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. 

Outside.

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. 

Out. 

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.

GO OUT AND PLAY!

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?      



    

Friday, July 1, 2016

Life Is Short. We Can't Ever Get It All Done. Have Some Fun!


“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that damn mountain.”        Jack Kerouac, poet

I’ve got the pre-vacation jitters.  Angst deep within that I feel every time I prepare to go away. Almost time to leave, but before I go…have I stopped the newspaper and mail? Cleaned the house? Is the luggage packed? Emails answered? Garden tended? Church covered? What have I forgotten?

Can I get it all done?

Most of the time, no…though I hate to admit that.  Inevitably I discover something I left behind or left undone.  I forget to water the plants and come home to depressed and wilted greenery. Neglect to pack sneakers and hobble around in flip flops for the week.  Space out about making one last phone call to a parishioner, and then I feel guilty about it for days.

I did not get it all done. I cannot get it all done. Yet still, I try my damnedest to do it all.  Because I should get it all done, whatever “it” is.  Right?

I fantasize about one fine day when I will finally answer or delete all 14,283 emails sitting in my AOL in-box.  I’ll replace the burnt out bulbs on the holiday decorations which sit forlornly in the corner of my garage.  And I’ll clean the oven.  And sort through all my old clothes.  And catch up on texts and Facebook.  And keep a daily journal.  And, and, AND!

But here’s the thing. I believe that when I finally get to heaven and am greeted by God at the pearly gates, God will not ask of me, “Did you get it all done? Did you fold the laundry and mow the lawn and work lots of extra hours?” Instead I imagine God will ask of me, “Did you use, well and wisely, the one life I gave to you?  Did you live so well, that in your death, you have no regrets?” 

I wonder how I’ll answer those questions. How about you?  Do you believe you can live a truly good life and get “it” all done too? 

That’s the conceit of modern life for far too many humans.  We believe that if only we work hard enough, plan well enough, sweat just enough, push through enough, schedule it all efficiently enough, we can and we will get it all done. Everything. BOO-YAH! That’s the golden calf we worship in 2106.  “Enough” is never quite enough.  Always one more thing to do or obligation to meet or deadline to beat.   

We see it in the lives of so many of our kids who barely have time to breathe in between a plethora of activities and commitments.  We see it in the lives of movers and shakers who awake before dawn, go forth to slay the dragon, then drag themselves home at night, exhausted, the family long gone to bed.  We hear it in the “go to” response of too many of us, to the simple question, “How are you?” I’M BUSY! FLAT OUT! SLAMMED!  Just once I’d like to hear someone respond (or me, even): “Well…things are kind of quiet.  I’ve got good balance in my life.”

I see the people who don’t get it all done. They sit on the back porch, sipping an ice tea and reading a book, while their lawn is one inch too high. What is their problem?! They play a board game with their kids after supper or go out for ice cream, while unfolded laundry lurks in a basket on the stairs. HEY! Get back to work! They take all their vacation time. What is that about? They turn off their cell phone at night and don’t work again until the next morning. What if you miss something really ‘important’? They laugh spontaneously and smile for no reason at all.  They seem happy and content, even though they clearly are not getting it all done.

Maybe I could learn something from these odd people.  Maybe “she who dies with the most toys” isn’t the best life philosophy. Maybe there is more to life than just feeling spent at day’s end from chasing some impossible standard of what it means to be a “success”, whatever that means.  Maybe I can remember that even God rested on the seventh day. Maybe I can finally accept this one truth.

I can’t get it all done.

So if you drive by my house this summer, please try and overlook the weeds in the yard. I was going to pull every last one of them out of the ground, but then decided to take a long bike ride instead.   Guess my “to do” list will just have to wait.

For now…I’m done. Thank you God. 




 





    


Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit and the UK Exit: It's Just Another Brick In The Wall


"No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if [one is] washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind..."          —British priest and poet John Donne

It was like a death: the vote last week by citizens of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, after calling the EU home for forty three years. The fallout was immediate and disastrous. The British pound plummeted in value. The Prime Minister plans to resign. World markets fell, including a 600 point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, wiping out all of its 2016 gains. 

What’s next after “Brexit”? No one knows. This is unchartered political territory, a nation essentially saying to the wider world, “Thanks, but no thanks. It was good while it lasted, but we’ll be leaving you now.” UK voters have legitimate gripes about the EU: frustration with overregulation from a distant government bureaucracy, fear of unfettered immigration overwhelming their island nation, and anger at the loss of jobs due to globalization. 

Yet is this really enough to justify an exit? A full scale retrenchment from Europe?  The mighty British lion packs up her suitcase, buys a one way ferry ticket back home and  pulls up the drawbridge as she retreats. To many in the UK, it is good riddance to their European neighbors. One “Leave” proponent, interviewed on National Public Radio, suggested the Brits fill the English Channel tunnel to France (the “Chunnel”) with cement. Just seal it up for good. 

Brexit is about politics and economics. But Brexit also represents a more profound spiritual struggle that human beings have wrestled with since the world was created by God. Is the wider world a bad place, a threatening specter to be met with building ever higher walls and ever stronger barriers to protect our “home” and keep out the “foreign”?  Or is the wider world a good place, filled with diverse peoples and ideas that, when encountered with generosity and curiosity, make us better as a species and planet?  To lock the doors and close the windows and fearfully take shelter within, or to open the doors and open the windows and welcome the world in, with courage and commitment?

Those are questions not just for our UK friends but for us too, as Americans, as we begin the run up to the fall Presidential election. Whither the world? Is it friend or foe?  Enemy or neighbor? Is the stranger a threat to be contained, even repelled, or a fellow child of God like you, like me?  Brexit embodies the challenge all citizens of the planet face as we encounter people every day who are “different” than we are. People with a different skin color, a different God to worship, a different family to create, or a different language to speak. 

Yet the diversity of the world is non-negotiable and God made all of it. ALL of it and ALL of us. In the Book of Genesis, after seven days of glorious Creation, God finished making the whole world and declared it not just “good” but “very good”.  This truth doesn’t ignore the fact that world building is hard work.  The world is a messy place and we as a planet must do our best to continually figure out how to get along with each other.  Make peace. Share the wealth.  Work and fight for freedom for every human being.  Oppose tyrants.  Protect the weak and vulnerable.  The world has always been, will always be, a work in progress, but that work must continue. We can’t turn back, turn within, turn away.       

I know I would be less as a human being, diminished, if in my one life I had left the rest of the world behind and stayed put in my little home. I might have felt safer but oh what I would have missed in my years of traveling this amazing planet. I never would have helped build a Habitat for Humanity house with Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants in a Belfast suburb, and helped build peace too.  Never would have shared a meal of tortillas and corn meal with a Quiche Indian family in the northern highlands of Guatemala, and been touched by their generosity. Never would have been woken up in my Istanbul, Turkey hotel room at 4 am by the cacophonous calls to Muslim prayer that echoed out over that beautiful city.  And all my Brazilian friends, my British friends, my Australian friends, my world friends: I might never have opened myself up to what they teach me about life as a fellow human being.

No man, no woman, no child, no one, is an island, unto themselves.  Not the United States. Not the United Kingdom.  Not any nation or peoples.  God made just one world. One.  It is up to us to continue the blessed work of planet building.

No exit.


     

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Week That Just Was: The World Needs a Major REBOOT


Reboot (verb) 1) To…start [a computer] up…after a computer crash….starting a process over again. --The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy

Veteran PC users know the drill, especially, if like me, they live in the Windows computer universe. I’m hard at work on a document or spreadsheet or surfing the net and suddenly the screen freezes up. Nothing responds, even as I tap at the keyboard in frustration and panic. The dreaded “turning circle” icon pops up. A “not responding” message appears. The computer is hung up, caught in an endless loop.

I can’t go back. Can’t go forward. Can’t save my work.  Can’t do anything. I’m stuck in digital purgatory, suspended between the hell of losing all my data and the heaven of full recovery and so, there is finally only one thing I can do.

Reboot.

Shut down the whole system. Begin again. Strike three keys simultaneously (Ctrl, Alt and Delete), or click “Restart”, for cyber resurrection. The screen goes blank, the system whirs and then miraculously, the Windows icon reappears. Life recommences. 

“THANK YOU JESUS!”  OK: that’s my personal exclamation when I’m saved from a computer crash. Reboot is my “go to” hack for any electronic problem.  Turn it off. Turn it on. Say a little prayer too.

If only we could reboot our world. Wouldn’t that be awesome? At times of massive stimulation overload, we could just shut the whole world down, turn it off, hit a switch, strike ctrl/alt/delete and begin again. For sometimes in the machine called humanity: we go on overload too. We have much too much information coming in that doesn’t compute. The circuits of our brains and hearts and souls are flooded to overcapacity.

“Not responding”.

That’s how I’m feeling more than a week after Orlando. In a week when we marked the one year anniversary of the Charleston church shooting. In a week when the life of a young person gunned down in the halls of a Boston high school was remembered too. I just want to turn the whole world off and reboot. Return to a “before” time, before all those innocent lives were lost to hatred and chaos. Before far too many of our so called “leaders” responded in typical fashion to the next cataclysmic event.  Not with wisdom or action, but instead with blustering judgments or perpetual inaction. 

Reboot.

I want to shut down the unrelenting 24/7 news cycles that overwhelms most of us with far too much information and far too little understanding. I want to shut down the social media orgy that can bring far too much heat and far too little light, into our collective efforts to build community. I want to shut down the folks who are absolutely, completely convinced, that they alone are right. I don’t care about their political leanings or religious faith.  Right now, we’ve got too much self righteousness and too little humility in our national dialogue. I want to shut down the volume of our culture. Hit the mute button, until the day when we finally learn how to talk with each other and not merely at each other. 

I even imagine God in the heavens, sitting before a computer called Creation.  I wonder if God is tempted to hit the “reboot” button too.  To ask, “What is it about ‘love one another’ that my children just do not seem to understand?”   

Reboot.

My prayer for all of us in these overloaded days, when it feels as if our communal computer may be about to crash, is that each of us has a place to spiritually reboot ourselves. At its best this is what faith in God is all about. Rebooting regularly. Being together. Loving each other. Loving “the other”. Loving God. Loving the world, even in all its brokenness.  Last Sunday I was so grateful to return to my faith community: to talk together, pray together, worry together, be together, and act for the good, together. We’re far from perfect. But God knows we are trying. 

How about you? Do you have such a sanctuary, or a tradition, or some beloved community to return to for a reboot? I really, really, really hope so. If the past days have taught us anything, it is that we all need each other, maybe now more than ever.   

God help us all…to reboot.






Monday, June 13, 2016

After Orlando: When Will We See the Face of God in the Face of Our Neighbor?


“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes…see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.”         --Frederick Buechner

It’s a cruel irony that in the hours immediately after the largest mass shooting in the history of the United States, we knew more about the shooter, Omar Mateen, than any one of his 49 victims. The image of Mateen’s face showed up on media websites by mid-Sunday morning, less than four hours after his deadly act of terrorism and hate.  By noon we knew his name, faith, marital history, work background and had quotes about him from his father and his ex-wife. It was not until just after 5 pm last Sunday night that the names of the dead began to be released by the city of Orlando.

To be fair, the process of identifying the dead and notifying the next of kin is gruesome and painstaking work. Those charged with this heartbreaking task no doubt did and are doing the very best that they can.  I cannot imagine what it is like to have to make that awful phone call: to a Mom or Dad, wife or husband, son or daughter, to tell them that the one they loved: he, she, is gone forever.  That they went out on a Saturday night with friends for an evening of dancing and celebration and now, they will never come back.

But regardless of the timing, here’s a hard truth to consider. More ink will be spilled, more words will be written; more opinions will be offered and more political posturing will be proclaimed about Mateen in the days ahead, than about any of the innocent women and men that he killed.  Why this propensity to inadvertently lionize the criminal and so often ignore the victims? Why this gruesome fascination with “the radical Muslim”, “the ISIS inspired domestic terrorist”, and “the LGBT hating” Mateen? Why is he the lead on the front page and the evening news, that face of his staring back at us with hatred and anger? 

Because it is just too hard, too sad, too overwhelming, to face the faces of all those lost.  Their oh so young faces: smiling and hopeful, serious and thoughtful. Thank God that finally their portraits are showing up on line and in print. Let’s post those images on Facebook and Twitter, in the New York Times and the Boston Globe.  Let’s speak out loud their individual names in prayers and remembrance.  Let’s face those faces and then skip on by, try and ignore for just awhile, the face of the one who took life itself away from 49 people in the Pulse nightclub last weekend.

For when that shooter opened fire, he did not see the faces of “real” people, or fellow children of God, or human beings. Instead, apparently motivated by a warped and false religious faith and fueled by homophobic rage, he “saw” no one.  How else could he do what he did? Mateen and others of his ilk, symbolize what may be the greatest of human sins, writ large: humanity’s chronic and ancient inability to see “the other” as equally worthy of love, honor and respect. 

When will we finally see the stranger or those folks we can so quickly label “different”, as instead part of our human family: each and every one of us good, precious, and beautiful?  When, O God?  When? When will we let go of our communal need to divide this world by race and faith, by class and ability, by the people we choose to love and the God we choose to worship?  When?
 
So today I choose to remember the face and the person of Stanley Almodovar III, 23, of Clermont, Florida. Stanley was one of the first named victims.  He grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts and worked as a pharmacy technician. He lived with his Mom, Rosalie Ramos, who said she expected her son to come home from the club that night hungry, so she left some of his favorite food for him in the refrigerator. Stanley was studying to be a pharmacist. His Aunt Yoly said he was, “an amazing person with a good soul.”  He would have celebrated his 24th birthday later this month.

May our God of love bless us with the vision to see in each and every person whom we encounter, a real person. A neighbor. A fellow inhabitant in this beautiful and broken world that we all call home.  May God bless Stanley. May God bless the dead and injured and their loved ones. 

Remember them. Remember their faces.