Monday, December 23, 2013

The Greatest Christmas Story Ever Told

Here again, my friends, is the greatest Christmas story ever told by a great story teller, Al Martinez, formerly of the Oakland Tribune, Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily News. Al is known as the "Bard of LA" and has won three Pulitzer prizes since he began writing columns in 1952. He wrote his last column on March 30 of this year, dropped by a newspaper publisher for the third, and probably last time. He had this to say in his last column:
"I think part of it is that I don't write local stuff but reach out for a broader view in a style of writing that just isn't "journalistic" enough. Good writing, as one L.A. Times publisher said when the Otis Chandler era came to an end, isn't a requirement for newspapers anymore. My writing is just too ornate, too stylistic, too gothic and too soft for those who own newspapers. And as they sit in lofty judgment on what the public wants, the product that is a result of their judgment drops deeper into the abyss."
I run this story every year in Fiat Lux, and it brings a tear to my eye every time.  So here it is, the Greatest Christmas Story Ever Told:

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A Christmas Story
By Al Martinez

IT happened one Christmas Eve a long time ago in a place called Oakland on a newspaper called the Tribune with a city editor named Alfred P. Reck.

I was working swing shift on general assignment, writing the story of a boy who was dying of leukemia and whose greatest wish was for fresh peaches.

It was a story which, in the tradition of 1950s journalism, would be milked for every sob we could squeeze from it, because everyone loved a good cry on Christmas.

We knew how to play a tear-jerker in those days, and I was full of the kinds of passions that could make a sailor weep.

I remember it was about 11 o'clock at night and pouring rain outside when I began putting the piece together for the next day's editions.

Deadline was an hour away, but an hour is a lifetime when you're young and fast and never get tired.

Then the telephone rang.

It was Al Reck calling, as he always did at night, and he'd had a few under his belt.

Reck was a drinking man. With diabetes and epilepsy, hard liquor was about the last thing he ought to be messing with, but you didn't tell Al what he ought to or ought not to do.

He was essentially a gentle man who rarely raised his voice, but you knew he was the city editor, and in those days the city editor was the law and the word in the newsroom.

But there was more than fear and tradition at work for Al.

We respected him immensely, not only for his abilities as a newsman, but for his humanity. Al was sensitive both to our needs and the needs of those whose names and faces appeared in the pages of the Oakland Tribune.

"What's up?" he asked me that Christmas Eve in a voice as soft and slurred as a summer breeze.

He already knew what was up because, during 25 years on the city desk, Reck somehow always knew what was up, but he wanted to hear it from the man handling the story.

I told him about the kid dying of leukemia and about the peaches and about how there simply were no fresh peaches, but it still made a good piece. We had art and a hole waiting on page one.

Al listened for a moment and then said, "How long's he got?"

"Not long," I said. "His doctor says maybe a day or two."

There was a long silence and then Al said, "Get the kid his peaches."

"I've called all over," I said. "None of the produce places in the Bay Area have fresh peaches. They're just plain out of season. It's winter."

"Not everywhere. Call Australia."

"Al," I began to argue, "it's after 11 and I have no idea . . .”

"Call Australia," he said, and then hung up.

If Al said call Australia, I would call Australia.

I don't quite remember whom I telephoned, newspapers maybe and agricultural associations, but I ended up finding fresh peaches and an airline that would fly them to the Bay Area before the end of Christmas Day.

There was only one problem. Customs wouldn't clear them. They were an agricultural product and would be hung up at San Francisco International at least for a day, and possibly forever.

Reck called again. He listened to the problem and told me to telephone the secretary of agriculture and have him clear the peaches when they arrived.

"It's close to midnight," I argued. "His office is closed."

"Take this number down," Reck said. "It's his home. Tell him I told you to call."

It was axiomatic among the admirers of Al Reck that he knew everyone and everyone knew him, from cops on the street to government leaders in their Georgetown estates. No one knew how Al knew them or why, but he did.

I made the call. The secretary said he'd have the peaches cleared when they arrived and give Al Reck his best.

"All right," Reck said on his third and final call to me, "now arrange for one of our photographers to meet the plane and take the peaches over to the boy's house."

He had been drinking steadily throughout the evening and the slurring had become almost impossible to understand.

By then it was a few minutes past midnight, and just a heartbeat and a half to the final deadline.

"Al," I said, "if I don't start writing this now I'll never get the story in the paper."

I won't forget this moment.

"I didn't say get the story," Reck replied gently. "I said get the kid his peaches."

If there is a flash point in our lives to which we can refer later, moments that shape our attitudes and affect our futures, that was mine.

Alfred Pierce Reck had defined for me the importance of what we do, lifting it beyond newsprint and deadline to a level of humanity that transcends job. He understood not only what we did but what we were supposed to do.

I didn't say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches.

The boy got his peaches and the story made the home edition, and I received a lesson in journalism more important than any I've learned since.

I wanted you to know that this Christmas season.

Al Martinez is a former reporter and columnist for The Oakland Tribune, from 1955 to 1971, The Richmond (Calif.) Independent and Los Angeles Times to now. Born in Oakland, he also has written several novels, for television and the movies. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 25, 1986.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Being in the alpenglow

Last night we held our "Longest Night" service, with readings, healing prayers and candle lighting. The service is more low-key and especially for those who find the holiday season a little too intense. Below is my homily, and the photograph is me sitting on the ridge described (in the Alpenglow):

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If you’ve ever hiked in the mountains, above where the trees won’t grow, you know that the sun can be very bright in the daytime, much brighter than in the lowlands.

The air is thinner above the tree line and it is easy to get sunburned. 

But dusk high in the mountains, that is something all together different.

There is a place I go in the high Sierra. I’ve not been there in a few years, so mostly I go these days in my mind’s eye.

This place is on a high ridge in the heart of Yosemite. It takes about a half-day to hike up there. The ridge faces east, looking out across Tuolumne Meadows, and toward the sharp, glacially polished spires of the aptly named Cathedral peaks.

 I like to sit on this ridge at dusk. As the sun sets behind me, it casts a reddish-orange glow, and the mountains begin to shimmer for a few minutes.

It’s called “alpenglow,” and there is no better place to experience the alpenglow than on this ridge high in the Sierra Nevada. The amazing thing about alpenglow is you can feel the warmth of the sun even as the coolness of the night begins to settle over the mountains. And if you can hold the alpenglow in your mind, its warmth will carry you to the dawn and the return of the sun.  

Sometimes the bright lights of the Christmas season can be a little too intense. Religion itself can be like that. Religion can be too bright, too certain, too religious, and we can feel sunburned by it.

Sometimes all we need is the alpenglow. That is enough.

So tonight we will light a few candles, enough to give us the alpenglow. 

As you sit in the alpenglow tonight, there is really only one thing I want you to know. I have only one sermon, really, and it is this: God loves you. God loves you, no matter what. God loves you no matter what you’ve done, or not done, where you’ve been, or haven’t been. God loves you in your triumphs and in your failings, and God’s love comes with no strings attached, no qualifying phrases that begin with “if” or “but.”

It doesn’t matter what you’ve believe or not believe. You are in God’s loving embrace. You’ve met God in the alpenglow every evening of your life, even when you didn’t see the glow.

Moses saw God in a burning bush, and maybe that was just too bright for the rest of us. That is why I believe the divine came to earth as a human being, the One who we know as Jesus, so that we might experience the alpenglow of the creator. That, really, is the point of Christmas, to celebrate the glow of the One who comes among us.

Yet I know that is not always easy to feel or to believe. So tonight, rest in the alpenglow, and know that is enough.

Maybe there is something weighing on you tonight, a burden you are carrying, or a problem that just won’t resolve, or a relationship that is complicated, or a situation that is difficult. Or you miss someone close who is far away or gone. Rest tonight in the alpenglow of God’s love.

Maybe there is something deep inside you that needs healing. Soon we will offer prayers for healing, prayers for you and prayers for the people you love. I would urge you to come forward, don’t be shy. Come be open to the prayers that are a gift to you tonight in the alpenglow. And then light a candle.

And then I would offer again the words of St. Paul, written long ago to a small isolated community of Christians who were just trying to figure out how to get from one day to the next. He might as well have written these words to us:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Watching just beyond the candle light


I haven't posted here in many weeks, instead focusing on my book project in my early morning writing time. I am close to finishing a first draft, so it is getting time once again to come back to this space.

A few kinds folks asked me this morning to post my sermon, so that seems a good way to start. The day is icy, and sleet is covering the sidewalks. More than 100 hearty souls braved the weather to make it to church. We improvised a few things, and it was a more intimate worship than we typically experience.

I  was not slated to preach today, but put something together with a major inspirational assist from Steven Charleston. The readings for today are Isaiah 11:1-10Romans 15:4-13 and Matthew 3:1-12.

Here it is:

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         Good morning. Thank you for being for braving the elements and being here this morning. Not everyone could get here, including our scheduled preacher, and so our prayers today are with everyone who isn’t here. And we are here to pray for them.
         I had not planned to preach today, so forgive me, I haven’t had much time to prepare. That of course, goes a bit against the admonitions of Advent, a time when we are told to be awake because we don’t know what is coming next.
         But I am an old newspaper reporter, and I can still do a few things on deadline.
         This morning I could give you a little biblical background about John the Baptist, but I’d rather save that for another day.
         Today might be a day to be a little more low key, a little quieter than John the Baptist calling us a brood of vipers. Today I would rather John’s unquenchable fire stay in the fire place.
         So, I’d like to read you something that a friend of mine wrote the other day on his Facebook page. This is from Steven Charleston, who is the retired bishop of Alaska.
         Here is what he wrote:
         When the hour is late and the world is quiet, when prayers are being said and dreams are being sought, then the space between this life and the life to come draws thin, and if you look with eyes of the Spirit you will see your ancestors watching over you, watching just beyond the candle light, keeping their gentle vigil through the night, offering their wisdom in words too still to speak.
“You are being blessed by those who loved you most. You are safe in their care. The air around you is filled with a ceaseless benediction, your life held secure in hearts as pure as holy.”
Advent is a time of being awake the holy that is so near us. It is a time of waiting for the holy, but also noticing the holy already here. It is a time for noticing our dreams, looking with the eyes of the Spirit into the candlelight. It is a time for remembering our ancestors, and feeling their presence.
I am always struck by those individuals who feel this more clearly than I do, more clearly than the rest of us. John the Baptist was certainly one – it is why people flocked to the river to hear him and be washed in the river by him. He told them to repent – the word means “turn around.”
The word “repent” has gotten so laden with guilt and judgment that it has lost its meaning with us. But in its classic meaning, repent means simply, turn around to see God once again.
All he was really doing is telling people to turn around, go home, what you seek is already with you – God is walking with you. If you can see that, feel that, your life will be changed.
We’ve had people like that in our own time – and some have been prophets and sages. We know them because we can see how the Holy Spirit changed them, and then how they profoundly change the lives of others, and even change entire nations.
We know them by how they march in the light of God, and how they base their life not on hatred, violence and revenge, but on love, hope and reconciliation.
St. Paul himself was a man of violence and hatred until the Holy Spirit filled him the joy and peace of believing.
We lost one of those giant figures this week – Nelson Mandela. He transformed himself from a prophet of violence to a prophet of love and forgiveness. He changed a nation and changed the world.
At communion today we will sing the hymn, Marching in the Light of God, that became the unofficial anthem of those in South Africa who brought down apartheid.
We are blessed by so many other people still living. And we are still blessed by those who are gone from us but whose lives we can feel in flicker of the candle light, the breath of the wind.
Most of them aren’t famous, but they somehow touched our lives deeply. Who are they for you?
Some are our ancestors, and they watch over us, whisper to us.
May this Advent be a time for you to remember those individuals in your prayers, give thanks for how they changed you, and then be awake to how they still walk with you.
And soon, we will remember again how long ago, God came to be among us as a human being, as Jesus, and how by his life we are changed, healed and made new forever.
There really is more to this life than what you see now.
No matter what bruises and bumps we encounter along the way, healing does come, sometimes here, sometimes in the next life – but healing comes.
Life eternal begins in this place and dwells with each and every one of us. The One who comes is already here. The dawn soon arrives, and the blessing is ours forever. So be awake, look for the salvation that is already yours forever.
And may we always march in the Light of God.