Friday, August 18, 2017

Character Always Trumps Personality. ALWAYS.

“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character…..”     --Anne Frank

It’s been many years but I still remember the anxiety and excitement of my late teens and early twenties, times when a well meaning relative or friend would buttonhole me at a party, sidle up to me at the family reunion, and then interrogate me. 

So John—what are you going to study in college? What do you want to do for work when you graduate?  What about grad school? What part of the country do you want to live in?  What about marriage and kids? What are you going to do with your life? 

Young adulthood is a gift because the world is laid out before us, as never before or ever again in this life. It’s a blank slate. An open road. And so the adventure begins! Young adulthood is a challenge because now a young man or woman is in ultimate charge of their one life. Responsible for their decisions and choices and then dealing with the consequences. Trying to discern the path, the right path, to follow.

So what are you going to do now?!

A natural inquiry, and yet, maybe it’s not the best question to ask the young people in our lives, as they set out for the future.  This is the time of year for such conversations: in these late summer weeks as young people in our lives and world leave us for college or graduate school, or face graduation next spring, or start a new job or contemplate getting married.  As we help them pack up their suitcases and leave the life they’ve known, perhaps we’d do better to help them think about the person they want to become.  Their inner lives and not merely the outward trappings of a “successful” life.   

I wish someone had asked me then, not an insistent “what?” but instead a curious “who?”—as in, “Just who do you want to become in life?” I wish someone had checked in with me about the state of my spirit and not just my career path or the size of my starting salary.  I wish I had taken more time then to work on shaping my values and ideals and worried much less about things like my major or my roommate or the dorm I’d call home.  I wish that I had worked harder to be more intentional about becoming the person I wanted to be, not just on the outside but on the inside too. 

But no one ever asked me about such things.

Most of the time our higher educational system does a good job of teaching professional skills, giving us the tools we need to make a living.  Our nation produces millions of graduates and craftspeople, folks empowered to do something.  But we also we need help, at all points in life, to learn as well how to make a life too.  How to become a good person. How to be the kind of dependable friend peers trust, look up to.  How to find a calling in life that feeds the soul and not merely fills the bank account. How to become a good citizen, to live a life not just for one’s self alone, but for others too. How to have faith in something beyond yourself. How to be worry less about how we look or are perceived on the social scene or in social media and more focused on who we really are, in real life.

How to have true character.    

For we’re living in weird times, days when outward personality can so often trump inward human character.  Our sons and daughters may know just how to pose for a quick Snapchat, or send out a pithy tweet or carefully curate a picture perfect image on Facebook, all external things. We help them learn how to prepare for that first interview or find a perfect internship but are we helping them as well, to cultivate their character? Create lives of integrity and goodness. Have faith in a power greater than themselves, and know they can depend upon God for strength and comfort and guidance. 

So my hope and prayer for all the young adults now trying to make their way in this world, this generation who very soon will be running the show, is simple.  May we as a world encourage them always to be people of character. To seek not just a job but a calling, some work or passion or interest that brings them joy and makes the world a better place.  To live a life worth living in the deepest sense.

Because the “whats” of life: these come and go and change.  But the “who”—who we want to become: this is what makes and shapes the best life of all.


Monday, August 7, 2017

To Really See the Gift of Life, Try the Bleachers

Bleachers (noun) 1. A cheap bench seat at a sports arena, typically in an outdoor uncovered stand.              

Time was that a seat in the bleachers, the viewing stands farthest from the action at a baseball game—well, the bleachers were always for the masses, folks who couldn’t afford the more expensive seats. College students out for an afternoon in the sun and some cold, cheap beer.  Little league teams ready to cheer on their heroes up close. Last minute fans hoping for any ticket to see the game.  Bleacher seats were often wooden benches. Move too fast and you’d get a splinter in the backside.  Folks in these seats even have a nickname: “bleacher bums”, connoting their once downscale status. 

Now? Bleacher seats at Fenway Park, home of Boston Red Sox, are no longer that cheap. But at $30 a pop for a seat way, way up in the nose-bleed section, 500 feet from home plate: it’s still the best deal in the place.  And as I discovered on a recent balmy and blue sky August evening, when the Sox took on Chicago’s White Sox, the bleachers are also still about as democratic and diverse a place as you can find anywhere.

Sitting directly behind me were four young women, visiting the United States for the very first time, from France. It was their first ever baseball game too. Next to me: three Hoosiers from Gary, Indiana who’d never ventured to either coast. They were stopping by friendly Fenway before going on to Maine for a wedding. With me were four “Minnesota Nice” old friends, Twins fans making a pilgrimage to the oldest major league ball park, circa 1912, still in use in the United States.   

It was a magical night, one I could not plan, one I’ll not soon forget. 

We all stood in respectful silence for the national anthem, hats or hands over hearts, as an oversized flag flapped and snapped in a gentle August breeze.  The Parisians ate their mustard slathered covered hot dogs with gusto, and I did my best to explain the game to them. They enthusiastically watched and asked lots of questions. What better way to learn about America than at a ball game? The Hoosiers shared their impressions of Boston (so much traffic!) and they asked me about the best place to eat lobster down east. My younger mid-western seat mates, BJ and Nathan, nine and twelve years old, screamed with gusto at the BoSox’ first home run. At games’ end our mini-community parted as new friends, grateful for wonderful folks to catch a game with, share stories, and share life, if only for a little while.

And guess what? None of us, not one, wanted to talk about politics or even bothered to look at breaking headlines on our smart phones.  Red state, blue state, “America First”? Who the heck cared about that!? The action on the field was much more interesting and fun.  Any thoughts of our differences faded away amidst the spectacle of baseball, a seemingly eternal game, played on a field of bright green as the city skyline faded into a pink and purple sunset.  My new friends from France even said that Bostonians were actually friendlier than the folks from their home town! Yes. Seriously.  The Red Sox won in a rout and we even made it to the train before it got too overcrowded.

We live in times when it is easier than ever to immerse ourselves in “the news” and “the latest” all the time. Like crack addicts we stay glued to our screens, awaiting the next thing to freak out about. I know I’m guilty of this obsession. And since such reports are most often slanted to the negative, this media saturation can give us a warped view of life.  A view from 30,000 feet that tempts us to see only the bad in the world. To grow cynical or weary or pessimistic about it all.

But if we are wise, we will go local, get down to earth and on the ground and see that much of the time, most of the time, this life is still good.  We just have to look for it and remember. That most folks are kind and welcoming. Strangers are just friends we’ve yet to meet.  Home towns are the places we cherish so much that we want to share these with visitors from far away.  And what really gives us pleasure day to day is not overly complicated either: spending time with the people we love and being open to all the God given gifts each twenty four hours has to offer. But first we have to get in the game and pay attention. 

So that’s my view from the cheap seats, the bleachers.  Perhaps it’s time for you to take in a game soon. I hear that tickets are still available.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Why I Ride The PMC: To Remember....

“No one is ever really lost as long as their story still exists.”  --R.M. Romero
I've gotten into a new habit on many of my training rides this spring and summer, as I prepare for the 2017 Pan Mass Challenge (PMC). Often now, when I arrive at my destination after a long afternoon ride, or stop to rest at a halfway point, I take out my phone, lean my bike against the nearest landmark and snap a photo of my riderless cycle. I think it’s my way of somehow reminding me and the universe, that: “Yes, I am still here. I can still ride. And so I will keep on pedaling.”

I’ve got snapshots of my battered blue road bike on a bright blue July 4th in Franklin center, leaning against a weathered wooden bench, white puffy clouds in the distance. There’s a shot of my two wheeled vehicle in front of the oversized gothic doors of the chapel at Wellesley College; and one image of my ride propped against a huge cherry red “University of Massachusetts” sign at the entrance to my old school, UMass.  

The photo I cherish most is one of my trusty bicycle carefully balanced on the side of a simple granite marker in Medfield, just down the road from my house. That stone stands sentinel like, next to a cemetery, on the grounds of the old Medfield State hospital.  A brass plaque simply declares: “Remember us: for we too have lived, loved and laughed.”

This is my eighth summer doing the PMC, the largest athletic fundraiser in the world. Come this Saturday and Sunday 5,000 of us we will seek to raise $48 million dollars for cancer care and research, at the Dana-Farber in Boston. One hundred percent of every dollar raised goes directly to this world class institution. 

That’s why I ride.

But I also ride to remember: those who lived and loved and laughed, but whom cancer stole away.  A dear mentor, Sue.  A kind cousin, Kathy.  A thoughtful church member, Dottie, and many more too.  And I also ride so that those who battle cancer right now—like Bob, and Angela, and T Michael—that they might continue to live, love and laugh, for many years to come. 

It’s far too easy in this life, as we whiz along doing the “oh so important!” stuff we seemingly must do, to forget those who came before us, those who struggle even now quietly: with ill health or life challenges.  The best life always remembers that in fact we stand on the shoulders of those who are now gone.  The best life lives with mercy and care towards those who still need our help. 

That’s why I ride.

So here’s my request: come Saturday morning please say a prayer for all the riders: for safety and a brisk tail wind and good weather. Say a prayer for the 3,000 volunteers who make it all happen with grace and joy. Say a prayer that one day cancer might be history, that we won't need the PMC anymore. Say a prayer for the bicycles without riders: their memories still inspires us to ride on.  And yes: if you’d like to make a donation, that would be great too.


They lived. They loved. They laughed. May God keep us to the promise to not forget: every step, every mile, and every pedal stroke, in this miracle called life.   


Monday, July 31, 2017

Go Ahead. Call Me a Boy Scout. PLEASE!

“A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.”       --Boy Scout Law

Boy Scout: One who does everything according to the rules. --Urban Dictionary

The pinnacle of my life as a Scout came at the age of eight, when I won the Pinewood Derby in my local Cub Scout pack.  The derby is a race, pitting hand built wooden cars against each another, the hope being that as boys compete, they also will learn about being a good sport and fair play.  Me? I loved my winning trophy but soon thereafter the Scouts faded from my life. 

Yet through the years I’ve grown to have a deep respect and admiration for the scouting movement, both for girls and boys. Scouting is one of the few American youth organizations remaining which works to build individual character and good citizens. That’s its central mission: to shape the values and ideals of young women and men, so that these future leaders can build a better nation and world.  True: it’s been a bumpy few years for scouting. It’s struggled to be more inclusive of LGBT youth and adults and the number of kids in scouting is in decline.  It’s tough to compete against the explosive proliferation of youth sports and a high tech screen filled world that kids call home. 

But scouting carries on in its idealistic work, even when it finds itself caught up in the mud and muck and mess of our current political situation.  Recently, the President addressed a crowd of 40,000 scouts and their parents at the Scouting Jamboree, an annual summer gathering. The Commander in Chief is the honorary head of the scouts and this speech is traditionally an opportunity for kids, volunteers and Moms and Dads to hear what has always been a non-partisan “rah-rah” speech, an address about American values, scouting and patriotism. 

Until this year, when, in an odd, disjointed, bordering on rude, even obscene talk, the Tweeter-In-Chief went on a rant: about Washington, about his “enemies”, about New York City cocktail parties filled with “hot” guests, about the failure of Obamacare, about his disdain for the “fake media”, etc., etc., etc. Some cheered. Others booed. Most were just confused by the weirdness of the address.  Of course the media picked up on it and created a firestorm, one so red hot that the Boy Scouts of America Chief Executive Michael Surbaugh was forced to apologize: “We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.”

Call me a “Boy Scout” if you will, but I think this train wreck of an event embodies so much of what is going wrong, going south, and maybe even fast going away, in America.  Things like civic ideals and civic values. Remember? These are the hoped for character traits that are supposed to bind us together as a nation; ensure that we can and will flourish in community when we commit to acting in a certain way, in all of our public dealings, as citizens and neighbors and leaders. 

Things like decency in language and behavior. Honor in all our relationships. Humility in triumph and defeat.  Respect for the person on the other side of an issue.  Trustworthiness when you commit to an agreement. Faith, in all its shapes and forms. Public service, not for personal gain, but for the common good. Service to others, in gratitude for the gift of freedom.  Kindness to others, especially for those who struggle in this life. Patriotism, a sincere love for our country, in all its diversity and beauty.

The problem is that in our current culture—political, social, media—such “Boy Scout’ish” behavioral norms are often judged as naive at best, or impossible to practice, at worst.  “Boy Scout” is now used as an ironic pejorative, a put down for one who is too idealistic and earnest.  The easy thing would be to pin the blame for our current struggles on just one person or one political party, one ideology or one group of people, but the truth is we all own this societal challenge.  We got to this point in our nation together. 

And so we all are responsible, personally and communally, to reaffirm that to do the right thing is the right thing to do.  To act with honesty and integrity in relationships is the way to live.  Doesn’t matter if it’s at a Scout Jamboree or a vote in Washington, D.C., in a town meeting debate or at a discussion over the fence with a neighbor.               
So please, yes, call me a Boy Scout. I still actually believe in America, that as Americans, we can do better and hold ourselves and our leaders to the highest of ideals and values.


Monday, July 24, 2017

The Eclipse Is Coming: Get Ready for a Godshow!

“On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.”  --Amos 8:9

Oh how I wish I could go back again and visit Carbondale, Illinois. 

You may have never heard of this fair city of 25,092 souls, 331 miles south of Chicago. Carbondale: home to Southern Illinois University and the “Fighting Salukis”. (I’d never heard of that dog breed either, bred in Egypt and famed for its hunting skills.) I got to know Carbondale when I performed a wedding there for a good friend, who grew up in that quaint locale. Carbondale is like most places in the world: loved by loyal locals but not so well known by outsiders. 

But not anymore. In just a few weeks Carbondale will be the center of the universe.

Come next month a total solar eclipse, that most rare and breathtaking of celestial events, will happen on Monday, August 21st, at 1:21 pm, Central Standard Time and Carbondale is the best place in the world to view it. For two minutes and thirty eight seconds, as the moon passes directly in front of the sun, the day in Carbondale will grow dark. Eerie shadows and lunar shade will take hold. Stars will come out and twinkle in the sky. Temperatures will drop. Animals will grow restless and anxious.   

In New England we won’t be blessed like Carbondale with a front row seat, but still in the Boston area, we’ll get a good view at 2:46 pm, when 63 percent of the sun will seem to just disappear.  So get your eclipse viewing paraphernalia ready for this “Godshow”; that’s the word I use whenever Creation wows us with its awesomeness.

Yes I’ll be in awe that day of the science and natural law behind this once in a century event. But as a person of faith what I love most about a “Godshow” like an eclipse is that it reminds us humans of our true place in the universe. It brings us down to earth. It teaches us that for all our insistence that we are the center of Creation, actually we are not. Not by a long shot.

Instead we homo sapiens are just one very, very, very small part of the big miracle called existence. Long before our ancestors learned to stand upright for the first time some 200,000 years ago, the universe had already existed for some 13.8 billion years, according to the latest scientific theories.  Earth is just one of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in the observable universe.  And if you embrace like I do a belief in God, a power greater than us, started it all, lit the fuse on the Big Bang, then that Divine force has existed forever.  As in eternity. Infinity. 

Ponder that as you watch the eclipse. 

Or pause and be still as you stand under a vast black summer night sky and then find the Milky Way, billions and billions of stars and planets spilled like milk across the heavens of this third rock from the sun, the place we call home.  Or watch in wonder as a violent thunderstorm rolls through, jagged bolts of lightning flash and rumbling peals of thunder crashing in on a humid August afternoon.  Or take the tiny hand of an infant in yours’ and imagine the miracle of birth that brought this one tiny soul into the world.

If and when we actually pay attention, Creation will always humble us. That’s a good thing, for the conceit of our species has always been hubris. The myth that we run the show and that Creation exists solely to serve our needs.  But then we are gifted with a “Godshow” like an eclipse and perhaps we remember just how fragile and beautiful and mysterious and powerful the universe finally is.  And then all we can do is say, “Wow! Thank you God.”

So congratulations Carbondale.  Enjoy the “Godshow”.  Wish I could be there!


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Summer: Go Away, Get Away, Find Your 'Away' Place in the Sun!

“Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”    
--John Muir

Forty summers.

That’s how many seasons, give or take a few, I’ve packed up a suitcase, tracked down my musty sleeping bag, stocked up on heavy duty bug spray, dusted off hiking boots, and then gone away to camp. Away. To summer camp.  For me it’s not yet summer without at least seven days at camp. So in the coming weeks, as I have since I was sixteen, I’ll spend 168 hours in the middle of the woods, in the middle of nowhere, with a bunch of like minded adults and 250 youth too. Crazy? A little. Excited? Absolutely!

Our hopes for that time are simple: to discover or rediscover a sacred place, a separate place, a special place, an away place, maybe even a holy place, and all in God’s Creation. 

Not that summer camp is for everyone.

The world is clearly split into two opposing camps when it comes to camp. Some can’t get there fast enough while others would rather endure a root canal than spend rustic time among the sticky pine needles and free roaming critters right outside your door.  And the bugs. No matter how tightly I shut my screen door, one lone dive bombing mosquito always finds me. Privacy? Where else can I share a communal bathroom with one hundred new friends? Fine dining—that’s hot dogs by the lake or a raucous breakfast with a table full of fidgety thirteen and fourteen year olds. Finally, all the screens I’m so addicted to staring at will go blank: no cell calls, no Netflix, no emails, no texts, no Facebook. 

But that’s precisely why I love camp too. 

For it gets me away, it takes me away, sends me away, unlike any other place I claim as home the other fifty one weeks of the year. It’s the only time I take the time to lie back on a dew covered ball field and then stare up in wonder at a night sky filled with so, so many stars.  Being away and unplugged reminds me that the “community” I experience in cyberspace always pales in comparison to spending face to face 24/7 time in an intentional community of campers and counselors.  Camp allows me to be childlike, even joyful: jumping into an ice cold lake at dawn, singing silly songs around a campfire at the top of my lungs, saying a gentle “Good night” to a cabin full of kids.

Granted, I may not be able to talk you into going to sleep away camp but perhaps I can push you to find a similar soul refreshing experience before these last precious weeks of summer slip away.  Hate to say it, but before we all know it, Labor Day will be here and then our chances to get away and go away will just slip away.

Away.  Find it. Go to it.  Then enjoy it. 

A quaint cabin in the woods or a familial house near the beach.  A special day at the amusement park, with frightened squeals of delight on the roller coaster, or a cold frosty ice cream at the local creamery, as the sun sets.  A visit to an amazing national park or a road trip cross country to rediscover that America is still here and is doing okay.  Time for a long bike ride on a lonely country road or time on the sand with a book to lose yourself within.

My away place is camp.  That’s where I find God amidst the tall trees and puffy white clouds and a nighttime lullaby of peepers. We all need our away time: time to unplug, chill out, just be. Where is your away place?  May you get there. Go there.  And maybe even find the sacred when you finally arrive.

Happy summer. 


Monday, July 3, 2017

The July 4th Gift of Human Freedom: Happy Birthday America!

"I'd like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free and wanted other people to be also free."--Rosa Parks

There is nothing more American, more summer celebrating, more freedom inspiring for me, than loading up the car with a battered suitcase, filling the tank to “F”, donning some cool sunglasses, playing funky music or a book or a baseball game on the radio, and then hitting the road for a long road trip. Something about this so embodies human and American freedom, a July or August car adventure to practically anywhere.  To gritty urban Akron or earthy crunchy Ithaca. To Birkenstock Burlington or sweaty D.C.  To artsy Minneapolis or “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire.

The destination matters less than the act of being blessed by God and empowered as a free human being, to just be free.  I am free! To go where I want. To travel in freedom.  

But “we” are free too. You. Every other American who also hits the road for a vehicular vacation.  According to the American Automobile Association, this summer is shaping up as unprecedented for road trips. AAA estimates that 44 million Americans will hit the road for the July 4th holiday, a record number.  So I will have to share my road freedom, for on the road called America, I’m in a community. I am free but also part of a larger nation of folks, with whom I live and work and play and worship and yes, drive too.

So I can’t drive as fast as I want, barrel along recklessly, or tailgate to my heart’s delight.  I can’t refuse to pay the tolls that fund the highways we all enjoy. Can’t rudely cut the line at the roadside gas station so I can snag the last hot dog from the grill.  Can’t curse that family from Ohio who is crawling along at 45 miles per hour in the travel lane.  Can’t toss my trash out the window or drive without my headlights on, or drink alcohol while I drive or text away on my phone and not pay attention.  Okay I can, I could. But I should not.

For I’m free but my freedom is always intertwined in the freedom of others. 

This is the quality of moral freedom envisioned, declared and fought for, by our foremothers and forefathers, beginning July 4th 1776, 241 years ago.  A simple reading of our Declaration of Independence might tempt us to conclude that human freedom is all about the individual, even a crazy free for all: every man or woman or child for themselves.  No right or wrong attached to our self determination.  No agreed upon commitment to the common good.  No moral underpinnings to our freedom. Freedom as self centered actions taken to the extreme.

If this is the case I can do or say or tweet anything I want about any one I want, because I am free.  I can obey just the laws I agree to, because I am free.  I can do all I can to pay as little in common taxes as I can, because I am free.  I can make as much money as I want and accumulate as much stuff as I want and I can keep it all to myself, because I am free. I can tell others just how to worship their God (or not), because I am free. I can even try to deny the freedom of others in their pursuit of happiness and human rights, to selfishly protect my precious freedom to be happy and free. 

In the ongoing social experiment called American democracy, a tension always simmers just below the surface.  Me against us.  I versus thee.  Independence in apparent opposition to interdependence. But such unfettered human freedom taken to its radical conclusion inevitably ends in social chaos.

To me, the best human freedom is always bound by shared morality, communal ethics, and the rule of law. We can always find these noble truths: in ancient faiths, in cherished traditions, in time honored customs, and for sure in Philadelphia, on a hot summer day, so long ago. As Benjamin Franklin said just before putting his signature on the Declaration of Independence, risking his one life for the cause of freedom: “Gentlemen: we must surely all hang together or surely, we will all hang together.”

So this is my July 4th freedom prayer.

May our freedom always be tempered by a shared moral commitment: to not just do the free thing but also the right thing.  May we know that life is not lived in a social vacuum, that instead every time we exercise a right or freedom it affects another; therefore may we be wise, prudent and compassionate in how we live. May our leaders embody and model for us the highest of human virtues and may we also demand the same of ourselves, as citizens and neighbors.  May we pursue our happiness with passion and joy and may we work to ensure that others, in freedom, can also do the same. 

For me to be free and for you to be free as well: that’s the vision. Happy birthday America! Happy road trip!  Happy freedom!