Golden Globes, Football, Fiscal Years and Epiphany: A Tale of Liturgical Seasons

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My church kicked off the season of epiphany in style this morning with a fun Epiphany introductory video I made with some kids.  Then we sang the traditional We Three Kings, followed by a bunch of fun upbeat songs about “light.”   Then we read the lectionary Psalm (#29) together and talked about what it means to be in Jesus’ fan club.

But I have to be honest and admit that now Christmas is over, Epiphany is one of the last things on my mind.  Instead, this first month of a New Year is weighed down by seasons of another sort.

My news feeds are saturated with stories of the Golden Globes, reminding me that for the entertainment industry this is Awards Season, a time filled with what we might call liturgies of human glory and honor.  In fact, if I was a bit more of an arrogant Hebrew Prophet I would call the awards shows worship services to the idols of vanity.

So too my social media feeds remind me that the NFL is providing another season, or rather a post season.  This week we watched the first of the teams falter in their quest for dominance, a liturgy itself of human strength and cunning.  And we watch and wait to see which team will rise to the top.  150 million will watch the last match, which is a bit more than the number of people who voted for a US President just months ago.  The angry Hebrew prophet in me is tempted to call those games worship services, worship to the idols of violence and competition.

Then there is this other thing weighing on my heart and, mostly, mind.  My church ends its fiscal year on February 28th this year.  With the close of a fiscal year comes a mountain high list of responsibilities.  We have numbers to crunch, vision to share, a new board to elect and goals to set, all of which will be accomplished with no less than 1 dozen business meetings.  We might call these a liturgy of institution.  The arrogant, angry and overwhelmed Hebrew prophet in me is tempted to call those meetings worship services themselves, worship to the idol of human control and manipulation.

Yet today was not just the first Sunday of Epiphany.  It was also the Baptism of our Lord.  The Gospel text for today was Matthew 3, that famous story where Jesus begins his ministry by entering into the waters of the Jordan River.  John the Baptist didn’t know quite what to do with Jesus in the water and I don’t either.  Baptism is for sinners.  Jesus had not sinned.  The waters are for the spiritually dead.  Jesus was more spiritually alive than anybody has ever been.  The sacrament is for humans.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Yet here is Jesus, wading into the waters of death, sin and chaos and beginning his ministry right where we are at.

In a way the Baptism of Jesus reenacts the incarnation.  This might be why Mark and John leave out the manger, in favor of the water.  In the baptism waters Jesus is taking on flesh again, taking on the unique position of being a human after Adam, a human represented by all humanity’s shortcomings.  This is a God entering into sin and death as one of us.  Like the manger, this is Immanuel, a God with us, a God among us, a God meeting us in our human liturgies of award shows, violent competition and financial reporting.  Here is God in the flesh, come to redeem us from the life taking, death dealing liturgies of the world and light up the better way which is the only way, the liturgy of the cross and the resurrection.

So my hope this Epiphany season is that God will enter into our awards shows, our sporting matches and our business meetings and bring new Epiphany so that our feet can stay on the path of life!

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The Sermon I Should Have Preached: About those Pesky Shepherds

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For various reasons I chose to preach through the Psalms for Advent.  This meant not being able to talk about the traditional aspects of the season, namely shepherds, wise men, a star, the virgin Mary and the like.  Yet over the last year I have read a lot about the Jewish heritage of the Christian faith and come to appreciate more fully how Jewish Jesus’ story is from start to finish.  Therefore the following is a short sermon, or even devotional thought, I have put together in my head and wanted to preach this season but did not have time too:

Tell me if you have heard this sermon before around this time of year:  “Jesus was God, in very nature God, completely God and Jesus came to save the world and reassert God’s reign over it.  He was a King!  But Jesus didn’t do it like any other King would do it.  Instead he chose to be born of a lowly virgin Mary who came from the wrong side of the wrong town.  He wasn’t born in a palace but a barn (or a cave) and God announced it not to elites but to lowly shepherds.  After all shepherds were the laughing stock of the 1st century Middle East.  They were lowly nobodies.  They were worthless to society and to make it worse these shepherds seemed to be working the night shift.  Yet God thought them so important that angels sang to them of the newly arrived Baby King.”

I like that sermon.  I have preached it myself a time or two and for the most part it holds up.  But some time in the last year I began actually reading and studying about shepherds and not just the cultural context of shepherding in the 1st century middle east, but about shepherds in the entire Bible.

To be sure, shepherds in the 1st century were not popular or revered.  However, in the Jewish society being a Shepherd was actually a high honor because King David was a shepherd and King David taught us that God is a shepherd (read all the Psalms).  For those of you unfamiliar with David’s biography, David didn’t convert from shepherd to King.  He wasn’t a shepherd who suddenly decided being a shepherd was bad and then chose to be a King.  Instead David took his shepherding role with him to the monarchy.  He was always a shepherd, a shepherd King.  This reality profoundly impacted how Israel viewed God’s kingship over us.  God is our shepherd King.

So during this time of year when we read and sing about angels going to shepherds, the point may not be that God could have sent angels to kings but went to lowly shepherds instead.  To the Jewish ear, trained in the Hebrew scriptures, God did send the angels to kings, the true kings, the shepherds.  The angels and shepherds are not God doing a new thing.  It is God doing that same old thing God did throughout the entire Old Testament, going to the true salt of the earth, the meek who work hard with their own hands and live quiet but profound lives.

One of the most influential essays I have read in the last few years was written by George Orwell about coal miners in the industrial revolution.   Back then, coal mining was a miserable chore.  They worked long hours for very little pay and mining was hazardous in the extreme.  This was before labor laws so even children and women were forced to work in the mines.  Most of the miners died prematurely.  In addition coal miners had the same reputation that 1st century shepherds supposedly had.  It was a reputation we might give to warehouse workers today.  They were uncivilized.  They didn’t dress well.  They weren’t educated.  They were immoral.  For that reason, the elite of society propagated a fantastic lie that the coal miners could change their lot by changing their behavior, that if those lousy coal miners would just become moral and civilized they too could matriculate from the mines to a high society position.  George Orwell pointed out that if that did indeed happen, if revival did break out upon the coal miners and they all managed to gain upper class banking jobs, the entire economy would shut down and the homes of the wealthy, moral, civilized bankers, wouldn’t even be able to have heat.

More than that, before writing the essay, Orwell lived among the coal miners for a few years and discovered that they had a deeper morality than any other elite.  Far from being immoral, the coal miners were a courageous bunch, a generous bunch, a loving bunch and they were the most valuable group to England because they braved the conditions and extracted the fuel that kept Industrial Society running. (You can read the full essay here)

As much as I love Orwell’s essay, it was hardly original.  Orwell seems to have plagiarized the entire Bible.  God wrote that essay 2500 years ago when God sent the prophet Samuel to a shepherd and chose David to be King in Israel.  God revised and updated it again when God sent angels to shepherds to proclaim Jesus’ birth.

Here is a God who is not the God who condones the rich and powerful.  Here is a King who values and adores those who work hard with their own hands.  Here is a King who understands that shepherds and coal miners and truck drivers and manual laborers of all stripes are far closer to the character of God than any other group.  And here is a Savior who taught us “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”  Here is a God who commands us to be meek and lowly like the shepherds because God established what Orwell discovered, that coal miners and shepherds actually run the world.

Emmanuel: God With Silliness

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A few posts ago I mentioned that I try not to blog what I preach or preach what I blog.  Not surprisingly, this is the second time since that post that I am breaking that rule.

I wanted to bring something Christmassy to you all on this glorious day, something a bit more profound than that last post about my favorite Christmas TV episode.  And I have been reading blog posts of other Christmas homily’s that were given last night and eventually thought, why not post mine as well.

What follows is an abbreviated version of what I shared with my church last night.  Enjoy!

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About 3 or 4 times a year I find myself preaching the same message.  The message goes something like this.  We live in a tragic world.  Bad things happen to good people and, even more aggravating, good things happen to bad people.  There are tornadoes and earthquakes and floods.  There are car accidents and drug overdoses and sudden heart attacks and brain aneurysms.  There are bad people whose purpose seems to be nothing but to kill and destroy.  But even though we walk through valleys of the shadow of death, God is with us.  Even though we mourn, we do not mourn like those who have no hope.  There will be a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more tears and we will be with the Lord forever.

It’s a good message.  It is at the heart of the Bible which is why I preach it so much.

And I deal with tragedy on a regular basis, about once a week on average.  Pastors get to be the unsung heroes of tragedy.  We are one of your first calls, right after the paramedics I hope!  And it is my privilege to be there.

I am not perfect at responding to tragedies but I am confident that I know the places to go and the things to say and not to say.  I have the Bible verses memorized and I can shed the tears and use the right tones that convey shared sorrow.

But I also deal with another element of the human condition on a regular basis, probably daily.  And I am not as confident when it comes to this.  You see, I deal with silliness.  People are just silly.  While it is true we live in a tragic world, it is also true that we live in a very silly world.

We took the wonderful story of a black, skinny 4th century, African saint named Nicolas who gave gifts to children and we turned that story into a cosmic tale of a fat, white, bearded man who lives on the north pole.  He sees you when your sleeping and he knows when your awake and he breaks into your house every Christmas Eve but don’t worry, it is to give not to steal.  It is a silly story.

To make it sillier we added reindeer and gave one of them a shiny nose.  Then we turned Tim Allen into him and that is probably the moment when Santa jumped the shark.  If not, then it was definitely when Will Ferrell became his “Elf.”

And I just have to say for all the father’s in the room that my money paid for the presents.  It was me who  stayed up until 2am putting the presents together and I don’t feel like a jolly fat white fictional guy should get credit for it!  Can I get an “Amen?”

But our silliness extends far beyond our stories.  It finds its way to our language.  We drive on parkways and park on driveways.  I am a bit of a language nut and I have no idea what weird thing happened in the development of the English language to turn our parkways into driveways and our driveways into parkways but there it is, one of many ridiculous exceptions to the rules that govern our communication!

Our corporations are ridiculous.  They develop identical products and then spend billions of dollars to convince you that they are not identical.  Then when they realize it they sue each other over patent infringement.  That is silly, but not as silly as us consumers who choose sides and go to the internet with our angry twitter hashtags!

We spend millions of dollars making movies whose entire plot consists of blowing things up in slow motion.  Then we pay money to see it and go online and tell everybody how dumb it was, even though we secretly enjoyed it.

We pay athletes millions of dollars to dress up in silly costumes and hit each other, all while trying to get an oblong ball to an end zone.  Then we riot and trash our own town when our team loses.  I can’t even begin to explain why.

The silliness finds our marriages.  A pastor friend told me awhile back about a marriage that was in jeopardy because the wife had purchased over 300 pairs of jeans.  She had bought one a week for six years and refused to get rid of any of them.  The husband was saying pair number 301 was going to be the cause of divorce.  He was filing paperwork over number 301 and I don’t blame him!

 

The most ridiculous thing is that the people who don’t think they are silly at all are the silliest.  You know who I am talking about.  These are the people who are quite adamant about things like the weather.  They are stern and cranky and you better not disagree with their interpretation of how harsh last winter was, because they will show you their wrath!  Do they realize how dumb they are?  I can never figure out.

When these people find me (and they always do) I don’t have the words for silliness.  I don’t know the Bible verses for ridiculous.  I don’t have any cliches memorized that gently convey, “I don’t really care about this opinion your have.”  I know a little about how to deal with tragedy but when people are just being silly, especially when they are being judgmental and passionate in their silliness, I don’t have a clue of what to say.  What I want to say is, “Get over it” but that doesn’t sound very compassionate.  So instead I give them a blank stare and I stammer and say something like, “Well I guess last winter was worse than this year’s.”  Then I kick myself later because I know they are going to their friend to say, “See, Pastor agrees with me.”  And we all know I am right about everything, or not.

But this Christmas when we come again to the manger, as we gather again to marvel at “Emmanuel” who is God with us, I find great comfort that just as God descended into tragedy, God also descended into silliness.

Here in Bethlehem around 4 B.C. in a manger was a God  who took on the entirety of our human condition.  We believe that here in the manger is full God and full human at the same time.  We do not believe that Jesus is half and half.  We used to burn people at the stake for doing that, which was both silly and tragic, but that is how strongly we believe it.  We have always said that here in the manger is all of God taking on all of humanity.

Emmanuel in the manger is God with us in our tragedies.  He is God with us in silliness.  He is God with us in the awkward moments and God with us in the tense situations.  God is with us when our wife buys jeans number 301 and we scream and yell and stomp off to a lawyer.  God is with us when we walk away from a half hour argument about whether the average temperature last winter was 40 degrees or 45 degrees.  Then it suddenly occurs to us, “I don’t really care what the temperature was but I sure cared in the heat of debate!”  God is with us even then.

All of God has taken on all of our goofiness, all of our ridiculousness, all of our stupidity.

God is not intimidated or threatened by any part of the human condition but God is among us.  He is guiding us, calling us, leading us to the place where we can be fully with God, fully aware of his presence in our tragedies, in our sorrows, in our frustrations and yes, even in our silliness.

Merry Christmas Everybody!

Viewing Nativities

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I try to write this blog with a few simple rules.  One of them is that I try not to write what I might one day preach, or have preached before.  At the same time I try not to preach what I will one day blog or have blogged before.

With that said, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon about the little town of Bethlehem from Micah 5 I have been viewing nativity scenes all afternoon and pulling 40 of them into a Powerpoint to be the backdrop of Sunday’s sermon.

I was very moved by Micah’s statement that the savior’s influence would spread around the world.  Jesus’ influence has certainly done that.  The nativity pictures on Google are proof.  Some are made with cartoon characters and action figures.  They are from China, Russia, Native America, churches, storefronts, the middle east, Africa, South America and even the suburbs.  I tried to pick 40 of them for my Powerpoint, 40 that illustrate that Jesus’ greatness truly does extend to the ends of the earth.

 

While scrolling through pages and pages of nativity scenes with shepherds, wise men, angels and stars, I found that I was deeply moved in the Spirit.  It was hard not to shed a tear of joy and appreciation as I studied hundreds of them.  You see, for centuries now, people from all ages, all walks of life and all countries have paid homage to the baby with these incredible nativity scenes.

Micah is quite correct that Jesus’ influence has stretched around the world.

Below are some of my favorites.  I would welcome you to turn on a Christmas song and scroll through them or do a Google search of the “nativity” yourself while you consider that this baby in the manger is the one who:

Will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.

And he will be our peace.

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An Advent Monologue for Lectionary Year C

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As I am preparing for our four Advent worship services, I have gone searching for proper monologues for the more drama inclined in my church to perform.

I have found precious few resources online.  What I have found are either incredibly cheesy or more Christmas than Advent.  And I was unable to find anything tethered to the lectionary, particularly the prophets whom I use to lead us to Jesus.

So I sat down yesterday after a long Sunday that ended a long weekend and put this little number together, thinking I would share it with all of you worship planners for your services.  This is to introduce the candle of hope on the first Sunday.  Enjoy!

(From the last century B.C. in a land called Israel under occupation from the Roman rule.)

My people are an oppressed people.  Our once great kingdom lays in ruins and has for hundreds of years.  Our once great leaders are gone.  In their place stand tyrants and sell outs.  Our tax collectors collect much and our employers give little.  We are waiting for freedom.

My people are a storied people.  We tell tales of men toppling colonnades and floods wiping away the corrupt.  Our prophets lived in the bellys of whales and the caves of mountains.  Our kings killed giants and built great cities with palaces and temples.  Our women conquered warriors with tent poles and gave birth to heroes even in old age.  Our God tore down cities to make a home for us.  Our God split open both seas and rivers, struck the corrupt dead on their feet, sent plagues upon our enemies and rained food from heaven down upon us along with water from a rock!  We are waiting for God.

My people are a corrupt people.  We had the eternal decrees of our righteous God in our possession.  We had a great and everlasting covenant with God that would guarantee our freedom and our safety.  We broke it.  Over and over again we broke it.  From our kings to our warriors to our prophets to our farmers and blacksmiths, every person from every tier of our society turned our back on our deliverer.  And we paid a steep price.  We are waiting for redemption.

My people are a promised people.  Though we sinned, though we abandoned our God, though we live in oppression and agony, we proclaim the promises of our prophets,

That a righteous branch with spring up to execute justice and righteousness in the land.

That the Lord will return to his temple and he will purify us!

When he does, the prophets say that he will rejoice over us with gladness, renew us in love and exult over us with loud shouting!

And He will stand there and feed us so that we will rest secure and be children of peace.

We are waiting for the Lord to enter his holy temple again.

My people are a waiting people.  Day after day we carry on in our sordid state.  Day after day we cry out tears, tell our stories, remember our past greatness and long for our God.  Day after day we long for a different story, a new chapter, a glorious homecoming.

And day after day we are let down as we wonder how long our God will tarry, how long until He comes back to his Holy Temple.

We are a hoping people so today I light this candle, the candle of hope.

Waiting for Advent

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This morning I got in my car to run 8 hours of errands for my church.  My IPod happened to be in my wife’s car so I went looking for a radio station.  The first one I found was a generic pop station that plays current hits.

To my absolute surprise, they were playing Christmas music.  So I went looking for another station.  Later in the day I found myself at a Starbucks, killing time between errands and to my surprise they were playing Christmas music too.

It is November 10th, 17 whole days before Thanksgiving and a month and 16 days before Christmas.

And it isn’t just the music.  The Holiday displays are out and not only in big box stores but in grocery stores as well.  More than that, we are starting the Christmas Culture War earlier than ever and this year the battle happens to be over coffee cups.  More than that, I found that Netflix has debuted all their Christmas content all ready.

There was a day not long ago when I wrote a rather cheesy editorial for my high school paper about how Christmas is now a month long and begins the day after Thanksgiving.  My classmates ridiculed me, saying their family didn’t start Christmas until a couple weeks into December.  They further thought it was weird that anybody would think to celebrate it earlier than that.  Wishful thinking though that was they were wrong then and are super wrong now.

I know enough to know what Starbucks, the grocery stores and that secular radio station are thinking.  They can make more money if they begin the “Christmas spirit” early.  More people will flock to their station and they will capitalize on a niche crowd, making more ad revenue.

After all, American Christmas is all about money.

And American Christmas is far removed from traditional Christian Christmas.

Traditional Christmas was precluded by four weeks of despondency, a time called “Advent.”  Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter.  It is a time of stepping back from the world and taking a good hard look at it, reminding ourselves again that this is still a dying world that desperately awaits the life that comes with Jesus’ second coming.

Advent isn’t really the season of shepherds and wise men.  They are for the 12 Days of Christmas and Epiphany.  Instead Advent is the season of the Old Testament prophets whose poetry and prose describe a broken world desperately awaiting the messiah.

In Advent we join Jeremiah on the mountaintop over a ransacked Jerusalem, crying our chapters of lament.  This is why this season is a time for sad and desperate songs like, “Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

We sing these songs during the four darkest weeks of the year as we cry and fast and pray and contemplate.

Then, on the darkest day of the year (or what turned out being 4 days after it) we suddenly gather together in the Mass, bringing our observations of brokenness into the sanctuary with us.  And then Christ comes!  After four weeks of mourning and fasting, joy fills the world because though the darkness seemed to win, light now streams forth from a manger!  And light will stream forth again in the eastern sky when Jesus returns.

We use Advent to wait for Christmas.  However, lately it feels like I am using Christmas to wait for Advent.  After all, our broken world thinks it needs more Christmas spirit, more snow filled holidays and more songs about silent nights, frosty snowmen and red nosed reindeer.  What we actually need is prayer, fasting, crying and lamenting.  We need more embraces of our dark and broken world and more longing for a savior who is coming.

For this reason I close with one of the most unsung Advent songs, written by my favorite, Charles Wesley.  Enjoy!

Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
once for our salvation slain;
thousand thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at nought and sold him,
pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.

Those dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears,
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
gaze we on those glorious scars!

Now redemption, long expected,
see in solemn pomp appear;
all his saints, by man rejected,
now shall meet him in the air:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
See the day of God appear!

Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory;
claim the kingdom for thine own:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

Some Thoughts about Red Cups and Red Nosed Reindeers

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The Christmas lights are the snow! #mindblown

Personally I am offended.  The Christmas I grew up celebrating was all about snow.  That was the object of worship in Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”.  That was the scene plastered all over every Holiday storefront window.  That was the scenery which Rudolph traversed to save Christmas.  And who can forget
that wonderful snow storm when George Bailey discovered what life would be like without him.  Snow is what Christmas is all about, which is why I have started wishing everyone a “Merry Snowiday” or a “Merry Snowmas” depending on their religious 
preferences.

Nothing says Christmas like snowmen with teeth! This way they can chew the Christmas ham.

So when Starbucks issued a statement saying that their Christmas cups will no longer feature snow, I was offended.  I wasn’t offended for any religious reason.  I’m just mad that nobody called me and asked what I wanted on my Snowmas cup.  After all, besides snow, December (or Snowmember) is all about me.  It is about what I want, what I get, what I give and how often I feel the Snowmas spirit deep down inside my body.  If somebody from the evil Starbucks corporation had called and asked me what to put on snowiday cups, my answer obviously would have been those evil snowmen from Doctor Who.  I watched that episode a week or so ago and it was the last time I felt the Snowmas spirit.  It would appear those lousy liberals at Starbucks don’t think Snowikah should be about me any more.

Before the internet we didn’t know how stupid people were.

Of course, I am not the only one offended this season.  It turns out my entire Facebook feed is offended because someone somewhere is offended at the Starbucks cups.  Yes, this particular crisis is so “meta” that we are offended because others are offended.  And, yeah, this post is even more meta as I am expressing my disapproval of those people who are offended because others are offended.

I am not actually offended, nor do I care about what some crazy guy who wouldn’t even have an audience in the non internet age thinks about Starbucks cups.  And the cups themselves don’t offend me.  Nor am I offended by the millions of people who flocked to Facebook to say, “I’m not them!”

However, I do wonder if there are other, more crucial areas in our life when we over react to overreactions like we all overreacted to this.  I wonder how often we do it in our marriages, our families, our churches, our business places, our politics.  After all, any therapist will tell you that when someone is yelling at you they are not really yelling at you and what they are yelling about isn’t what they are actually angry about.

Instead they are yelling because they feel marginalized, invisible, misheard and they think you, or the entire internet, may be a safe place to become visible again.  If that is the case, then by overreacting to their crazy, you become crazy.  After all, you are the one telling the marginalized person how stupid they are.

So instead I have learned that the solution is to ask great question like, “Why do you think those Starbucks cups set off an angry rant inside of you?”  “What is it about crazy people who don’t like Starbucks that makes you run to the internet to let everyone know how crazy they are?”  “Why does the absence of snow during the holidays leave you miserable inside?” “Should we say Happy Snowmas or Merry Snowidays or just sing ‘Snow, Snow, Snow’ from ‘White Christmas?'”  “Are all snowmen with teeth evil or just some of them?”  “How great was that Doctor Who episode?”

These questions open up dialog which leads to understanding which helps with self awareness.  And our world needs so much more of those things, especially during this glorious Snowmas season.

Happy Snowidays!