The Stars At Night

by Campbell Gong

Drawing by Campbell Gong

The other night, I took the dog for a walk down our driveway.

The job of walking our dog after dinner usually falls to my husband; on these frigid winter nights, he dons hat and gloves, ski goggles and earmuffs, snow pants and winter parka, before disappearing into the snowy, blow-y dark. “Hope you make it to base camp!” I’ve been known to holler (unhelpfully) into the mudroom after him, while our daughters collapse in a pile of giggles.

Those daughters are the primary reason why my husband is the designated evening dog-walker: I’m usually occupied by dinner dishes, bedtime stories, and tuck-ins.

But on this particular night, a few days before Christmas, I needed the fresh air and the quiet. My vision was getting fuzzy from all the gift-wrapping, baking, and holiday logistics. Besides, I had a few last-minute Christmas cards to put in the mailbox.

So, after donning my warmest gear (minus the ski goggles and earmuffs), I set out down the driveway with Gracie, our clinically anxious labradoodle.

Let me set the scene, for those who have a more suburban vision of the word “driveway:” Our driveway is a ¼ mile-long, dirt-and-gravel road. We share its initial length with a neighboring house; about halfway down, the driveway branches in two, with one section leading left towards our neighbors’ house, and the other section winding to its conclusion at our front door. The driveway is unlit, as is the main road where it ends. At night, the only light comes from the single bulb outside our front door, and a handful of lights from neighboring houses – the neighbors with whom we share our driveway, the farm beyond the trees, and one or two homes across the main road.

All this to say: At night, the walk down our driveway is dark – very dark. The journey may take upwards of ten minutes round-trip, because ice and snow on the gravel drive make it necessary to step carefully. Ten minutes in single-digit temperatures can feel like a long time.

The night I walked our dog was cold and dark. It was also a clear night, so when I looked up about halfway through my walk, I gasped aloud.

We don’t see the stars much these days, do we?

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

A Brief Meditation on Failing Christmas (Again!)

Every year, I make a concerted, intentional effort to keep Christmas low-key. I buy only four gifts per child (something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.) I try to keep our schedule reasonable and open. I attempt to keep expectations — my own and my family’s — low. I wrestle to emphasize the quiet, reflective practice of Advent, and de-emphasizse the unwrapping frenzy of Christmas morning. I would not touch an elf on a shelf with a ten-foot pole.

So, here we are on Christmas Eve. The boxes are checked: Tree and decorations up. Presents bought and wrapped. Advent candles lit and calendar doors opened. Goodies baked. Christmas cards with smiling photograph of family addressed and sent. My children will likely be dressed, with hair (mostly) brushed, when we attend tonight’s Christmas Eve service. There is even, as I write this, a perfect snow falling over the fields.

It would look to any outside observer like I’ve nailed another Christmas. But I know better: I’ve failed. Again.

I’m not referring to minor logistical slip-ups (I forgot stocking-stuffers for the grandparents, we didn’t make it to the train display before Christmas.) I’m not even referring to more noble goals (We could’ve done more for the needy in our community.) I’m referring to my heart.

Every year, I expect to reach Chrismas Eve filled with a sense of inner peace, of quiet joy, of spiritual renaissance. I expect to feel the way that every nativity scene Mary looks: Serene. Holy. Full of love.

Instead, I feel unsettled. Stressed. Frustrated with myself and others. Exhausted. All the Advent devotionals in the world can’t made me feel more holy. If you were to look inside, I would appear more Lady MacBeth than Mary.

One thing is different this year, though: This year, it hit me that it’s okay to approach Christmas feeling broken. Not only is it okay, it’s kind of the point of Christmas. Christmas is, after all, about a light shining in the darkness. And me? I’m part of that darkness.

It’s a good thing to try and downsize Christmas, to deemphasize consumption and packed schedules and all of the other perfect trappings that we expect from ourselves. But it’s important to recognize that we can’t, by ourselves, like up to the ideal of a peaceful, holy, “Silent Night” kind of Christmas, any more than we can expect piles of gifts and mounds of food to fill up our emptiness.

We are the darkness. And if we’re trying too hard to be the light, then we’re not letting the real light — the real point of Christmas — shine as brightly as He should. We’re the moon, not the sun. And the moon by itself is just a dark lump of rock.

Put another way: The baby Jesus was laid in the straw of a feeding trough in a dark cave-stable, and that was good enough for Him.

When I remind myself of this, then I can relax into my unsettled, imperfect Christmas. I hope that you can, too. Maybe this will be the year when we rejoice at having failed Christmas, again.

A Thank-You to Snow (with correct link!)

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Sorry — this post went out to many of you prematurely yesterday, without an active link. Here it is, with a link to the full article. 

For the past several months, I’ve sensed a heaviness in my writing, an unbroken seriousness that leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that it’s time to crack a joke.

My recent columns have reflected what I believe to be the prevailing mood of late. The news, both national and international, has been mostly bad – at least for those who did not vote for Donald Trump at home, or who are distressed by humanitarian disasters abroad. Closer to home, family members have been ill, friends have lost parents, appliances have needed repair, and the pace of life has afforded little time for rest or reflection.

The time will come when this column will again regale you with lighthearted stories about how our daughter introduced herself to a stranger by saying “Prepare to meet your doom!” (“I said it in a welcoming way!” she protested later.) Or about how our dog escaped and ran over to the neighbors’ Christmas tree farm to harass their horses – at the exact moment a charter bus full of camera-toting tourists pulled into their driveway. Or about how the very loud smoke detectors that my super-safe husband placed all over our house, keep malfunctioning at late hours.

But this will not be that column; today I’m going to write about snow.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Lessons from a Lightsaber

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The cultural world of our daughters – our two oldest daughters, in particular – currently revolves around the Star Wars saga. They have watched four of the seven films created by George Lucas: a multi-generational epic of the Skywalker family’s adventures on the dark and light sides of the Force, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” They have read every book about Star Wars that they can get ahold of, including a biography of Lucas himself. They are so well versed in Star Wars trivia that they know the backstory of every minor character, can sketch out the Star Wars galaxy from memory, and measure time in terms of B.B.Y. (Before the Battle of Yavin) and A.B.Y. (After the Battle of Yavin.)

Last month, one of our daughters celebrated a birthday (Star Wars-themed, of course.) Her aunt and uncle gave her an online gift certificate for Amazon.com. It was hardly a surprise when she decided to use that gift to buy herself a lightsaber: the weapon of choice for both Jedi and Sith.

She spent a great deal of time perusing the lightsaber options. “I want to make sure that it’s not junky,” she explained. She counted the days until it was delivered to our doorstep. When the chosen lightsaber arrived, it was all that she had wanted: an extendable blade, complete with lights and sound effects.

Several minutes later, I was preparing to break down the lightsaber box for recycling when this same daughter approached me with a melancholy expression.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she sighed. “I guess the lightsaber’s just not as exciting as I expected.”

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Let’s Act Like the Kids Are Watching

On the morning after the 2016 Presidential election, I took my daughter to preschool. This preschool – a magical place that looks and feels like a throwback to 1970s Vermont – has a daily morning “circle time,” during which parents and children sit around the carpet to hear a story, sing songs, and greet each other. As I looked around the circle that morning, the contrast between parents and children was dramatic. The adults were haggard; nearly everyone appeared exhausted from staying up late watching the election returns. And although I can’t pretend to know how everyone had voted the day before, most of the adult faces around that circle bore glazed looks of shock.

Then there were the children: These three-, four-, and five-year-olds did not look exhausted, shocked, or anything other than excited and ready to begin the morning’s activities. If their world had changed overnight, they seemed unconcerned. They were busy just being kids.

So, in a performance that felt slightly unreal, we adults put on the show of a normal morning for our children. We helped stash lunch sacks and choose daily chores, we listened to a story, we discussed the day’s craft. We kissed our children goodbye and told them to have great days. We saved urgent, whispered conversations for the parking lot.

It felt like the best thing I could have done that morning. Even when the world does change overnight, what can we do but continue to breathe in and out, to put one foot in front of the other, to take our children to school?

Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Amnesia: Thoughts After the Morning After the Election

After my husband announced the results of the 2016 Presidential election to our daughters when they came barreling downstairs the following morning, they thought he was kidding. Like this was some kind of April Fools’ Day joke. “Mommy, tell Daddy to stop and tell the truth!”

When we showed them the headlines, it became:

“I’m going back to bed; wake me up in four years.”

“I’m gonna need a LOT of Cheerios!”

and, “See, I TOLD you they should let kids vote!”

Then, we prayed for President-elect Donald Trump: that his heart would be soft and that he would be a good President.

You probably gleaned two bits of information from this anecdote: First, that our family did not support Donald Trump in this election, and second, that we’re Christians — not just the social, church-on-Christmas-and-Easter type of Christians, but the type who actually believe this stuff.

You’d be right on both counts.

To clarify a bit: While my husband and I were definitely not Trump supporters, neither were we ardent Hilary Clinton enthusiasts. It’s just that our tepidness over Clinton was outweighed by our horror over Trump. (Also, we thought it would be pretty great for our four daughters to see a woman elected President.)

And those four daughters, who range in age from 3 to 8 years old: we allowed them to reach their own conclusions about this election. We live in a small town in Vermont, we do not have a television, the only periodical we receive is our local paper, and we homeschool our two oldest daughters, so they were exposed to remarkably little media hysteria relative to other children in this county. Furthermore, politics are not a major focus of our family’s conversations; because beloved members of our immediate family vote on both sides of the aisle, our rule is “no talking politics at the dinner table.”

Nevertheless, based on the information they did have, our daughters reached the independent conclusion that Donald Trump would not have received their votes for President.

That’s where we were on the morning after the election. So we prayed. We talked. We put one foot in front of the other. I asked the same questions that many were and are asking: How did we get here? and What do we do now? 

Because I have to do most of my feeling and thinking while simultaneously feeding, caring for, teaching, and chauffeuring four young children, ideas bounce around in my head quite a bit. But somewhere in between washing the dishes and scrubbing the bathroom sink, I came to the conclusion that these two questions,  How did we get here? and What do we do now?, are grounded in the same fundamental issue. That issue is our amnesia: the collective amnesia of our country, which is perhaps the collective amnesia of the human race. We got here because we forgot, and what we can do now is to remember.

I believe the things we have forgotten can be broken into three broad categories:

  1. We have forgotten the lessons of history.
  2. We have forgotten the lessons of childhood.
  3. We have forgotten the lessons of Jesus.
  1. We have forgotten the lessons of history.

On the morning after the election, I was reminded of some verses from the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, which our pastor had preached on some weeks before. To set the scene, it’s somewhere around the 9th century BC, and the Israelites have just asked Samuel, one of their priestly judges, to choose a king to rule over them:

1 Samuel 8: 10-18  So Samuel told them, delivered God’s warning to the people who were asking him to give them a king. He said, “This is the way the kind of king you’re talking about operates. He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them—chariotry, cavalry, infantry, regimented in battalions and squadrons. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, plowing and harvesting, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots in which he can ride in luxury. He’ll put your daughters to work as beauticians and waitresses and cooks. He’ll conscript your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and hand them over to his special friends. He’ll tax your harvests and vintage to support his extensive bureaucracy. Your prize workers and best animals he’ll take for his own use. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you will cry in desperation because of this king you so much want for yourselves. But don’t expect God to answer.”

19-20 But the people wouldn’t listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We will have a king to rule us! Then we’ll be just like all the other nations. Our king will rule us and lead us and fight our battles.”

21-22 Samuel took in what they said and rehearsed it with God. God told Samuel, “Do what they say. Make them a king.”

So, even as early as 1000 BC, people were looking for human leaders to solve their problems, despite clear warnings that human leaders were more likely to come at a cost than to offer salvation.

My daughters and I have been studying the Middle Ages worldwide as part of our homeschool curriculum, and they’ve picked up on the repeated patterns of history: One or two good and unifying rulers, followed by centuries of corruption, weak rule, and decline. “Oh no! Bad idea!” they exclaim, when they see the fall coming.

Why do we fail to remember this? Why do we never see it coming?

Throughout my forty-one years of life as a United States citizen, every new President has been elected in reaction to the previous administration. Every new President brings the promise of change. And the people who voted for that new President always think: “At last, we’ve found the one who will solve all of our problems!”

And every single time, they are disappointed. Sometimes the disappointment is vague, as when a President is merely ineffectual; sometimes it’s more acute, when Presidents lead our country into choices and conflicts that we’re still struggling to untangle.

This isn’t just a pattern in United States history; it’s a pattern throughout human history.

But the world is still turning. I’m not denying the atrocities that have resulted from dangerously evil human leadership, both in ancient and recent history. But somehow, still, people have gone on, have had children and planted gardens and found joy in small things, and — for a time, at least — been more cautious about the leaders they choose.

It may be that we’re on the downslope of this particular, tiny moment in history. And nobody wants to be on a downslope. But wherever we are, we’d do well to remember these lessons from history: That, thus far, no human leader has solved all our problems, nor has any human leader ended the world.

  1. We have forgotten the lessons of childhood. 

One of the most instructive and potentially positive lessons from this election year was that it opened many of our eyes to the number and breadth of people in this country who feel threatened and disenfranchised. There are the young, white, non-college-educated males who suffer from a lack of employment, purpose, and opportunity. There are those who feel that our country has gone off the moral rails. There are racial, religious, ethnic, and sexual groups who feel the oppressive hatred of prejudice. This year we were reminded that our country has yet to overcome the evil unleashed by slavery and segregation. The leering specter of sexism reared its ugly head as well.

How we got in this mess is complicated. It’s the human mess that we’ve been dealing with since the beginning of time, but it’s a mess that’s found particularly fertile soil in today’s American culture, with its lust for wealth and power. This culture is perpetuated by a free market capitalism that values only growth, at the expense of our communities, our environment, and our health and happiness. We want more: more money, more stuff, more food, more and bigger houses, more technology. To quote Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, we just keep on “biggering and biggering.”

It strikes me that we could have avoided much of this — or at least failed to be surprised by it — had we simply remembered some of the basic lessons of childhood. These are simple tenets of kind and responsible human behavior that we teach our preschoolers, and I don’t even have to leave Dr. Seuss’s oeuvre to lay them out.

There’s Yertle the Turtle, in which the title character, a turtle king, insists on making a teetering tower of his fellow turtles so that he can be the highest of all. Lesson: If you try to get ahead on the backs of other people, you will topple eventually.

There’s The Lorax, in which unrestrained greed leads to environmental destruction. Lesson: If you try to get ahead on the back of the environment, everything will topple eventually.

There’s The Sneetches, in which segregation leads to a ridiculous race for sameness. Lesson: We should celebrate our differences, not use them as divisive power plays.

And, of course, there’s Horton Hears a Who, which reminds us repeatedly that, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

One possible way forward out of the mess we’ve made is offered in a lesser-known Dr. Seuss poem, called “What was I Scared of?” In this story, the main character continually has frightening run-ins with an ominous “pair of pale green pants with nobody inside them!” Finally, he comes face-to-face with the pants:

“I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked.

I howled. I yowled. I cried,

‘Oh, save me from these pale green pants

With nobody inside!’

 

“But then a strange thing happened.

Why, those pants began to cry!

Those pants began to tremble.

They were just as scared as I!”

It’s this realization that they share a fear of each other that dissolves that fear and paves the way for a happy ending:

“And, now, we meet quite often,

Those empty pants and I,

And we never shake or tremble.

We both smile

And we say

‘Hi!'”

We can allow this election to increase our fear of each other; to become more divided along party, racial, sexual, economic, educational, and religious lines. Or we can recognize that, if we share nothing else, we share fear. We all fear the loss of dignity, of life, of livelihood, of freedom. We all fear for our children. Maybe, if we can start there and meet face-to-face, the fears we have in common might even begin to dissolve.

  1. We have forgotten the lessons of Jesus.

And now, a few words for my fellow Christians (although, even if you don’t share my particular set of beliefs, you’re still welcome to listen in!)

Throughout this election cycle, I heard Christians on both sides loudly, passionately endorsing their candidate as the more Chrisitan choice, implying that those who thought otherwise weren’t “real” or “good” Christians.

Whenever I hear or read some version of the question, “How would Jesus vote?” I chuckle a little. Not because we shouldn’t attempt to figure out how to vote in alignment with our spiritual values, but because if we claim to have a lock on whom Jesus might elect, we’re forgetting who Jesus was.

How would Jesus vote? The fact is, Jesus never voted — he never had the chance. Jesus was born into the family of a humble tradesman in a small, backwater town in the far-flung reaches of the Roman Empire. The Israel of Jesus’s time was chafing from a combination of abuse and neglect by Rome, and one of the reasons that people overlooked Jesus as a possible Messiah was because they expected any Messiah worth his salt to overthrow Roman rule.

That Jesus did not overthrow Rome and had no intention of leading a political revolt is clear, both from history and from his famous exhortation to “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

So, if we’re looking to Jesus for political guidance, we’ll have to stick to how he lived. He hung out with the lowest, most despised, least touchable elements of his culture. Lepers, prostitutes, common fishermen, women, and corrupt officials who did Rome’s dirty work — these were the people Jesus spent the most time with. And he urged others to do the same: To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and love our neighbors (even, especially, when that neighbor was a member of an enemy ethnicity.) Jesus was always direct about telling people to turn from their sin, but he was never not loving and respectful to these marginalized individuals. His harsh words were reserved for the religious leaders of his day.

The only time that Jesus came face-to-face with political power was when he was being dragged around by an angry mob that was demanding his execution on false pretenses. And what did Jesus do when he had the full attention of Herod, of Pontius Pilate? Launch into a theological defense? Urge them to change their policies? Lament the injustice of his treatment?

Nope. Jesus barely spoke to these political leaders. If we look at all four Gospels, we see Jesus making roughly four statements to Pilate in which he essentially confirms his identity, and nothing at all to Herod. By thus refusing to engage with the political powers of his day, Jesus effectively condemned himself to death.

American Christians, are we really following Jesus’s lead? I don’t know; a lot of Christians I see seem to have the idea that our mission should be to make this a Christian Nation, that the country should be run entirely based on a set of cherry-picked Biblical priorities.

Here is how modern America has tended to experience Christians in the political arena: We complain that we’re “under attack” because the country is failing to conform to some (primarily conservative) vision for our nation that we ascribe to God. We want this country’s laws to reflect our religious beliefs. We insist that others should respect our (primarily conservative) moral code so as not to offend our delicate sensibilities. We demand respect from people with other lifestyles and belief systems, without in any way affording them that same respect.

Where this behavior came from, I don’t know, but it sure wasn’t from Jesus. Among his last words to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus wasn’t interested in power or politics. He was in the business of changing hearts, not laws. And, while I can’t say for sure, I have a feeling that Jesus would be puzzled by a two-party political system that seems to force us to prioritize either the rights of unborn babies or the rights of women, minorities, the sick, and the poor – but, apparently, you can’t choose both.

A word about abortion before I close: The Christians I know who supported Trump almost always cite abortion as one of the most important issues influencing their voting. They hoped that a vote for Trump would result in the repeal, or at least the rolling back, of this country’s abortion laws.

I am a huge fan of babies and children, having four myself. I would not characterize myself as a “supporter” of abortion. But I also understand that abortion is never a lighthearted act. The reasons a woman might choose to obtain an abortion are myriad, running the gamut from economic and lifestyle concerns to trauma and health issues. I imagine that women enter the doctor’s office for an abortion as a result of panic, agonizing decision-making, or something in between, and that they feel a mix of relief, sorrow, fear, and anguish. But I cannot imagine that ever in history has a woman received an abortion because she thought it would be something fun to do in her free time.

Do we, as Christians, consider all of these things when we advocate outlawing abortion? Do we consider the women? And, most importantly, do we consider what really causes so many women to end up with unwanted pregnancies?

Blaming promiscuity and moral laxity is too simple. I point my finger at a culture that tells our children in a variety of ways, at ever younger ages, that their worth is determined by their bodies, that affirmation is to be found only in relationships, that loving relationships must necessarily be sexual, and that the purpose of life is to do what makes you feel good. If our country’s culture continues to separate people from community and meaningful work and good affordable healthcare, to separate relationships from anything other than pleasure, and to separate sex from fertility and partnership, is it any wonder that so many of our young women end up with unwanted pregnancies?

It seems to me that Jesus would deal with these heart issues, these root causes of abortion. And he’d do it within the context of relationships, not in the halls of power. American Christians want to make laws, because, frankly, it’s easier. But outlawing abortion treats only the symptoms, not the cause, like offering a Tums to someone who’s dying of starvation.

And I may be wrong, but I doubt that electing a President who has made a career of presiding over beauty pageants, who speaks of women as bodies rather than people, who refers to his own daughter as “smoking hot,” and who attempts to normalize offensive comments as “locker room talk,” will help us make strides towards addressing the root cultural issues underlying abortion.

But here’s the good news: As Christians, we of all people should not be surprised to find that there is great evil, injustice, and darkness in the world. It’s what Jesus said all along. And we’re supposed to be lights in this darkness, remember? Something else to remember: The most repeated phrase in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.”

And those two exhortations — to be brave and be light — are not the exclusive property of Christians. They belong to us all.

 

When It Doesn’t Feel Like the Holidays

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“It just doesn’t feel like Halloween this year,” my daughter said on the morning of October 31.

The ghosts that we’d made from an old sheet were hanging in the tree beside our driveway. We’d read Halloween books. We’d baked pumpkin bread. We’d carved five jack-‘o-lanterns on the mudroom floor the previous afternoon. This same daughter had put together a Halloween party for her sisters, including bobbing for apples, a pumpkin toss, and a scavenger hunt.

Despite our best intentions, we’d missed the Middlebury Spooktacular – a chance to gather in costume on the Town Green and trick-or-treat at local businesses. Every year, we plan to attend the Spooktacular, and every year, for one reason or another, we end up skipping it, to the point that it’s not Halloween unless we miss the Spooktacular (which may be a good thing, since the one year we succeeded in attending the Spooktacular, my father fell from the birch tree he was cutting in our yard and fractured several ribs and vertebrae while we were out!)

But, apparently, it still didn’t feel like Halloween to my daughter.

Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. I promise that there is (almost) nothing in it about the Presidential election!