One Tu Tu Ate For Two

Long ago on slow winter afternoons on the north coast when the sun glinted off the crusted snowbanks and made its sudden journey west under the trees and the wind whispered hard off the lake they called Erie, Daddy Boid spun Baby Bear tales about Freddie Fox and Buhddy Bear and their life in the woods down the road behind the hospital — which in days long ago was at the far edge of town.

In those days long ago the day was divided by the Tu Tu Twains that wrattled the houses and shook the frozen ground two miles or more from the tracks. Their comings and goings at every time of the day and year were a mystery for Baby Bear. Though he was pretty sure he had ridden one once, he did not know where they came from or where they went. They were almost as mysterious as the hobos that knocked on their back door from time to time. His mother always gave them a pint of milk and a sandwich and then after dining on the back steps they would disappear as magically as they’d come.

But almost as magical as the hobos and the living Tu Tus sliding back and forth on their burnished iron rails with cow-catchers gobbling up the timber and gravel were the woods and the critter people that lived secret lives under bushes and in trees and hid under stumps and in the marsh and cricks.

There was Waymond Bunny Wabbit, Franny Frog and a Mr Turtle, and all sorts of mysterious nameless bugs — but especially the rare Walking Sticks which really were tree twigs come magically to life. And there were tadpoles galore and an occasional minnow that swum in the cricks that slowly edged their way down to the lake they called Erie.

But the two folks Baby Bear remembered best were Freddie Fox and Buhddy Bear — who had the same last name and maybe was a shirt-tail cousin or something. And Freddie — so smart he could trick Sam the Snake or even Charlie Wolf. And Baby Bear would say to Daddy Boid, “Tell me a story about Freddie Fox.”

“Well,” Daddy Boid began, “On one Sunday morning in late March Freddie slept to almost noon. He was dreaming of breakfast — a big bowl of oatmeal with butter and brown sugar because his tummy was very empty. The oatmeal smelled so good he could almost taste it. He blinked awake and the breakfast he was dreaming about vanished. ‘It was only a dream,’ Freddie thought. He stuck his needle nose thru a pile of leaves and  he peeked out of his home under the log by the stump. He could still see patches of snow but the sun was warming things up. Little buds were already popping out on some of the Elm and Sycamore trees.

Freddie crawled out of his home and stretched. He looked around in every direction and sniffed the air. It was like he was still dreaming because he was certain he could smell warm oatmeal with brown sugar. He blinked and shook his head and sniffed again. Yup, for sure it was oatmeal with butter and brown sugar.

He saw his old pal Charlie Wolf near the woods a short distance away and Charlie appeared headed toward town. Charlie was very old and he often complained to Charlie about having arthur-itis. Freddie wasn’t exactly sure what that was but he thought maybe it was why Charlie kind of limped. Also, Charlie’s few teeth were loose and so an ancient wolf with a limp and missing teeth wasn’t a very scary wolf.

Freddie thought he would follow Charlie and see where he was going. He seemed headed toward the last farmhouse at the very edge of town where the hound Nipper lived. Freddie and Charlie hopped a little ditch and crossed the Tu Tu twacks. They slowed down as they got closer. Neither Nipper nor the farmer he served were very friendly. He had yelled at Freddie a few times and once he had a stick that went boom and scared Freddie half to death. The farmer also had chickens that looked quite scrumptious and he had two hives of captive bees that made honey. Freddie and Charlie had helped themselves before to little morsels on the farmer’s property.

As Charlie and Freddie crept closer — getting down very low so as not to be noticed, they saw the farmer sitting on a bench by his little dilapidated red barn. He held a cup in one hand and next to him on the bench was a bowl. Nipper was nowhere to be seen, and Freddie was sure there was oatmeal with brown sugar in the bowl.

The farmer suddenly stood up and started walking towards his house’s kitchen door. Charlie thought, ‘Now’s my chance.’ He scampered thru the barnyard and grabbed the edge of the bowl in his jaws. He and Charlie made a beeline toward the woods. He had some oatmeal on his needle nose but that was okay. He would find a safe spot to hide and maybe he’d share some with Charlie.

They hopped the ditch again and as they were about to cross the twacks they heard a kapow and something like sleet rustled the limbs over their head. Freddie was so startled that he dropped the bowl of warm oatmeal on the twacks. He and Charlie made it to the woods before they turned and looked back. In the distance he heard the farmer yelling –and also he heard a steady chug chug chug getting gradually louder.  Charlie thought, ‘Oh no, its the Tu Tu!’

Before he could think of what to do the twain’s cow catcher gobbled up the bowl of oatmeal like magic. And as the Tu Tu majestically rolled by headed clickety clacking to who knows where Freddie thought he could almost taste the warm oatmeal with butter and brown sugar. And of course, being a good fox, he would have let his friend Charlie have a bite –maybe even two.”

And Baby Bear with a wide-eyed look thought, “That was a good story” and he could hardly wait till Daddy Boid would tell him another.

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“The Shack”

William Paul Young self-published his novel The Shack in 2007, and little more than a year later it was a best seller. I did not read the book. A friend whose judgement I respect read part of it and she said that as a piece of literature it was poorly written–but many other of my churchy friends read it and found it praiseworthy. Some absolutely raved about the book.

In 2008- 09, The Shack was a bit of a sensation in Christian circles. Because of its unconventional portrayal of the Trinity and its somewhat New Age spirituality it was roundly criticized by conservative theologians as heretical. One of the major charges was that it preached the doctrine of Universalism — that is that in the end all will be saved and spend eternity in heaven with God. And this because God’s love and mercy trumps righteous judgment.

At the height of the novel’s popularity, Young spoke at the megachurch I attend: Northland – A Church Distributed. He didn’t just give a speech, he presented for several hours — long enough to have a lunch break. I found him to be a compelling speaker — very charming and exceptionally articulate. His presentation was more or less an extended testimony. He spoke about his early years growing up as a missionary’s kid. He also told about how he came to write The Shack. As I recall it was written as a fable, a Christmas gift, explaining his spirituality to his children. Others in his circle read it and urged him to publish it.

In spite of his ability as a speaker I still did not bother to read the book. I’d heard enough about it that I pretty much knew the plot: a man’s young daughter is abducted and murdered at a shack in the wilderness. Predictably, he is eaten up by anger and bitterness. He is mad at God, guilt ridden himself and unforgiving toward the perpetrator–and then he has a lengthy encounter with the Trinity at the scene of the crime.

Several years passed and The Shack craze abated. Christian readers went on to the newest Ben and Jerry’s flavor of books on spirituality and self-help. I pretty much forgot about the book. Then, a couple months ago I was watching a trailer for a movie that looked both interesting and visually compelling. At the end of the trailer I thought, oh my word, it’s The Shack.  In fact, the trailer was so good I never would have guessed that it was a Christian film.

I saw it last night. I was more than a bit skeptical based on things I’d heard and read about the book. I had looked at some of the reviews and per usual the secular critics lambasted it, and I had also read some caveats posted on Facebook by various conservative Christians. They all said words to the effect that the God portrayed in the movie is not the God of scripture. No kidding! God in the movie is a heavy-set, rather maternal black woman. The Holy Spirit is a young oriental woman and Jesus is played by a 30-ish Middle Eastern male. Imagine that!

It’s not a perfect piece of art but overall I thought it was fairly well done. The cinematography, music and acting were all much better than most Christian films. Most Christian films reek of low budget, mediocre production values and tend to be rather saccharine and preachy. Whereas some of the secular critics saw it as preachy, I did not. It held my interest and I found the basic story to be quite moving. It’s about inconsolable pain, anger, guilt, unforgiveness –and eventual redemption and restoration.

Sam Worthington, the guy who plays Mack, the story’s protagonist, does a creditable job. Early in life Mack’s scarred by a drunken, abusive father, but by middle age he’s overcome that and has a comfortable life. He has a loving wife and three kids–and then the unthinkable happens.  Octavia Spencer as God (referred to as Papa in the film) is wonderful. But probably for some folks she’s far too warm and loving. If the God of your understanding is distant, imperious and judgmental then Ms. Spencer’s portrayal just won’t do.

I don’t hear well and so I didn’t catch every bit of dialogue. At several points the audience laughed and I wasn’t sure to what they were responding. Consequently, I can’t say with absolute certainty that there was no Universalist message in the film or some other seriously heretical doctrines. I suspect a critical reading of the book would turn up some errant doctrine that was absent in the movie. But I saw nor heard anything offensive to me and I think those who are critical of its theology are missing the point. It’s a work of art; it’s a fable; it’s an allegory; it’s an extended metaphor. It is all those things much more than it’s meant to be Christian doctrine. It also may be that rare exception, a movie that’s better than the book.

Toward the end of the film there’s a scene that resonated with my perhaps somewhat skewed theology. God reappears as a Native American shaman and not as a black female. Mack is a bit taken aback and says, “God, are you messing with me?”  And the shaman answers, “Always!”  The rather conservative Calvinist theologian R.C. Sproul once said something to the effect: “If you think you understand God, then either you are or He isn’t.” That has the ring of truth for me. And I also tend to believe that in some sense God does mess with us. In any event, just when you think you’ve got Him boxed up in your little comfort zone, in your very own hip pocket, then He isn’t. He is inscrutable and He can’t be contained in some neat little package. That’s why there’s Jesus. Our Savior put a human face on the Ruler and Creator of the Universe. My personal theology is pretty much summed up by John’s “God is Love” statement from his first epistle –that and the great commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, Matt 22:37-40). That’s pretty straightforward–but doctrine much beyond that leaves an awful lot to argue about.

People will see in the film what they are inclined to see. Referencing a quote from Blaise Pascal, Brennan Manning said, “God created man in his image, and man returned the favor.” I think most believers should see this movie and decide for themselves. Some will see it as uplifting and their faith will be strengthened. Others will see it as some End Times great delusion meant to lead the faithful astray. Anyway, as for me, maybe it’s just the mood I’ve been in of late, but it warmed my cynical heart considerably.

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Gaslighting, Fake News & Other Reality Thefts

The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1944 movie Gaslight that stars Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. The film portrays a clever sociopath convincing his new wife that she’s going crazy by manipulating her sense of reality. The gaslights dim for no  good reason. The husband insists that she’s imagining it, and he plays other tricks to get her to question her sanity. Today, gaslighting is mostly used to describe manipulation in relationships where the guy (usually) is having an affair and tries to convince his wife/girlfriend that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for the clues she thinks she sees that suggests he’s cheating.

Gaslighting strategies include: (1) Telling gigantic, often obviously false lies over and over, (2) Insisting that what one observed first hand didn’t really happen, (3) demeaning and criticizing the victim, (4) Isolating the victim from other sources who would help them reality check.

However, the term has come up a lot lately in reference to President Trump and his persistent claims that his version of an event is the real one — like the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Because he’s a master manipulator some see sinister motives in his insistence on his version of a story being real. Is he actively playing us, manipulating our sense of reality to gain further control? Or is he just so childish that he just has to have his way and won’t be satisfied until everyone buys into it? Hopefully, time will tell.

In fact, gaslighting is no more or less than the tyranny of the self-possessed over the insecure, or someone with more power and control insisting that their version of reality is THE reality. It is a favored trick of narcissists and cult leaders — their victims being the insecure and codependent. Someone with a strong ego and confidence in their ability to reality check is not likely to fall prey to gaslighting.

Fake News

Fake news is more problematic, especially in this era of Facebook, Twitter and social media. I spend more time each day scrolling thru my feed on Facebook than I’d care to admit, and what I see is governed by some algorithm likely based on what I’ve clicked on in the past. Unfortunately, over the past year I get more and more rancorous stories and memes with a political focus. Funny cat videos aside, what I really would like to see is more heartwarming, funny or spiritual stories and memes. Anyway, some of my feed comes from the far left and some come from the right. I have four or five friends from both ends of the political spectrum and so I guess what I’m exposed to via their posts is about as “fair and balanced” as Fox News. That is to say balanced, but fair, not so much.

My internal baloney detector tells me that about 50% of what I see is distorted, unbalanced, partially false or outright lies. My baloney detector is based on spending three years in graduate school studying experimental psychology. At New Mexico State we were taught to be pure empiricists and rigidly skeptical to boot. Empiricists are taught to ignore opinion and to let the data speak for itself.

In the section on “power” in my book Jesus v. satan: The Message of the Wilderness Temptations I write about the malignant power of reality thieves that spread falsehoods on the internet and Facebook.  I give several examples of stories I have come across. My favorite is that the PBS kid’s show host Mr Rogers was a Marine Corps sniper in Viet Nam with over 20 kills. That one made me laugh out loud but surely their were folks who believed it.

Even so, I’ve been fooled a few times by clicking “like” on a story that said was likely false. However, what I’ve discovered is that Snopes has an orientation too–and one more liberal than my own. So fact checking is sometimes helpful, however there’s no guarantee that the fact-check site is neutral.

For me the most interesting statement in the Bible uttered by a non-believer is when Pilate says to Jesus, “What is truth?”  That question can be interpreted in so many ways. He might as well have said, “What is reality?” And I’ve asked that question myself innumerable times. Sadly, for many reality is what they choose to make it. It is what they are prone to believe rather than what the facts actually indicate. However, one thing for sure, it’s a question that will not be answered by social media. Fake news proliferates on Facebook and there’s no good way of regulating it. Take away social media and the fake news problem would drop by over 50%.

However, what is even more discouraging is that major newspapers reprint fake news and don’t really seem to care. In the old days magazines and newspapers had fact checkers. Veracity was important. Today, politically correct opinion and commentary trumps the facts. Ditto the major TV networks.

Trying to sort thru opinions to find the facts is hard work. Consider hot button topics like climate change and trickle-down economics. One PhD says this, but another expert with equally good credentials says the opposite. Tacking down the hard data and drawing a conclusion is arduous. It’s work that most are unwilling to do and so we opt for a cleverly worded opinion that reflects what we already believe.

Reality Thieves

Way back in 1986, I wrote an unpublished essay about the perniciousness of lies, liars and lying. This likely was prompted by reading Christian psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie. Peck’s book was about evil people and how the psychiatric nomenclature is inadequate to describe evil. I never finished the piece but I remember some of what I wrote. My point was that the evil in lies and liars was that we need the truth to make good decisions — sometimes life and death decisions, and that those who steal our reality by deliberately lying to us are truly evil people. My insight at the time seemed a half-step expansion on what Peck had written.

Even baby-Christians know that Satan is a liar, the father of lies (John 8:44)  and a thief (John 10:10). Satan came to lie and to steal and to kill. Gaslighters, deliberate purveyors of fake news, and plain old liars all serve the devil in that they seek to steal our reality, kill the truth–and in some sense destroy us as well. Whether we are a believer or not we owe each other the truth as human beings — the truth as best we can discern it.

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How To Cope Like Abe

I just finished reading Lincoln’s Melancholy a book that examines in great depth the inner life and deep sadness and despair of arguably our greatest president. The fact that he struggled with depression is fairly well known. I mention his depression in my book The Unwelcome Blessing. However, until reading Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book I had no idea how deep and pervasive his problem was with clinical depression— labeled melancholy in the 19th Century.

In his mid-20s he had at least three episodes of what today would qualify for a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder. His friends feared that he was suicidal to the point where they kept close watch on him and even hid knives from him. Today, he undoubtedly would have been hospitalized and treated with psychoactive medication. However, beyond the episodes of major depression, Lincoln’s whole life was one tinged with a sadness so deep that he would surely be labeled Dysthymic Disorder.

Dysthymia is a long depression of mild to moderate intensity. It is what I have coped with most of my life. In most instances dysthymia is life-long. Many dysthymics get by without treatment but often turn to alcohol, over-eating and street drugs to cope.

In Lincoln’s time, struggling with melancholy did not yet have the stigma that became attached to it in the 20th Century. If anything it was considered somewhat ennobling. In 1972, Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton was briefly the VP running mate of George McGovern. When his history of hospitalizations for depression became public he was forced to withdraw from the race. It would be much the same today. President Trump could utter one outrageous statement after another and still get elected, but had he had a history of hospitalizations for depression he’d have never won a single primary.

Shenk makes the point that Lincoln’s melancholy (dysthymia) was very much part and parcel of who he was as an individual–and that at a fairly young age he came to accept that his life would always be one of sadness. Also, around the same time he came to the realization that he had an important destiny to fulfill. It is what drove him on thru one failure after another until, almost miraculously, in 1860, he is elected President of the United States with only 40% of the popular vote.

Lincoln undoubtedly had somewhat of a biological predisposition to depression. However, beyond that he was born into grinding poverty and lost his mother at a young age. His father was a hard man but not abusive. Lincoln basically had only one year of formal education. He was an autodidact who eventually read enough law to become a fairly successful circuit riding attorney in Central Illinois. However, even after he achieved a modicum of success more than one person remarked that he was the saddest person they’d ever met.

So how did Abe cope with the ever present demon of his melancholy?  (1) He read a lot. He favored Shakespeare— particularly the tragedies. Though he never joined a church, he read the Bible extensively. The book of Job particularly resonated with him, and one can easily see biblical cadences and allusions in his speeches (2) He wrote poetry that vented his sadness, and there are a few surviving examples of his poems. (3) He loved humor. He read the popular satirical magazines of his day. He could suddenly emerge from an obvious state of sadness and introversion with a joke or a funny story that would entertain everyone in his presence. He laughed at his own jokes–and obviously sharing them with others brought immense pleasure to him. Humor was this most solitary man’s way of connecting with others.

The ways Lincoln coped with his deep despair echo many of my own suggestions in The Unwelcome Blessing.  I cite humor, journaling, creativity–and reading the Bible (particularly Psalms) as ways of overcoming depression. Dysthymic Disorder really doesn’t have a cure as such but it can be coped with and overcome, and it is in that striving that one grows. It can truly become an unwelcome blessing.

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Martin Scorsese’s latest film about faith and redemption is as thought-provoking and brutal as it is lovely and slow-moving.

In 1630, two Portuguese priests Fr. Rodriques (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Garupe (Adam Driver) journey to Japan to find their mentor Fr. Ferriera (Liam Neeson). They are incredulous at the report that Fr. Ferriera has renounced his faith and taken a Japanese name and wife. They feel compelled to track him down and prove that the rumor of his apostasy is false. The film opens with scenes of Ferriera and other priests being tortured and being asked to blaspheme Christ.

The guide and translator for Rodriques and Garupe is Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka). To me, the seedy, tormented Kichijiro is the most compellingly real character in the film. They find Kichijiro, who appears half insane, exiled in Macao and offer to take him home to Japan if he will help them. Kichijiro appears and reappears throughout the film like a leitmotiv constantly begging absolution from the priests for his many transgressions and betrayals. Kichijiro has no problem denying Christ and appearing apostate to save his own skin.

They land in Japan at a tiny impoverished seaside hamlet of believers who are hiding from a pogrom carried out by the Inquisitor. The Inquisitor is a local warlord on a mission to ferret out believers and get them to deny Christ. The Inquisitor tests them by their willingness to step on an icon of the Holy Family.

At one time there had been several hundred thousand Christians in Japan, mostly in the vicinity of Nagasaki, but by the mid-17th century that number had been greatly reduced due to persecution. The undercover Christians in the tiny village see the coming of the priests as a miraculous answer to prayers. They have a pure, childlike reverence approaching adoration for the priests, the sacraments and pretty much anything “Christian.” Their faith is so strong that the priests are moved to temporarily set aside their mission of finding Ferriera to minister to the villagers.

Of course, eventually they are discovered by the Inquisitor and subjected to torture. The Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) like Kichijiro is also a compelling character and a scene stealer. He’s urbane and philosophical, not unlike Pontius Pilate, and he employs psychological torture not unlike brain-washing. The bargain he offers the priests is that if they will deny Christ he will spare torturing the simple peasants who refuse to compromise their faith.

And quite predictably Liam Neeson reappears towards the end of the tale as an obviously broken and oddly robotic Buddhist monk.

The “silence” of the film is, of course, the silence of God. The movie is based on an acclaimed 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo and rendering it to film was a long time goal for Scorsese. The film poses many profound questions and the professional reviewers have had mixed reactions. The film’s symbols and metaphors are nearly  overwhelming. The critics have an almost reverential view of Scorsese but are mostly uncomfortable with his handling of the themes of faith and salvation.

I’m reminded of something the Trappist monk Thomas Merton said to the effect that God is most present when He seems most absent.

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“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means, God with us.” ~ Matthew 1:23

This was revealed to a deeply perplexed Joseph in a dream. He was troubled that, Mary his virgin bride to be, was pregnant. The words in his dream were also the fulfillment of a prophecy given by Isaiah hundreds of years before.

The Gospel is the “Good News” and when it comes to the miracle of the ages, I suspect there are two types of believers. There are those who focus on the mystery of God choosing to become man, Emmanuel and the Advent, and those for whom the really big deal, the really good news is the Crucifixion and Resurrection. I view them as just two parts of the same story–but for me personally, I’m more moved by the mystery of the Christmas story than the Easter story.

Anyway, so I suspect there are at heart Advent Christians and Easter Christians, just like there are introverts and extroverts, Cubs fans and Indian fans, Pharisees and Sadducees, and so it goes.

Likewise there seems to be two basic types of the 31-plus flavors of Christianity. There are those who tend to be more literalist and legalist—folks who live and die with the plenary authority of Scripture–and those who feel more led by the Holy Spirit and the spirit of the law rather than the exact letter of the law. I’m okay with either flavor. Fully embracing one camp or the other is not a deal-breaker for me. I can see both points of view and I don’t have a problem hanging out with believers of either focus.

But it’s a big deal for some believers. The exact nature of the gospel, the good news of scripture, led to a huge fight in my home church this past year. There were heated debates, voluminous emails with dueling scriptures, and eventually hurt feelings and a church split. In one camp the gospel was strictly the forgiveness of sins and in the other camp it was that and more—that it was God’s plan to tell the greater story of the redemption of creation and conforming us to the likeness of His Son. I leaned more toward the latter view–but I really didn’t take much part in the great debate. I thought a lot of it was semantics. Words mean different things to different people—well, semantics and also satan having his way fracturing Christ’s Body for the umpteenth million time.

Anyway, this past Sunday in the megachurch I also attend, Pastor Joel used the above quote from Matthew as his text. What suddenly jumped out at me was that Emmanuel means God is with US. That the “us”is bigger than the you or I and our particular flavor of belief–and that when there is no “us” there is pretty much no Christianity.

In the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus’ final discourse, we see Him pleading with us in verse 21 to be as one: “That they all may be one; as thou father art in me, and I in thee, that they may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” 

I can never read John 17 without tearing up and realizing how much it meant to Jesus that we be one in Him and how miserably we’ve failed. I think that chapter should be read aloud in every church at least once a month.

And, by the way, Advent—Emmanuel, God with us—should be a time for healing. That God choosing to become man is a miracle. That’s something we all believe and can agree on.

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Not having any family nearby I’ve gradually come to dread most of the major holidays as they are typically “family” occasions. That was the case again this year as Thanksgiving, the big T-day, and the beginning of the holiday season, loomed on the calendar. I’ve lived alone for most of the past 25 yrs. Though I have many friends and keep busy with work, church and various other activities, the sense of isolation wears on me.

Sometimes I get invites from people who are almost total strangers. That is very kind, but I wouldn’t go anyway because its a “family” time. Somehow it just feels awkward to be an outsider among someone else’s family. And none of the various home church families whose orbits I’ve been in the past five years bothered to extend an invitation. Again, I probably would have begged off but it would have been nice to have been considered. I used to have a local circle of friends that felt like a family and we celebrated all the major holidays together for many years–but death, moves and illness gradually eroded the fellowship.

Anyway, for all of my pre-holiday angst and dread this Thanksgiving worked out wonderfully well–and I think that was God’s plan all along. There were two events this weekend that, like grace itself, were absolutely FREE.

Not that I couldn’t have paid for both–and probably would have, but the fact that they were free, as in generous, made them all the more special.

At noon on T-day I had dinner with about 200 others at St. Mary Magdalen in Altamonte Springs. It was a well organized event and the food was great. For a number of years one family from that parish, along with some helpers, have cooked turkeys with all the trimmings. We were seated at big round tables with linen tablecloths. There were 7 or 8 at our table and I knew three ladies, Millie, Evie and Marilyn, from a Catholic singles group that I was a part of many years ago. I saw my attorney John Michael and several other people I knew as well.

Overall, the atmosphere was very festive and joyous. The 200 or so folks were an odd assortment. There were a good number of seniors and handicapped, Latinos and Orientals, plus a scattering of intact families. Wheelchairs and walkers abounded. The nice thing about most Catholic parishes is that they’re multi-ethnic and very multi-generational. Its good to see doddering oldsters dining at the same table with children. There were some folks there who looked pretty down and out and unconnected and were it not for the Church would have had no place to go.

My background is partially Roman Catholic and I’m comfortable with Catholic events. I like it that they have beer and wine available—sans the sanctimony of most protestant churches. I’ve gone to a big nondenominational evangelical church for 23 years, plus home churches for five years. They all yammer on and on about being “family” but the bottom line is that when the holiday comes—not so much. St. Mary Magdalen’s generosity in feeding everyone (and whomever) a free Thanksgiving feast kind of goes along with the Church of Rome’s strong commitment to social justice.

That evening I went over to some friend’s place after an  impromptu invite for supper and dessert. There were only four of us—a remnant of the larger group that met for so many years and shared the holidays together. Earlier, they had gone out to the Gaylord Palms for their fancy buffet and to see the ice sculptures.  I was really pleased that they invited me to share a bite and have some fellowship that evening. It was pleasant but bittersweet. Those who were gone were in all of our thoughts.

The other free event of the weekend was the Orlando Messiah Society’s annual singing of Handel’s magnificent oratorio. This has been a free event held on the Sunday after T-day for the past 44 years. It’s obviously a labor of love for the program’s sponsors and the musicians. There is a volunteer chorus of 80 accompanied by 24 musicians and four featured guest singers. All in all its a first class production.

I’ve attended this event for 8 out of the past 9 years. Once I went with a group and another time I had a date but the other six years I was there by myself–and sometimes feeling a bit sorry for myself because I was alone. As I sat waiting for the music to begin a 60-ish Latino gentleman asked if the seat next to me was available. I said that it was. After he sat down and just before the music started he made the sign of the Cross. There was something utterly sincere and touching about the man’s gesture. I think he was feeling the same holy gratitude that I was feeling.


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