Duly Noted

Confession of St. Peter

When the Cleveland / Los Angeles / Anaheim / St. Louis / Los Angeles Rams eliminated the Dallas Cowboys from Super Bowl contention, the holiday season officially closed in Texas. (It ran a couple of weeks longer than usual this year.) The presents have been opened, the roast beast carved and devoured, families kissed goodbye and sent on their way, the New Year rung in, bowl games watched, black eyed peas eaten, and the Christmas tree taken down (O happy day!). Then, ready to settle down for a pleasant Sunday afternoon of napping through playoff games we care little about, someone (or something) taps us on the shoulder. It’s that most unwelcome visitor, the ghost of Christmas lingering we’ll call him, pointing his bony finger at the new pen and box of note cards on your desk. It’s time to write those thank-you notes.

There are apparently people who enjoy writing thank-you notes. I’ve never met one, and I’m not sure what I would think of them if I did. I fear that I would find them a bit too dourly perfect: Mary Poppins without the sense of humor. But C.S. Lewis, for one – someone decidedly not lacking in a sense of humor — was reputed not only to enjoy it, but to write immensely gracious, funny, and creative notes. He once thanked a friend who regularly sent him gifts of food with a note saying “If the apparently unceasing flow of your generosity continues, I shall, in common gratitude, have to put a placard on my back stating that “This body has been reconstituted entirely by the generosity of Edward A. Allen, Esq., of Westfield, Mass., USA.” (If one writes like that, why wouldn’t one enjoy it?) Nevertheless, the note-writing task must be underappreciated, else we would not need the constant urging.

Indeed, I suspect that many people feel ambivalent about receiving thank-you notes also. They remind us that we haven’t written our own, or they make us feel morally inferior to the writer, or, worst of all, they make us feel morally superior because we, after all, would never rush our thank-you notes out just to prove how practically perfect we were. (Note: I got any number of thank-you-notes already, all of which were well-written and thoughtful. I enjoyed reading them all. This exception only proves that I am blessed with unusually gracious family and friends.) So, why bother?

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The Word Made Flesh

Feast of the Epiphany, 2019

Anne and I spent this holiday season in the most holy of ways – with a house joyously filled with our son and his wife, our daughter, and, for the first time, our grandson Ryan, all visiting from the north. We planned a coming out party of sorts for baby Ryan the Friday after Christmas – the 28th, as it happened to be. My mother, sister, nephews and family, and priest were all invited to come over for a viewing. As it turned out, the guest of honor was, sadly, off limits. What we thought at first was simply post-travel crankiness turned out to be the flu, nothing to sneeze at for a five-month old. Thanks be to God, after an anxious morning in the emergency room, and a satchel-full of medications, he was back to himself within thirty-six hours or so.

In any event, rocking a sick baby at 3:30 in the morning leads one to ruminate a bit, and my thoughts wandered to something our priest Laurie McKim talked about in her Christmas sermon. The carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written by the Episcopal clergyman Phillips Brooks in 1868. Brooks at the time was the rector of Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, and, while enormously popular and effective, went through something like a spiritual breakdown in the aftermath of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination. (Brooks preached the homily at Lincoln’s funeral, which tells us something about the esteem in which he was held.) Brooks took a sabbatical to the Holy Land in the months after the funeral and found himself in the basilica in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. That experience provided the inspiration for the hymn.

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Word of the Year

Holy Name Day, 2019

The publisher Merriam-Webster announced last month that it had selected “justice” as the 2018 “word of the year.” The announcement said:

The concept of justice was at the center of many of our national debates in the past year: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice. In any conversation about these topics, the question of just what exactly we mean when we use the term justice is relevant, and part of the discussion.

I agree that the question of what we mean by “justice” is relevant. I’m not sure I agree, however, that it’s always, or even usually, part of the discussion. All too often our discussions about justice are unproductive because we are talking about different things, without realizing it, in the same way that residents of Green Bay and Manchester could have a very confusing conversation about “football,” or Georgians and Texans expect very different things when they go to a “barbecue” shack.

The general theme of this blog will be law and equity: the relationship between the requirements of justice in a strictly legal sense, and how those requirements conflict with personal or communal notions of mercy, fairness, or equity. I think of this as the “Micah paradox.” In Micah 6:8, God, through the prophet Micah, tells Israel that he expects his people to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Unless justice and mercy are synonyms here (and I don’t think they are) then God has given us some very challenging advice: to be at once just and merciful, attitudes that often seem to conflict.

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