Monday, January 16, 2017

Job #1 Before and After The Inauguration: Courageous Idealism

Inaugurate (verb) 1. to make a formal beginning of; initiate; commence; begin.

How to begin a new job? 

We’ve all faced this question: first day in the office, first time as the boss, first moments as a leader in an organization or on a team.  How we start, how we begin, how we inaugurate: it matters. It sets the tone.  It indicates to those being led, what the future might bring, and reveals the character of a leader.

Some leaders start with a dramatic flourish to say, “I’m in charge now.” A friend of mine, lifelong military, witnessed such “flagpole” leaders. A new commanding officer would arrive on base and within a day or two, the flagpole was moved from its old spot to a new spot, to remind the troops that there was “a new sheriff in town”.  In my work I’ve received plenty of advice about starting a job. Change everything that you can as soon you can. Change nothing and instead listen to folks and lay the groundwork for change. 

How to begin a new job?

That’s the question facing our President-elect, who this week arrives “on base” to begin his new job for the next four years. The political and social atmosphere within which he takes office is in the toughest of shape: more divided, angrier, and so red hot in the fiery caldron of partisanship.  On Friday he’ll take the oath before hundreds and thousands of his raucous, adoring fans. On Saturday he’ll look out a White House window and see in the distance a crowd of hundreds of thousands of his raucous, abhorring opponents.

How to begin his new job?

Here’s some of my hopes and prayers for January 20th…that we as citizens will be called to be our best, and not our worst. Please appeal to the better nature of our humanity, our angels, and not our more mean spirited impulses. At this profound pivot point in the story of our nation, ask us as citizens to give and not just get; to sacrifice and not just seek self interest. Make us the kind of country other lands might wish to become as well.  As citizens inspire us to build up and not merely tear down.

He’s got a job to do and I will absolutely pray for him.  But as citizens, we have a new job to do as well, from January 20th onwards.

How to begin our new job?

With idealism: that's what I'm praying and hoping for. To have the courage and commitment to still believe in the promise of democracy.  To roll up our sleeves and organize and do the job of citizen, no matter where we find ourselves on the political spectrum.  To think nationally and globally and act locally: in towns and cities, neighborhoods and states, houses of worship and workplaces. To listen, really listen, to those whom we are tempted to dismiss as the opposition. To protest when we must, but then to put down the signs and do the work of community building: compromise, negotiation, and coming together to create and renew our shared home.

Some, perhaps most folks, will see such civic ideals as too unrealistic, especially in 2017, as we live into a political reality unlike any before. To have any idealism about the United States or the state of this world may seem naive at best, Pollyannaish at worst. Add to this the tone of current social discourse--snarky, accusative, divisive, and ugly, exponentially magnified by the craziness of our social media—and it is very tough to be idealistic.    

But as a person of faith, a human being and a citizen I am still idealistic. I still trust in the basic goodness and best intentions of my fellow Americans.  This idealism is the lifeblood of free and hopeful people.  This idealism rejects apathy which says, “I do not care.”  This idealism defeats cynicism, a spiritual cancer for any group of people. This idealism is the only way to live, at least for this citizen.

We’ve all got a job to do come January 20th, from the Oval Office to Main Street.  How will we begin?  Let’s start with idealism.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Addicted to the News: One Junkie's Lament

Overdose (noun) 1. too great a dose; a lethal or toxic amount (as of a drug)  
--Merriam-Webster Dictionary

What’s the news?

What’s happening in the world today?  What happened yesterday?  Who lived and who died? Who won and who lost? Where did all hell break loose? What’s the latest tweet from our Tweeter in Chief?  What celebrity act of outrageousness did we miss when we were sleeping last night?

Tell me. TELL ME! What’s the news?

And so we walk outside to get the newspaper which lies at the end of the driveway.  We open a laptop, click on a favorite news site, scan the headlines. We hit the button on the radio: “It’s 7:01 and the news is next.”  We grab our smart phone off the counter and tap the news icon. We push the remote button and watch CNN or MSNBC or Fox. 

What’s the news?

For many of us, that’s how our day begins, continues, and ends. With the news as a constant companion. As a hardcore news junkie these rituals are gospel truth for me, ever since I got hooked on the news as a newspaper boy in middle school. I’d arise before sun up, deliver the paper to fifty customers, then come home and read that broadsheet cover to cover.  Hard news, sports, the funnies, local happenings: I could not get enough.  Still cannot get enough. I subscribe to three newspapers and four magazines, online, in print; play NPR in the car constantly; pull up the news on my phone multiple times a day. 

To consume the news…so we can stay informed. Be better citizens.  Be aware of the world we inhabit.  Satiate our curiosity.  Be entertained, enlightened, and educated.  But here’s a breaking story, for me, and maybe for you too.  I’m exhausted by the news as of late, especially after such a news saturated, news dominated year, leading up to the election, and since then too. 

It’s staggering to consider just how news addicted so many of us are in the world now.  With a 24/7 news cycle, news creation never stops. News is always there for the consuming and we’re overdosing. According to the Nielsen Company, Americans now spend 10 hours, 39 minutes a day consuming media on their devices and a big chunk of that is spent on the news.  We just can’t seem to stop this addiction. 

And like overstuffed overeaters, after we binge on the news, we often feel depressed.  Disheartened.  Dispirited about the media presented state of our world. Powerless to do anything, especially about all the bad, scary news which inevitably dominates reporting. Journalists scare and provoke us for a reason: it sells more papers and garners more views.  How quaint to remember that our parents and grandparents read just one daily newspaper, and then perhaps watched thirty minutes of news at day’s end. That was it. 

In the 2014 book, “The News: A Users Manual”, French essayist Alain de Botton makes a radical claim: modern news consumption has become our new “god”, claiming wider allegiance and worship than traditional forms of faith. “Societies become modern…when news replaces religion as our central source of guidance and our touchstone of authority…. [News] demands that we approach [it like]…we…once [approached] faiths…to receive revelations, learn who is good and bad, fathom suffering and understand the unfolding logic of existence.”

I’d like to go to church more, I’d like to pray more, I’d like to connect more deeply to a power greater than myself, know wonder and mystery and meaning but…I can’t.  I’ve got to keep up with the news.  Botton’s vision is sobering. Journalists as our new priesthood.  Naughty celebrities and tweeting politicians as our new saints and icons.  Our devices as sacred portals through which we seek ultimate understanding.

But there is some good news, a secret cure to our news addiction that the media doesn’t want us to remember. Just as easily as we turn on the news, we can turn it off too. Turn off the ringing news notification on the phone.  Turn off TV news which drones on in the background all day. Leave unopened, for just a few minutes more in the morning, the laptop. Silence the radio, or better yet, listen to some music.  Walk past the newspaper on the front porch and take a long walk. 

I’m not suggesting we eschew news consumption completely.  We need the news in these perilous, uncertain times, to arm ourselves for the work of good citizenship. But perhaps we can be wiser, more discerning, and more disciplined in how we consume the news. 

The news never stops. The news will consume us, if we are not very careful.  Consumer? Consumed?  I wonder how that story will turn out.




Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Meaning of Life? Meaning...and the Occasional Grill Cheese Sandwich.

“I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord, and you gave them to me.”
--Abraham Joshua Heschel

I wished for the gift of happiness this past holiday season but instead, life gave me a much better gift: meaning.

Note: I am still absolutely happy about the panini maker my niece Emily gave me. It was exactly what I asked for and what I wanted. This January I’ll no doubt be happy for warm grilled cheese sandwiches on chilly nights. But it’s the meaning behind that gift I most cherish, what it represents and embodies for me. That I’ve been blessed to watch her grow up into an amazing young woman over so many Christmas mornings spent with family. That I am tied to her and she to me: by blood, by memory, by love. Year by year, decade after decade.  Wasn’t she just the toddler whom I was reading a new book to, and now she is off to graduate school?

Meaning: to be oriented to something bigger in this life than self alone. Happiness: to seek to feel good. What gift do we most desire, wish for?

That’s a question many of us face in the New Year.  How can we just be happier? What can we do, or not do, or change, for a happy 2017? Switch careers and get that new job.  Lose weight and feel better about our appearance.  Save more cash and then we’ll be happy.  Make more money, attain a magic income level and happiness will kick in. We humans put a lot of spiritual and emotional energy into happiness, which makes sense, because happiness is the most important goal of life and is always just around the next corner. Right?

At least that’s what I’ve been told; what I’ve been sold on too.

Search on Amazon for a happiness self help book and we’ve got 96,821 results to choose from.  “Find your bliss” a guru proclaims.  If it feels good, do it.  If a substance can make you feel happier, even temporarily, smoke it or drink it or pop it.  We want our kids to be happy above all else, correct?  “Happy, Happy, HAPPY!” one mega hit song blissfully proclaims. What the cure for the blues? Shopping of course, happiness found in a thing! Even our Declaration of Independence enshrines the pursuit of happiness as a citizen’s birthright and duty.

But might there be more to life, in life, than a quickly opened gift on Christmas morning?  Less frenzied chasing after happiness.  More intentional work to find true meaning.

To be a part of something bigger than ourselves, like a family that is both beautiful and broken and asks for hard work and commitment over the long haul. A faith that calls us to serve and sacrifice for others in the world, and not merely work for personal salvation alone. A job that’s difficult many days, but one which pushes us to deepen our skills and talents.  Or life as a citizen that inspires us to embrace our mutual responsibilities more and our individual rights less. 

Meaning? Happiness?

I’m not promoting a life of anti-happiness, some dour Puritan existence, all toil, no fun.  But here’s a lesson I’ve learned in my one life: while a singular pursuit of happiness rarely brings meaning, the pursuit of meaning almost always gifts us with happiness, and even better, a deep satisfaction and contentment that can last a lifetime, even beyond one lifetime. 

I just can’t imagine showing up at the pearly gates after my death, and having Saint Peter ask me, “So John: were you happy?”  No: instead I think, I hope, that I’ll instead be asked, “Did you live a life of meaning and purpose? Did you use the one life you were given for something greater than momentary happiness?”

To seek happiness. To seek meaning.  In the year to come, may we choose wisely. May we choose well.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Resolved for 2017: To Be Kind

Resolution (noun) 1. the act of resolving or determining upon an action, course of action;
a decision or determination; firmness of purpose.

This year I’m going to try to carry out just one New Year’s resolution. Only one. That’s a big change from my usual tradition of penning a long list of resolutions in a frenzy of self improvement on January 1st , followed by a crash and burn on January 2nd.  Or maybe I make it to the third, if I’m lucky. Lose weight? Pass the Cheetos, please. Go to the gym? Too cold outside. Read more—only when my Netflix show is over. Save more money? Have you seen those January sales?!

I’m like most of the rest of humanity. My resolutions usually fail. Good intentions but bad follow through. Sound familiar? So this year my single resolution is radically different. It will cost nothing. Require no expensive gym membership, nor some high concept/low taste diet. No rice cakes or kale or coconut water. Instead of prohibiting a well worn behavior, this resolution is positive. Nor will I need to search on Amazon for the right self help book to get me started. It’s a resolution that offers instant payback too: goodwill, hope, and joy even.

Be it resolved: to be more kind in the year ahead. Kindness. That’s it. What do you think? Can I do it? Can you do it? Can we do it?  Be more kind in all our daily interactions with the rest of humanity? Or as my wise faith teacher taught: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I warned you it was radical!

To hold our tongue when we are tempted to judge, critique, put down or accuse.  Open the door for someone who needs help. Offer your seat to any one who needs to take a load off their feet.  Assume the best about others and their intentions. Never miss a chance to praise or give thanks. Go high when an opponent goes low. Be curious, not suspicious, about one who is different. Listen to a person when they are talking to you. Eyes off the phone. Ears open too. Let others go first while you take the last place in line. Smile more, frown less. Buy lemonade from the neighborhood kids and cookies from the Girl Scouts. Always. Give to charity generously, and then give even more. Be gracious in defeat, humble in victory. Volunteer. Do something nice when no one is looking. Pray for an enemy. Forgive quickly. Defend the vulnerable and weak. Guide the lost. Be a kindness role model for the young.   

I’m inspired to try this kindness resolution for one simple reason: 2016 was a year filled with so much unkindness.  Like the absolute worst, nastiest election I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.  In tenor, tone and temperament, from the candidates, to the media, to the voters, the campaign was awful. Every nasty word that could be uttered; every mean spirited thought that could be expressed; every cruel epithet that could be hurled, it was all said. Nothing held back. Kindness does seem in very short supply: hate crimes go up and simple civility goes down.  Terrorism scares us into suspecting anyone whom we deem as “foreign”.  Social media feeds us a daily diet of self-righteous rants and trolls, who like nothing better than to anonymously slam a fellow cyber space inhabitant.

I confess that our current political and social landscape tempts me to just roll over, throw up my hands in despair, or worse, become cynical, apathetic. Maybe even unkind.  Hence this singular resolution.  I cannot control the behavior of our leaders or anyone else for that matter. But I can choose, we can all choose, decide, to be kind.     

Like a good friend of mine: every day since the election, when she gets in the drive thru line at Dunkin’ Donuts, she pays for the coffee of the person in the car behind her. Someone surprised her with this single act of kindness and now she is committed to  paying it forward. She has no idea if the beneficiary of her gift is cranky or angelic, a Democrat or a Republican, shares her faith or has no faith.  But still she is kind. KIND. With a cup of coffee.

Will her one act of kindness end the war in Syria or defeat the bullies or save the world? Not right away and yet: she is doing what she can. She trusts and believes that kindness shared always grows.  Kindness is infectious and begets more kindness in an amazing ripple effect. Kindness is fun.  Kindness expands the heart and the soul. Kindness creates hope, for the giver and the recipient. Kindness is what her God teaches her to do.  Kindness is her radical act of resistance.

Resolved: in 2017, may we all be more kind to each other. I know I must try. Are you up for a little kindness? If we struggle to fulfill this resolution, just remember the advice of the author Henry James. “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

To a Happy (and Kinder) New Year!


Monday, December 19, 2016

I Have Loved the Stars Too Fondly To Be Fearful of the Night

“Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” 
--Sarah Williams, “The Old Astronomer”

Dark days in our world right now, for those of us who call the northern hemisphere home.  The darkest day of the whole year returns, the 21st of December, the longest night.  On winter solstice, the sun doesn’t rise until 7:10 am and before we know it, at 4:15 pm, it is already on its way back down. Just nine hours and fifteen minutes of daylight.  For contrast recall last June 21st, summer solstice. That day the sun rose at 5:14 am and set at 8:29 pm, 2015’s longest day: 15 hours, 15 minutes and 16 seconds, to be exact. That’s a head spinning six hour swing.

From day to night.

Late December is all about the night, more than at any other time. Dusky days diminish in natural light. Even at high noon on a clear December day the sunlight is subdued, slanted and diffuse. We arise in the shadows and come home in the dark. In these short days and long nights we face a choice: to push back the night, deny it, fight it, fear the night, even. Or do we dare to love the night and all that it brings?

That’s not so easy. The night and the dark always get a bad rap.  It was in a darkened room as children that we first learned to fear the night with monsters under the bed and shadows on the wall.  Dark is the absence of light, a negative definition.  Read a novel and when do bad things always happen? At night. That’s when horror movies perpetually go south too. We fear nightmares, not “daymares”.  When asked in a recent poll to name the very worst month of the year, 1,000 Americans ranked as the bottom three, the darkest months of the year: January, February and March.

But consider the gifts of the dark and the night. It was in the dark God formed us in our mother’s wombs, and for nine months we claimed those dark and warm waters as home. It is on the very darkest of nights, no moon in sight, no clouds above, when we see our place in the vast and amazing universe, as we look up, stars blazing away in an indigo sky. We see the work of the Creator and remember that all of life is made of the same star stuff.  The dark and night reminds us that we need each other: a hand to hold on to as we traverse an icy driveway; loved ones to snuggle with in front of a warming fire on an ice cold night.   

The night is fully democratic. The star I view from the safety of my suburban front porch is the exact same star a homeless man on Boston Common sees. The night reminds me that he needs me and I need him too. Together we each live in one miraculous and interdependent world, forever marked by the light and the dark, the day and the night. He is no stranger lurking in the shadows, to me. No: he’s a neighbor: on a cold winter’s night and like me, he needs what we all need: love, warmth, shelter, food, and care.  The night teaches me this lesson. If we are going to wade into the night, let’s do it in community. 

There is finally no escaping the dark and the night.  It holds us for half of life.  It returns every 24 hours, guaranteed.  In the last days of the 12th month, the night and the dark are non-negotiable.  Unless we plan to be on a plane, jetting to the southern hemisphere soon, we might as well lean right into the night. It is going to be here for awhile, so why not enjoy it? With a blinking Rudolph the Red Nosed reindeer balanced on a rooftop. A Hanukkah menorah alight with candles. Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus camped out in a lonely ancient barn, lit up by the light of a bright star in the sky.

It is night. It is a good night. Come, December dark. Come.



Monday, December 12, 2016

Do You See What I See? Look Again. Look With God.

“Said the night wind to the little lamb, do you see what I see? Way up in the sky, little lamb, do you see what I see? A star, a star, dancing in the night, with a tail as big as a kite…”  
 --“Do You Hear What I Hear?”, 
Regeny and Baker, 1962

Do you see what I see?

Well, there’s shelter. I see I can check that off my list. 

I’ve got a warm and safe place to sleep tonight.  No broken windows to let in frigid air, no newspaper stuffed into the walls for insulation. No burrowing into a sleeping bag under a bridge. Unlike 1.5 billion of my fellow human beings, I’ve got adequate housing.  Nor am I a refugee, who wanders the earth without a home, an unwed teenage mother, a worried father.  In 2016, 65.3 million of my fellow children of God face this reality, the highest number since World War II.

Food? No problem for me there either.

My supplies are more than adequate: stocked cabinets, leftovers in the refrigerator, plenty to eat this time of year, almost too much: cookies and eggnog and delicious dinners.  That’s not the case for ten percent of my fellow citizens in the Bay State.  They experience “food insecurity”, a term describing chronic worry about whether or not you have the money to feed yourself and your loved ones. 

In fact, if I take the time to stop and look at, really see, the life I get to live each day, I’m convicted by one undeniable truth. My life is not just OK or adequate.  It’s actually amazing, stuffed to overflowing with so much privilege and comfort and security, especially when I consider how much of the rest of the world lives. Wow. I do have so much. Access to world class health care.  A job I really love, most days. A circle of family and friends who love me.  A car that runs.  Hot coffee. A night sky filled with stars, with tails as big as kites.   

But oh how easily I can lose site of this reality, living in my little town, my tiny state, my sheltered nation. I even sometimes imagine that I’ve got such “big” problems, because…well, I don’t have enough time to do all my Christmas shopping this year.  Or my plane ticket for that post Christmas trip to Florida was so darn expensive.  Or I can’t get the snow blower to start so I might actually have to break out the shovel and start digging myself.  I’m embarrassed to confess those are some of the problems I’ve complained about lately.  A good friend of mine calls these “first world problems” or “broken shoelace problems”: problems lots of other folks would do anything to have. 

Problems that, relatively speaking, seeing, aren’t really problems at all.    

The problem isn’t my so called problems. The real problem is my perspective.  How I see my one life. Appreciate my one life. Give (or not give) thanks to God, for this one life I have been given today. Doesn’t mean that at times we all don’t all have real problems to face into this December.  Some of us are sick.  Some of us are missing a loved one and so this time of year is hard.  Some of us are jobless.  Some of us are very anxious about the days ahead for our country.  We can’t control many of these truths. 

But our perspective? What we see and how we see it? 

That’s up to each and every one of us, a holy day gift from the Creator, who invites us to see life in a wholly different way, especially this time of year. If I could wrap up just one big gift to give to myself, to give to others for the holidays, circa 2016: it would be this single present. A holy new perspective on life: the spiritual vision to see, really SEE, our lives in comparison to the lives of most others; to be grateful for all we have, and then, to be so humbled and filled with mercy, that we can do nothing but give.  Give.

Life. Love. Support. Shelter. Food. Justice. Comfort. Courage. Compassion. Welcome. Peace on earth, goodwill to all.

From where I stand in this beautiful and broken world, that’s what I need to see on this snowy December day. Perspective. It is all relative.  When you consider your one life, what do you see?

Do you see what I see?

Monday, December 5, 2016

We All Have to Wait in Line: And Maybe That's A Good Thing.

Ordinary (adjective) 1. of no special quality or interest; commonplace; unexceptional; plain or undistinguished       

Everybody it seems has the chance to be a VIP these days, you know, a “VERY Important Person”.  Extraordinary.  Able to go right to the front of the line.

Even at my local movie theater. Recently while waiting in a long line at Cinema One to Infinity, to buy snacks to accompany my watching the latest superhero flick, I looked over and saw a brand new VIP line for the concession stand.  That’s right. Golden hued line markers demarcated a very select corridor, where members of the “Premiere” club (which of course you have to pay an extra fee to join) can now whisk right to the front of the line, thus bypassing ordinary ticket buyers like me, who have to patiently wait to purchase an absurdly large cherry Coke, a tub of butter soaked popcorn and an overpriced box of Junior Mints.

No thanks. I think I’ll just wait here in line with everybody else.

Yes, I’m sometimes tempted to want to be a VIP, a celebrity, famous, above it all somehow, one of a kind, anything but ordinary. Who doesn’t? That desire is certainly encouraged by the culture we live in now, that pushes us at seemingly every turn, to either worship fame and fortune or covet being extraordinary, or wish to be set apart somehow, and always, from every one else. 

We’re preparing to usher in our very first celebrity in chief as the new commander in chief, having survived an election that was more like a reality TV show than a substantive and thoughtful exchange of ideas. We spend countless hours on social media, posting, tweeting, snap chatting, all in the hopes that someone, anyone, might “like” us, re-tweet us, give us a thumbs up, or a smiley emojji, all to confirm our extraordinary status in cyberspace. If we don't like the long lines almost anywhere--at the doctor’s office or Disney World or at the airport--for a price we can find a way now to avoid the wait. And our TV screens are filled to overflowing with shows about getting famous or being famous or fawning before a celebrity or pining to be a celebrity ourselves. 

Strange days.  If everyone is a VIP, is anyone a VIP?

Kind of makes me pine for the days of waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Remember?  There once was a time—pre-electronic renewal--- when just about everybody, every one, from the extraordinary to the ordinary, had to spend time in line at the DMV, at least once a year.  No line cutting either. Just sitting on a hard back bench or cracked plastic chair, staring up at a “Now Serving Number…” display, as muzak softly played in the background.

Now that was a humbling experience: being reminded that at the DMV, the line did not discriminate. Ever. If you wanted to get a new license or register a car or procure plates, you had to take your place among the masses, both the VIP and the very unimportant folks too. Not to overly romanticize that experience but there is a gift to just getting in line. To just standing in line. To just taking our place in the “unexclusive” group called humankind and then to be ordinary, just like every one else. 

There are still a few select places in this world where VIP lines or seating isn’t available, or needed.  Like at church or any house of worship. There you just pick up the hymnal and sing along with the whole congregation. All God’s children have a place in that choir.  In the voting booth too: regardless of how we feel about last November 8th, there was a real joy and excitement that day, about having each of our votes count, no ballot less important or more important, than any other.  There’s still a long line at the local grocery store, the corner gas station, and in the crowded malls this December: “NEXT IN LINE PLEASE!”

Most days, every day really, the truth is that us humans are just ordinary, like every one else.  We are in line, with everyone else. We are not better, nor worse, than anyone else. On average, we are average.  Trying our best to do our best and looking for a little grace and a little kindness and a little humility, as we stand in the line called life. 

I’m OK with being a VOP: a very ordinary person.  And if you ask nicely, I’ll even save you a place in line.