Sounds of the Season

Okay, it’s time for me to come out of the closet. I love Christmas.

For years, I’ve enjoyed being a curmudgeon, wearing my Grinch tie, cheering for Ebenezer Scrooge when he says, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, would be boiled in his own pudding. And buried with a stake of holly in his heart!”

But the truth is, I love Christmas. Not the commercialism, or the insane busy-ness of it, of course. Those things, I did and do despise. But I love the decorations, the family traditions, the get-togethers with friends. Every year, we read the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke. Every year, we watch “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” (the 1984 George C. Scott made-for-TV version is my favorite). Every year, we marvel at the miracle of the King in the manger, and share candlelit communion, and give thanks for the Word became flesh.

And the music. The songs of Christmas may be my favorite part of the whole thing. So, in celebration of the season, here are some thoughts about three of my favorite Christmas songs, in no particular order.

O Holy Night

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular churchgoer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France. Over the years, its popularity has risen and fallen, but it remains one of my personal favorites.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

This song from the 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” a musical starring Judy Garland, Leon Ames, and Mary Astor, and directed by Judy Garland’s future husband, Vincente Minelli. The story deals with a prosperous attorney who is planning to move his family from St. Louis to New York – in spite of the family’s opposition. In the movie on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland sings this song to her little sister, portrayed by the very precocious Margaret O’Brien.

Originally, the song was supposed to be very bitter and sarcastic – even including the lyric, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last.” But Garland refused to sing such a grim line, and her opposition inspired the songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane to come up with the more optimistic, “let your heart be light.”

Hallelujah Chorus (from the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah)

“Messiah” is an English-language oratorio composed by Georg Frederic Handel in 1741. The words were compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Version of the Bible. The work was in three major parts: Part 1 deals with prophecies about the birth of Jesus taken from the book of Isaiah and other Old Testament passages, as well as a brief section from the Gospels. Part 2 deals with the Passion of the Christ and ends with the “Hallelujah” Chorus; Part 3 covers the resurrection and His glorification in heaven. Parts 1 and 2 make up the “Christmas” portion of the oratorio, and are often performed, either in part or in whole, during the holiday season.

I was first exposed to “Messiah” as a freshman in college when our choir sang the Christmas portion with a local high school orchestra. The “Hallelujah” Chorus is an amazing work, with four vocal parts singing back and forth to each other – “And He shall reign forever and ever. King of Kings! Forever and ever! and Lord of Lords! Hallelujah!” – all while the orchestral strings, brass, and drums are furiously praising God with their instruments.

It’s tradition that audiences will rise to their feet during “Hallelujah.” The legend is that at the oratorio’s London debut, King James II was overcome with emotion during its performance, and sensing the Presence of God in the music, he rose to his feet, for even royalty must stand in the presence of Divinity.

It’s Christmas time. Who’s ready to sing?

Another Christmas is Here

Several years ago, the Christian band “Truth” did a parody of “Silent Night” that included the line, “Christmas is the time I hate the best!” For many people, that sentiment is too true to be funny.

Our already-busy lives become even busier during the holiday season. And it’s going to continue like that for the whole month of December, right up until the 25th. Of course, by the time Christmas Day actually, finally, mercifully, gets here, we’re so exhausted that we won’t be able to appreciate it. So Christmas becomes something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

Stop this train. I want to get off.

Nobody WANTS to hate Christmas. The truth is, most people enjoy many of the things associated with the season, but we utterly despise – and absolutely reject – the crass merchandising of the holiday, the cynicism of too-slick marketing, the packaging of warm fuzzies as if they were so many beans for sale on a store shelf somewhere.

Slow down. Nobody said it had to be this way. Every year in December, we promise ourselves, “Next year, it will be different!” And every year, we keep doing he same things and expecting different results. (You know, the definition of insanity.)

I’m not going to tell you that you have to stay home from the office Christmas party, or not exchange gifts with Cousin Freddie, or skip putting up the outdoor decorations. But I AM suggesting that we all stop and think about what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. And maybe that DOES mean, simplifying our schedules and cutting back on some things, in order to focus on better things.

Almost everyone likes SOMETHING about Christmas. The music. The food. Spending time with family or friends. So, how about we focus on doing the things we enjoy, and skip (or at least, minimize) the rest of it?

If it’s Christmas music you like, give yourself permission to spend more time listening to it. Do you like Christmas movies? Skip one of the endless parties, make some hot chocolate and popcorn, and stay in for a family evening with “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Or even, “A Christmas Story,” if that’s your thing. (Just don’t put your eye out!)

Do you like to cook or bake? Whip up a batch of your favorite holiday snack treat – chocolate chip cookies, peppermint bark, Chex mix, whatever – and enjoy. Share some with friends. And don’t forget to take some to your neighbors.

Do you have little ones, kids or grandkids, that you can spend some time with? Find a way to make some Christmas memories for them. Think back to your own childhood: what was most special to you? Many folks remember something fun and special that their family did. So now, it’s your turn to help your young ones have some special memories of their own. But it’s not about the stuff – it’s about the time.

I’m suggesting we skip maxxing out our credit cards and over-scheduling ourselves into a holiday frenzy, and instead, slow down, think about what this season is all about, and spend some quality time with the people who matter in our lives. Share a second cup of coffee with a companion. Reach out to a friend. Don’t just forward another mindless Facebook meme about “the reason for the season.” Instead, let the Spirit of the Christ-child living in and through you be seen in how we care for others.

We can start by spending a little time in the Christmas Story as found in Luke 2. Notice that after the shepherds come for their visit, verse 19 says that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Treasuring up memories. Pondering them. Works for me.

Seven Score and 18 Years Ago…

It was on this date 158 years ago – November 19, 1863 – that Abraham Lincoln gave the most important speech in American history. Yes, I know there are plenty of other nominees for that honor, but as important as those speeches were, none have had the lasting impact on our national identity and purpose as the Gettysburg Address.

In this speech, President Lincoln redefined and refocused the reason for the Great Struggle, he provided comfort for a nation reeling from staggering losses; he took what had been a relatively obscure line from the Declaration of Independence and made it a national mantra, and once and for all seized the moral high ground in the war. And the fact that Lincoln did all this using only 272 words is a reminder that when it comes to words, it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.

Like any great historical event, numerous myths surround the speech and its delivery. For one thing, Lincoln did NOT compose it on the back of an envelope on the train ride up from Washington, nor did he scribble down a few thoughts at the boarding house where he stayed the night before the speech. The historical evidence shows that he had already completed at least one or two rough drafts of the speech that he had shown to some of his friends and advisers before he ever left Washington.

This lithograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg was originally published in 1905.

Another enduring myth is that the speech was a flop when it was first delivered, and the crowd was visibly displeased with it. Not so. It’s true that newspaper editorials about the speech differed widely in their reviews of it, but generally broke along party lines – most Republican papers praised and endorsed it, while most Democratic papers dismissed it.

It’s also true that it was short, but it was supposed to be. Dedication of the new cemetery at Gettysburg was primarily a state function, and national involvement was not considered necessary or automatic. The main speaker at the dedication was Sen. Edward Everett of Massachusetts, perhaps the most skilled orator of the time, who spoke for over two hours, reviewing the battle, condemning the Rebels and praising the Union. President Lincoln had been invited only to give a few brief remarks, and nothing more was expected.

It’s hard for us today to appreciate what a different time it was, politically. But if you know our nation’s history, you know that the framers of the republic didn’t know what to do about slavery, and since they couldn’t agree on a solution, they basically just punted that particular ball to a future generation. The Constitution says that a black man counts as 3/5 of a person when it comes to the census. It’s not clear just what the framers originally meant when they wrote, “All men are created equal,” but to one extent or another, they were thinking educated, white, landowning males.

Authors use words to create the reality of other worlds in their books as they write. Good speakers do the same, helping their audience see things “as they could be.” In this speech, Lincoln took the Declaration’s words about equality and breathed new life into them. He redefined a war that had been about political theory, economics, and states’ rights, and turned it into a moral struggle for liberty for all. To this day, we’re still debating some of those issues.

There are five versions of the speech with slight variations. Here is best known version, which the President himself wrote out and signed.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I would say the President was wrong about one thing: the world has indeed long noted what he said. And rightfully so.

A Window into the Past

In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd boy was in the Judean wilderness southeast of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea, taking care of some of his family’s flock of goats, when one of the goats wandered off. The limestone cliffs there are studded with dozens of small caves, and the boy didn’t feel like climbing up there to look in every cave, so he started throwing rocks into the caves, figuring he could hit the goat and drive it out. But he was startled when one of his throws brought a “crash” of breaking pottery.

He had just made the most important historical find of the 20th century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.

One of the caves at Qumran, near the Dead Sea, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

The scrolls opened for us a window into the past, to a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, who lived in the desert community of Qumran, near the NW corner of the Dead Sea. Not as large as other, better-known groups from the time of Christ like the Pharisees or Sadducees, the Essenes believed in strict personal holiness, sexual purity, and rejected wealth and worldly pursuits. They practiced daily immersion as a symbol of purity, and lived as a separate community, calling themselves the “Sons of Light” and looking for the Messiah.

John the Baptist may well have been their most famous member.

They had a large collection of Biblical and non-Biblical scrolls, which they studied regularly. So, when they saw Jerusalem being destroyed in AD 70, they took their precious scrolls, put them in large clay jars, and hid them in the caves above their community. The Essenes were pretty much scattered by the Roman occupation, and so the scrolls sat in those jars, in that dry desert heat, for nearly 2000 years.

The scrolls are important for Biblical scholarship because before their discovery, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts only dated back to about AD 1000 – that’s over 1400 years since the last book of the Old Testament was written. That’s a long time, skeptics said – too long to have any faith that the Old Testament (or Tanakh, in Jewish terms) could be trusted to be reliable.

Most of the Qumran scrolls, with a few notable exceptions, had deteriorated to being no more than fragments, a few inches in size. But scholars were still able to read them, to piece them together, and to determine which OT books they represented. And they found parts of every book of the Hebrew scriptures except Esther. Carbon dating and other methods confirmed that some of the scrolls dated back to about 200 BC.

When they compared the text of the scrolls to that of known Hebrew manuscripts, they found, even after 1,200 years of hand-copying, there was over 95% agreement between the documents! And a majority of the differences represented only variations in spelling or other minor changes; none of the variations involved any texts with doctrinal significance.

This fragment from the book of Hosea is typical of a Dead Sea scroll manuscript.

I’ve been to the Museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem, and I have to say how thrilling it is to actually see some of these ancient fragments of scripture. One of the most fascinating parts, to me at least, was to notice the wrinkling and cracking of the ancient leather parchment; it looked just like the wrinkling of an old leather glove.

One final thought: perhaps the single most important discovery of the DSS was a near-perfect copy of the complete book of Isaiah. So hear again the words of the ancient prophet, from Isaiah 40:8 – “The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”

Remembering Grandpa

As we approach Veterans Day this year, please allow me to add my thanks and appreciation to all our veterans. And I would like to tell you about one veteran in particular who was very special to me: my grandfather, Stanley Garison, Sr. We called him “Grandpa.”

He was born in Orange County, Texas, on September 30, 1899 – one of four boys. He lied about his age and joined the army as a teenager, to go off with General “Blackjack” Pershing and chase the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa back and forth across the border. Later he was part of the AEF in France during World War I, where he was wounded by a piece of German shrapnel from a shell that exploded behind him. Many years later, he liked to work in his yard with his shirt off, and I can still remember seeing the scar on his left shoulder.

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My grandpa, Stanley Garison, Sr. (left), in France, 1918.

The picture shows him in France, wearing his uniform, with an unidentified buddy of his. My brothers and I used to love hearing the stories he told from being in the war. When I was a kid, I enjoyed building airplane models, especially the fighter planes from that period. I loaned him a book about World War I planes I checked out from my school library, and he told me about seeing “dogfights” between planes in the skies above him. Once, he helped capture a German pilot after he had made a crash landing near the American position.

Of course, Veteran’s Day was always very special to Grandpa, because before it became known by that name, it was called “Armistice Day.” As part of the American forces in France during the war, the moment that war ended was very personal for him, and it came at 11:00 o’clock, local time, on November 11, 1918 – the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. It was in the 1930s that Congress got around to changing what had been called “Armistice Day” into a day to celebrate ALL veterans, and it became known as “Veterans Day.

Stanley Garison died on my birthday, October 11, 1980, of complications from a stroke. In his lifetime, he had gone from it taking all day in a buggy to go ten miles into town and back, to the Wright Brothers, to men landing on the moon.

Grandpa loved to hunt and fish. His best hunting story was about the time he killed two deer with one shot. He said he was hunting along a fence there near the home place and saw a deer; he fired off a quick shot, and was pretty sure that he hit it, but the deer jumped the fence and ran off. Grandpa followed behind, mad and cussing about having to chase the “blankety-blank” deer. After following it a long way, he finally found the deer where it was lying in some grass. He jumped on its back and cut its throat, so that it could finish bleeding out.

The deer immediately jumped up and ran off! So now, Grandpa is REALLY mad. He follows that deer again, cussing all the way, until he finally finds it dead. He picks the deer up, puts it across his shoulders, and starts back along the fence line to where he started. Along the way, he discovers another deer, lying dead by the fence. It was the one he had shot in the first place. The second deer had just been asleep in the tall grass when Grandpa jumped on its back.

Anyway, that was his story, and he was sticking to it.

October Blessings

I love October. It’s absolutely my favorite month of the year.

I don’t think this will come as a galloping surprise to anyone – I mean, LOTS of people consider autumn their favorite season. But for me, October specifically is my favorite, for several reasons.

And okay, yes, full disclosure: my birthday is in October. I remember as a kid feeling a kinship with others in my school grade who shared October birthdays. Later, I learned that my best friend from college has an October birthday, and my brother Jimmy and wife Christy got married in October. Of course, once you get past the age of 10 or 12, people stop making a big deal out of your birthday. Still, I enjoy mine. But that’s not the only reason I love October.

Getting to October means that we’ve survived another Texas summer. This is not a small thing. Summers around here are brutal, and September is nothing but a tease. The calendar may say that summer is over, but really, it isn’t – even in late September, the highs can easily reach the upper 90s or more. But October is a different matter – there are still warm days, to be sure, but the evenings and mornings have a delicious chill about them.

Another thing I like about October: postseason baseball. “October baseball” means that only the best teams are still playing. Playoff baseball is a thing of beauty – even more than the regular season. Big players make big plays in big games. And there’s a reason nobody in baseball is ever nicknamed, “Mr. April.” (Thank you, Drew Bowen!) As I write this, this year’s World Series is about to begin, and I’m ready!

The changing season also means some changes to the menu. I love a good pot of chili, and there’s something about good chili – especially venison chili – that is warm and comforting and satisfying. I don’t know why we don’t eat chili when the weather is hot – we eat other soups and stews – but chili is the ultimate cold weather comfort food. And I know, at some point soon, I’ll be making a pot of it.

Or chicken and dumplings. Or Guinness beef stew. Or something else warm and filling. There are plenty of delicious, hearty foods to enjoy with friends and family this time of year.

October means the holidays are coming, but not here yet. We have the excitement and anticipation of those good things, but don’t yet have to put with the craziness of too many events and too little time to do them all. I can, and do, look forward with a child’s excitement to the approach of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I love the colors of fall: red, orange, yellow, golden brown. Even though we don’t have the brilliance of New England or Appalachia (or even East Texas!), it’s still nice to see the changing colors of leaves and appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.

In some ways, autumn is like a parable. The changing colors can inspire us to glorify God by taking up a new interest and exploring new opportunities to grow. The loss of leaves can remind us that sometimes we need to let go of some things, to allow old habits and destructive patterns drop away.

October is a reminder that nothing is permanent. Seasons change. Life is transitory. Make the most of every opportunity. We can choose either to be resentful that something is gone, or we can give thanks that we were able to enjoy it for a while. Savor it – appreciate it – then say, “What’s next?” and move on.

Summer’s over, winter’s coming, but for a few more days, October is here. And I’m happy about that. Let’s enjoy it while we can.

A Shot in the Arm

I turned 65 a few days ago, so I celebrated by getting a flu shot. Personally, I’m a big believer in vaccines. That is partly based on the science involved, and partly based on personal and family experience.

Back in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up, there weren’t as many vaccines available as there are now, and I ended up having a number of “childhood diseases.” One of them nearly killed me. When I was in the first grade, I had chicken pox, mumps, and measles, all within a period of a couple of months. It was while I was battling measles that my fever shot up to about 105°. I remember being in bed and “seeing” snakes crawling up and down the wall in my room. I ended up with a terrible kidney infection that put me in the hospital for a week. You can bet that when our kids were little, we made sure they had all their shots.

I also remember being in elementary school and standing in line to get a sugar cube with the polio vaccine on it, and the stories my parents told me about their classmates and cousins, pre-vaccine, who contracted polio and ended up crippled or in an iron lung. A generation before that, it was smallpox. My dad (born in 1928) carried a small round scar on his left shoulder where he received his smallpox inoculation.

Over the years, I have had numerous vaccines. I get a flu shot every year. I used to catch the flu about every other year. It would always make me sick as a big dog, and it seemed to be a month or six weeks before I was completely over it. So I don’t mess around about it anymore – I just get the shot and am done with it. It may make me feel a little “blah” for a day or two, but that’s a lot better than six weeks.

I have also been blessed to go on a couple of short-term mission trips to Central and South America. There was a long list of shots that I had to get when I was preparing to go to Peru a few years ago. I was in line with several other people for a yellow fever vaccination, and some of the folks were complaining about having to get “so many shots” for such a relatively short trip. The clinic director told us, with a seriousness that I did not mistake, that we would be given a card proving our vaccinated status, and that we needed to keep it with our passports. “Just remember,” she told us, “you don’t have to have that card to leave the country. But you will need it if you want to get back in.”

Today, thank God, we don’t have to worry about smallpox, or polio, or a whole host of other diseases, and it’s because of vaccines. Vaccines for kids do NOT cause autism. That was a rumor that was started back in the 1990s because of a published report by a British surgeon ­– except he had falsified the numbers in his study. He lost his medical license because of that lie, but the rumor persists. And the Covid vaccine does not make you sterile, it doesn’t implant microchips in your body, and it’s not the Mark of the Beast. And no, it’s not perfect, but if you get Covid, the likelihood is that you will have a relatively mild case. And the main side effect of the vaccine is, you don’t die from Covid – about 99.95% of the time.

So please, if you haven’t had yours yet, go get a Covid vaccine. Now that they have approved the booster for Moderna shots, I plan to get mine soon. And while you’re at, you can also get a flu shot – they’re saying that this flu season could be one of the worst in years.

Some people claim that requiring a vaccine somehow impinges on their “personal freedom,” but the truth is, there are all kinds of restrictions that we agree to abide by, in order to live among others as part of a community. You don’t have the “freedom” to drive your vehicle if you’re drunk. You don’t have the freedom to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

When the framers of the United States Constitution were drafting the Preamble to that historic document, part of their purpose, they said, was to “promote the general Welfare.” We need to recognize that we have responsibilities to our neighbors to behave in a way that promotes health and wellness as part of the “general Welfare” of the entire community. And surely that is also included in what Jesus meant when He told us to “love our neighbor.”

Welcome Home, Exes, and Other Random Thoughts

Scatter-shooting while thinking about sports columnist Blackie Sherrod and the great articles he used to write for the Dallas Times Herald

Welcome back to all the Haskell, Mattson, Weinert, and Rochester exes! We are glad you are here and hope you enjoy your visit. No doubt you will notice some new things, here in Haskell and elsewhere – there are several new businesses on the square and around the community, and others that have moved from their familiar locations to new sites (including the Haskell Star offices, now at 112 North Avenue E, and in with the DCOH and the Chamber!). From the football game to the street dance, to the various programs and class activities, we extend best wishes for a safe and enjoyable time with classmates, family and friends. We also pause and remember all those we have lost to Covid and other causes since the last homecoming.

Speaking of football – I love hearing and singing the National Anthem before the start of the games and wish more folks would sing out. I know it’s not an easy tune to carry, but I for one love those lyrics and the true story they tell: how Francis Scott Key was being held on a British warship after negotiating the release of a doctor who had been captured. The Brits were engaged in a fierce naval bombardment of Fort McHenry outside of Baltimore, in preparation for invasion, and Mr. Key was being held on the enemy ship and was literally up and down all night. He was watching by “the rocket’s red glare,” to see if the American flag was still flying over the fort, or if enemy forces had captured it.

By the next morning, at “dawn’s early light,” of course, it became apparent that the fort still held firm – and our flag still flew. Our daughter Brittany lives in Baltimore, and a couple of years ago, we got to visit Fort McHenry. I know we are all proud and thankful to be Americans, so let me encourage us ALL to sing those patriotic words – even if we’re not the best vocalists.

Here’s a tip of my cap to my friend Steve Allen Goen from Wichita Falls. Steve is an authority on Texas railroads and their history; he’s also an author and photographer with several books to his credit. Many of his books are beautiful “coffee table”-style collections of gorgeous color photos of different railroads around Texas. He has just released the third in a new series about railroad passenger trains – and this one will be about the Burlington Route, including the Fort Worth & Denver and the Wichita Valley railroads that served Haskell. And he tells me one chapter in this newest book will be about the Doodlebug that operated between Wichita Falls and Abilene.

I have spoken with folks from the Friends of the Haskell County Library, and they may be able to host an “author’s book-signing” later this year, so Steve could come and sell copies of his new book. Watch this space for more details.

For my birthday, my family took me to a showing of No Time to Die, the new James Bond film. I have enjoyed actor Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007. He says this will be his final appearance as the British agent, and if so, it was pretty good.

Maybe that’s an idea for a future column – rating the various Bond movies and the different actors who have portrayed author Ian Fleming’s suave agent. You can start a pretty good argument among fans of the series, wrangling over Sean Connery or Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan or perhaps Daniel Craig, as their favorite actor-spy.

I have written before about how much I enjoy sitting on my back porch, watching and listening to all the birds as they fill the trees. It’s still something that I love to do, and especially watching the different species of avian friends who come and go with the changing seasons. Now we have new guests – monarch butterflies. These travelers are making their semi-annual visit to our area, and I love to see them as they fly around. It seems especially appropriate with the colors of the fall season, and this close to Halloween, for them to appear in their orange-and-black markings! And thank You, Lord, for the beauty in all of Your creation.

A Call to Community

According to Genesis 1, as God was creating the universe, He would pause from time to time, examine his work and pronounce that it was “good.” After God created our first parents, he surveyed them, along with everything else he had made and pronounced that it was all “very good.” Then we come to Genesis 2, where the story backs up just a bit and gives us more details about how God created the first humans. When he saw the man alone, it was the first time that God said something was “NOT good,” and so the Creator said, “I will make a helper suitable for him.”

It seems we are hard-wired for relationships. God created us that way, and He has called us to live in community.

That shouldn’t come as a galloping surprise to anyone. God himself exists within a perfect community, a union we understand as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Not three gods, but one, living in perfect community within themselves. In Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let US make humans in our image” – and that “us” is a reference, I believe, to that Divine Community, or if you prefer, to the Trinity. Later, when God gave Israel the “Shema” prayer – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4) – the word translated “one” is the Hebrew word, ekhad. It’s the same word that describes the “one flesh” of husband and wife. One as a union. One as a community.

When God gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), it’s important to note that the first commandment begins with, “I AM the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt; you will have no other gods besides me.” Please notice that: the foundation of the entire law was the covenant relationship between God and his people.

God described himself to Moses by saying, “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He was defining who he was, at least in part, by the relationships he had. Throughout the days of the prophets, God was constantly calling his people and inviting them into a closer relationship. Sending Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s desire to be in community with his people. That’s why one of the names by which Jesus is known is “Immanuel” – God with us.

According to Luke 4, when Jesus was beginning his public ministry, he read the scripture from Isaiah 61 about proclaiming good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, setting captives free, and rebuilding the ancient ruins – all dealing with restoring broken relationships. In Mark 12, when he was asked about the most important commandment, Jesus said, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The fact is, God has made us so that we need each other. In Romans 14:7, the Apostle Paul says, “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” We are called to live in community. Indeed, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says that God has “committed to us the ministry of reconciliation.” And what is reconciliation, if not a fancy word for rebuilding relationships?

That community sometimes looks different. We are called the “bear one another’s burdens,” (Gal. 6:2), to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” (Rom. 12:15), and to “live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). In Revelation 21:2, heaven is described as “The New Jerusalem.” A city. Not a suburb. Not a farm. Not a solitary cabin by a lake somewhere. A city. And city implies neighbors close by, and relationships all around us.

Genuine community is risky. Relationships take a lot of work and can sometimes be messy. But God has reached out to us, and desires to be in relationship with us, and that is precisely the way we are called to reach out to one another.

Try a Little Kindness

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my favorite singer was Glen Campbell. Among the many other records of his that I had was a song entitled, Try a Little Kindness

If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he’s sowed
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say, you’re going the wrong way

You’ve got to try a little kindness
Yes show a little kindness
Just shine your light for everyone to see
And if you try a little kindness
Then you’ll overlook the blindness
Of narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets

Don’t walk around, the down and out
Lend a helping hand instead of doubt
And the kindness that you show every day
Will help someone along their way

It’s a message I’ve been thinking about lately.

A couple of years ago, the Marriott Hotel chain began running a series of TV ads based on the theme of “The Golden Rule” – they even had their own hashtag, #GoldenRule. Part of the commercial includes the question, “What if all of mankind were made up of kind women and kind men?” The ads show Marriott employees – and others – performing simple acts of kindness to help others.

I realize that expressions of kindness towards others have often been in short supply, but it seems that lately such acts of kindness are even more rare than ever, and it makes me sad for our society. When did simply being nice to another person become so rare and remarkable that it makes the national news?

This may come as a shock to some of our younger readers, but there was a time in this country when politics “ended at the shore,” when political parties would not criticize a president (even from the other party) about the way he handled foreign policy; a time when we could disagree about political issues without assuming the other side was evil and out to destroy the country; and a time when we could discuss politics without the conversation degenerating into shouting match on the level of, “You’re stupid!” “No, you’re stupid!” We were willing to recognize the humanity and basic decency of others, and to acknowledge that a political opponent was a fine person, even if we had different ideas about what was best for the country.

It seems to me that Jesus went out of his way to tell us that we should be kind to others, and not merely to those we already know or love, and especially not only to those who are able to pay us back. He told us specifically to invite to dinner those who COULDN’T pay us back. He calls us to set an example of kindness and grace to everyone.

He’s not the only one. The prophet Micah told us to “practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before our God” (Micah 6:8). The Apostle Paul lists “kindness” along with the other fruit of God’s Spirit. And that list is not a buffet – we don’t get to pick & choose which items we want. “Yes, I’ll take some love and a little peace, please, but no thanks on the self-control.” If God’s Spirit is alive and active inside of us, He will be producing all of those qualities in us.

The problem with kindness is that, by its very nature, it doesn’t call attention to itself; it’s more concerned with serving others than in tooting its own horn. And in our self-promoting, selfie-obsessed culture, most of us simply don’t think of how to serve others.

Caring about others – putting the needs of others first – is a learned behavior, and contrary to human nature. It’s an act of discipleship that follows in the self-sacrificing steps of our Lord. Maybe that’s why it’s so rare.

Jesus is still looking for disciples who will walk as He walked, and live as He lived. That includes showing kindness to all. Especially those who don’t deserve it.