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Archive for December, 2008

There are advantages to growing up in an old New England town. You gain a sense of history as you see houses that are 100, 200, even 300 years old mixed in with the vinyl siding and thermal windows of modernity. You can almost feel the ghostly presence of colonial ancestors, as you sit in a steepled white church once peopled by hardy townsfolk of a bygone era, whose names live on in some of the families in the neighborhood. You may even get to see one of the thousands of places where George Washington slept – yes, in fact, we made a high school film about just one of those homes on good old Worthington Ridge in Berlin, CT.

colonial-candlesBut if you grew up on Worthington Ridge, from, say, 30 years or so ago on back to multiple generations, you remember one thing for sure about Christmastime. The candles in the windows.

It was an unwritten and almost entirely-obeyed rule – on this historic street, the only Christmas lights allowed were electric candles in the window. You’d drive up and down the Ridge at the end of December, and your eyes would be filled with the glorious sight of home after colonial home, all lit up by candles and little (or nothing) else. The church, the library, and later, when it was finally re-furbished, even the old Worthington School, behind which was tucked our humble abode. Almost every house, and every window, had a candle.

Now the center of the Ridge remained very true to this tradition all during my growing up years. The less historic north and south ends of the road, being of more recent vintage, tended to have some “strays” who did not keep to the traditions of the fathers. And, alas, as time has gone on, the Ridge has become peopled with a mix of those who keep, and those who ignore, the old paths. Much of the glory is passed, never, I fear, to return.

Yet in memory, it remains. And even in these days, some neighborhoods maintain their own traditions, such as one riotously lit-up neighborhood in Boonton (NJ) where I live, where everyone puts out luminaries on the street each Christmas Eve, and cars cruise through (including ours) each year to enjoy the sight. And families build their own traditions as well. Some we borrow – yes, our wonderful old colonial home sports candles in the windows. And some we’ve created – every Christmas Eve, we sit down to enjoy George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, while munching on my wife’s delicious pepperoni bread. This, after having decorated the tree a couple weeks before, always with a chilled bottle of Gewurtztraminer for accompaniment (something we started 25 years ago or so).

Tomorrow morning, I’ll light the fire in the fireplace, as our tradition dictates. We’ll read the Christmas story together, and give thanks for our countless blessings. We’ll start with the stockings, and enjoy a hearty breakfast, as we have done for many years. We’ll open gifts in a very orderly fashion, as practiced by my family growing up. And we’ll feast with friends.

And I trust that as my rapidly growing-up flock eventually starts leaving the nest and starting their own families, they’ll adopt some cherished traditions, and begin new ones. Just so long as there are candles in the windows. I don’t think that’s too much for this New England boy to ask…

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Christopher Hitchens, the increasingly visible militant atheist who never hesitates to skewer those that differ from his exalted opinions, has recently criticized (in Slate) President-Elect Barack Obama for choosing Pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the upcoming presidential inauguration.

Now, Mr. Hitchens is entitled to his opinions, as are those who disagree with him, and Mr. Obama is entitled to his choices of affliliation/non-affiliation, just as Mr. Hitchens is entitled to those choices he wishes to indulge. However, his primary reason for castigating Mr. Obama’s choice – that Rick Warren, in the infallible and inspired Hitchens Lexicon, is a bigot – exposes Mr. Hitchens for the bigoted hypocrite that he truly is.

According to Mr. Hitchens, virtual pastor of a growing flock of non-believers (and, undoubtedly, making serious coin for his columns and books spouting his hitchologies), Mr. Warren is an unsuitable choice because he actually believes – and dares to speak consistent with those beliefs! – that there is religious truth. That, in fact, there is an actual God, an actual truth, a genuine and non-subjective pathway of relationship to God, and (horror of horrors to all Hitchenites!) people who may be on the wrong side of all that. Of course, Mr. Hitchens accuses Mr. Warren of being a huckster and strongly implies that he is unworthy of such a task as participating in an inauguration because, in the opinion of the Exalted Chris, anyone pastor-figure who actually thinks religious beliefs matter must be a dangerous bigot. This is clearly demonstrated by his closing paragraph, in which he states, “But if we must have an officiating priest, let it be some dignified old hypocrite with no factional allegiance and not a tree-shaking huckster and publicity seeker who believes that millions of his fellow citizens are hellbound because they do not meet his own low and vulgar standards.

Now here’s the rub. Mr. Hitchens utterly dismissed anyone who disagrees with his religious non-belief as some lower form of life, and thereby reveals his amazingly blatant and hypocritical bigotry. It’s not enough for him to mis-characterize and slander the various religious figures he cites in his article with the most odious of terms. He excoriates the notion of revealed truth itself – while clearly holding forth his own dismissal of objective, God-revealed truth as…well, objective, Hitchens-proclaimed truth. And if you disagree with the bigoted atheist – if you’re on the wrong side of Hitchens-mandated disbelief – you must be a bigot.

This is hypocrisy. Whether or not you agree with Mr. Warren, Mr. Hitchens, Mr. Obama, or none of the above, if you’re going to stridently reject the notion of objective, revealed truth, then don’t pretend to be an oracle of the same. For Mr. Hitchens to say that Mr. Warren is wrong, and that Mr. Obama is wrong for inviting him over for an invocation, is to imply that, of course, Mr. Hitchens is right. And on what basis, then, can the man be “right,” if there is no objective truth, and no God who has declared such truth?

Simple. Because Mr. Hitchens thinks it’s so. He’s right, those who disagree are wrong, and therefore he is, by his own definition, a bigot.  A hypocritical one. Frankly, that’s just exchanging a “big-G” God for a “little-g” god, named Hitchens. Whose blessing, I hope, no sane leader would ever seek while embarking on an enterprise such as leading a free nation of diverse people.

Addendum – let’s have a little fun with what a Pastor Hitchens invocation would look like:

“Oh, not-so-mighty Nothing that no-one here believes in, please turn your blind eye and deaf ear to your needy servant, whose race was spontaneously generated by chance from nothing and who owes nothing to your Non-existent Being, and favor us with your Absence as we embark on the noble, but ultimately meaningless task of leading this great (in our opinion – your results may vary) nation forward in its quest to define itself by whatever politically correct agenda may be hatched by current grievance groups that gain power through survival-0f-the-fittest strategies of subduing lesser citizens that cling to outmoded notions of your Absence. We are a diverse people, and we confess that we’d be a better people if only stupid fools like those benighted God-believers who founded our nation would get out of the way so that the superior chosen ones – those who now invoke non-existent non-deities to non-interfere with our human affairs – could rule unfettered in our arrogance and intellectual acumen. O nameless and purposeless force that accidentally evolved us, allow us to honor whatever you are or aren’t – actually, we really don’t care one way or another, but this kind of thing is an old tradition, so we’re just spewing words as a feel-good gesture until we can get down to partying – may we be successful in repressing, suppressing, and oppressing those who oppose our view of truth and obstruct our agenda of allowing the fittest to rule (by our definition of fitness, of course), and in all things, may our version of reality reign, and be jammed down the throats of the ignorant, until they are converted or extinguished from the earth, so help us…us. Amen”

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It was one of “those” childbirths.

One and a half years after the birth of his first son, Richard, another boy, Sacha, found the warm embrace of his beaming papa. But Sacha came at a high price tag for Vince. Gaining a son, he lost his heart’s best friend, as his wife soon lay still in the operating room. Embolism, they said. Clot lodged in her heart. Clot that dislodged her from him.

Her memory was very dear, but after the funeral, he put away all traces of her from their abode; her clothes, her books, even the pictures of her, were given away or put in permanent storage, not to be seen again. It only seemed right, knowing that neither son would remember the gaze of her kind and affectionate eyes, and this would spare him the pain of repeated explanations. For no good reason, he did keep a bottle of her favorite perfume stashed away in a drawer, as one secret and tenuous thread of connection to an unrecoverable past.

Truth was, Vince found it very difficult to speak of her, even to the boys. Words spoken and emotions unfurled were unfamiliar ground to him, and he felt safer if he could keep that garden walled off. She had touched him at the deepest levels. He buried much more than a lifeless body that day.

An accountant, Vince worked from his home, and having a business and two young boys to juggle, never got around to re-marrying. The older boy, Richard, showed a remarkable aptitude for numbers, and early on Vince figured he’d keep him around and apprentice him into the career. Sure enough, as Richard got older and breezed through his math classes, he grew into a diligent and studious young man with a natural grasp of business, cash flow, and financial best practices. A budding accountant before even going to college, he stayed at home for a time to assist Vince and get his feet wet in the business world.

Sacha, however, was the polar opposite of his brother. A free spirit, Sacha excelled in artistic endeavors, sometimes blowing off homework assignments in favor of creating jaw-droppingly complex graphics on the computer. He’d tip-toe downstairs and play network games late into the night, sometimes even sneaking out after midnight to party with friends – something Richard would never even think about doing, and which he condemned when Sacha got caught. Even when punished, Sacha would blow it off lightly, and quickly return to life as the class clown. Needless to say, he was rarely in sympathy with the house rules, and though Vince loved him dearly, his wandering irresponsibility was a constant source of grief in the household.

Once, Sacha did manage to persuade Richard to leave his responsible ways, and go on a brief rampage in a nearby neighborhood, shooting out inflatable holiday displays with a pellet gun. Of course, they got caught, Richard thoroughly chagrined by the experience but Sacha secretly laughing to himself at the destructive fun…until the bill came in for the damages. Months of allowances would have been required to make restitution, but Vince quietly paid it all off, and for some reason, didn’t even punish the boys. When they asked why, he gave them a faded smile and simply said, “Grace.”

The grief, however, was just beginning. One day, right after high school, Sacha got it into his head that he wanted to move to the West Coast and be part of an artists’ group. Sacha had heard about this free-wheeling conclave from one of his Internet buddies, and he was itching to be in a place where his talents would be recognized, and where rules would be few and far between. Vince, ever the accountant, had set up a generous fund for each boy’s education, but Sacha insisted that he wanted that money right now, and that this learning experience would be his “higher” education into artistic realms, including poetry (which he’d begin writing, to some acclaim by his peers, in high school).

With a heavy heart, and despite vehement scowls from Richard, Vincent gave Sacha the funds. Exuberantly, he bought a ticket to San Francisco, and promptly dove into the bohemian lifestyle of his little artist colony. This was the first time Sacha had serious cash in his pocket, and he spent it freely in order to make lots of friends quickly. His graphics skills didn’t carry him very far, and his poetry (it turns out) was rather run-of-the-mill, but the other loose-living folks sure enjoyed his educational fund. He was the star of the show – until the money ran out a few months later. Soon, he was on the streets, homeless, begging, and living on nothing more than scraps and regrets.

The few phone calls and e-mails he’d sent home while at the colony brought no comfort to Vince’s heart, and infuriated Richard. Sacha had been a budding disaster all along and now he’d thrown away his father’s hard-earned money on…emptiness. Meanwhile, Richard was earning a tidy sum and preparing for college, with a bright future ahead. Unlike his dim brother. What a bozo!

Every once in a while, Vince would retreat up to his room, and reach into the lowest drawer of his bathroom cabinet. The smell of the perfume would transport him back to happier days, when love was a hearbeat away and the horizon ahead looked bright and cheerful. His wife had been a true gift – even more than anyone (including the boys) knew, because he had been a profligate and rebellious young man for a season, and she could easily have refused him. But she saw more in him than the clown role he was playing, and gave him exactly what he needed to start afresh.

Hitchhiking across the Great Plains, Sacha rehearsed in his mind what he would say to his Dad. No words seemed to work. His glibness had gotten him out of many a scrape in the past, but the gift of gab didn’t feed his hungry belly when the money was gone, and didn’t nourish his empty soul when his so-called friends left him behind. For once, he was at a loss for words, though not for regrets. He’d just have to suck it up and…take whatever he got. Couldn’t be any worse than the nothing he had now.

The rides dried up 50 miles from home. Borrowing a phone, he called his Dad, hesitating to even ask if he’d come get him. Why should he bother? Yet in no time, Vince raced down to the diner where Sacha was huddled, greeted him with tears in his eyes, bought him a big meal, and went over to a neighboring clothing store to get him a new outfit to replace his remaining rags. Then, calling his friends on his cell phone, he quickly got a huge group together at the house so that when he pulled up with Sacha, there was a welcoming committee. Sacha never even had a chance to make his remorseful speech. As they pulled up to the house, tears in his eyes, Sacha choked out, “Why???” “Grace,” Vince responded. Grace.

Infuriated by the hoopla, Richard didn’t join the party. He sulked at the edge of the backyard, not believing that his father would expend another penny of time, money, and energy for his wasteful and stupid brother. “Dad never threw any parties for me!” he muttered, “And I’ve done nothing but be obedient and serve him and be responsible! That rat Sacha gets all the attention and he’s nothing more than a scoundrel!” As if reading his thoughts, Vince came outside to find Richard, and putting his hand on his shoulder, asked why he wasn’t joining the in party.

Richard spewed the venom that filled his soul. Dutiful, diligent, and despised, he described himself. Resentment toward brother and father overflowed. I’ve been good! How can you treat that shiftless son of yours as if he were still my equal – and even throw a big party for him when he stumbles home empty-handed!

Tears filled Vince’s eyes. One son was just coming to know grace, after throwing so much away for empty pleasures. The other, devoted and faithful, still only knew investment-and-return. A good accountant, he had not yet learned a heart is not won, or moved, by a spreadsheet, but only by grace. Sadly, Vince left him to stew in his resentful pride, aching that one son still didn’t know his father’s heart, even as the other was just beginning to see it.

Hours later, Richard sneaked into the basement as the party died down, and with nothing better to do, started rummaging through some boxes of old stuff. He found one well-sealed carton and, with some effort, forced it open. There, on the top, was the picture of a beautiful young lady, and underneath it, a single letter. Though feeling vaguely guilty he was so  intrigued that he opened the letter – and the past – as he read words written long-ago to his father.

grace“Dear Vince,

You have been a good friend and companion to me these months as we’ve gotten to know one another. It must have been very difficult for you to open up and tell me about those years when you left home and lived like a wild tomcat. And, yes, it hurt me to hear it. But your honesty convinces me that you want to turn over a new leaf, and love and provide for me. If you need to hear it, I’ll freely and gladly say it – I forgive you and accept you as you are. Let’s make a great life together. And maybe even some wonderful kids too!

Lovingly yours,

Grace

Richard picked up the picture. Her features looked vaguely familiar. With a start, he realized that he was gazing into the eyes of his mother. Turning over the picture, on the back was written one word. Grace.

—-

The names in this story have been changed, and details have been added and embellished. The lessons, however, are timeless.

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