africa, like the Middle East, was a country of tribes and tribal loyalty still remained strong. Conquerors in other lands such as the Romans in Europe had helped to create a more unified sense of culture among the peoples they conquered. While the Romans often incorporated customs and habits from those they conquered, they also had learned the value of allowing people to maintain their identity in certain ways.

The president of the newly liberated Tanzania, Louis Nyerere, sought to unify the various tribes within his country. He saw it as the only way independence could be effective and successful. IN many ways his program which he called Ujamaa proved successful. More than just a political statement, it was a social and economic blueprint. Under his policies, the literacy rate for adults rose significantly and infant mortality rates decreased. However, was with neighboring Uganda and the world economic crisis with rising oil prices led to the end of Ujamaa and Nyerere’s voluntary resignation.

Kwanza celebrates the definition of Ujamaa – “local people cooperating with each other to provide for the essentials of living”. Think about that. People cooperate with each other to provide for the essentials of living. No more famine; no more diseases caused by lack of clean water or living conditions; no more groups of people living huddled together in fear because their religion is feared.

Many saw Nyerere has a man who did not help his country but a man interested in only his own power. History will have to be the judge for his tenure. What we need to focus on is the concept of how we are all part of the family of man and how our dependence and livelihood depends on each other. American writer of African descent Alex Haley often spoke of how the family is both our connection to the past and our hope for the future.

Henry David Thoreau is a well-known American writer who lived for two years in a cabin at Walden’s Pond in a semi-isolation state. He explained: ““I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” He documented his time in his book “Walden” and his last words are similar to the concept of Ujamaa. His final words of the book are one final homily of sorts about the potential of man and mankind and it concludes with encouraging the reader to “meet” one’s life and life it to the fullest.

Some of us know our family while others may not. As the world has gotten smaller, the distances between some families have grown greater. Family is not just those with whom you are blood-related, though. Family is the group with whom you catch the ferry or ride the subway or shop at the same markets. Family can be your neighbors, your coworkers, or your countrymen. As John Donne penned, “No man is an island.” We all live on this planet together and our actions affect each other. If one of us is to fly, another one of us must be the wind to enable it.

Time for Peace

Time for Peace
Christmas Four

Holidays are joyous occasions… or at least, they are supposed to be. However, for many, holidays are a difficult time. They serve to remind us of what we have lost or what we don’t have. For most of us, they seem to illustrate everything that is wrong with our lives. As we leave the celebrations of Hanukkah, Christmas and other festive holidays, we are fast approaching New Year’s Day. Although many countries use a lunar calendar, most will usher in the year 2015 as a major holiday. The first month of the year on most calendars is named for the Roman deity Janus, a two-headed entity that looked both forward and backward. As we approach the New Year, it is inevitable that we also look forward and backward. Thus we are, like with other holidays, reminded of what we have lost, what we have not accomplished, or what we do not have. Finding peace at such a time is difficult.

Yesterday we discussed Isaac Watts and with what has to be one of the longest book titles ever, his book entitled “Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth with a Variety of Rules to Guard against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences.” Watts divided his content about logic into four parts: perception, judgment, reasoning, and method. These are really good ways to keep one’s self grounded and in finding internal personal peace. What it overlooks, though, is the concept of personal forgiveness. During this time of the year, we are reminded of our own humanness, our own shortcomings.

Dr Fred Luskin of Stanford University has studied the process a person undergoes in personal forgiveness and in forgiving others. “Forgiveness is a tool with which we face what we’ve done in the past, acknowledge our mistakes, and move on,” he says. “It does not mean that you condone or excuse what happened. It does not mean that you forget. Remember the saying, ‘For everything there is a season’?” he asks. “Well, there’s a season for our suffering and regret. We have to have that. But the season ends; the world moves on. And we need to move on with it.”

Just as we are in the twelve days of Christmas as well as the seven days of Kwanza, Luskin has twelve ways of forgiving and moving past the pain. First, Luskin feels it important to categorize the offense being forgiven or for which forgiveness is needed. “Categorizing the offense begins the forgiveness process,” the psychologist believes. “It allows you to break down what you did, look at it, get a little distance, and begin healing.” For example, did you fail at some major task in making a relationship like marriage work? Have your actions hurt another person? Have you hurt yourself by your lifestyle or other self-destructive habits? Was there something that you did not do that you think you should have such as intervening in a family dispute or saving money for a child’s college education?

The next step, Dr Luskin states is to determine how one feel. Sounds simple but this can really be very difficult. Acknowledging our feelings often makes them more real. Luskin believes getting those feelings out in the open paramount to forgiveness. “Articulate the specific wrong you committed and the harm it caused. Tell a couple of trusted people about what you did to get support, care, and advice. We commonly think we’re alone and unique in our suffering, but this only makes healing more difficult,” adds Dr. Luskin. Sharing our feelings also reminds us that we all have feelings and yes, we all make mistakes. This can also help prevent depression.

Sometimes all that is desired is forgiveness and not always reconciliation. It is important, maintains Dr Luskin, to fully understand what one wants. Forgiveness and reconciliation are two very different things. Personal peace involves getting rid of any shame and releasing any blame. This will lead to a sense of calm and regained wholeness. It is also important to recognize if our expectations are unrealistic. Finding and giving forgiveness will not necessarily change another human being. In fact, it won’t. The other person will still perhaps be a miserable human being. Luskin notes that some people are just negative. Every word they utter is a criticism or a complaint and some people will continue to view others with utter contempt. Forgiveness, though, allows the person doing the forgiving with the chance to move past that reality even while acknowledging it.

Luskin also states the important of identifying the pain one feels. Sometimes our hurt feelings, guilty thoughts, or physical reactions like gut-tightening have become habits, responses to thoughts of past hurts. Luskin says everyone needs to find their internal “Stop Button” on those memories causing the pain and our reactions to it. Replaying scenes from the past over and over does no one any good and accomplishes nothing.

An apology is always a great place to begin the process of forgiveness. Luskin tells the story of a married couple who found a humorous way to apologize. The wife sent the husband the board game “Sorry” and asked for a date to play. They husband replied by sending the wife a cope of Brenda Lee’s hit single “I’m Sorry”. An apology is sometimes the hardest thing a person will ever say but it can be done effectively and when sincere, accomplishes greatness.

The final four steps of Dr Luskin’s path to forgiveness and personal peace include a positive refocusing technique and making amends to follow up your apology. Luskin advises to “Do Good rather than bad.” He also advises to replace those old painful memories with a new story – a story in which you are the hero in trying to be a forgiving person. The final two steps are putting things in perspective and giving one’s self a break. Most of us do at least one nice thing every day but it gets lost in the flood of past painful memories. We need to forgive ourselves and others and move forward in a positive manner. Gratitude is an attitude that, once developed, can work wonders for personal peace. Luskin recommends walking to a grocery store and giving thanks for the food items there. As you drive past a nursing home, give thanks for your own good health. While driving, give thanks for those drivers who are obeying the speed laws. Thank a store clerk for helping you. It may be their job but give them thanks anyway.

When we take the time to live forgivingly, we will find peace. There will always be disturbances to our peace but making forgiveness a habit will make us better, happier, healthier people. We can each be our own hero in making our lives and our world a better place. When we stop looking backward, we can start living forward.

Time to Rejoice

A Time to Rejoice
Christmas Day Two

For many who celebrate and even for those who might partake of some of the celebration but not really the reason, Christmas has passed. After all, it was two days ago. However, for the religious for whom the holiday is based upon a religious tenet that it represents the birth of their prophet and messiah Jesus, the holiday should really just be starting. The season of Christmastide did not end, in olden times, with the stroke of the clock at midnight. It was just beginning and it continued for twelve days. Just as Kwanza has seven days, Christmas has twelve, ending with the church season called Epiphany.

Isaac Watts was something of a precocious child. As a young lad, he once was found to have his eyes open during prayers. When asked why he had not closed his eyes to pray, as was the custom and religious instruction, he replied: “A little mouse for want of stairs… ran up a rope to say its prayers.” Not really appreciating his talent for rhyming, Isaac received a spanking for what was seen as his impertinence. After his punishment, Isaac reportedly replied: “O father, father, pity take…And I will no more verses make!”

Living in England from the latter part of the seventeenth century to mid-eighteenth century, Watts declined the opportunity for an Anglican university education and was known as a Nonconformist. However, that moniker is not really accurate either since he was more interested in the universality of what having a belief system could offer a person. In many Anglican and Episcopal churches, the reading of the psalms is done as a type of partner song. It was Isaac Watts who proposed the metrical translations of the psalms from Hebrew into English which allows this to occur. Watts believed theology had two main divisions: emotional objectivity and doctrinal objectivity. The translating of the psalms was an example of emotional objectivity since it allowed the English-speaker to relate to them. The partner type of singing further enhances to emotional aspect of the religious experience being both give and take as well as communal.

A well-known carol, “Joy to the World” is another example of Watts’ emotional objectivity. While it is also an example of doctrinal objectivity since it does include the birth of the messiah, it really is evidence of Watts seeing the larger picture of why man has any spirituality at all. Written about just one word, the first word in the title, Watts realized that life is about finding the joy. Watts wrote a book entitled “Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth with a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences.” Watts divided his content about logic into four parts: perception, judgment, reasoning, and method.

The partner song type Watts made popular with his psalms translation is also used for another element of the period of Christmastide. The twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany is the basis for one of the most popular seasonal songs and is often used as an example of gift-giving at this time. We will discuss the song and its origins during this season of twelve days of Christmastide but perhaps the focus should really be on the act and reason of gift giving.

Gifts were once given only to those who worked for their living. Boxing Day, December 26th, was that day set aside for people to show their spiritual charity to others. Exchanging gifts between family members or friends came fairly recently to the world. As many are putting away their candles of which ever religious season they celebrated or perhaps are simply putting up their winter festive decorations, the gifts received and/or given are probably also on the mind.

We give gifts for a number of occasions, regardless of our spiritual or religious beliefs. It is one way we celebrate; we rejoice; we find the joy in our living. Most of us, though, have little need for essential things. Perhaps you might consider giving a gift that won’t be put on a shelf but will be used. The season for giving may seem to be over but really, with New Year’s Day just around the corner, it hasn’t stopped at all. In fact, a new season of giving, a new year of reasons to give is just about to begin.

There are agencies like Save the Children who offer an entire catalogue of gifts that keep the giving going and celebrate life. You can donate to start a library in a village in an underdeveloped nation for the cost of taking four teens to a fast food restaurant. You can give the gift of a sweater which will probably become one of many in someone’s closet or, for less money, you can go to Heifer, International and give a goat to a family to ensure they will have necessary dairy as well as wool. If you consider giving gift cars to restaurants a great gift option, consider giving a chicken to a family and feed them not just for one meal but for several years. In this way, your gift is remembered to the person in whose celebration you are giving it and the spirit of giving continues longer than the twelve days of the season. This is one way to continue the joy for a very long time and sometimes, is the giving of life to a very needy family. BOth agencies offer these gifts year round.

Watts recognized the universal appeal of believing and most of us do indeed believe in something. Whether or not you are celebrating the birth of one particular child or just the essence of life itself, it is also a season for finding the joy in your life, the joy in the world. There is the misery that exists in life and Watts was well aware of this. In his poem “Against Idleness and Mischief” written for children Watts wrote: “In books, or work, or healthful play; Let my first years be past; That I may give for every Day; Some good account at last.” In case that sound a bit familiar, you probably know the parody of this poem written by Lewis Carroll and included in his work “Alice in Wonderland”. The opening lines of this poem, though, are the real secret and the way we should all go about finding the joy and rejoicing in our living: “How doth the little busy Bee; Improve each shining Hour…”. Regardless of one’s spirituality or religion, we need to go about life seeking to improve and finding our own joy.

Time to Celebrate

Kwanzaa: A Time to Celebrate
Christmas Two

Imagine waking up and not recognizing anything. No one speaks the same language you speak. Their words are useless babble and when you do not understand them, they push and shove you to get you where they want you. You are separated from your family and within a few years, your heritage is lost as your culture is forgotten. It is better to do what these new people want and live as they do. They seem afraid of your differences and what few customs you remember. IT is impossible to pretend you are one of them. Your hair and skin color is far too different. You try, though, because that seems to the only way to survive. Within a few generations, your family, their customs, beliefs, and rituals are all lost, victim to the tide of fear people experience due to their own lack of self-confidence and their own lack of faith.

In 1966, Maulana Karenga sought to reaffirm his heritage. He developed what he called a holiday based upon “matunda ya kwanza, a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits”. Karenga wanted a time to celebrate family, the family of those who were brought to this country and then made to forget their heritage. “It is a cultural rather than a religious holiday, and can be celebrated regardless of a person’s faith tradition”, explains Karenga. Kwanza celebrates the first fruits of the harvest by remembering the roots of the African people in Ancient Egypt and Nubia, people who worked the fields and reaped the fruits of their labor and culture.

The seven principles of Kwanza can be celebrated by all peoples. Collectively these seven principles or values are called Nguzo Saba and they are remembered during the seven days of Kwanza, December 26th through January 1st. AS in Hanukkah and the Advent Wreath, Kwanza also uses candles to gather the family together. Each day a candle is lit, the candles being the colors of Kwanza – black, red, and green. Some also use a unity cup to celebrate the spirits of ancestors long passed.

Right about now you might be thinking “What if I am not of African heritage?” Science tells us we all are descended from one area and that area is in part on the African continent. So if you are a part of mankind, then at some point, you had an ancestor from Africa. One year ago Forbes magazine reported on the oldest fossil recovered to date, a fossil that dated to be three hundred and fifty thousand years old. This was at least two hundred thousand years older than the previous oldest fossil. We may never really know all of our connections but our presence on this planet at the same time is a very strong connection. No one ethnicity has ever existed without owing something to its ancestors and to the other cultures on earth.

The seven principles of Kwanza are an excellent place to remember the African heritage but also our own individual heritage. On the first day of Kwanza, Umoja or unity is celebrated. Kujichagulia or self-determination is reason to celebrate day two and day three emphasizes Ujima or collective work and responsibility. Ujamaa or cooperative economics is day four with Nia or purpose being the word for day five. On day six, creativity or Kuumba is the cause and on the final day of Kwanza, Imani or faith is remembered.

There are many ways to celebrate Kwanza and an Internet can help one explore them. The reason to celebrate is universal and best explained by author Alex Haley. ““In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage- to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness. ”

Through the seven day celebrations of Kwanza, descendants of those first African-Americans rediscover their heritage and honor their heritage. The events of the past cannot be undone. None of us has a time machine to go back in time and correct the wrongs committed against not only African slaves but all enslaved peoples. What we can do is go forward and celebrate the living and the possibility of today as we prepare for the promise of tomorrow. All lives matter and all deserve to be celebrated.

Celebrating Humanity

Celebrating the Peace
Christmas Day

For Christians, today is the day they commemorate the birth of the man they know as Jesus Christ. His creation story begins with an angel appearing to his mother and what is called an immaculate conception – the impregnation of a young girl by a deity. The girl, engaged to be married, comes from a family of devout believers, and while not a great deal of made of her fiancé’s faith, he too obviously believed.

The story of this Jesus’ birth is well known. The parents have traveled to another city from their home and find themselves arriving with no place to stay. A benevolent innkeeper lets them bunk in his stable and it is there that the baby called Jesus is born. What is sometimes forgotten is that it was all so very ordinary. Mary, the mother, was no different than most girls of her age and ethnicity. Joseph, the earthly father, was a simple carpenter. The baby was not surrounded by family but by nature, ordinary animals in their commonplace stalls.

Whether or not you believe the creation story of the man who would become Jesus Christ doesn’t really matter. It is a story believed and revered by the multitudes of Christians throughout the world. It has stood the test of time and is now standing the test of science as more and more archaeological finds are providing evidence of the places of the Jesus’ story. Places that today incorporate all three Abrahamic faiths in their creation stories.

We have spent the time known as Advent learning of not just the Abrahamic faiths but of over forty other religions and spiritualities. What may have been overlooked is their ordinariness – not in the beliefs but in their targets. The beliefs of each faith are extraordinary and all should be respected for that. Though the rituals may vary, the terminology differs, and the practices contrast one with another, they all celebrate a type of peace. Nonetheless, they all exist for man – the ordinary man.

Some belief systems emphasize individual peace while others strive for world peace. “The peace that passes all understanding” is the core for all of them. We tend to think of peace as the absence of conflict, the obtaining of all desires. We think incorrectly. Peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, no trouble, or the absence of strife or hard work. Peace really means being in the midst of all of those things and yet, know tranquility in your heart.

On a cold December night in 1914, troops from opposing armies found themselves with only a bit of open field separating them. The field was littered with the bodies of fallen comrades and neither side felt it safe to retrieve them. Conditions were bitterly cold and, making it worse, all knew the date – December 24th. In the Ypres Salient region of Belgium, in an area the bordered both West and East Flanders, men huddled down hoping to survive the cold, the war, and their own melancholy.

Suddenly a melody is heard above the wind and chattering of men’s teeth. “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”) was a German Christmas carol known to most of the men. However, though known to them, it was most unexpected. Not only was singing in the middle of a battlefield conflict not military strategy, it was also foolish. It gave away one’s location to the enemy, the enemy located just a few yards away across a field that once had seen red poppies bloom, poppies that were now shriveled in the harsh winter environment yet stained with the blood of fallen heroes. Ironically, singing the words “Silent Night” broke the uneasy silence of the two platoons of men.

It was the nature of the diversity of the countries fighting that not all the soldiers would have been Christian. Yet, an English voice would join in the singing. Together, the two groups of men, each singing in their own language, would rise out of their foxholes to walk towards each other in faith. Their faith might not have been exactly the same but the love and peace all revered was the same in each and every heart.

November 11, 1911 is the official Armistice Day for World War I but it was not the first armistice. After a brutal attack by German soldiers which left all but eighty of the Allied troops dead, having been backed into a barbed wire area known as the “Birdcage”, humanity saw light. It was not in a stable and the men were not messiahs but to each other, for a short period of time, they brought hope, camaraderie, and peace – an armistice of sorts. “We good,” was the beginning of a day which saw no hostilities, just the humanity and oneness of man. It was a scene repeated up and down the Belgium front as well as the Western Front which stretched from the North Sea to Switzerland. Later British corporal Eric Rowden would tell of how he and German Werner Keil exchanged names and a button from each one’s uniform. “We laughed and joked together, having forgotten war altogether.”

Whether or not you believe in a man called Jesus of Nazareth is not really important as this day dawns. You may celebrate the birth of one who preached universal love and peace for all or you may worship one of the multitudes of deities we have discussed throughout this month of December. The purpose of the season of Advent is preparation and introspection. Hopefully, you have seen that, regardless of what and how we practice our beliefs, each day is a time to celebrate. Each morning can and should be the dawn of humanity. The real message of Christmas is as that German young soldier proclaimed: “We good.” May today we learn to live the rest of his message: “We no shoot.”

May today we neither attack by words, thoughts, nor deeds any other part of creation. May today you feel the love of humanity and help spread it. Today, I wish you peace and harmony. I hope you celebrate the ordinary and in doing so, realize the miracle of humanity.

Presence versus Presents

Presence versus Presents
Advent 25

The ratio would be written as 23:2. That means that there are one hundred and fifteen of one thing and ten of another or 115 to 10. Based upon just that knowledge, the average person would conclude that whatever exists twenty-three times for every two times of the other must be more important, right?

Recently the Jewish faith just celebrated Hanukkah. Christians will begin the celebration of Christmas today/tonight. For some it will be a one day event and for others, it will last twelve days, ending in the Feast of Epiphany. And so, this is the season for giving…and receiving. The words presents appears in the Christian holy book, the Bible, ten times. The word presence appears one hundred and fifteen with other references for present (over one hundred), presenting, presently, and presented.

The major discussion point for this blog or online magazine of sorts is how we live and how faith is incorporated into that living. Regardless of what your faith or belief system or spirituality is, it plays a major role in what you do, how you live, your manner of speech, etc. We cannot divorce ourselves from our beliefs and they are evident in everything we do. They are present in our lives, in our living, in our being. But are we aware of them? Do we acknowledge the presence of our faith in our presents to one another? Are the presents more important than the presence? If they are, why?

Several days ago best-selling author Elizabeth Berg, a St Paul, Minnesota native, posted an essay to her FaceBook page written by her ninety-four year old mother which has since been reprinted in various websites across the country. Berg’s mother had always dreamed of being a writer and her talent is very evident in her essay. The entire essay, entitled “From the Heart” by Marion Jeanne Loney Hoff, can be found at twincities.com but I want to include a small portion here: “The Grinch did not steal Christmas. I did — you did — merchants in basic (perhaps not entirely at fault) are the vacation thieves. Halloween goblins are still in evidence when the mad rush begins in the Christmas trees and decorations and Christmas cards. Christmas cards, which I loved to send and acquire, are getting sent through FaceBook, e mail, texting or punched out on a personal computer. Christmas dinner appears to be a great deal the exact same. Although for a bit of money you can have it all cooked for you — and in some places for a bit additional money delivered proper to your table. You arrived at your location of worship early so you could sit in your preferred pew. Now in lots of places there are empty pews. “

Throughout the ages, mankind has asked “Who am I? Why am I here?” Many Roman Catholics believe as Pope John Paul did in saying that the answer to those questions is the gift of yourself to your faith and your spouse. Kevin Aldrich wrote: “To fully find himself means to discover the ultimate truth, to find that truth to be good… and to be of maximal important and value to others.” Earlier this month, however, Pope Francis warned couples against substituting pet ownership for being parents. Abraham Lincoln once remarked: ““I don’t know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.” It would appear that we need to be very focused on what we do in order to enjoy who we are. On the other hand, can that be the very thing that is keeping us from being ourselves and achieving our potential?

In her book “The Girl Who Navigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making”, Catherynne M. Valente penned: “Do not ruin today with mourning tomorrow.” All too often we are so busy think about the past or worrying about the future that we forget to live in the present. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote of the importance of being present in the moment. “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” Amit Ray echoed this: “IF you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”

The best gift we can give another, the best present we have to offer, is to be present. Our presence in a loving and kind presentation is what we all spend our lifetimes searching for and hoping to find. The toys, clothes, and books given and received are nice but the real gift is the gift of self.

We all have value. Gender, socio-economic status, religion aside, we all have value and we all have much to offer the world in which we live. From the seemingly lowest position to the highest, each rung of the ladder serves a purpose. Where would the top rung be without the lower ones? Nowhere. We all have things to improve but no one else can do that for us. We need to acknowledge the importance of our presence and be present.

During the time of celebrating, the hustle and bustle of holiday schedules, the anxiety that what you are doing just will not be good enough, stop and simply be present, please. Craig D. Lounsbrough wrote: “The past is irreparably land-locked, and the future has yet to land. Here we are, living out our lives on the precariously thin line which separates the two.” Take time to enjoy the moment you are living. Many of us often do not. Jennifer DeLucy explains it this way: “It occurred to me to look up and around at the stars in the clear sky, at the trees in the dark, at the half moon. I was missing them because I was caught in my head. I wasn’t living right now. I was thinking to the future, to the past. I wasn’t present. This is one of my greatest weaknesses, and one I have a greater realization of, only because I allowed some of my past to die so that my present could rush in to fill it.”

Perhaps you do not celebrate anything at this time of year. For you there is no miraculous oil burning eight days as in the Hanukkah story, no bring home of the Yule tree as the Druids did, no festivities surrounding the Winter Solstice, no child messiah born by immaculate conception and celebrated at Christmas. I do hope you will respect those who do celebrate and find it in your heart to give thanks for your life and yourself as well as your neighbors. I also hope you will celebrate this moment in time. This is our final day of Advent, our final day of learning about other religions so that we can prepare ourselves for living and respecting all. As Marion Hoff concluded in her Christmas essay I mentioned earlier: “Believe again of all the cultures in this wide world. They as well have their customs, their special holidays and traditions. May possibly they all be kept with the joy, peace and respect they deserve.” Remember, the best way to be present is also the best present we can give – the present of presence, of peace and respect. That is found only within each of us. We are life’s present and only we can be the best possible.

Sally Lunn Bread
This is one of my favorite and easiest bread recipes. During holiday time, I double the recipe and then divide the dough into thirds or fourths. We add food color and incorporate it well into the dough. Then the different colors are braided together so that the loaves look something like challah bread. I also was known to do this when kids were arguing. Working the dough not only occupies their hands, the process gives them time to discuss and work out their differences. After all, life is a process, a recipe which calls for combine experiences and incorporating into a successful living of the moment.
2 cups sifted flour
1 cup milk
3 tsp baking powder
½ cup shortening
½ tsp salt
¼ cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
Sift flour, baking powder, and salt. Combine egg and milk and stir well. Cream shortening and sugar together. Alternating, add the flour mixture and the liquid mixture until all is incorporated. Place in a greased loaf pan or muffin tin and bake for thirty minutes in a 375-degree Fahrenheit oven. The basic recipe makes one loaf or twelve muffins but, as mention, I always make double….or triple!

Reason for Believing

The Point of Believing
Advent 24
Celebration Corn Soup

We have spent the last twenty-three days discussing different types of religion. Why do we have religion? Why do we believe? Does having a religious belief serve a purpose? The American Indian chief Seneca once said: ““Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”

Throughout history, mankind has appeared to have been united, albeit in groupings, by religion. Sharing a common belief which was usually accompanied by specific rules for how one should live meant that believers of similar beliefs congregated together not only for worship but for living. As religious persecution became a tool used politically to obtain or restrain power, people of the same faith were herded together and kept isolated from others.

Being religious has been shown to have had physical benefits, though, in spite of such persecution and exile from native lands. Some of the religious edicts about living proved very beneficial. The rituals and regimens regarding food led to better physical health. Various studies have indicated that a strong religious belief is associated with good mental health, fewer suicides, greater perceived happiness, less harmful personal habits, and a reported greater sense of overall satisfaction with one’s life.

Life is full of unexpected and often unpleasant events. A strong religious belief seems to help someone overcome these events. Many religions see such events as testing and ways to gain greater insight and increase one’s personal self-worth as well as the path to greater understanding religiously. Additionally, most religions believe in an omnipotent deity and the comfort that brings leads to an acceptance and ability to move forward rather than be bogged down in depression or retreat to suicide.

All religions speak of life after death. This belief that physical life on earth is not all that awaits one has given believers a sense of empowerment to face their living because there will be more upon their physical death. It is reported that the actor Richard Dawkins was quoted as explaining one church official’s attitude towards death in this way: “When Cardinal Basil Hume told the Abbot of Ampleforth that he, The Cardinal, was dying, the abbot was delighted for him: ‘Congratulations! That’s brilliant news. I wish I was coming with you.’ ” While it is doubtful the quote references an actual true story, it does serve to illustrate the acceptance many religious people have regarding the inevitable death of their physical body and the belief that the spiritual soul will continue living. Such a conviction aids when a person faces the death of a loved one.

Everything we do causes brain activity but spiritual experiences have been scientifically proven to create positive neurological effects. Meditation has very powerful beneficial effects on the brain. Studies involving nuns resulted in a release of dopamine as they prayed and felt one with their deity and their world. Dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system. A loss of interest in spiritual or religious activities has also been linked to the onset of Alzheimer’s though more study is needed to accurately determine why. However, it is important to remember that too much of anything is not good. Intense religious experiences have also been linked to various stages of psychosis.

The historical exile of many different religious groups across the planet throughout the world has led some religions to proclaim other belief systems to be considered sinful or evil. Sadly, religion has been used as a tool of death and destruction rather than the beneficial side mentioned earlier. As the global activity of the world increases intermingling and international commerce, it is believed religion will become more unifying as the elements of commonality are explored and recognized.

“We all do better when we work together. Our differences do matter, but our common humanity matters more.” Bill Clinton, former president of the United States of America, has spent the time since his terms in office traveling the globe trying to encourage this. Russian immigrant and science fiction author Vera Nazarian explains it this way. “A choir is made up of many voices, including yours and mine. If one by one all go silent then all that will be left are the soloists. Don’t let a loud few determine the nature of the sound. It makes for poor harmony and diminishes the song.” Religion is one way the internal soul sings, leading the physical body to live in harmony, hopefully, with all of creation.

Celebration Corn Soup
5 cups corn– frozen, canned, or fresh
5 cups milk (can be ½ half milk, ½ vegetable or chicken stock or even a white gravy)
2 Tblsp flour
2 Tblsp butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Place corn in a double boiler and 1 quart of the milk or milk mixture and cook over medium heat for twenty minutes. Make a white sauce with the some of the milk, using the flour and butter (Put butter in pan over medium heat and add flour to form a roux, and then slowly add the milk.) Puree the corn and milk mixture or strain and combine with the roux. Stir over medium heat, slowly adding the rest of the milk. If you like soup with texture, omit the puree step. For corn chowder, add potatoes and carrot. Chicken can also be added if meat is desired. For a corn soup with texture is to your taste, omit the pureeing.

Rationality – Religion

Rationality versus Religion
Advent 23
Tutti-Frutti Candy

Albert Einstein famously said “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” Many will point to the battle in religion of good versus evil as benefitting mankind. Still, we must ask ourselves if the real battle isn’t science versus religion or rather, rational thinking versus religious beliefs?

It is in the nature of man to ask questions. What is this? How does it work? Can I receive any benefit from it? How do I preserve it? Why am I here? The answers for many of those questions are found in science and the rest are often sought in religion. Yesterday the last sentence asked if man, science, and religion can coexist. History shows us that they have always existed, in one form or another.

Walter Requadt once remarked that “Religion is the illusory attempt to find security and happiness in an inherently insecure and unhappy world.” Some see religion has a way to ensure the continued existence of the species of man. Because of the limitations of our planet and one’s environment, all living organisms are forced to compete for limited resources. The reality of evolution is that those organisms that are better equipped in handling their environment outlast those who are not. The basic horse cannot exist in the middle of the Sahara Dessert while the basic camel does so without effort.

While religions have differing and yet similar creation theories, stories, or myths, science claims life comes from the evolution of living organisms. What is life? This is a question for both science and religion. How it is defined in a religious context depends on the religion, the century, the religious sect to which one belongs. The definition even differs between the faithful of the same denomination. Science also has a hard time defining life. It is all around us and in us and yet, what really is life?

In exploring the universe and beyond, the National Aeronautical and Space Agency, NASA, needed to define life. How could they realize they had found it if they had no clear definition of what comprised a living organism. The evolution mentioned before is paramount to their definition. Those assuming that religion has not part, therefore, in this governmental defining of life would be surprised and incorrect, however.

The Hindu tradition has a folk story about an elephant and six men which is also retold in the Buddhist, Jain, and Sufi Muslim cultures. We’ve discussed it before in this blog, this online magazine about rationally applying beliefs and the spiritualities of man to daily living and interactions. The story was translated into English as a poem by John Godfrey Saxe. It illustrates the importance of perception and how perceptions and preconceived ideas can lead to misinterpretation and incorrect thinking.

Belief systems are based and developed using what we know or hold to be true. Rational though is also based upon what we know or consider to be possible. Often a person is considered to be irrational if his belief system extends beyond another person’s realm of possibilities. This leads to intolerance and, often, bloodshed. The scientist might want evidence for his belief system but the truth is that science is the art of creating new realities. Religion is the art of believing in greater realities. The religious person believes in scripture which the scientist might call superstition. However, the world of science is based upon the “what if” of the present world, creating stories that were, up to the point of their being proven, were superstitions living in the world of “what if?”

Science is vital to the continued existence of mankind but history has provided evidence that so is religion. Achieving happiness depends on our ability to accept and believe and religion has been instrumental in allowing man to do just that. So often the debate is religion versus rationality or science but perhaps the more honest description of the great debate of life is the internal struggle of man versus the world.

The Hindu story of the elephant and the six men teaches us that man only “sees” the culture in which he exists. Science is constantly trying to prove why that culture exists, what created its existence, and how to preserve it and improve upon it. A wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, and a rope have very little in common. Half are created by man and half are creations that along with man have appeared on this earth, this part of a greater unknown universe of both religion and science. Taken separately, they each have a purpose but together, they seem to be just an unorganized grouping with purpose.

Science only expands its knowledge when preconceived notions and perceptions are proven to have greater potential than previously thought. The struggle of man is to accept his current situation, learn how to improve it, and live a better existence tomorrow. This requires knowledge from the past, the experience of today, and a belief in the superstition of a tomorrow. Religion gives man the impetus to find the purpose and application for the wall, the spear, the snake, the tree, the fan, and the rope. Science gives us the answer: the wall is the body of the elephant; the spear, the tusks; the snake, the trunk; the fan, the ear; the fan, the ear; the rope, the tail.

The NASA definition of life states: “Living things tend to be complex and highly organized. They have the ability to take in energy from the environment and transform it for growth and reproduction. Organisms tend toward homeostasis: an equilibrium of parameters that define their internal environment. Living creatures respond, and their stimulation fosters a reaction-like motion, recoil, and in advanced forms, learning. Life is reproductive, as some kind of copying is needed for evolution to take hold through a population’s mutation and natural selection. To grow and develop, living creatures need foremost to be consumers, since growth includes changing biomass, creating new individuals, and the shedding of waste.”

Saxe’s poem about the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sufi Muslim story concludes with this moral: “So oft in theologic wars, The disputants, I ween, Rail on in utter ignorance Of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant Not one of them has seen!” Religion gives us hope that there is something out there. Science defines what we find. How we live the religion and the science …..Perhaps that is the real vice versa.

Tutti-Frutti Candy
1 lb raisins
1 lb figs
¾ lb walnut meats
½ lb prunes
1 lb dates, destined
1.2 cup Confectioners’ sugar
Soak the prunes overnight; steam until soft and remove the stones or pits. Wash the figs and steam them twenty minutes. Wash the dates, having previously removed their stones or pits. Finely chop all the fruit and nuts. Dusting your working space with confectioners’ sugar, place fruits and nuts on the work space and blend. Using a rolling pin, spread or roll the mixture to a ¼-inch thickness. Cut, using cookie cutters or biscuit cutters or simply cut into squares. Pack in layers using wax paper to separate the layers. These make delightful, healthy gifts!