Thursday, December 15, 2011

Take The Christ Out Of Christmas

One of the favorite Christmas decorations in our house has always been a small statue of Santa kneeling at the side of the manger. His hat is off and his head is bowed in reverence. We place the figurine in a position of prominence in our family room, hoping to remind each of us to Whom our thoughts should be directed at this time of year. Unfortunately, I think the reminder is falling on deaf ears.

The music starts in October now. In November my company puts out a memo reminding us that we are allowed to wear "Holiday Ties" with our uniforms beginning December 1st. The mayhem starts in earnest on Black Friday which this year (for the first time I have noticed) was expanded to include Monday and also extended into the following week for on-line orders. Awesome marketing, huh?!

Because this year has been especially troubling to me for many reasons, I dug through my file drawer and found a piece I wrote about in 1998 (before blogging was all the rage). The article was about a Cincinnati story that went national when a local atheist lawyer sued the federal government for violating the establishment of religion clause of the Constitution. Richard Ganulin was troubled about the "separation of church and state." Though this concept is nowhere to be found in the Constitution, Ganulin and his like-minded atheists were upset that Christmas has become a national holiday.

Said Ganulin: "Christmas is a religious holiday and the Congress of the United States is not constitutionally permitted to endorse or aid any religion, purposefully or otherwise, or [promote] entanglement between our government and religious beliefs." He sued to have it stopped and he lost his battle. But don't jingle your bells in celebration just yet.

In that case, U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott did rule against Ganulin. According to Religion Today (December 8, 1999), Judge Dlott decided "that Christmas can be observed as a federal holiday because non-Christians also mark the holiday by celebrating the arrival of Santa Claus. Since non-religious people also observe the holiday, giving federal workers a day off for Christmas does not elevate one religion over another." In her ruling, Judge Dlott invoked a cool, witty, original verse to show that the Christmas holiday does not amount to government establishment of religion:
“Christmas is about joy and giving and sharing.
It is about the child within us; it is mostly about caring.
There is room in this country and in all our hearts, too,
for different convictions and a day off, too.”
Now ain't that sweet. When Judge Dlott dismissed the case the local paper reported that "Santa Claus has at least temporarily saved Christmas, both for Christians and for others."


The actual goal in this case was to remove the religious nature of Christmas from our culture. Thirteen years later, I think the plaintiff's motives have been wholly met and then some. Judge Dlott justified her ruling with the spine-tingling claim that no reasonable person would see the federal holiday as an endorsement of Christianity in particular or religion in general. Did you get that? No reasonable person would see Christmas as an endorsement of Christianity. Ganulin may have lost his battle in 1998, but in 2011 his side has the war completely in hand.

Santa has crawled into the crib.

So that's why I say we let him have it. I say we take the Christ out of Christmas.

Let them have the pepper spray in the Walmarts and the stampedes through the shopping malls. Let them have the little lights that work when you test them but not when you plug them in. Let them have the frustration and the dramatically higher suicide rate. Let them have their "celebrity advent calendars." Let them have the pressure to get "the right gift." Let them have the stress. Let them have the the unprecedented level of debt that skyrockets during the "holiday season." Let them have the marketing mayhem. Let them have their "Happy Holidays."

I don't want Christ to win this battle.

Christmas is about the miracle of a God so big, He chose to shrink Himself to save us. It's not about "Peace on Earth;" it's about Peace with Earthlings. It's not about us being "happy;" it's about us being treated unfairly -- we deserve wrath but we get forgiveness. Christmas is not about "the child within us;" it's about rebel that is us. Christmas is not about us being cheerful givers of gifts; it's about the God of the Universe coming to die on a splintered cross.

Christmas doesn't want Christ because a God who demands repentance isn't marketable. Christmas doesn't deserve Him ...

... and I don't want Christ in what Christmas has become.
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Friday, December 9, 2011

The Man From Pluto Goes To The Moon

Curt and those blinds he was playing with (along with the "confidence" displayed in the video) go back a long way ... back to a day many years ago when Mary was crazy enough to leave me at home alone with our three boys. As always, I was overwhelmed with trying to do what she did every day -- keep up with them. As I remember, Robby was about 5, Steve 3, and Curt 15 months or so. At one point the chaos had subsided enough that I had generated an unwarranted confidence that everything was under control. Robby and Steve were entertaining each other and Curt was quiet and therefore uncharacteristically not the object of my attention.

I had been so lured into complacency that I was actually sitting at the kitchen table reading a magazine. That's when Robby walked up next to the table and, in a detached kind of way, asked me a weird question, "Daddy, what's the most wrecked up planet?"

I gave Robby a quick glance and realized he wasn't even looking at me. He seemed lost in a thought, staring out the bay window of our eating area. I turned back to my magazine. "I don't know what you mean, Rob."

"I mean, of all the planets, which one is the most wrecked up?"

Noting that he hadn't actually changed his question at all, and buried deep in the article I was reading, I didn't even look up again. I responded with an absent dismissal. "Robby, I have no idea what you mean by 'wrecked up' but, maybe Pluto."

Robby paused for a second and said, "Oh ... then Curt must be from Pluto."

I shot a glance at Robby, wondering what in the world he was talking about. It was at that point I realized that he wasn't just looking out the window -- he was looking at the window, down near the floor. I also realized that there was background noise, and that it was metallic. I leaned forward in my chair to see what had Robby's attention and suddenly it all made sense.

Curt was sitting in front of the window and, with peanut butter and jelly-covered hands, methodically bending and twisting each slat in our brand new, custom-made, aluminum mini-blinds. Curt was a one-man wrecking crew. In Robby's mind, he had to be from Pluto.

Today, Curt is a Private First Class in the U.S. Marine Corps, an infantryman in one of the finest fighting forces in human history. Today he will board a flight to Afghanistan to fight an enemy that is hard to define, ruthless in its methods and mindset, and as elusive as the echoes of gunshots that melt into the jagged mountains that define its home. It doesn't take a planetary scientist to conjure up the images of danger that await him there. But Curt signed up for this with full knowledge of all that -- and he did so willingly. When he told us he wanted to join the Marine Corps, I asked him what would possess him to do such a thing. His answer was simple: "Our country is in a war. Somebody has to fight it. It might as well be me."

He was 17 years old.

I honestly do not comprehend the selfless courage of the young men and women who, since September 11, 2001, have willingly stepped up to defend our way of life. For those of us who served only in a time of peace, there is no way to compare that to what these brave heroes face voluntarily. I know this for sure because three of them are my sons. I do not say that only as a "proud father." I say it as an awed admirer of better men than myself. I thank God for what they do and I pray that every person in this comfortable, safe nation stands similarly in awe, with humble gratitude, for those whose service allows us to forget that they offer it. I just wish there was no need for them to do so.

Robby has been where Curt is going. When he arrived there last July, in the first message he was able to send us, he described the landscape of Afghanistan as a place that "looked like the moon."

Rob's apparent fixation with describing things using Solar System analogies hasn't changed, nor has Curt's silent dedication to the  causes he takes on.

The Man from Pluto is headed to the Moon.

Godspeed, Curt. Be safe. Be smart. Don't think you have to come home a hero ... you have been one for quite some time.

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Monday, December 5, 2011

On The Ugly Thing

I've been thinking a lot about war lately, not about the politics of the current war(s) we are involved in (don't get me started on that), but more about the whole idea of war at the point where it really matters -- the tip of the spear where those who actually fight the war have to live.

To a greater degree than any time in human history, modern technology has allowed the vast majority of our society to remain wholly disconnected from the horrors of the wars we fight. Beyond headlines on the CNN crawl at the bottom of your TV screen; beyond USA Today's three-by-three inch text box that regularly contains the names of the most recent casualties; and beyond the Wounded Warrior plea for donations that might show up in your mailbox, the wars in which we are currently engaged don't get any more play than Lindsay Lohan's latest court date. Probably less.

In some cases, even those who are directly involved in combat ... are not directly involved in combat. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in Afghanistan are flown by pilots who sit in front of a video game console at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas and drive home every night for dinner. The aviation assets that are on location in theater can bomb targets they cannot see, from tens of thousands of feet above the clouds, guided by GPS and lasers that make them lethally accurate. Even those who are more directly engaged have standoff capabilities that keep them beyond retaliation range with an unprecedented level of safety. These are all good things and I pray we make them better.

But there is also a moral element to these aspects of modern warfare. How do we square the disconnect between the horror and pain of war and the ability to deliver its consequences with physical and emotional detachment? Has this made war even more barbaric than it already was? Does the future portend an easier justification for war because those who commit to engage in it are able to do so without tangible personal consequence? We need to think about these things and as we do, we need to remain cognizant of the basic reality of war that has never changed in the least. No land is conquered; no enemy is defeated; no aspect of warfare is complete until, and unless, you have boots on the ground.

And there are young men in those boots.

I am as guilty as anyone of taking this for granted so I have no delusions of speaking from some kind of moral high ground. The truth is that my own acknowledgement of this has come in an emotionally painful way -- as I watch my own sons lace those boots up and walk away to war.

The fact is that we do take their sacrifice for granted. We whine about our circumstances, forgetting that whatever we are experiencing is also being experienced by young men burdened just to walk with 80 pounds of combat gear on their backs; or sleeping, without protection from the elements, in the dirt and mud; or wondering if the next step they take will be the one that triggers some diabolically disguised IED. We bow to a consumerist culture and load our holiday shopping carts with things we don't need, while these young men want for a bar of soap. How many people walking through the mall this week do you think ever give these realities a second thought -- or even a first.

This is not meant to induce a guilt-trip on anyone. My point is simply to try to remind myself to see the reality of war through the eyes of those who are most directly impacted by it and to reflect on why they fight. Though many dismiss this aspect of the mindset, it is a real one:
War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.                                 ~ John Stuart Mill
It has become a cliche to say but I don't know how else to explain it: they go to fight for something bigger than themselves. Very few may articulate it even if challenged to do so, but it is a motivation toward honor and toward protecting a comfortable way of life, not just because it is "comfortable," but because it represents the best (even if imperfect) kind of society flawed human beings can hope to live in. It is this idealism that grounds the cause of liberty and justice even if some (me being one) disagree about how we go about trying to spread it around the world.

Sebastian Junger verifies this in his book, War:
Self-sacrifice in defense of one's community is virtually universal among humans, extolled in myths and legends all over the world, and undoubtedly ancient. No community can protect itself unless a certain portion of its youth decide they are willing to risk their lives in its defense. (242)
They fight for us.

Yes, politicians and leaders can, and do, manipulate this sentiment. And, yes, their doing so is the lowest form of demagoguery. But that doesn't change the fact that it is there. Argue about our wars we must, but there is no denying this idealistic kind of love is a part of what motivates them to put the boots on in the first place.

Once the boots are on, however, the idealism vanishes. After more than a year of being embedded with Army units in Afghanistan, Junger also goes on to identify a completely different aspect of the war -- the one that most of us will never experience or completely understand:
What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless metanalyses slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other, and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing ... the primary motivation in combat (other than "ending the task" which meant they could go home) was "solidarity with the group." That far outweighed self-preservation or idealism as a motivator. (239-240)
They fight for each other. It's just another form of sacrificial love.

We are afforded the luxury of living our lives in blissful ignorance of the real cost of war. We should be thankful for that. But I pray that none of us take that blissful ignorance for granted. Someone has to face the ugliness of war and it would do us all well to stop ...

...  and remember how and why they do it.
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