Tuesday, December 25, 2012

"Silent Night," Candlelight...and Egg Rolls

I no longer recall how it became "what we do on Christmas Eve" but perhaps that's the way it is with traditions.  The actions take on a life and significance all their own quite beyond their genesis long-since forgotten.  In our case perhaps its roots are sunk deep into a darker time in our family life, now years ago, when the kids and I were thrashing around for some act -- some practice, some thread -- that would signify our “us-ness”; that would somehow enact the conviction that, despite everything that had happened, there was some kind of wholeness to our holiday gatherings rather than merely the fragments of something now broken.

Perhaps.  I frankly don’t recall.  It could have simply been someone’s way of avoiding another turkey dinner.  All I can say with reliable conviction is that somewhere along the way we started making egg rolls. Christopher, Merryl and me.  Homemade ones.  On Christmas Eve.  Before or between the church services, chopping, stir-frying, spooning and enveloping, and ultimately frying. 

It is, I’ll grant you, a rather odd tradition -- labor-intensive, smelly, often smokey should the oil get too hot or the rolls be neglected too long in the fryer due to familial distraction.  Always with beef, variously augmented with shrimp or, more often, chicken.  When Lori joined our little culinary merriment, fried rice joined in as a welcomed accompaniment -- why hadn't we thought of that before? -- along with better sauces and condiments, plus an extra pair of capable hands.  In the ensuing years we have become quite the efficient assembly line.  

And did I mention that they are good?  Sitting down to enjoy the fruits of our labor even trumps gathering around the tree for the great unwrapping as first priority.  

And so it was that last night the oil was once again heated, the wrappers were once again filled through the ministrations of multiple hands, rolled, sealed and submerged in a frenzy of bubbles.  And eventually a grateful, hungry family sat down to enjoy them.  It is, I suppose, one part project, one part taste, and one part appetite that makes it all worthwhile.

But it’s the anticipation born from years of repetition, the laughter over messes made, the practiced procedures, the hours shared and the stories exchanged on this precious night that make it magic.  

And, of course, the fact that it is us -- this hybridized Diebel family -- all these years later, doing it all.  

It’s hard to imagine a more blessed way to spend Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Candle Burning; A Song Still Singing

Amazing, the resilience of the human heart -- how hopeful and trusting is the human spirit.  Perhaps, on second thought, it is not so much the "human heart/spirit" but rather that persistent glimpse of the Divine Image indelibly stamped upon us, animated by the holiest of breaths, that imbues us with the capacity to look beyond the brokenness of the darkened moment to a brighter light just over the horizon.  However common and expected that spiritual ruggedness might be in theologians, it is the more viscerally approachable,  consistently steady effluence of poets and musicians.  

Throughout the national grief of recent days, these are a few of the songs that have been humming through my soul:

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
Martin Luther -- "A Mighty Fortress is Our God"

This is my Father's world.

O let me ne'er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
Maltbie D. Babcock -- "This is My Father's World"

  It was as if an earthquake rent 

    The hearth-stones of a continent,
        And made forlorn
        The households born
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
    And in despair I bowed my head;
    "There is no peace on earth," I said;
        "For hate is strong,
        And mocks the song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
        The Wrong shall fail,
        The Right prevail,
    With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -- "The Christmas Bells"

Death may raise its voice today 
O but life will have its say 
Speaking in lovers and in children 
In poets pens and philosopher’s visions 
Life is a planet’s daring dream 
Earth’s devotion, spoken in green 
Peter Mayer -- "Green"

You say you see no hope, 
you say you see no reason
We should dream that the world would ever change
You're saying love is foolish to believe
'Cause there'll always be some crazy with an Army or a knife
To wake you from your day dream, put the fear back in your life
Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What's stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late, he's almost in defeat
It's looking like the Evil side will win, so on the 
Edge Of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins
It is....
Love that mixed the mortar
And it's love who stacked these stones
And it's love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we're alone
In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it's love that wrote this play...
For in this darkness love can show the way
David Wilcox -- "Show the Way"  

And then this, from the testament of the season, spoken, almost as a spiritual requirement, with a flickering candle in our hands:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John 1:5
This is, after all, Advent, the season in which our very job description as children of God's imagination is to stand somehow in the breach between the way the world is and the way God intends it to be and both name the difference, and stir up momentum for a mass exodus from the former as pilgrims toward the latter.
Having found that music nourishes the journey, here's my advice:  keep singing as you light the way.

Monday, December 17, 2012

When It's Not As Simple as it Seems

Years ago -- 30 or more -- I heard a preacher name the disease afflicting our culture, "the Simples."  Our routine practice, he observed, is to adopt simplistic solutions to complex problems -- which, if anything, only makes them worse by deluding us into thinking them solved.  Indeed, if we have been so infected it is clear that no vaccine has been found.

I've been thinking about that disease ever since the school shooting tragedy in Connecticut last Friday, and the presumed steps necessary to prevent such anguish in the future; thinking about this public moment in the light of countless other ones in recent decades toward which simplistic solutions have been thrown.  Unwanted pregnancies since the sixties; escalating crime; illegal immigration; terrorist attacks since 9/11; school security since Columbine.  "If only we did XXXXX (fill in the blank), our troubles would be over."  One simple solution that would cover all our worries -- at least our worries about that particular problem.

Juxtapose this new outbreak of "the Simples" against the recent interview I heard with the Chairman of Nordstrom's Department Stores about the challenges of running his retail business.  When asked to describe his store's return policy he smiled and responded, "Well, we don't have one.  I concluded that we were never going to come up with one single policy that could apply to every situation, so we decided that our policy would be to tell our employees to use their best judgment."

Which, if I hear him correctly, is to suggest that it is NOT simple.  To be sure, his "policy" is in many ways harder; messier; fraught with potential problems -- but it is more honest.   Exceptions become the norm.  The truth is that there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution.

And no amount of condoms given away is going to solve the unwanted pregnancy problem; no wall of any height across the U.S. border is going to solve our immigration problems; no number of bigger prisons incarcerating those given mandatory sentences is going to solve our crime problem; no number of locks on school doors is going to safely secure our children; and no number of X-Ray machines and cavity searches at airport entrances is going to prevent terrorist attacks.

And as supportive as I am of prudent gun control measures -- crow-barring ourselves incrementally away from this idolatrous altar of weaponry before which we seem determined to bow -- no amount of gun laws will ultimately prevent these tragedies.

These are the superficial, band-aid delusions coughed up by a people infected by "the Simples" who pat themselves on the back for their dexterous dispatching of the problem, only to be shocked and confused by its still more virulent outbreak as soon as they turn around.  The problems are more complicated than that.  These are not hardware problems; neither are they "legal" problems or "systems" problems that can be solved with a tweak or a twist.  They are social problems -- wrought by our fecklessness at understanding one another, and our impatience with learning better ways. We would rather create policies, pass laws, and build stronger locks than doing the hard work of paying attention, seeking to understand and patiently, diligently creating a genuine community.

In the case of the Newtown tragedy we can demonize the shooter, but that only serves to distance ourselves from any collective responsibility.  If "he" is the whole of the problem, I am free simply to grieve, and then go on with my life.  I don't have to change.  We don't have to change.

But, of course, we do have to change.  Or nothing will change.

Several years ago Lori and I were trained to teach Couple Communication classes developed to strengthen and improve marriages.  We have been struck by how resistant people are to taking them -- by how few couples want to lean into the dynamics and practices of their relationship to see if there is room for improvement.  That kind of work, after all, is hard and vulnerable and suggests the hint of the possibility that "we" aren't perfect as we are.

That, in a microcosm, is our tragically flawed, terminally simplistic culture.  Except for a few crazies running around that we'll find some better mousetrap to contain, we are perfect.

In the words of the great theologian Dr. Phil, "how's that working for you?"

Go on, then, pass some gun laws.  Pass out some more condoms, build your border wall if you have to and, of course, a few more prisons; bolt on a few more locks; requisition more square-footage at the airport to house the vast collection of fingernail clippers and 4-oz containers of shampoo confiscated by TSA screenings.

And then, for God's sake -- and our own -- let's do something meaningful and real to engage the problems that confront us.

And, at least for a time, interrupt the epidemic spread of "the Simples."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Anticipating Our Own Little Sympathetic Sizzle

In the interest of full disclosure, I've never attended.  Almost certainly that explains my disbelief.  Surely if I had ever been to "Baconfest" I would completely understand the appeal of this annual event that just broke its own record time for selling out.  As it stands, I'm totally in the dark.

This four-year-old, curiously-themed celebration of all things "baconic", which started with a few hundred people in a couple of downtown bars, has now grown to the point that organizers have doubled last year's capacity to 8000 tickets for the February 2013 event that will fill two buildings at the State Fair grounds.  Given the fact that those 8000 tickets, which went on sale yesterday -- 12/12/12 at, of course, 12:12 p.m. -- sold out in exactly four minutes, organizers are already brainstorming ways to accommodate the fattening interest.

Let me just repeat here the basics:  this is a festival about bacon.


All things bacon.

Bacon on a stick.  Bacon in a cupcake.  Bacon on a cracker.  Bacon in a brownie.  You name it, you can probably get it from one or another of the booths filling the space selling samples of the fruits of their culinary porcine imaginations.


8000 tickets sold in 4 minutes.  At $35 a pop -- which gets you a T-shirt, a beer Koozie, a few samples, and the opportunity to buy more from the restaurants who have set up booths there with bacon-inspired delectables.  Oh, and don't let me forget the "Bacon Educational Lectures" that will be offered.  You'll want to get in line for those early because I'm sure those are a real draw -- kind of like how the "serious" articles are the real reason people buy Playboy Magazine.

Like I said, I don't get it.  The area has plenty of entertainment options -- concerts, Broadway plays, local theatre, the full range of athletic contests at the high school, college and professional levels, parks to walk in, lakes to boat in, organized farm visits that afford the opportunity to "shake the hand of the farmer who feeds you", multiform houses of worship, charity walks, challenging runs...  There isn't a shortage of things to do.  But my guess is that except for an occasional Taylor Swift or Bruce Springsteen concert, none of those events are selling out their capacities in 4 minutes.

So what's the sense to make of it?  The economy is supposedly struggling.  Money is allegedly tight.  You know, hard times all over.  Add to that the renewed emphasis on healthy eating.  The Governor has even "weighed in", so to speak, with a highly touted "Healthy Iowa Initiative", and I'm guessing that bacon doesn't play much of a role in those plans.  Exercise, vegetables, portion control, fewer sugary drinks.  Maybe bacon appears somewhere in the fine print, but I doubt it.

Now don't get me wrong.  I'm a big fan of bacon.  All the fat notwithstanding, I could eat my weight in it (but just for the record, in case my Doctor is reading, I don't...ever...eat my weight in it.  Quite.)  But as much of an appetite as I can work up for the tasty little strips, I'm not cuing up my browser to score one of those limited tickets.

Maybe it's for the "charity work" supported by the event (though I'm betting not 3 people in the room that day could tell you what that is).  Maybe it is just for the totally absurd fun of it all in the midst of what routinely is a dismal time of year.  Maybe it is a covert strategy to boost the oft-maligned Iowa pork industry.  Maybe it is somehow, abstractly, tied to the same subterranean affections that rose up in such loud and epic lament for the demise of Hostess Twinkies and Ho-Ho's.

Who knows?  And, frankly, who cares?  Ticket holders will no doubt have a festive time, and I'm sure there will be plenty of napkins on hand to wipe the grease off their fingers and chins.  As for me, I'll just curl up with the dog and a good book, and enjoy the winter day.

After our own humble breakfast of bacon and eggs.

Monday, December 10, 2012

"With the Angels Let Us Sing...Alleluia..."

They were simply songs, simply sung in the barn.  Christmas songs, of course, and that specificity matters.  I'm not sure that strumming through "Melancholy Baby" or "Stairway to Heaven" would have had the same effect, but even "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" strikes a chord when there is a chill in the air and it has been snowing outside.  "Let All Mortal Flesh" and "Silent Night" had us in the palm of their hand.  It occurs to me that Christmas songs may best be sung in a barn -- dripped hydraulic fluid, diesel fumes, coiled hoses, chain saws and all.  Isn't that, after all, close to how it all got started -- in a barn?  There were no apparent angels in our midst -- though a more exacting definition of the word would surely argue the point -- but wise people bearing gifts certainly crowded the space.  We had no hay, and though Tir made a promenading appearance at the outset, no other animals were present.  Nevertheless, it felt like a holy night -- one that was exactly right; exactly like...well, like Christmas.

A guitar string broke along the way, but it didn't matter.  We had frenzied tambourines, finger cymbals and the exuberant smiles of kids.  We had friends -- lifelong ones and others only minutes old.  And we had the moments, warmed and exchanged.  Besides, it wasn't about virtuosity.  It wasn't about the strums or any dexterous fingerwork on frets and keyboards and horns, though there were plenty of those.  It was about something far less obvious, infinitely more intangible, but ineffably important.  It was about common songs, unfussed, offered up simply and honestly to the inky winter night outside and anything Divine that might be listening, as if something about the humble act among strangers and friends mattered.

Which, of course, it does.

There is work to be done today, cleaning up.  Travelers -- from as near as next door and as far as states away -- have walked or driven home.  The detritus of paper cups, wadded napkins and smeared plastic plates testifies to an evening well-spent.  Conviviality mingled with -- or better, nourished by -- music collectively made.  The tables will need to be wiped down before collapsing the legs, and I'll give some thought to where we might store the new folding chairs, out of the way.  The floor could probably stand a broom, if not also a mop, and there is garbage to haul to the dumpster.  But I think I'll plug in the tree, and the stars and nativity once more to light the way for the tractor and the truck moved back into place.

And smile in gratitude and retrospection.

And hum.  "...all is calm.  All is bright."