Archive for December, 2013

Sisters of Charity changing the world

Published Saturday, September 28, 2013 in The Kentucky Standard
It was right after I moved to Bardstown last year that I first set foot on the campus of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. It was a sweltering Saturday in August, and my assignment was to write about the sisters’ last picnic — a fundraiser for their work.
As soon as I parked my car in a field and started walking toward the motherhouse, I was awestruck. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.
The grounds were covered with gigantic old trees, towering into the sky and shading the lush lawn and stately buildings. The palatial church of St. Vincent de Paul was something out of a fairytale. But the people were as beautiful as the place. Everyone I met that day seemed so friendly and happy.
Among them were some women from Memphis who were cooking the most mouth-watering smoked barbecue I’ve ever eaten. Julie Vavak, Sharon Smith and Patsy O’ Toole cooked 120 pounds of pork that day, and still they had time to talk with a reporter about why they wanted to help the sisters and how they had done mission work together for them in Belize.
Last month, I met some of those same women again, and a few of their friends. They were repairing the roof of Catherine Bryant’s house on Muir Avenue and landscaping her yard with knockout roses. Later that afternoon, they were power-washing Arthur Woodson’s house on Allison Avenue and painting his front porch.
It was their idea of a vacation.
One of the women, Stacey McClain, told me they were doing it not only because it was a nice change of pace from their office jobs, but also because they had been “blessed with strong backs and strong hearts.” They had been fortunate, she said, and knew that the only way to have a fulfilled life was to “pay it forward.”
That same day, I covered a seminar on the evil of human trafficking, which includes forcing teenage runaways into prostitution and forcing illegal immigrants to work for nothing except shelter and food.
It happened that the presentation was by Catholic Charities of Louisville in cooperation with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Patsy O’ Toole, the lady who introduced the speaker, social worker Maria Castellanos, was the same SCN associate I had interviewed at the sisters’ picnic last year.
State Sen. Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon told me the sisters were instrumental in getting stronger human trafficking legislation enacted in this year’s General Assembly.
Just a few days before, I had attended Congressman Brett Guthrie’s constituents meeting at the Nelson County Public Library, and learned that the woman in the back of the room who was asking tough questions about immigration reform was a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
A few days later, I attended the dedication of the SCN Medical Office Building at Flaget Memorial Hospital, which I discovered, had been founded by the Sisters of Charity. One of the women I met on that occasion was an elderly sister who still works at the hospital as a volunteer.
Also about this time, I was watching a Louisville television station’s news program to see coverage of a rally in Frankfort against the proposed natural gas liquids pipeline, and was surprised when they interviewed Sister Teresa Kotturan of India, who spoke eloquently and with authority about the environmental threat she believed the pipeline posed.
I had only recently met her on one of my evening walks on the grounds of the SCN campus, when I was photographing deer, and she showed me digital pictures she had taken of a doe and fawn near her house on the SCN campus. I had no idea she was then the vice president of SCN.
It seems the Sisters of Charity are everywhere.
Last week, while doing a story about the community of Nazareth, I learned that it has always been so.
Since its founding in 1812 by Bishops John Baptist David and Benedict Joseph Flaget, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and those connected to their ministry have been a force for good in the world.
The sisters nursed the victims of the cholera epidemic of the 1830s and were among the first to minister to AIDS victims in the 1980s. They have served the poor and disabled from Kentucky to Katmandu, established  hospitals and schools in the United States and abroad, and given their voices to the concerns of social justice and environmental stewardship.
Last, but not least, they have prayed, and I believe their prayers have made a difference.
In all that they do, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and their associates act out of love because they are “impelled by the charity of Christ.”
Our community and our world are better because of their faithful witness.

Modify, don’t repeal and replace, health law

By Randy Patrick
Saturday, October 5, 2013
My first newspaper job included some unusual perks. The family that owned the weekly also owned the old hotel where our offices were, and I was given rooms, rent-free, with cleaning service and fresh linens.

One benefit that wasn’t included was medical insurance. So I went to a Golden Rule agent and asked for an individual policy.

I thought I could get inexpensive catastrophic coverage for a low price. I was 24, weighed 175, didn’t smoke, jogged daily, played tennis, hiked and rode my 10-speed. I was the picture of health — except that I was asthmatic.

They wanted to charge more, yet included riders that denied coverage of anything that could be related to my condition — meaning almost anything.

If I had known about Golden Rule, I would have known they were notorious for cherry picking those who weren’t likely to file claims.

When my sister began work as a pre-kindergarten teacher, her job didn’t include coverage because she had Menier’s disease. She couldn’t afford insurance on her own.

These experiences and others convinced me our nation needed health reform.

I knew health care in Canada was comparable to care here, but cost less. There were no insurance companies that made huge profits and employed people to figure out how to deny claims. You went to the doctor and never saw your bill because the government paid it. Canada’s plan isn’t perfect, but I’ve never met a Canadian who believed our way is better.

In the 1990s, I interviewed two Canadian surgeons who told me single-payer was simpler and more cost-efficient, and that their general practitioners earned more than ours. About this time, a Congressional Budget Office study showed a U.S. single payer plan would save enough money to cover all 30 million uninsured Americans.

Our country didn’t go down that path. In 1993, President Bill Clinton proposed a market-based reform plan that included an employer mandate and regulated HMO alliances. Republicans led by Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island countered with a Heritage Foundation-inspired alternative. Its cornerstone was an individual mandate — a requirement that everyone buy private insurance.

The individual mandate was lab-tested with mixed results in Massachusetts under Gov. Mitt Romney. In Kentucky, Gov. Brereton Jones tried to legislate a plan similar to Clinton’s, with less success. It prohibited discrimination based on pre-existing conditions and regulated rates, but drove out insurance companies. When Golden Rule left, I said “Good riddance.” But others followed, and it became clear that you can’t do reform on a state level.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, labeled Obamacare by President Barack Obama’s opponents, is a hybrid of the Chafee and Clinton plans. The part most people dislike is the individual mandate.

Obama didn’t like it either, but he caved on that and the public option to gain Republican support. It didn’t work. The GOP wanted Obamacare to be his Waterloo. There would be no compromise.

Now House Republicans are holding the government hostage to defund a health care law that passed Congress and was declared constitutional by the Supreme Court. That’s radical and reckless.

When U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., was in Bardstown this summer, he said defunding is not the solution. The problem is policy, not funding.

I agree. I don’t like the idea of the government requiring people to buy private insurance and taxing us to subsidize policies. It’s corporate welfare at its worst.

I would prefer legislation to reform Obamacare. Keep the regulations, including community rating and requiring insurers to cover pre-existing conditions, but get rid of the individual mandate. Bring back the public option — a large-pool, nonprofit plan that people could voluntarily buy into and that would be funded by premiums like any other plan.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., once told me such a plan was impractical because it would be so enticing that most people would choose it over private insurance, and we would end up with a single-payer plan by default.

And the problem with that is what?

Governing always requires compromise

By Randy Patrick
Saturday, October 19, 2013
Twenty-four billion dollars.

That’s how much the federal government shutdown cost the U.S. economy, according to Standard & Poor’s, the financial rating agency.
That’s $1.6 billion a day for each of the 16 days Congress was hopelessly gridlocked because a minority of ideologues in the Republican Party refused to fund government services after Oct. 1 or keep the nation from defaulting after Oct. 17 unless the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was defunded.
That was never going to happen. Neither the Democratic-controlled Senate nor the White House was going to undo what they consider their signature achievement of this decade — flawed though it is. Anyone who thought otherwise can’t count votes or think straight.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who once again deserves credit for reaching across the aisle to work with the Democratic leaders to get Congress out of a mess of its own making, said that what Ted Cruz and other tea partisans tried to do was “not a smart play.”
That’s a charitable way of putting it.
“We got off with a tactical error earlier, starting in July and August, that diverted our attention away from what was achievable,” McConnell told Politico in a phone interview Thursday after the Senate voted 81-18 Wednesday night on an agreement he worked out with Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. The House of Representatives approved it two hours later by a vote of 285-144, with 87 members of the Republican majority in that chamber joining 198 Democrats. The arrangement was only temporary, though. The parties will have this fight again early next year.
Let’s hope they’ll be a little wiser then.
This time we barely avoided catastrophe. Defaulting on the debt was the greatest risk. Wall Street warned Congress this was serious. In an interview aired Tuesday night on the “CBS Evening News”  Tony James, president of Blackstone, said that if the U.S. defaulted, it would result in margin calls on U.S. Treasury securities, the stock market would collapse, and it would be financial “Armageddon.” It could be worse, he said, than what happened five years ago.
The shutdown was a less serious problem. Government services deemed “essential” continued. The mail was delivered, retirees got their Social Security checks and national security wasn’t endangered. But regulatory agencies reduced services, furloughed federal workers had less money to spend, national parks closed, travel decreased, businesses that depended on tourists were shuttered and families’ livelihoods were destroyed.
“This isn’t some damned game,” Speaker of the House John Boehner said, directing his ire at the White House. But to a minority of neophytes, it was a game — one they would lose.
Something the Republican Party should learn from all this, if it didn’t learn it from the last election, is that the tea party is a liability. These people are revolutionists who want to burn down their own house. Their libertarian philosophy that individuals should be able to do anything they want without regard for the rights of others or the common good is the antithesis of democracy. These anarchists are a dire threat to our country, and they need to be exposed and rooted out, not accommodated.
William Safire, one of the most astute conservative columnists when I was a journalism student, wrote in 1972: “Nothing is more certain in politics than the crushing defeat of a faction that holds ideological purity to be of greater value than compromise.”
Whether what happened in Washington this month was a crushing defeat for the tea party or a temporary setback on the road to its eventual demise remains to be seen. We should worry about the damage they’ll do in the meantime.
Compromise is the cornerstone of democratic government. It’s absolutely necessary in accomplishing anything. Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas knew that. Ronald Reagan, Tip O’ Neill and Ted Kennedy knew it.
Yet it’s a principle that seems to be painstakingly slow for politicians in our time to learn.

Confessions of a frustrated religion reporter

By Randy Patrick
Saturday, October 26, 2013The woods around the Abbey of Gethsemani are an unlikely place for a wagon train, but that’s as good a description as any of what I encountered while out walking last Sunday.
I had hiked to Frederic Lake with a well-worn copy of Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain” in my shoulder bag and was looking forward to some solitude on that crisp October afternoon when my reading was interrupted by the sound of horses’ hooves, voices and the creaking of metal on the rocky road.
I looked up and saw two women on horseback, and behind them were teams of draft horses pulling two wagons carrying a family who had arrived for a wiener roast.
I told them I was about to leave — which wasn’t a lie. But in that awkward moment, just to have something to say, I mentioned the book I was reading was a 1948 first edition of Merton’s classic spiritual autobiography.
One of the men, Lambert Boone, said he remembered the author from his boyhood.
Remembered Merton? How was that possible, I wondered. Merton was a Trappist monk, and not only a monk, but a hermit who lived apart from the other monks.
But the Boones owned the adjoining farm, and as is true of farm children everywhere, they couldn’t be fenced in. They ignored the rule against going onto that part of the abbey land that was off limits, and would watch Merton writing outside his hermitage.
“We were kids,” Boone said. “We went where we wanted.”
It’s hearing stories like that, and retelling them, that makes being a writer worthwhile.
Lambert’s sister, Anna Burd, asked if I wrote for the newspaper, and when I said I did, she followed that with, “You write mostly about religion, don’t you?”
Well, no, I write mostly about water and sewer works, cable television, 5K races, farmers’ markets and craft festivals, but when I write about religion, it’s what people notice.
Maybe it’s because I enjoy it, and it shows.
Some of the stories I’ve done since I moved to Nelson County — and that have gotten the most attention — include a profile of a married Catholic priest in Bardstown, the 220th anniversary of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Fairfield, and American artist Walker Hancock’s stone carvings of Jesus and his disciples in the woods at Gethsemani.
The day after I met the Boones at Frederic Lake, I walked into Pat’s Place for lunch, and a lady who was with some other guests, stopped me and asked, “Aren’t you the one who writes about the nuns?”
Which was pretty funny, because I know as much about nuns as I know about nuclear physicists.
However, I had just written a magazine cover story about Nazareth and the Sisters of Charity, and that’s what was on her mind.
The truth is, I am a frustrated religion writer. About 10 years ago, when a regional daily’s religion reporter moved on, I wanted his old job, but the editors decided it would no longer be a full-time position. Religion specialists in journalism have since become rare.
Yet as a general assignment reporter and editor for small-town newspapers, I’ve had an opportunity to do some interesting stories on faith and values. I’ve featured a Zen Buddhist temple in the Red River Gorge, interviewed Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, written about the Dalai Lama in Northern Ireland, did some embedded reporting in the postmodern emergent church, photographed Christian rock music festivals and blogged about a Jewish Christian missionary’s insights on how to share the gospel with Muslims.
Maybe someday I’ll write for, the Religion News Service or Sojourners, but if I’m to remain a reporter for a rural paper, being one in the heart of Kentucky’s Holy Land is a good way to do a little of what I like most.

Honor the sacrifices of our veterans

By Randy Patrick
Saturday, November 9, 2013
All warriors are wounded. No soldier returns home the same person he or she was. Some scars are visible. Others are hidden deep.

Those words were the “lede” for my first weekend assignment for The Kentucky Standard — covering two events on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012, to raise money for wounded warriors.

Among the men I met that day were three of the Vietnam veterans profiled in Jim Wilson’s 1994 book, “The Sons of Bardstown” — Kent Bischoff, Jerry Janes and Jodie Haydon.

I was somewhat familiar with their story. I knew this little town had paid a heavy price by losing a disproportionately high number of men in the war, including five of the 14 who died on June 19, 1969 when Fire Support Base Tomahawk was overrun by North Vietnamese. Ten of the victims, including five from in or around Bardstown, were part of the Kentucky National Guard C Battery, 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery, based in Nelson County.

In a story I wrote last week as part of a pre-Veterans Day series that ends today, another of those survivors, Don Parrish, recalled the experience.

“There’s not one day goes by that I don’t think about it,” he said. “You can’t get rid of it.”

Wars end. The memories go on forever.

A poignant scene from Wilson’s book illustrates the sacrifices of the living as well as the deceased.

Years after the war, Bischoff and his wife were in Washington, D.C., and visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The next morning, he went back to “the Wall” to make carbon paper rubbings of the names of friends who died on Tomahawk Hill. He didn’t notice the crowd gathering around him until a woman stepped forward.

“Sir, you couldn’t possibly know all those people,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I surely do. I know every one of them personally.”

Bischoff told Wilson he wondered whether his friends’ sacrifices were meaningless.

“I hope they didn’t die for nothing,” he said, adding that it almost seemed that way when U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam and Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975.

The salt in the wounds of Vietnam veterans was that they were unfairly hated by many Americans who were against the war. Parrish told me he knew of veterans who were spat on at airports when they came home. That contrasts sharply with the respect returning servicemen and women are shown now. Parrish said he was at an airport in Florida several days ago and saw people step aside for returning soldiers. On the “NBC Nightly News” Wednesday, there was a story about seven airline passengers who gave up their first class seats so soldiers from Afghanistan could have a more comfortable flight home.

That’s how veterans should always be treated.

Even those with their lives and limbs intact make sacrifices that most of us can’t imagine, including long periods of separation from their loved ones and stress-related illnesses.

I was reminded of that a few days ago when I checked up on a couple I had written about 10 years ago when I was editor of The Jessamine Journal. On the same day Amanda and Aaron Hill were married in 2003, Aaron, a Marine reservist, got a call from his sergeant telling him to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, to serve in the war in Iraq that was imminent. After he had gone over, Mandy told me she feared for his life and prayed for him.

On Tuesday, I located her through Asbury University’s alumni office. I wanted to find out how they were and do a follow-up. I reached Mandy, who told me they were divorced. The post-traumatic stress syndrome Aaron suffered from in Iraq was one of the reasons their marriage and his military career had ended.

It’s a story that’s all too common.

On this Veterans Day, let us honor not only those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but also those who gave some part of their lives in war that others might live in peace.

Where the wild things are

By Randy Patrick
Saturday, November 2, 2013

In the gloaming I heard

the mallards laughing

and the thunder of wings

across the water

as many geese took flight.


I marveled at maples

with leaves red and gold

and the grace of a great

blue heron soaring

above the cold blue lake

— Nazareth,
Oct. 28, 2013


The genesis of this poem was something I wrote on my iPhone notes app while walking along the lakes at Nazareth Monday evening just before dark.

When I got home, I tried turning it into simple alliterative verse — two stanzas of five lines each, alternating between six and five syllables per line.

If it sounds amateurish, that’s because it’s probably only the second or third time in my life that I’ve ever tried to write a poem.

Anyway, this isn’t about the poem, it’s about the place.

The land around the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth motherhouse is where I go these days to find solace and solitude.

Photo by Randy Patrick

I’ve always been fortunate to have such a getaway. When I lived in Berea and Richmond, I would hike to the cliffs on Indian Fort Mountain at least twice a week. When I lived in Lexington, Nicholasville and then Winchester, I’d often go to Raven Run on weekends or Thursday afternoons. And since moving to Bardstown last summer, my retreats have been mostly to the wooded trails around the Abbey of Gethsemani, and the grounds of the Nazareth convent, where I walk almost every evening.

Nazareth is beautiful with its ancient, giant evergreens and architectural treasures. But a big part of its appeal for me is that it is teeming with wildlife.

I’ll walk all day at Gethsemani or Raven Run and never see anything more unusual than a squirrel or a buzzard, but Nazareth, though small, is like a menagerie without walls.

Every time I go walking there in the evening, I see white-tailed deer. The most I counted at one time was 16, last spring.

Lately, I’ve been watching the does with their young. Once, just before dusk, I got close to a little spotted fawn and took some photos, but its mother never moved nor took her eyes off me. I was afraid to get closer to the baby, because I thought she might attack. Fortunately, the fawn crossed in front of me, and together they moved on.

Also this summer, I enjoyed going to the little pond between the motherhouse and the railroad to feed the fish and turtles. One day, I think a turtle knew me, because she swam toward me from the middle of the pond, with two little ones paddling along behind her.

At Nazareth I’ve seen rabbits and woodchucks, large colorful carp and tiny minnows, redbirds and blue jays, and, I maybe an osprey. It was some kind of large raptor — not an eagle, and not, I think, a red-tailed hawk.

I keep hoping I’ll see a red fox or a bobcat — if it doesn’t see me first!

Lately, I’ve been walking along the lakes to view the changing leaves and have watched with wonder the waterfowl there. The first time I discovered the lakes (I didn’t know they existed until the corn was harvested and I could see them from the hill), I noticed what appeared to be kingfishers flitting over the surface and chattering excitedly. Occasionally, I saw a great blue heron float through the air. Twice this week, I was astounded to see a huge white water bird circle overhead and land on the pond near the road, then fly back toward the lakes. It was an egret!

I went back to the lake and watched it feeding along the far bank. Then another night, I was only a few feet away from it when I startled it from its treetop perch. Its wingspan was so enormous it was like watching an ungainly angel rising heavenward.

After a stressful day at work, I find serenity in what Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things.”

I think I understand what my favorite living poet meant when he wrote: “I come into the presence of still water. … For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Mandela’s life a lesson in leadership

In Clint Eastwood’s movie, “Invictus,” the story of how Nelson Mandela used South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks, to win the 1995 World Cup and unite his nation, there is a poignant scene in which the president and Francois Pienaar, the white team captain, hold aloft the trophy. Mandela turns to Pienaar and says, “Thank you for what you have done for our country.” Pienaar replies, “No, Mr. President, thank you for what you have done for our country.”

Mandela, who died last week at the age of 95, was the George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. of South Africa. Like Washington, he was the indispensable man at the birth of a democracy. Like Lincoln, he appealed to the “better angels” of human nature and worked to reconcile enemies. Like King, he was a strong voice for justice who was jailed and vilified, yet refused to hate.

When he was released from Robben Island in 1990, Mandela’s supporters wanted revenge against the white Afrikaners, who for more than three centuries, maintained a strictly segregated society through bloody oppression of the black majority. But the former military leader of the African National Congress knew that reconciliation, not civil war, was the way forward, and he had the courage to tell his people they were wrong.

It was a lesson he learned as a prisoner.

John Carlin, the reporter whose book, “Playing the Enemy,” was the basis for the film “Invictus,” also wrote “Knowing Mandela: A Personal Portrait,” published right before the elder statesman’s death. He shows how Mandela was able to win over the “bitter-enders” like Gen. Constand Viljoen, former commander of the apartheid state’s military in the same way he had won over his prison warder, through common sense and decency. He disarmed people by being considerate.

On “CBS Sunday Morning,” his personal assistant, Zelda Grange, recalled that the first time she met Mandela, she had been working for the government and thought the new president would fire her. But he spoke pleasantly to her in Afrikaans, her native language, and it so surprised her she wept openly. She remained loyal to him for the rest of his days.

How did Mandela do it? How did a man who served 27 years in prison, did hard labor, and had everything taken from him but his dignity, forgive his enemies, urge others to do the same and lead such change in the culture in so short a time?

His friend and mentor, Walter Sisulu, offered insight in an interview in which Carlin asked him if he could sum up what Mandela had been fighting for all his life.

“Ordinary respect,” Sisulu answered. Nothing more, nothing less.

“Apartheid had been the opposite of ordinary respect — it had been an expression of extraordinary contempt,” Carlin wrote. “Once respect became the norm of social exchange between people of all races, it would mean apartheid had gone.”

Mandela modeled respect and expected it of others, but he didn’t often have to demand it.

That’s a lesson in leadership most of us would do well to learn and never forget.


On compromise

After I wrote this column, I watched “NBC Nightly News” Thursday, and the top story was about the battle between the Republican Party and the tea party over a bipartisan budget deal crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Tea party members balked at the deal, saying that it doesn’t do enough to reduce the deficit.

The tea party’s attitude is always one of no compromise. That reminds me of another leadership lesson of Mandela’s — that compromise means winning. If you insist on a perfect outcome, usually you’ll get nothing. Carlin describes compromise as Mandela and his opponents practiced it: “One side cedes and the other side cedes so that both can come out winning.”

It’s a simple idea, really. Something is better than nothing, and you can build on something.

Advent in a post-Christian culture

For nearly four centuries, Thanksgiving was about family, fellowship and prayers of gratitude. This year, for many, it was just another day of shopping — and a work day for millions of Americans.

About three years ago, the biggest discounters began what’s called “Black Friday creep.” This year, most major retailers followed suit.


In New York City, 15,000 people waited for Macy’s to open Thursday night. The scene was replicated on a smaller scale at malls around the country. TV cameras showed Mammon worshippers waving their arms and screaming as they poured into department stores on what used to be the least-commercial holiday.

At a Walmart in Virginia, an altercation between two impatient shoppers turned violent when one man punched another who was waiting on a parking space. That man slashed his assailant with a knife and grabbed his gun, causing other shoppers to scatter, according to Fox News.

At a Walmart in Illinois, Reuters reported that a 29-year-old woman was cited for spitting on another mother’s child during an argument over infant clothing.

I don’t think we’re in Norman Rockwell’s America anymore.

Most of us hate it. A Nov. 26 HuffPost/YouGov poll showed 62 percent of Americans think businesses should close on Thanksgiving so their employees can have the day off. Only 27 percent agreed stores should stay open if there is a demand for it. However, a National Retail Federation survey found that 23 percent planned to go shopping on Thanksgiving.

“It has become so commercial, it makes me sick,” Bonifacio Aleman of Louisville, a single dad with two kids, who is the director of Kentucky Jobs With Justice, told USA Today. “We get in this frenzy and go broke and not pay our bills to buy stuff for the holidays. Too many of us wind up in financial crisis because of it.”

I’m with him.

Thanksgiving isn’t the only sacred day that has been diminished. Sunday, Dec. 1, was the first day of Advent, which means it’s the first day of the church calendar.

It’s a season of preparation for the coming of the Christ child to Bethlehem and the return of the King, who will destroy the forces of darkness and make all things new.

Traditionally, it is the time before the Christmas season, which begins before midnight on Dec. 24 and lasts 12 days, until Epiphany.

The idea of Advent is deeply at odds with what the holiday season has become. In our increasingly materialistic, post-Christian culture, the days before Christmas become a blur — a frenzy of excess and stress. It’s hard to find time for quiet reflection or preparing one’s heart for an encounter with the holy in a world gone mad with the love of money and success.

We are not called to be successful, but to be fruitful — to make the most of the short time we have here, and make a difference in others’ lives.

Advent can be a new beginning and an opportunity to think about what matters.

Paula Gooder wondered why Advent was worth the bother until she became pregnant with her first child. In “The Meaning is in the Waiting,” she wrote that Advent, like pregnancy, is “not just about passing time,” but about nurturing time; it is not passivity, but active waiting that “knits together new life.” Without it, she wrote, “our Christian journey is impoverished.”

If we want to “keep Christ in Christmas,” the best way is to keep Advent.

While we’re at it, let’s keep the thanks in Thanksgiving and be grateful always.

Happy new year.


Will Scotland turn its back on Britain?

Imagine the Union Jack without any royal blue.

This is what the flag of the United Kingdom could look like if Scotland leaves the union.

There would be a white field with two red crosses — St. George’s, for England, and St. Patrick’s, for Northern Ireland. But the blue field and white cross of Scotland’s patron, St. Andrew, might be missing if the Scots were to decide next year to become an independent republic.

Saturday was St. Andrew’s Day, the day we celebrate all things Scottish.

Yet the icons we associate with Scotland — beautiful thistle and heather, stirring bagpipes, lively Celtic dances, military pageantry, Scotch whiskey, warm woolens, colorful tartans, stunning landscapes and patriotic poetry — are also part of Great Britain’s heritage.

Without Scotland, there could be no Great Britain. The nation was created by the Act of Union in 1707, although England, Wales and Scotland had already been united under Scotland’s King James VI a century earlier.

I should add that without Great Britain, there would be no United Kingdom because it was formed by Ireland and Britain in 1800. The secession of the Irish Republic in the 1920s is understandable because of the long history of discrimination against Catholics. But discrimination hasn’t been the case in Scotland for centuries.

Scotland’s cultural and historical contributions to Britain are remarkable considering its size. With a population half that of metropolitan London, the northern kingdom is stronger because it is part of Britain — and so is Britain.

That could change on Sept. 18, 2014, if a majority of those eligible to vote — including non-Scots living in Scotland, but not native and ethnic Scots living in other parts of the U.K. — vote for full independence. Most polls for the past several months have shown a slight majority against division, but the undecideds are a large enough factor to tip the balance.

Recently, I was talking about this with Matthew Spandler-Davison, a local Baptist preacher. He’s from Scotland, and his church does evangelism and missions there. He isn’t confident most Scots will vote “no” on the referendum because Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the socialist and republican Scottish National Party, is a crafty politician who is doing everything he can to affect the outcome — like changing the law to give starry-eyed 16-and-17-year-olds the vote, and timing the referendum to coincide with the 700th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Bannockburn, Scotland’s greatest victory over the English. But this isn’t 1314, and David Cameron isn’t Longshanks.

I don’t want to see the further balkanization of the U.K., our closest ally and the cradle of democracy and capitalism. Why would Scotland want to be just another tiny country in the European Union when it is an equal partner with England in comprising one of the greatest nation-states in history?

The Scots already have their own educational and legal systems, parliament and home rule, yet also enjoy all the benefits of being part of a world power.

Maybe I don’t have a Scottish terrier in the fight. Though I’m descended from a Scot who was born in Edinburgh the year after the Act of Union and died in Lancaster, Pa., 70 years later, I’ve never set foot on those shores. I hope to, though, while Britain is still great.

People of the U.K. would do well to heed the words of Abraham Lincoln, leader of another great federation: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

An apology:

In my last column, I offended an elder at Redeemer Fellowship Church, Franke Haydon. That was not my intention, but I’m sorry. To clarify, not all those who taught the Alpha course at Redeemer are Calvinists. Franke isn’t. And I don’t think Calvinists are all wrong.

My purpose was to show that I was open to learning something about a Christian tradition I knew little about, though it left me with more questions than answers. What I meant by using Apostle Paul’s words, “We see through a glass, darkly,” is that we will never understand everything we want to know about God this side of eternity. We are all fallible and finite. God is infallible and infinite.


December 2013
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