Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Irresolution

So, tomorrow is New Year's Day, right? This may not be a rhetorical question.

Within the year commonly referred to as 2008, Jews will celebrate the beginning of the year 5769 on September 29th. Many people in Asia will mark February 7th as the beginning of the year of the (Earth) Rat. For Muslims, the year 1429 starts on January 10th, and the year 1430 starts on December 29th. This can conceivably be confusing, you may imagine.

The fact is, I've always felt that celebrating new years and anniversaries was a custom that was somewhat questionable. The amount of time it takes the earth to orbit around the sun is really in some sense only interesting when it comes to agriculture, and not personally being a farmer, why should I care? We mark the days to give them significance, not because they have any inherent significance in themselves.

Even if they did have significance for their own sake, then we have to wonder, how do we properly mark that significance? There are, as implied above, numerous calendar systems, and there is no inherent reason to assume that any one of them is the best. The calendar we use here in the west has a 365-day year, but of course, that's not the actual time that it takes for the earth to move around the sun. How long does it take? Well, it's not 365.25 days, either, as you may have been led to believe. I'm not sure which is the exact measure one might wsh to use, but according to what I have read, the "Gaussian year" is 365.2568983 days, the "Sidereal year" is 365.2563604 days, and the "Tropical year" is 365.2421904 days. The odd upshot of the fractional part of the year and our attempts to adjust for it in our calendars is that a child born on New Year's Day 2008 would likely have the true anniversary of his/her birth on December 31st, 2008, due to the extra day we will be adding in February. Weird.

Really, though, I had a point in all of this, and it wasn't supposed to be a downer about the futility of trying to mark the passage of time in a universe that works like clockwork, if by "clockwork" we mean in the sense of a watch that that loses about a minute per day. The fact is that like so many things in our world that we have laid down as arbitrary rules and measurings of what's right, there is still a purpose, and a good one. So many of us, myself included, have some odd internal preference to live like anarchists and say, "Throw out the rules, all of them, and let me live as I choose, not by your schedule, not by your standards, not by your rules, but with true freedom!" But it is those very rules that give us the freedom that we really truly desire.

I hate living at the mercy of the clock and my work schedule, and I hate to have someone say, you must be sitting at your desk at such-and-such time, and you must take your break at this hour, and you have to stay here until such time as I say. I have to work the same time every day from Monday through Friday, although I'd much rather have the freedom to simply put in as many hours as I wish at whatever time interval I wish, on whichever days I wish. Yet... I said to a friend the other day, "Meet me for lunch on Thursday at 11, okay?" I would not have had the chance to meet with my friend without the common rules of the clock, an understanding of the days of the week, and the annual commemoration (artificial though it is on many levels) of the birth of Christ, which had given him occasion to be in town and visit family.

Yes, like so many of the building blocks of our society, I have a love-hate relationship with the calendar and the clock. I'm a horrible procrastinator, and the people and institutions of the world around me constantly push me with deadlines that I hate, but if they chose not to, I wouldn't give them the time of day, as they say.

Confession time: In 2007, I procrastinated in sending in my vehicle registration papers. I ended up paying a late fee. When I finally sent in the papers, I got my registration sticker, but procrastinated in putting it on the car. I got pulled over and ticketed. I procrastinated in paying off the ticket. Due to further procrastination, what should have been a $10 fine ended up turning into an astronomical amount that I shall not disclose here, and on top of that, because I procrastinated in reading my mail and paying of that increased fine in time, my license was suspended, and I will have to pay to get it reinstated. I am a victim of the calendar, but it's certainly not the calendar's fault, it's my own fault for ignoring it when it came knocking at my door.

There's a lesson to be learned in this, (Setting aside the obvious lesson of "Brucker is an idiot"?) and for some people it may be obvious, while for others not so much. Most of us, when we think of evil, think of an act of causing harm to another individual by our actions. Nonetheless, there is a strong tendency to overlook another sort of evil, which is the evil of knowing what is the right action to take, and not taking it. What I see in the situation I have put myself in, and the situation that many of us contemplate in taking the New Year as a time of self-evaluation, is a corollary sort of evil: the evil of knowing that which is the right thing to do, and putting it off for later.

So often in life, we know what is right; we even know that there is an action that we should do that is right, and failing to do it is wrong. Yet still, we hesitate. Is there a nasty habit that you need to stop? Is there a problem that you need to fix, and have been putting off? Is there an uncomfortable truth that you need to come to grips with, and have mentally avoided as long as you can? If it has to be the New Year for you to face up to those things, then so be it, but whenever you happen to be reading this, it is the New Year. It may be some culture's day to commemorate the completion of a solar cycle, or it may be the anniversary of someone's birth that you know. Every single day is the anniversary of something, and every single day is a good day to do that which is right. I don't know what that is for you, but if you know, then there is no better day than today to do it.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Remembering the king of Kings

It's interesting to me that here in the United States of America, a land that is built on a foundation of religious freedom, we have a national holiday to commemorate the birth of a great religious leader. I mean, have no doubt, he was a great man, and although he was not understood by so many in his own lifetime. He was martyred while he was still young, but in the short time he walked this earth, he shook up society in a way that will probably never be forgotten. While I am a proponent of freedom of religion, and I realize that sometimes means keeping religion out of government, I wholly support the official status of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday.

While I am glad we commemorate this great man who may be one of the greatest Americans of all time, there is something about him that strikes me as interesting in the way it contrasts with that other great religious figure whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow. If a person were to do anything more with King's birthday than simply take a day off from work, they might take some time to review his great "I Have a Dream" speech, study his work in civil rights activism, take time to mentally devote yourself to King's teachings of non-violent political activism or some such thing. I am not aware of anybody who takes the time on King's birthday to sit down and look at King's baby pictures.

To tell you the truth, I've never seen a baby picture of Dr. King; who knows if any are in existence? But seeing as it's his birthday, it's really the commemoration of his birth; do people paint pictures of his mother and father bringing him home from the hospital? Do people make pilgrimages to Atlanta to see his birthplace (Maybe they do, I don't know)? We commemorate the day of his birth because we revere him for all the great things he did long after he was born.

Even on your own birthday I bet nobody pulls out the album and shows of pictures of your mother cradling you in her arms. The day of your birth is the day that we use to commemorate you, but not really to commemorate your infancy, because it was a far more important and memorable day to your mother than it will ever really be to you.

So what's the deal with Christmas, then? Why do we take a man who did so much in the late part of his life, and on his birthday, unlike anybody else in history, we actually take time to remember his actual birth? We buy big plastic glowing models of the manger scene and erect them in our yards, we buy small pewter ones and put them on our mantels, we buy tiny ones made of glass and hang them on branches of trees that we inexplicably have brought into our house. (Imagine telling your family in May that you want to go cut down a tree and put it in your living room! But that's another story...) We get together and reenact the story, making some teenage girl stuff a pillow in her dress and sit sidesaddle on a rented donkey while people parade by and ooh and ahh and say how wonderful it is for an unmarried teenage girl to be pregnant. Everything is about an infant that lived a couple thousand years ago, and in the midst of celebrating the birth, we do all sorts of crazy things that we would simply never do any other time of year for any other historical figure.

Why? It's funny, but there is actually a good reason.

When you look at King, the fact is, as I hinted at before, that the fact of his birth is not particularly important to his life. Who remembers the details other than his parents, who are both long-dead? All of his accomplishments, and those of pretty much everyone else, occurred much later in life, when we and they were adults. That's what makes them great, and why we remember them, the fact we use birthdays to honor people is just an arbitrary cultural way to devote a specific day to them.

Jesus, however, is different. Because of who he was, and what his life meant, because he is both God and the Son of God, because for him, being born was actually a volitional choice, the day of his birth is in many ways the most important day of Jesus' life, and the beginning of his life's work. In order for Jesus to die for us, he first had to be born in a human body for us.

So many of us, in searching for miracles, forget that miracles happen every day when new lives start. It's an amazing thing for a single-celled zygote to grow and mature within the womb and become a living human being. Life itself is a miracle, and to think that the creator of life himself would take on the mantle of life and live through it himself? For the being who is so great that the universe cannot contain him to force himself to be contained by the womb of a peasant girl?

For Jesus, birth itself was one of his greatest accomplishments and one of his greatest blessings to us, and as odd as it may be, it is right, very right for us to celebrate not just the man Jesus, but his very act of being born into this world so that we could have Emmanuel, "God with us."

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Mormon as President? Why not?

I decided not to make this have a clever title, nor to drone on about my own opinion here for overly long because I wanted to mainly drop a simple question out for consideration.

I know Mitt Romney in particular has a few personal quirks that someone might not like to see in their presidential candidates, like the fact he's waffled on a few issues, but set those aside and ask the generic question. What's wrong with having a Mormon in the White House?

We're looking at an election year where we're likely to see a demographic breakthrough for our leader. The next President is likely to be either Black, female, Hispanic, Mormon, or Italian. While I think we probably have come to the point in this country where race matters very little, we do still care about gender to some degree, and we certainly care about a person's beliefs, as they should say something about that person. While I tend to mostly disagree with the reasons people feel a woman does not belong in the Oval Office (yes, women are different, and they lead differently; is that necessarily so bad, though?) I seriously don't get the Mormon thing.

Sure, I don't think that Mormon theology is correct. In fact, I think it's rather strange. But what issue is that insofar as being President? The President isn't going to be teaching the country about God. They're not going to be explaining scripture to us. We're voting for a political leader, not a high priest. Mormon moral values are pretty darned American, as far as I can tell. There is a very short list of religious affiliations that I would hate to see our President have, and Mormonism is not on it.

What is it that people realistically fear a Mormon President would or could do to this country? I'd like to know, because I frankly don't see it.