Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The war against Christmas has ended. Jesus lost.

This just in…the war against Christmas has ended. The meaning of Christmas has lost! I’m not talking about the phony war contrived by the entertainers at FOX News who want you to believe the war was a battle over whether the store clerks said “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.”

The real war has long been fought between the forces of materialism and the dwindling effort to focus on the birth of Jesus. That war has ended. The American people surrendered on Black Friday.

Any hope for acknowledging “the reason for the season” went up in dollar bills when retailers announced this year’s Black Friday set a record for retail sales. A nation of voters unwilling to spend money to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and educate the young, shoppers used credit cards on the day after giving thanks to buy up record amounts of stuff.

This war on Christmas succeeded because Americans not only gave in to abject materialism but did so while joyously participating in a sort of shoppers’ “gladiator” event while winking one eye and crossing their fingers as they objected when the clerk wished them “happy holiday” instead of “Merry Christmas.” In the end, most could simply not resist combining violence with shopping.

Under the terms of the surrender, Christians agreed to ignore the images of fights in store aisles over bargain priced video games, of an old man lying on the floor as shoppers ignored his pleas for help to get to the sale items first, of one woman pepper spraying others while taking items from their shopping carts and a dead clerk trampled by on-rushing shoppers.

Who contributed most to the victory of materialism over Christmas? Was it those who never darken the door of a church to celebrate the birth of Christ, up in the middle of the night, standing in line in front of a store owned by corporate conglomerates intent on driving small local businesses out?  Or…was it those who do go to church who were in that same line?

Regardless, all were willing to ignore the collateral damage. In their frenzy these shopping warriors gave little thought to workers whose lives are disrupted by being required to leave their families on Thanksgiving evening to go to work to stock the shelves and operate the cash registers.

Aimee Bender has written a book entitled The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Its main character has a special gift. As she eats, she senses the emotions of the person who prepared the meal, e.g. joy, sadness, loneliness or stress. The war against Christmas might have had a different outcome if only we had that gift. Imagine if those who shopped at midnight on Black Friday could have felt the particular emotions of the clerks.

What would you have felt? What would you have learned about their lives? Undoubtedly you’d have sensed the strain your need to shop put on them. Many are working more than one of these low paying jobs with few or no benefits. They had no choice but to leave their families on Thanksgiving to go to work.

As customers bought stuff they didn’t need with money they didn’t have, shoppers would have felt what workers were feeling... the sadness and worry of leaving young children in the middle of the night. Perhaps they’d have felt the particular guilt accompanied by the worry over a sick child left at home because the worker can’t miss that shift without losing a day’s pay and maybe even the job.

But, to the victor go the spoils. The “meaning of Christmas” lost the war. Empathy for the workers and their families is just one of the casualties.  Materialism has won out and it has no use for a conscience.

Still…doesn’t it seem odd to you that we would still continue to skirmish over whether that same clerk wishes you a “happy holiday” instead of a “Merry Christmas?”

Happy holidays everyone!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Forrest and Leah

An old preacher friend of mine used to say there is always a place where the needs of the world intersect with everyone’s gifts and talents. Another theologian called it “over-the-shoulder and through-the-heart activism.”
Teddy Roosevelt said it was the willingness to get into the arena. He famously wrote, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena.”
All describe Forrest King and Leah Zegan. They are in the arena. Forrest is a local artist. He is talented enough to take a collection of symbols of brokenness from more than 25 disparate faith communities and within 10 days create a marvelous piece of artwork symbolizing the move from brokenness to healing in the decade after 9/11. Leah is as articulate and creative with her words as Forrest is with his hands.
Together, this youthful couple has found the place in our community where their talents intersect with the need to create change. Like most of us, they have become painfully aware of the damage caused to women (and men, but mostly women) and children by the unacceptably high rate of domestic and other home-based violence. Forrest and Leah have been moved to action not only by the statistics but also by the stories.
They have met and listened to brave victims who share their often tragic stories hoping that someone who hears will act. Leah and Forrest heard and are fully engaged in  “over-the-shoulder and through-the-heart activism.”
They have created the Battered Bride Project. Combining Leah’s eloquence with Forrest’s artistic talent and using their curiosity and caring natures, the two have launched a commendable effort to raise awareness of how great a problem we have in Cheyenne and other Wyoming communities and how it has been neglected by policymakers.
As Forrest paints a large canvas depicting a beautiful young bride arrayed in the finest wedding dress with a frightening blackened eye, he has created a visual dissonance audiences find compelling. As they watch Forrest continue to use his paints and brushes to create this haunting image, Leah speaks about the problem, telling us that more than one out of every five of our daughters, granddaughters, sisters and mothers has been and will continue to be victims of domestic violence unless the community acts. She explains the work of the Safe House and other advocates, what they do, how they do it and asks why the funding for these critical programs is such a low priority.
Frequently, members of the audience are moved to tell their own stories. They step forward to put a face on the issue, sharing the experiences that are far too common even in our neighborhoods. Over-the-shoulder and through-the heart, these stories quiet the room but not the mind.
As we watch Forrest continue adding paint to the shocking image on his canvas, Leah’s ability to use a calm voice to create urgency calls us all to come off the sidelines and join them in the arena.
During lunch with a friend last week, I was groaning about the state of the nation, offering a rather pessimistic view of the future of the country. My friend, who is older than I, cut me off, telling me why there is every reason to be optimistic about America’s future. He said he found those reasons in the bright, committed young people he meets around Cheyenne and Wyoming.
He is right. There are many, each one a reason for optimism and hope. Forrest and Leah are two among us. If you don’t know them, you should and if your church, civic club, or business is willing to get into the arena, schedule Leah and Forrest to speak at your next event. You can contact them at and find the Battered Bride or call 6313742. Learn more at

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Who cuts the budget cutters' budget?

This week the Joint Appropriations Committee announced state agencies will be required to reduce their budgets by 5-8%. They also have legislation drafted to cut state employee retirement and eliminate cost of living increases. You might recall how legislators trashed unemployed workers as “lazy” when the legislature rejected 38 million dollars for unemployment benefits.

These are the same “fiscal conservatives” who thought it okay to use your tax dollars to treat 25 of the members of the Wyoming legislature to a vacation meeting at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel in Honolulu last August.

Several legislators have argued the trip was “important.” I’m sure it was. They all are. It was a meeting of the Council of State Governments and the agenda included such critical topics as “To Tweet or Not to Tweet.” There was an “early bird walk” along the beach every morning and a hospitality room every evening. Of course there were more substantive topics but nothing that would have justified sending such a huge contingent of so-called “citizen legislators” to Hawaii for a week.

The junket cost taxpayers more than $58,000. Only one legislator, State Senator Dan Dockstader (Lincoln, Sublette and Teton Counties), decided the trip was extraordinary enough to pay his own way. The others let you pick up the tab.

Having been a state agency head, I know a double standard when I see one. If a state agency had sent one person, much less a third of its staff to Honolulu, imagine the beating he or she would have taken in front of the Joint Appropriations Committee…and yet there on the beach was the House JAC Chair, Rosie Berger along with former JAC chair John Schiffer, Senate President Jim Anderson and House Speaker Ed Buchannan.

The Hawaiian vacationers who really caught my attention were the ten who thought long-term unemployed Wyoming workers were so lazy they should be denied unemployment benefits. They (and approximately how much you paid for their trip to Hawaii) are Speaker of the House Ed Buchanan ($2300), Kathy Davison ($2302), Gerald Gay ($2700), Elaine Harvey ($2550), Allen Jaggi ($2220), Tom Lockhart ($2525), Robert McKim ($2330), Owen Peterson ($2260), Mark Semlek ($2108), and Matt Teeters ($2303).

Teeters said unemployed workers should be denied taxpayer help because he didn’t want “to create a perverse incentive that would keep people from trying to find a job.” Seems taxpayer funded trips to Hawaii may create a “perverse incentive” to run for the legislature.

The legislature plays an important role in holding state agencies accountable for how they spend your tax dollars. Agency heads know if they permit questionable use of state funds, there will be a day of reckoning. Travel budgets are particularly vulnerable to second-guessing. Members of the legislature don’t hesitate to demand explanations for any expenditure that appears to be unusual or ill advised. It’s called accountability.

But who holds the legislature accountable. Their leaders not only approved the Hawaiian trip, they went with the others to Honolulu. Is the Joint Appropriations Committee going to call them on the carpet? Not likely when the House Appropriations Committee chair was a fellow traveler.

The voters don’t seem interested in holding them accountable either.  Eighteen of the legislators who went to Hawaii ran unopposed in their last general election, as did a large majority of all their colleagues. I guess it’s true. In a democracy the voters get what they deserve. And unaccountable legislators get a free trip to Hawaii.

Having returned sun tanned and rested from Waikiki, they got down to the business of cutting the budgets of others and writing legislation to eviscerate the state retirement program. They want to eliminate cost of living increases, clarify that retirement is not a promise and, get this, fund an “education” program to teach retiree how to be more frugal and live on less. Really! Perhaps frugal retirees can learn they can afford a vacation…but only if they get elected to the legislature?

They get us coming and going which is sort of what is meant by “aloha."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Walter C. Urbigkit

Walter C. Urbigkit, “he was a good friend of mine, I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine!” Walter loved the language enough to use it fully. A dictionary in your hip pocket was helpful when you had a conversation with him. We first met in 1969. I was barely old enough to drink and we’d leave Democratic Party meetings for a booth at the old Club Araby on Carey Avenue.  We’d order one round and another, listening attentively to Walter talking politics and quoting Robert Service poetry.

Walter loved Robert Service poems. This morning I came across “A Busy Man, “ one that reminded me of Walter’s profound life.

This crowded life of God's good giving

No man has relished more than I;

I've been so goldarned busy living...

I've never had the time to die.

I’ve not known anyone so “goldarned busy living” as Walter. For a while my family and I lived in a house next to his law office. I’d get up before 6 AM every morning but the light was already on in the office window I could see though the one in my kitchen. There was Walter, a stack of law books in front of him, already long at work.

I served with Walter in the Legislature, had the joy of sitting next to him. I believe him to be the only member of the Wyoming legislature not only to read every bill but to understand them all as well. He could speak with authority on every issue. I had known him for many years before it occurred to me that at least some of what he said was mere opinion and not actually gospel.

I recall one of those long evenings at the Araby. He was unhappy with the outcome of the 1972 Democratic National Convention. I thought they had done the Party and the nation a service by nominating George McGovern, a candidate who would end the war in Viet Nam.  But Walter was an old Hubert H. Humphrey liberal. As Walter dropped a tip on the table and stood to leave, he said, “I guess my problem is I am just not much of a liberal anymore.”

I realized later that it wasn’t Walter who’d changed. It was the definition of “liberal.” Walter’s idea of a liberal was not George McGovern but Hubert Humphrey, who defined liberals for his generation saying, “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

Whether you quote from an Urbigkit speech on the floor of the House of Representatives or from one of his opinions as a Supreme Court Justice or simply recall one of his dissertations during a late night Araby conference, that was the thread that ran through his life. It’s what he believed whether he was running for office or sharing a conversation over a drink. It’s who he was and why he will be missed.

It’s regretful Wyoming doesn’t take more time to remember and celebrate its fallen “stars.” They burn brightly across the sky and fall to the earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Within a generation or less they are but footnotes in a history book. Walter didn’t live his life hoping to be remembered but we’d do well to remember his as we live whatever life we have remaining.

Walter C. Urbigkit earned the rest God promises us all, the one with which Robert concludes his poem.

And now I'll toddle to the garden

And light a good old Henry Clay.

I'm ninety odd,
so Lord, please pardon
my frequent lapses by the way.

I'm getting tired; the sunset lingers;

The evening star serenes the sky;

The damn cigar burns to my fingers . . .
I guess . . .
I'll take . . . time off . . . to die.