In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Friday, December 31, 2010

God Be With You in 2011!

Another year draws to a close! From one hour or one day to the next, often seems to drag by--especially when we're mired in some unpleasant task or situation. But when we think back on precious moments with our family and friends, they slip through our hands like rushing water, even as we try to hold onto them. Perhaps we'll have them abide with us only on the other shore, when--washed clean and all basking in the eternal light of our Savior's love--we meet again to share them in perpetual joy. Such a vision helps us lay aside old cares, and enter on the morrow with renewed hope and confidence.

So, to end this brief chapter called 2010, I'd like to offer you a few minutes' blissful peace in the fine old "closing" hymn God Be With You Till We Meet Again. This is one of my all-time favorites, and one that I'd like sung at my funeral--not to be morbid or anticipate the event! The text was written in 1880 by Congregational minister Jeremiah Eames Rankin (1828-1904), and the music in the same year by William G. Tomer. Rankin explained that the hymn "was written as a Christian good-bye; it was called forth by no person or occasion, but was deliberately composed as a Christian hymn on the basis of the etymology of 'good-bye,' which means 'God be with you.'"

I think this hymn is altogether fitting as a gentle good-bye to the old year and all that was, and all who were, dear in it, and as a bright looking-forward to a new year filled with God's blessings. The rendition in the video below is by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the text follows it (the second stanza is omitted in the video rendition). May this wonderful hymn touch your heart with warmth and peace tonight, and throughout the coming year!

God be with you till we meet again,
By His counsels guide, uphold you,
With His sheep securely fold you,
God be with you till we meet again.

Till we meet, till we meet,
Till we meet at Jesus’ feet;
Till we meet, till we meet,
God be with you till we meet again.

God be with you till we meet again;
'Neath his wings protecting hide you,
Daily manna still provide you:
God be with you till we meet again.


God be with you till we meet again,
When life’s perils thick confound you,
Put His arms unfailing round you,
God be with you till we meet again.

God be with you till we meet again,
Keep love’s banner floating o’er you,
Smite death’s threat’ning wave before you,
God be with you till we meet again.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Good King Wenceslaus

In recent years the traditional Christmas carol Good King Wenceslaus has become one of my favorites. It's about a king who, with his page, ventures out of the palace to bring alms to a poor peasant whom he has seen gathering firewood on the Feast of Stephen (the day after Christmas, December 26). During the journey, the page is about to give up the struggle against the cold and stormy weather, but is enabled to continue by the warmth miraculously emanating from the king's footprints in the snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935). The tune is based on a 13th century Finnish carol, but the text was written in 1853 by the English hymnwriter John Mason Neale (1818–1866), who translated or arranged such other enduring Christmas favorites as Good Christian Men, Rejoice and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (the charity celebrated in Good King Wenceslaus seems reflected in Rev. Neale's co-founding in 1854 of the Society of Saint Margaret, an order of women in the Anglican Church dedicated to nursing the sick).

What inspires me about Good King Wenceslaus--and makes it so fitting for the Christmas season--is the spirit of love, giving, and self-sacrifice that infuses it. The King is touched by the plight of the peasant he sees braving the elements to provide for his family, and willingly steps out of his comfortable, privileged world and into the raging storm himself, carrying his own provisions in his own arms to bring help to the poor man. There is also great love and trust between the King and his page, whom he encourages and makes sure, through a wonderful miracle, can endure the challenge before them. Is this story an allegory of Christ, the Good King who lowers Himself to succor the wretched and helpless, and the faithful but self-doubting servant, his page?

The story of Good King Wenceslaus is best experienced in Rev. Neale's delightful lyrics:
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
My favorite recording of Good King Wenceslaus is one made in the 1940s or 50s (not sure which) by Bing Crosby. Here's a video version, with images taken from an old comic book telling of the story.

May we all strive to emulate the Good King's example this Christmas--and all year--by stepping out of our comfort zones to share our blessings with others less fortunate than ourselves.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Beware the Visionary President

This may be the "season to be jolly" for ordinary folk like us, but not so much for President Obama and those around him. In the last few weeks their party has gone from a commanding majority to an impotent minority in the House of Representatives; the Democrat majority in the Senate has been reduced to the thickness of paper; and administration initiatives are passing the lame-duck Democrat Congress, if at all, only with the help of pliant Republican "moderates." The President's approval rating has now dipped below George W. Bush's, and just 29 percent of the registered voters surveyed in a recent poll said they believed Obama would win reelection in 2012; among independents, only 32 percent said the President deserves reelection. There's no tonic for an overreaching, out-of-touch administration and Congress than an aroused electorate venting its anger at the polls, as we did in last month's elections. Better than egg-nog!

But the President's closest advisers apparently still don't understand that the "progressive Camelot" they've spent the last two years building has been swept away for good, and by The People themselves. Liberal mouthpiece National Public Radio (NPR) reports that according to Center for American Progress director John Podesta (Obama's transition coordinator and Bill Clinton's chief of staff), the nation's CEO still has plenty of executive power to deliver "real change" in the next two years, and to "push the country to a better place." Podesta emphasized the strong hand the President can take in writing regulations to implement audacious initiatives like health care and financial reform, "shift[ing] authority out of Congress and into a realm where Obama can wield much authority." Podesta's gang suggests "that the president use his Constitutional authority to make things happen through executive orders, rule making, managing agencies, creating public-private partnerships, commanding the armed forces, and diplomacy."

It's amazing how enraptured so many "liberal" people are with the idea of a (benevolent) dictatorship. Podesta's ramblings about the loveliness of Presidential power are merely a refined version of the sentiments expressed earlier this year by no less an authority on political philosophy than comedian/film director Woody Allen, who remarked to a Spanish newspaper: “I am pleased with Obama. I think he’s brilliant. The Republican Party should get out of his way and stop trying to hurt him. It would be good … if he could be a dictator for a few years because he could do a lot of good things quickly."

It's a good thing that George Washington didn't quite see things Woody's way, and take up the title of King that many wanted him to assume. He too probably could have "done a lot of good things quickly." But of all people, he understood that that is not what government in America is all about--and that LIMITED government was precisely what the American people had just fought (and won) a bitter, bloody war to establish.

The issue of Presidential power-lust was explored eloquently this past October by Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.) in a speech delivered at Michigan's Hillsdale College. This was one of the most insightful and well-written speeches I've ever read, going right to the heart of why the concept of President as messiah and law-giver is fundamentally at odds with the system of government intended by America's founding fathers. You can read the speech in its entirely here; in this post I'll only quote the central point made by Rep. Pence:
THE PRESIDENCY is the most visible thread that runs through the tapestry of the American government. More often than not, for good or for ill, it sets the tone for the other branches and spurs the expectations of the people. Its powers are vast and consequential, its requirements impossible for mortals to fulfill without humility and insistent attention to its purpose as set forth in the Constitution of the United States.

Isn’t it amazing, given the great and momentous nature of the office, that those who seek it seldom pause to consider what they are seeking? Rather, unconstrained by principle or reflection, there is a mad rush toward something that, once its powers are seized, the new president can wield as an instrument with which to transform the nation and the people according to his highest aspirations.

But, other than in a crisis of the house divided, the presidency is neither fit nor intended to be such an instrument. When it is made that, the country sustains a wound, and cries out justly and indignantly. And what the nation says is the theme of this address. What it says—informed by its long history, impelled by the laws of nature and nature’s God—is that we as a people are not to be ruled and not to be commanded. It says that the president should never forget this; that he has not risen above us, but is merely one of us, chosen by ballot, dismissed after his term, tasked not to transform and work his will upon us, but to bear the weight of decision and to carry out faithfully the design laid down in the Constitution in accordance with the Declaration of Independence.

* * * *
It is a tragedy indeed that new generations taking office attribute failures in governance to insufficient power, and seek more of it. In the judiciary, this has seldom been better expressed than by Justice Thurgood Marshall, who said: “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.” In the Congress, it presents itself in massive legislation, acts and codes thousands of pages long and so monstrously over-complicated that no human being can read through them—much less understand them, much less apply them justly to a people that increasingly feel like they are no longer being asked, but rather told. Our nation finds itself in the position of a dog whose duty it is not to ask why—because the “why” is too elevated for his nature—but simply to obey.

America is not a dog, and does not require a “because-I-said-so” jurisprudence; or legislators who knit laws of such insulting complexity that they are heavier than chains; or a president who acts like, speaks like, and is received as a king.

The president is not our teacher, our tutor, our guide or ruler. He does not command us; we command him. We serve neither him nor his vision. It is not his job or his prerogative to redefine custom, law, and beliefs; to appropriate industries; to seize the country, as it were, by the shoulders or by the throat so as to impose by force of theatrical charisma his justice upon 300 million others. It is neither his job nor his prerogative to shift the power of decision away from them, and to him and the acolytes of his choosing.
Truer words were never spoken! If only our "leaders" could or would accept the principle that it doesn't matter how noble or superior their ideas and aspirations are; if a majority of the people don't agree with them, they should not become law. If they can't be implemented through an open, honest, and truly democratic legislative process--rather than through logrolling, corrupt backroom deals, or judicial fiat--they should not be implemented at all.

Today, the line between leadership and dictatorship grows thinner by the day. The people of recently-democratic Venezuela, where the National Assembly has just given President Hugo Chavez the power to rule by decree for 18 months, are learning that to their woe. And it could happen here, if we let it.

Don't you think Rep. Pence, who's given these truths such forceful expression, might make a good President himself?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A New Generation at Kelly's

This past Saturday Melany and I met up with Rob, Sheila, and baby Liam at their home in Amherst for a special adventure--a trip to Kelly's Country Store (on Facebook) on Grand Island! This was an exciting event on several levels.

Kelly's isn't your typical small-town gift shop. In addition to crafts, candles, knickknacks, novelty items, small toys, home decorations, tableware, etc., there are always antique items, old tools, and other memorabilia lining the front porch, aisles, walls, and even the ceiling, which give the place a distinctly homey, throwback ambiance. They even have a "cigar-store Indian"--the same one, I think, that's been there for decades!

And then there's the old-fashioned "penny" candy, a long counter holding jar upon jar of it: horehound, sassafras, clove, root beer barrels, licorice, lemon drops, "boston baked beans," chocolate-covered peanuts and raisins--if you remember it, they have it! And lots of homemade fudge, of course (especially my favorite, maple).

What makes this place really unique is the way it's transformed into a wonderland at holiday-time, especially Christmas. A back room is opened; the approach-way is filled with every imaginable Christmas-tree ornament and wall- or table-decoration (just how many versions of Santa Claus are there?); another short aisle takes you past a moving diorama of the Holy Family.

And then you reach it: darkened but for one of those rotating "disco" lights (I hate to call it that because it conveys the impression that the room is cheesy and modern, which it isn't in the slightest), "Santa's room" is covered floor-to-ceiling, and all over the ceiling, with antique toys, sleds, and children's whatnot. At the far end of the room sits Santa himself in a big chair--and he's about the most "real" Santa you'll ever encounter! Children and their families wait in line for a few minutes with the jolly old fellow, and hardly mind the wait, being surrounded with so much magical stuff!

What makes Kelly's so special to our family is that we're now into the fourth generation of Flemings who love to visit there! My memory is a bit hazy, but I'm sure my parents took me and my siblings there now and then over the years since the store opened in 1962 (what other small-town country store do you know of that's been around almost 50 years?) I do distinctly remember riding my bicycle there as a teenager--our house was only 2 or 3 miles away--to buy some candy and play the old coin-operated music box they used to have. I liked to visit there during Christmas break from college and law school, too. Then I got married and had kids of my own, and we'd take them to Kelly's on our annual Thanksgiving weekend visit to Grandma and Grandpa Moran's--I don't think Grandpa ever accompanied us, but Grandma did as long as she was physically able!

Here's Grandma with Donna and Robert at Kelly's on Thanksgiving weekend 1988 (sorry I cut off your head, Grandma!)

Getting pictures taken with Santa was a yearly ritual!

Here's Donna, Colin and Robert with Santa at Kelly's on Thanksgiving weekend in 1989.

Now our kids are grown up, and Rob and Sheila have started taking theirs to Kelly's!

Here are the proud parents with Liam on a bench just outside the store.

Apparently Liam had decided to rest up (on Rob's shoulder) for the momentous occasion of his first meeting with Santa Claus himself!

Because Liam wasn't in a position (yet) to actually talk with Santa, we were allowed to go to the head of the line and have his picture taken with the Jolly Old Elf. Liam was so overawed that he slept through the entire event!

He even slept through Sheila's attempt to load him into Santa's sleigh!

I got to hold the young fellow during most of the rest of our visit (after conning Melany into letting me hold him--I feel guilty now!), and he was awake for much of that time, just looking around and taking in all the sights and sounds. I didn't feel his weight at all until I handed him back to Melany--and then the soreness and stiffness hit! But it's a good pain!

Here are Grandma and Grandpa Fleming holding Liam in Santa's Room at Kelly's (we weren't really as shell-shocked as we look here).

We had a delightful time, and look forward to many more visits with Liam (and other grandchildren?) to Kelly's Country Store!