Monday, August 22, 2016

Advice for September Students: Make and Be a Friend...For Life

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
"Pooh!" he whispered.
"Yes, Piglet?"
"Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's paw. "I just wanted to be sure of you.”
    --A.A. Milne, "The House at Pooh Corner"

As the temperatures begin to get chilly at night and the days shorten and September’s siren song calls out; as moving vans clog the streets of the city, with harried parents and anxious students; I remember….

Thirty years ago and the beginning of my graduate studies, three years of books and lectures and tests and serious higher education, all for an advanced degree.  Grad school was “serious” for me because I did not take my undergraduate studies, well—very seriously. At college I hit the parties too hard and the books too soft, loved my extra curricular activities much more than my actual classes. 

By the time I got to Boston University School of Theology in the fall of 1986, I was ready to really learn. I can still hear the deep and wise voice of my favorite professor, Doctor Beck, who made the Old Testament come to life with gravitas and drama. Still fondly recall my walks down busy Commonwealth Avenue, Green Line subway cars rushing by with “clicks” and “clacks”. Still remember how excited I was just to be there and begin the rest of my life.

But three decades on I cherish one amazing God-given gift from that time in my life, more than any class or knowledge or training or smarts I found at school. It is this: the friends that I made then. Friends. Barb and Kathy and Barb and Mitch.  Friends for life. Friends in life. Friends who began their walk with me three decades ago and are still with me. Friends I cannot imagine living without.  Friends I trust I will grow old with too.

If I were asked for advice by an undergrad about to set off for college or a young adult about to plunge into graduate work, or any young person, I’d offer this. Seek out good friends. Make good friends. Surround yourself with friends, but only the ones who both want the best for you and see the best in you.  Be a good friend too. Loyal and kind. Dependable and compassionate. Slow to anger and quick to forgive. 

Because one of the most important tasks of growing up and into whomever the person is that God made you to be, is to undertake this work of friendship. Real friendship. The kind of friend you’d call at 2 a.m. if you were stuck at a party and really needed a ride home or were stuck on the side of the road with car trouble and really needed help.  Who always remembers your birthday.  Who would help you move from one apartment to another even if you didn’t provide pizza and beer.  Who you’d call first with the best of news or worst of news.

Friends. Friends for life.  Put that on your “to-do” list as you pack for school.

We live in an odd time for friendship in our world and the young know this better than anyone else. Facebook tells us we have hundreds, even thousands of “friends” in our cyber circles of virtual community. Technology makes it possible for us to connect instantly to almost any “friend”, any time, any where, with a text or Snapchat or Instagram or tweet.  Yet there is something unreal about such “friendships” that often exist on a screen and give fleeting, ethereal bursts of connection. A poke. A “like”.  A smile emoticon.

Yet the truth about true friends?

Most of us can count that number on one hand. These are the friends who somehow make us more than we would ever be alone. The friends we are called by God to seek out.  To cultivate with care.  To claim, and then maybe never let go.  Friendship then is not a transaction but is instead transformational.  It is a relationship that brings out our best selves. As Ronald Sharp, a professor of English at Vassar College, who teaches a course on the literature of friendship, said: “It’s not about what someone can do for you; it’s who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence.”


In the days ahead, many of us and our loved ones will prepare for school and prepare for life. My prayer and hope is simple: that all of us might find a true friend and be a true friend too. Life is good, that’s for sure.  But a life with friends, old friends, good friends, longtime friends? That is a miracle. 

Thank you God, for friends.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

One Last Chance for a Blessed Summer Getaway

"A life without a quiet center easily becomes destructive.”     --Henri  J. M. Nouwen

There is something about life on an island. 

The last sixteen summers I've been blessed to spend one week on an island off the New England coast.  And so every August I pack up my bike and my books and head out.  Boarding the ferry, I stand on the back of the rocking vessel as it slices through whitecaps and salt-tinged air, and watch as the mainland fades away.  It is always a bit startling as a flatlander to find myself in the middle of the ocean, as home fades into the distance. From horizon to horizon is now only water. 

Then slowly, after an hour or so, a diminutive spit of land emerges in the midst of a vast blue pool. The buzz on the boat builds as we get closer and closer to the dock.  We land lubbers then jockey to get off the ferry and finally feel our feet touch land again in the sweet knowledge that, at least for awhile, we’ve left, gone, departed, exited, vamoosed.  There are no quick jaunts over a bridge to get back.  No quick turnaround. 

It took awhile to get here. We’ll stay now. 

For the next seven days and nights my world is contained in a grey-shingled ranch, set back from the road, with Adirondack chairs scattered on a shady back porch and a bike path right out front. A special place where my cell phone doesn't always work, or better yet, I turn it off.  Where the newspaper gets delivered by boat, and by the time it arrives I may not care for the latest headlines--just save me the crossword. Where there is no TV (except for the Red Sox) and only one landline phone.  Where a sea breeze can cool down even the hottest of afternoons.  Where a lighthouse in the distance is the most beautiful nightlight I've ever seen.  Where a stack of books awaits me.

Days are filled with bike rides and beach walks and browsing bookstores. Evenings mean dinner off the grill or a fancy meal out. Later there’s time for raucous board games with friends and family around an ancient dining room table.  No set time to go to bed or awaken either.       

I am away.

That is what I love most about island life: being really, truly, fully, away.  All humans desperately need these "away" times: regular and consistent “white space” to sleep and to pray, to sit and to be silent, to listen and spend time with loved ones, to finally just rest and just be. My away escape is an island.  What is yours’?  A lonely cabin in lush green mountains, a tent by the seashore, a hotel room downtown, a hammock in the back yard, or centerfield seats at Fenway Park? 

Place matters less than space: whatever we do or where ever we go away, we just need to give our brains and bodies and spirits a break.  In summer, it is as if we breakneck paced northeasterners finally wake up to this spiritual truth. Remember we all just need to chill out, wind down and so we go away. We must go. 

And then when we gaze up into a jet black night sky with twinkling stars, or hug our kids on the blanket as the sun goes down, or do whatever it is we must do to relax, we  might actually encounter God and the stillness necessary to remember our connection to this big place called Creation.  

 “Be still,” the universe whispers. “Just for awhile.”   

There is something about life on an island.  In these closing days in the summer of 2016, may all of us find our islands, quiet centers in the midst of our far too often cacophonous and crazy lives.  Get away. You’ve still got time.

There, God may be waiting just for you.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Higher. Faster. Stronger....and on a Level Playing Field.

"In the name of all the competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams."                --The Olympic Oath

To watch the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro or not to watch?

For the next two weeks, for millions of folks around the world: that is the question.  I’ve got friends who are Olympic junkies. If able, they’d consume all 6,755 hours of TV coverage from the 5th to the 21st. They can’t get enough. Me? Not so much. I’ll graze the offerings. I’m an Olympics fan, not fanatic. 

Partly because there are some things about the TV coverage that drive me crazy.  Like….

1) Commercials, especially for items like Coca-Cola or McDonalds, food you’d never eat as a world class athlete. Big Macs and marathons just don’t mix.
2) “Inspirational” life story segments about the athletes. Enough with the tear jerking “and then she overcame….”  Just get to the game—PLEASE!
3) Hyper-national flag waving: for me the most important flag at the Olympics is the Olympic flag. It always flies above every other national flag.  
4) Commentators who talk over the competition.  SSSSSHHHH….I’m watching here!
5) The lack of full coverage for the odd, archaic and weird sports we only get to see at the Olympics. Maybe I want to watch the shot put, the javelin throw, and badminton!

But even with all those annoyances, there is still one overarching reason why I will still watch the Olympics with interest.  Why the Olympics, at their best, showcase the noblest aspects of the human spirit. Why the Olympics have been around for so, so long: the first games were held in ancient Greece in 776 B.C., nearly 2,800 years ago. Why in a time of global turmoil and upheaval, the Olympics represent a hope that maybe, just maybe, humanity can get along, live in peace.

I watch the Olympics because I want to believe, I need to believe, that they occur on a “level playing field”. This is the idea that between the lines on the field, it is always about fair play.  FAIR. Folks win medals, or lose out, because of their natural and trained athletic ability and why? Because they best their opponent, not by bending or breaking the rules, but by following the rules which equally apply to every one.  No exceptions.

A level playing field. No drugs. No doping. No cheating. No biased judges or home field advantage.  Just pure competition and pure athleticism.   

A level playing field.

            The best sports—amateur, professional, pick up--always involve a covenant of sorts, an agreement. We who watch the game trust in the truth of the sport. Those who play the game agree to do so by the rules. Without this integrity, the relationship between the fans and the players, the athletes in the stadium and the folks in the stands cheering away: it always breaks.

            These games have already been visited by the taint of cheating. The Russian contingent that marched into the stadium for the opening ceremony was down by more than 100 athletes, including the entire track and field team.  Their government conspired with athletes to make sure the Russians won in past international competitions, through tainted drug tests and other acts of subterfuge. To be fair, athletes from many other nations will miss Rio too, because they cheated as well.

But the overwhelming number of Olympic athletes in Rio? Professional athletes? Amateur athletes? I still believe that they play for the “the love of” the game, which is what amateur means. “For the the love of.” To play for the sheer joy of pushing your body to the limits.  To play and put one’s self up against the best.  To play—not for money or fame or power—but to play, just to play.  And always to do so with integrity and honor and honesty.  Because then in the Olympics, when some Davidic athlete from a tiny country defeats some Samsonite athlete from a superpower, we cheer even louder because we trust that this clash happened on a level playing field.

Higher. Faster. Stronger. The Olympic motto.  To this I’d add, “and always on a level playing field.” 

Monday, August 1, 2016

The PMC: Riding for a Cancer Cure and Riding With Angels

“The road is long, with many a winding turn, that leads us to who knows where, who knows where? But I'm strong, strong enough to carry him. He ain't heavy, he's my brother."           
 --"He Ain't Heavy"--by Russell, Hyman and Smith

Can we carry that weight?  Carry the hurt, carry the hopes, carry the sickness, and carry the prayers for and by, those who face cancer?  I know we can. 

Carry…this coming weekend I and 6,000 of my cycling friends will ride in the 37th Pan Mass Challenge (PMC) bike ride.  All day Saturday and Sunday, August 6th and 7th, we’ll be spinning circles regardless of what Mother Nature throws our way. A sultry and hot August morning. A muggy afternoon.  A rainy evening.  For you see we have to bike—we actually want to bike, even the nutty among us who will be spinning out something like 152,000 pedal strokes, all to propel ourselves from the hills of Sturbridge to the dunes of Provincetown, 190 miles, in just 48 hours. 

A bit crazy, sure, but this wacky road trip is all for one amazing, simple, darn good reason.  To help others in need: to carry others. Those with cancer.  Our neighbors and co-workers. Our children and spouses, Moms and Dads, friends and strangers.  Hundred of thousands. To carry them along with us on this very long journey and in doing so, raising a record $46 million for a world class cancer treatment and research center, Dana- Farber, right in our fair city of Boston. 

The PMC is the granddaddy of all athletic fundraising endeavors.  Begun in 1980, in thirty six years the PMC has raised $500 million dollars in direct support for Dana-Farber. That’s not a typo—more than a half $1 billion, dedicated to cancer treatment and research through the Jimmy Fund!  The PMC is the Dana-Farber’s single largest source of revenue.  That’s why we ride.

Not to punish ourselves, though by the end our legs and backsides will be hurting.  Not to overshadow the folks we ride for: this trip is about them, not us.  Not to blow our own horns but if blowing a horn can raise more money to find a cure for cancer I’ll blow and I’ll bike ‘til the cows come home.  Maybe you’ll see us next weekend if you are around the winding route from central and eastern Massachusetts to the Cape.  Watch for a sea of bikes whipping by at the stately pace of about 14 miles per hour.  We’ll be smiling (at least early in the day) because we know for each mile traveled that’s one more dollar for a cure. One more patient cared for; one more scientific mystery unlocked; one more strike against cancer.

We ride for different reasons but almost always we ride for special folks in our lives that have faced cancer, beat cancer, died from cancer, have cancer.  They are our angels, who ride on our shoulders, pushing us to go just a little farther.  I ride for Nora, a sweet and kind middle school kid.  For Dottie, a fellow church member and high school science teacher extraordinaire. For Kathy, my amazing and faithful cousin. Sue, my lifelong mentor. T-Michael, a colleague and brother in ministry. 

These folks have carried me for years, with their love and friendship and courage and care.  So now, on my bike, I try to carry them.  In memory and in commitment.  In hope and in grief.  Because when you get the big “C” you need every one in your corner.  You need to depend upon a healing place like the Dana Farber.  You need to know that you are not alone.  No one, no child of God, gets through this life solo.  We all need someone to cheer us on, to scoop us up when we tumble, to wipe away our tears when we weep, to make this incredible and fragile God-given life worth living, not just for ourselves alone but for others too. 

I ride because my faith in God compels me to.  Others ride for fun.  For the athletic challenge.  For the fellowship.  For the possibility of achieving the seemingly impossible. To just be a part of something good, very good, so much bigger than ourselves.  From where I stand (or sit on my bike seat!) this is what makes a really “good” life, great. To encourage generosity and then be generous: to give so others might live.  And in my case to lug along 189 pounds on a delicate metal frame, from the suburbs of Boston to the Cape Cod Canal.

In the end, who wants to pedal the ride of life alone?  I don’t.  I’ve gotten where I am, not just under my own power, but under the graceful power of God and through the love of family and friends.  As the old pop song declares, “It's a long, long road, from which there is no return. While we're on the way to there, why not share?....she ain't heavy, she's my sister.”

So that is the pitch and the plea and the challenge.  In just a few days we ride and now we need your help.  Has a family member or friend been gently pestering you to support their PMC ride?  Get out that checkbook, get online and give!  Need someone to sponsor?  Go to PMC.ORG and the rest is easy. Every penny you donate will go directly to the cause.

Sometimes others carry us. Thank God.  Sometimes we need to carry others who need help.  Thank God. Won’t you ride with us?

See you on the road.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Could You Be a Cop in 2016? Think About It.

“Society needs heroes, but most policemen, firemen, and soldiers don’t want to become heroes; they want to be men and women doing their jobs. They want to be supported and understood.”  
-- Karen Rodwill Solomon, “The Price They Pay”

A confession right up front.

I could never be a cop: a police officer.  Strap on a gun, get in a car and ride the streets, asked by my fellow citizens to be the dividing line, the defense, between social lawlessness and social order. Between public safety and public fear.  I just don’t have the guts to do that kind of work nor the temperament.  It absolutely takes a special kind of woman or man to work in law enforcement.

To wade into the worst of what humans can do to each other or themselves.  To show up in a dangerous situation not knowing what might happen next.  To figure out in a split second who is at risk and needs protection and who is a danger and needs to be stopped.  To be called in when all hell is often literally breaking loose and then have the profound responsibility to sort it all out. And now, in the age of cameras everywhere, to do so under the often wary eye of the citizenry whom cops are called to serve and protect.

So think about it.  Could you be a cop?

Live under the microscope of constant scrutiny and constant expectations to do the right thing, and not just some of the time but every single time?  I couldn’t handle that kind of daily pressure.  And these days we ask our cops to do much, much more than just uphold the law.  Who deals with the problems of homelessness more than any one else? Cops.  Domestic violence? Cops.  Natural disasters? Cops. The opioid crisis, thousands of addicts dying of overdoses on the streets of our towns and cities? Cops. Who ensures that protests against police are, for the most part, peaceful, the first amendment protected?  Cops. Who operates in a nation with more civilian owned firearms than almost any other country on earth? Cops. 

Cops are also just human, heroic and flawed, like the rest of us. They make mistakes. They sometimes respond wrongly, badly, violently, in the heat of the moment. They can be racist and biased just like the rest of humanity, like you and me. That’s the way it is with any calling or profession.  There are good cops and bad cops, just like there are good ministers and bad ministers, good politicians and bad politicians, good doctors and bad doctors. 

We as civilians are right to expect the highest of ideals and hopes in all the ways we as the public interact with law enforcement.  We are right to demand equal justice and treatment for all people, regardless of skin color or class, or any “profile” which marks us as a human being.  But we also need to remember this truth too: that the overwhelming numbers of police officers in our communities try their very best every day to protect and to serve us.  They put their lives on the line for us, every single day. 

The challenge is that the hundreds of thousands of these good, “normal”, even boring interactions don’t make the news.  Don’t sell newspapers or get the lead on the 11 o’clock news.  Don’t show up on a Facebook feed or Twitter. A baby safely delivered in the back of a squad car.  A violent situation defused.  A burglary foiled. A person on the street safely dropped off at a shelter.  A car accident handled with compassion and care.  A parking ticket delivered with courtesy.

In a very real way, when policing is done at its best, cops reflect the wider community in which they serve. They come from that community.  They get that community and the people therein. Then “they” are not “they”. “They” are us.  

So…could you be a cop? Me?  I’m thankful that there are still women and men who dare to answer “yes” to that question.     

Monday, July 18, 2016

MEMO: FROM GOD TO HUMANS...Go Outside and Play!!!

“Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me."  –Walt Whitman

“Go out and play and I don’t want to see you back here until supper!”

That’s what I remember as my Mom’s marching orders, in the sweet months from early spring to late fall, as a boy growing up in the suburbs of Boston.  Those may not have been her exact words, but I learned that lesson well.  So now any chance I get to go outside or to be outside, to escape the confines of an inside space and play: I’m all in for “out”.  Outside: where the grass is green and the air is warm and the light is God given and the boundaries seem so endless. 


Out: from hermetically sealed air conditioned offices and bedrooms, where it can feel as if I am living in a giant refrigerator crisper drawer. Out: from behind a desk piled with papers and a computer overflowing with emails, my window giving me a glimpse of the place “out there” I really want to be.  Out of my car sitting in Mass Turnpike traffic, crawling along at 14 miles an hour, to my bike, breezing along at 14 miles per hour on a sun dappled back road. 


If there is one command Mother Nature gives to us this time of year, it is one simple piece of natural advice.  GET OUT!  Out of a suit and into a bathing suit.  Out: from sitting in front of a TV ballgame and instead out to the ballpark for a real game, the crunch of peanut shells underfoot, the cry of “PLAY BALL” echoing around some ancient stadium. Out: from being nose to nose with a smart phone to being face to face with a sky full of stars on a balmy summer evening, to marvel at the Big Dipper, the North Star, the Milky Way, spilled across the heavens.

Out: even when it’s wicked hot, like it is now, as we descend into the furnace of our first New England heat wave of the year.  Even when the bugs bite and the ticks tickle and the moths flutter so annoyingly all around us.  Even when hot sands burn our feet or poison ivy gets in the way.  Even when sweat is the price to pay for a noontime walk.  I think all those outside downsides are well worth it.

It’s no mistake that when the Creator of the universe began shaping our world, God made a garden, outside, for humans to call home.  Not a house.  Not a shelter.  Not even a tent or a lean to. And certainly not an AC unit in sight. That’s why we call the outside places that feel like heaven on earth “Eden”. 

For us humans are made to be outside.  Made to go barefoot. Made to wander into the woods and listen for the songs of birds and the buzz of bugs.  Made to see the natural world, not as some power to be tamed or pushed away, but instead to know nature as a primordial gift from God, to be embraced with enthusiasm and thanksgiving. 

According to the unofficial calendar of summer, we’re coming up on the halfway point of this all too short time of year. The 4th of July is in the rear view mirror and Labor Day is beginning to loom up ahead.  So here’s my spiritual advice for all of us in the handful of days we have left before school and work and a return to the September routine.


Make an outside summer 2016 bucket list and then start checking off the items.  My list? To sit in the shade of the back porch in a cozy chair and lose myself in a book for one long afternoon. To buy a frozen treat from a local ice cream truck, as it warbles it’s off key song, and then eat that chilled concoction so fast that I get a brain freeze.  To hop on my bike and pedal my way to some town center or lost highway I’ve never seen before.  To tend my little garden of three tomato plants and then enjoy that red and ripe fruit come August. To stand outside under a warm summer rain shower, look for a rainbow in the sky and not worry about getting wet.  

I’m getting out to play. Today. Right now. Eden awaits.  May you find your personal Eden too.  See you on the outside!

Monday, July 11, 2016

What Does It Mean to Be An American In These Days of Rage and Fear?

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union...”     --preamble, the United States Constitution, 1789

What does it mean to be an American in 2016, one of the approximately 324 million men, women and children who call the United States of America home?

Is it all about geography, living within the borders of the third largest country in the world by population, the third biggest by land mass? America: a beautiful place that stretches from the rainy forests of the upper northwest to the balmy Florida Keys in the southeast; from the red hot deserts of Baja, California to the sparsely peopled towns of upper Maine.  Throw in Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico too, and we’re talking about a huge, sprawling union, unlike any other on the earth.

Is living in a certain place in the United States of America what makes us American?

Maybe to be American is about statistics, figuring out who the “average” American is, when we sift through and sort out our census numbers. Who is that “American”? She’s a 38 year old married woman, with no children, who works in a white collar salaried job, lives in a home she owns in or near a city. She went to college but didn’t finish her degree. She’s Christian, but didn’t go to church last Sunday, nor did she vote in the last Presidential election.

Is that the definition of an American?  May work for some, but certainly not for every one.

What does it mean to call one’s self “American”? To claim that title, with all its privileges and with all its responsibilities?

That’s a hard question, not easily answered in a 700 word essay.  But maybe like me you’ve been thinking about, praying about this question of America.  Worrying about the huge challenges we face as a people, in these hellacious days for our nation.  These hot and scary and sometimes bloody summer days and nights, when it can feel as if America is coming apart at the seams, descending into social chaos. Has the American dream become the American nightmare?  Do any of us still dare to listen for the ancient hope of “we the people” forming a “more perfect union”?

After San Bernardino. After Orlando. After Saint Paul. After Baton Rouge. After Dallas. 
Before a November election already marked by fiery rhetoric and ugly politics. What do we owe one another, we who call the United States our home?  What connects us?  What knits us as one civic body?  What binds us together in community? 

Yes, we know all too well that which continually separate us into warring camps. Class and race.  Sexual orientation and family structure, who we love and how we love.  Religion, the God we choose to worship, or no God. Civilians and police officers.  Gun owners and gun opponents.  Republicans and Democrats.  But if the only things which mark us as America and Americans are the walls of fear that keep us apart, what can bring us together? Get us talking with each other and not just at each other?  Give us the faith to reach out to each other in love and trust, not just with anger and accusations? 

What does it mean to be an American? This is what I believe. 

To be an American, heck to just be a human, I must have the courage to see in “the other” a neighbor, not a stranger. I must have the perspective to remember that the overwhelming number of people in my world are folks of goodwill, not bad intent. Folks who desire what I want.  A safe place to call home.  The freedom to care for me and my loved ones.  The opportunity to pursue happiness. 

Most important, I must have the spiritual commitment to imagine what life is like for that “other” fellow child of God with whom I live in this United States of America. What is it really like to be a police officer trying her best to keep the peace and be a guardian of the neighborhood? What is it like to be an African-American male and live under constant stress at the mistrustful attitudes of so many of the white folks in his life? What is it like to be the parents of a young transgender man who went out to a dance party and never came back home?  What is it like to be a Muslim woman who wears a traditional headdress and is stared at by the folks who approach her on a city street? What is it like to be a laid off blue collar worker, feeling left behind and forgotten, living in the Rust belt, wondering if anyone cares about you and your one life?

Because finally, they are all Americans. Like me. Like you. We are all in this together.  And somehow, by God, by faith, by working towards a more perfect union, we the people, we must ask…  

What does it mean to be an American?