Third Advent Sunday

Veeka in the middle surrounded by her friends at school

This is our first Christmas season in Tennessee and already it’s been a sober time. Sober because of the deaths at Newtown. And I do want to mention my Aunt Ollie, who I last saw six years ago at her 90th birthday celebration in Sea Island, Ga. It was the kind of family reunion of the Hammer side of the family that used to happen during my growing-up years but hadn’t occurred since my Aunt Flora died in 1997. This time it was Ollie’s turn to go on Dec. 5, one month before she would have turned 96. Veeka was partly named after her; her first name ‘Olivia’ comes from Ollie and her mother (my grandmother) Ol. I didn’t have the guts to give Veeka ‘Olive’ as a first name and I regret that now that turn-of-the-20th-century names have become popular. Once she died two weeks ago, my cousins were posting all sorts of photos on Facebook of the old days back in the 1960s when we all lived within driving distance of Philadelphia and went home for Christmas. And the summers we enjoyed at my

Aunt Ollie (in blue) at her 90th birthday. Her son Don is to the left; son-in-law Jack to the right

grandparents’ place in Ocean City! I spent every summer of my life there until I was 15 and my family moved to Seattle. By 1971, my grandparents had sold their Ocean City home and Ollie and her husband Ellis had bought it. The old days were fading even then because my grandparents were getting too old to maintain two homes. My grandfather Birchie only lived six more years, dying in 1977.

We are fine here. Veeka is finishing up her fall days at school and I am attending a line of Christmas pageants. Last year in Maryland, the holiday play featured a Hanukkah song and two secular ditties. This year in Tennessee, nearly all the songs at her public school were openly Christian. Quelle difference. Because I have to teach kids what it’s like to write scripts for broadcast, I am taking a class during the semester break on how to make videos. Must say that my respect for videographers has increased tremendously now that I’ve tried to make sense of operating a Panasonic camera and stumbled my way through Final Cut Pro, which is a very difficult film editing program. I wanted to make a video for YouTube advertising my latest e-book, which required me to stand in front of several local churches and film folks leaving church (which fits the book title ‘Quitting Church’).

Me struggling with video camera and tripod

And so I was shooting in front of a Methodist church and didn’t notice one guy looking at me suspiciously; when I turned up in front of another church, this guy approached me, flashed a state trooper badge and asked what I was doing. He believed – I hope – my explanation but he’d already run my license plate through some police dispatcher and he was nervous because of the Newtown shootings. I guess some stranger shooting video in front of churches does attract suspicion these days. Sad times. So here is to hoping that more days of light are ahead. And one more candle for the wreath. As one of my priest friends said on Facebook, “How do you preach about hope when 26 people are killed?” That is why I am a journalist, not a pastor.

Lighting the pink candle