We do feel guilty that we are taking the shortcut this year of posting our Christmas letter on our web site. But, “needs must,” as they say in jolly old England. Connie is still in a big boot and still in therapy after an ankle replacement operation at the beginning of October. So that means she shouldn’t drive a car, and she is slowed down in her other work. And that spills over onto John as well—so John decided to take this little short-cut in reaching out to all our family and friends, and catching you up on our lives, since our last Christmas epistle in 2017.
First, we want to lift up an important Christmas message.
The word “alien” is an ugly word. Today, as we speak, our entire world is being horribly fractured by politicians who capitalize on fear of “aliens.” So, worldwide, the issue of immigration is driving people apart, and preventing communities from solving the natural problems of immigration, and making for the shared welfare of all. For instance, before 2012 there was just a slight difference between white Democrats and white Republicans about whether our nation should welcome more immigrants to our shores. Today the gap between these two factions is more than 47% wide, and the misguided and ruthless among us are working to build their own power spooking us all, stopping any sensible solutions, and further dividing folk.
Meanwhile, this Christmas we meditate on the story of a young couple who find no place in the inn for their child to be born. They are displaced at the whim of an all-powerful government that insists people be counted in their ancestral homes, but has little regard for the hardships that demand imposes. The couple must travel, on foot, from despised Galilee of the Gentiles to Bethlehem. Mary, Joseph and soon-to-be-born Jesus are Jews. They must share their accommodation with animals, but that is not all that uncommon for people of their place in society. Thankfully they find a place as “internally displaced” aliens in Bethlehem. That may well be because Jews have been taught for millennia that they are not to wrong aliens. Why? Because, as they are systematically taught, they themselves were slaves and aliens in Egypt! See Exodus 22.21 and look up over 50 places in the Torah where Scripture insists that God’s people should respect immigrants and should have one Law—one moral code both for aliens and themselves.
Building on this call for compassion, Jesus will tell us that if we expect to sit at God’s welcoming banquet table in the hereafter, we should get prepared by welcoming outcast people of all kinds to our own tables. Invite people on the basis of their need rather than on the basis of our own—not with the expectation that they can pay us back (Luke 14).
And the apostle Paul will remind us that we are called to act with this compassion because we are spiritual aliens—citizens not of a world of inequality and hierarchy, but of heaven and of the rule of the God of compassion, where we are blessed to have special concern for those dishonored by the majority (Philippians 3.20, cf. 1 Corinthians 11.17-12.31).
Our Lord bids us remember that the heart of a Jew or Christian is the heart of an alien. We must turn from living like colonialists or conquerors or overlords or masters or oppressors. We must turn from the heart that does violence to all others and violence to the earth itself by consuming and wasting so very, very much, without regard for those who are turned away from the inn. We must learn to be humble, to use less, to work hard, to be grateful for life—all lessons aliens and immigrants at our door can teach us best.
We must learn to welcome the Christ-child who comes to us today in the form of the aliens at our doors; and remember that we are aliens ourselves.
Now to our update on family.
This year daughter Rebekah and Mike and their daughter Rose made a big move from Tampa to Gainesville, Florida. They followed Rebekah, this time, who was offered a position as RN Case Manager at the University of Florida Shands Hospital. Mike left his retail management job and is now working with the United States Postal Service. And, of course, Rose Simone will be turning three (Can’t believe it!) on the Ides of March, 2020. She is keeping EVERYONE entertained with her love of being chased, her love of smiling, and her love of bigger and bigger words and sentences. And Rebekah and Mike are proving to be fantastic parents!
Meanwhile, son Jeremiah and Caroline moved out to Oakland, California, for Caroline’s new job in pediatric oncology with Kaiser Permanente-Oakland. Jeremiah continues with his position as VP of Product with Vokal LLC, a “digital experience” company. (Don’ ask us what that means.) They took with them their new puppy, Luna—an Old English Sheepdog/Standard Poodle mix—their sweet doggie, Stinkerbelle, died early in 2019. Of course, the BIG news is that Jeremiah and Caroline are expecting the birth of a daughter, already named Soleil (rhymes with Spanish “olé”), in February of 2020. They are taking child-birth classes, have a nanny lined up for after the birth, and are VERY excited. They are fantastic parents-to-be!
Connie’s year has been strongly affected by her operation. Up to October she was able to continue with her consulting work with the national center of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Chicago, but took a break until early 2020. Over the last five years she has written grants for, and participated in, a leadership training program for the churchwide staff, synodical leaders, pastors and rostered lay leaders across the denomination. The program aims at helping leaders to handle emotions that come up in their leadership roles, to be more effective at handling conflict, and to move steadily toward goals and visions. Connie has also utilized her skills in qualitative case study research for the evaluation of this project.
During Connie’s weeks of recuperation she has enjoyed getting back to her writing projects, including a children’s e-book that tells the story of how our first Pyrenees livestock guardian dog, “Frodo,” took on the “apprenticeship” of a protégé of the same breed—our current guardian dog, “Bilbo.” She is incorporating over 50 photos to illustrate this wonderful relationship.
This year has marked a bit of a shift in emphasis for John. He has decided to curtail his sheepdog herding competition and work with the Wisconsin Working Sheepdog Association, to concentrate instead on his continuing education in biblical studies. He took in a summer school at Yale Divinity School and a summer biblical institute at a Catholic seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. He also renewed his memberships in the Society of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Association, and joined the Chicago Society of Biblical Research—attending meetings of those organizations. What is he doing with all those studies? He continues to teach Old and New Testament, doctrine, and church history in a Lutheran lay theological program called diakonia, helps to lead a weekly study circle at our church, and continues to do substitute work as preacher and worship leader in congregations in our area. On quiet days and evenings he joins Connie in writing, and is trying to complete a book he calls “The Little Book of Belonging,” that seeks to explicate the common and universal need to belong, and how the Bible invites us all into a vital conversation about the ways God wills and enables the universal gathering of humanity.
Of course, our life on Heatherhope Farm still fuels our souls and shapes our understanding of God’s grace. We continue to do sheepdog demonstrations all over the western suburbs of Chicago. We even ventured several hours south this past summer to do our demonstration on the site where Abraham Lincoln and his relatives farmed and had a log cabin in central Illinois.
We also continue to enjoy hosting a couple of four-day sheepdog training clinics each year with our friend, Gordon Watt, as the instructor. Through many years we have seen a lovely, mutually supportive little group of dog handlers take shape. Lots of laughs and good times go along with the learning.
It is well known that, if you have a farm, you live with both death and life. But, with the Lord, the loss leads to deeper thankfulness. In 2018 we had to say goodbye to Border Collies Cap, and later, Bess. Then, just on John’s birthday, December 5 of this year, we bid our tearful farewell to Abbie. It was tremendously hard to do, but it opened our hearts to all the amazing things these dogs have brought to us and to others. It is a blessing that we still have three of the offspring of Cap and Abbie: Hector, Betty and Zac—as well as Nell, who is up in years, but still going strong. Four times a day we run them around the fields and breathe in the fresh (often cold) air. We move the sheep with them. We sit with them at night. And all the while they look into our eyes with the loving eyes of God.
Indeed, you can find a post about Abbie’s death by going back to the main page of this web site.
If you have read on to the end of this posting, you are a trooper. And you are unique. And, of course, you are dearly loved—both by us, and by the God who sent his Son, along with his parents, door to door till they found a place to lie down with the sheep, goats, perhaps a donkey and a dog. And when we despise no one, but love them all, we feel God’s arms embrace us all.
Blessed Christmas and a compassionate New Year!
Connie and John