Monday, December 17, 2018

The Human Yearning to Make It Home for the Holidays

"The desire to go a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be of the world, that center called love."    --Rebecca Solnit, author

Home. Home for the holidays.

In the coming days hundreds of millions of us will hit the road or fly the skies, or take a train or board a bus, or travel to the next town over or travel across the country, all to get home. Home: a physical place, a real point on the map, the three decker house in the city where we grew up, the leafy suburban neighborhood where we came of age, the place we had to leave in order to grow up and then come back. So our kids will return from college, our adult children will come carrying tons of presents with their kids in tow, or we will pile into the car and drive. 

That trip home will be spiritually bumpy for some of us. We miss a loved one who won't be at the holiday table this year and our hearts break at their absence. We are in conflict with a loved one and so we stay away or they stay away. We are just too far away and can't get home. We are among the hundreds of thousands who don't get a day or a week off: soldiers on the front lines, nurses at the hospital, firefighters staffing a quiet station, folks who serve tables and drive the bus and pump the gas and pour the coffee.

Still everybody wants to get home.

No matter what the ideal vision of home conjures up for each of us this twelfth month, always as humans, there is this deep desire to go home and to be at home in the world. Home: not just a geographic location but even deeper, home as a place in the heart, a state of the soul called home where we feel loved and accepted and welcomed, fully, completely, for who we are. No questions asked. Home: where we are safe, where we are found, and with a bit of God's grace, we know joy. Home: where someone knows our name and knows our story and welcomes us in.

In the church I serve, on the eve of the 25th, our pews will be much fuller than usual, as candlelight flickers in the frosty windows. It happens every year. I will look out upon the well dressed congregants holding squirmy kids, and families sharing a hymnal, and travelers coming in for the first time, and I absolutely get why they come. They seek a home in something bigger than themselves, in a power greater than themselves that somehow holds all Creation together. They seek the comfort of the carols they've sung year after year on a silent night.  They want to come home and to be at home in a 2,000 year old ancient story. They hope to find a home in the very heart of God. 

It's a universal yearning, a tug within the soul, especially in December.

Yes, we are so different from each other, we humans. We are poor and rich, gay and straight, married and single, immigrant and blue blood. We have lots of kids or no kids. The tables of our holiday feasts are packed with so many relatives or feature two or three gathered as family, some bound by blood, some by memory and experience.  We are Christian or Jewish or Muslim or agnostic or maybe even not so sure about this God idea.

Yet still we all seek just one holiday gift: to find a home and to be at home.

So my prayer and hope for all of us, dear readers, is simple. May we all get home this holiday, in these holy days. May the roads we travel bring us to a place of spiritual calm. May the joys and the sorrows of this season open our hearts to realize the miracle that is daily life.  In the words of the poet Max Erhman, from his poem "Desiderata": " at peace with God, whatever you conceive [God] to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your still is a beautiful world."

There is no place like home for the holidays so may God bless all of our journeys.



Monday, December 10, 2018

Chaos, the Game of Life and the Truth That Anything Is Possible

Chaos (noun) 1. a state of utter confusion 2. a state in which chance is supreme  3. the unorganized state of primordial matter before creation


That was the scene at the crazy conclusion to a football game this past Sunday afternoon between the teal green uniformed Miami Dolphins and New England's own red, white and blue Patriots. Even if you're not a football fan, it was hard not to be in awe of the chaos contained within just the blink of an eye, something you had to see to believe.

With just seven seconds left in the game, with just one play left for the Dolphins, with millions of Pats fans ready to celebrate another victory, I like so many others was sitting in my Lazy-Boy and thinking, "What could go wrong?"

Try everything.

Pats up 33-28. Miami's last chance. Sixty nine yards to go. No way! Then chaos arrived. The ball was hiked; a pass to one Dolphin who then tossed the ball to a teammate who then hurled the ball to another teammate who then zigged and zagged and scrambled into the end zone.  No time left. Dolphins win. Pats lose. The play looked like one I might have executed in a backyard pick up game when I was ten years old. 

Crazy. Cool. Nuts. Chaos.

What were the actual chances of that happening? Football statistics geek Brian Burke, on his website Advance Football Analytics, reports a team in the Dolphins position had a less than a one percent chance of winning. But then chaos comes, an ever present possibility in football, in life. A Pats player stumbles on his own feet and misses the tackle by a fingertip. A Dolphin runner cuts left. His opponent lunges right. Touchdown. The Fish win 34-33, thus proving that in chaos anything is possible.      

Chaos: the power hard wired into everything in life, from the beginning of life. It's the possibility in any given moment or situation for millions, even billions of outcomes to happen. Chaos is the reality that we while we mortals may think, presume, and assume we absolutely know a sure thing, a safe bet, or a clear conclusion, this does not always happen. Sometimes that's a good thing. Ask the Dolphin fans, some of whom consider their win a miracle. (Something tells me God doesn't much care who wins a football game.)  Sometimes it's a bad thing. Just ask a heartbroken Pats fan this week. Better yet don't. They're still recovering. 

What that game's chaotic ending reminded me, is that...we humans never know. Never know how things might turn out or shift or change or flip or zig even when we are sure life will zag.  It can be something as inconsequential as a football game. It can be something as profound as our health or a relationship or the direction of a country or the fate of the world itself.                   

Is chaos good? When a chance encounter with a stranger at a friend's party leads to love, marriage and family, yes!  When a random investment in an unknown stock called Amazon in 1997 leads to unexpected wealth, yes! When a midnight stroll under the stars happens the same night as a rare aurora borealis bursting in the sky with a technicolor God show, absolutely, yes! Bring on the chaos.

Is chaos bad? When health worsens, hurts us or a loved, yes. Chaos stinks. When politicians can't see beyond the self interest of their own politics or their own desires for power, even thought this guarantees worldwide upheaval, is chaos scary? Yes. When a tornado touches down, a hurricane howls, a blizzard blows, chaotic weather that cannot be predicted or tamed, is this a gut punch? Yes. No thank you chaos.

But still we can respond, in faith, to chaos. Accept chaos as a given, baked into Creation from the moment God formed the world out of the formless void of chaos. From chaos comes creation, then and now. Chaos humbles, reminds us that ultimately we as a species do not run the whole show. Chaos brings us together, pushes us to rely upon each other in community and mutual support. Chaos means anything is possible: the good, the bad, everything.

Chaos is.  As a Pats fan I know this is true. The good news? There's another game next Sunday. Who knows what might happen?

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Fact: The World Is Warming. Opinion: It's Not Such a Big Deal!!

"They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace." --Jeremiah 6:14

I'm in the belief business, have been for almost thirty years as a teacher and a preacher of the Christian faith.  To believe: that is when you or I trust something as true, and in the religious realm, when we have faith in the veracity of a spiritual claim.  Like, say, the statement, "God exists". The thing to remember about this truth claim is that it always relies upon the sincere belief of an individual or a people or an institution and is not necessarily based in verifiable, scientific or provable fact. So I have good friends who are atheists or agnostics who wouldn't agree with my unshakeable belief that God does exist. I have Muslim, Jewish and Hindu neighbors who do not understand Jesus in the exact same way that I do.

And that's okay.

Because when it comes to certain kinds of belief, it is always more about faith than facts. More about mystery than mathematics. More about profound feelings than concrete scientific law.  Unlike, for example, what we as humans, or what our "leaders" might "believe" about something like, say, climate change. 

Last week a team of more than 300 researchers and scientists from thirteen federal agencies issued a report about where our nation stands vis a vis the effects of global warming. It includes comments from more than 1,000 participants in forty workshops held in cities around the country and was peer reviewed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Global Change Research Act of 1990 mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) issue this report to Congress and the President no less than every four years.

The news is not good. Highlights of the report include these facts: the earth's climate is changing faster than at any other time in recorded history and this most likely results from human activity. Average temperatures in the U.S. have increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit in just 100 years. Climate change could cut gross domestic product by 10 percent or two trillion dollars by 2100, losses comparable to the Great Depression.

News flash: I believe in the climate change described in that report, but not as a matter of faith. Not as an opinion. Not as a polemic or a political posture. I believe in climate change because I believe in the integrity of and I trust the overwhelming majority of scientists worldwide who conclude that global warming is real, is man made and is a dire threat to our existence as a species.

Too bad our Commander in Chief doesn't "believe" the report, nor so many other folks in the media and politics, who pushed back last week, labeling the study a fraud or false or somehow a conspiracy on the part of scientists who are all making this stuff up. Yup--that's what was said and I can't make that stuff up. So even though global warming is real, is a fact scientifically, some in power still refuse to believe this. This fact perhaps scares me even more than the increasing frequency of super storms or the reality that in mere decades, the Back Bay of Boston might become an actual bay again.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, absolutely; no one is entitled to their own scientific facts. I wish those who refuse to accept the reality of climate change would be honest about why they really so vehemently oppose the report's conclusions. To so many of them, profits always matter more than people and stockholders more than the environment. The earth is a human owned resource to be sucked dry and exploited for economic gain at any cost. And since we are still okay in this generation, what's the big deal? Let future generations deal with it.

In the story of Creation, when God finishes making the universe and the heavens and earth and all that is within it, God makes a beautiful and simple declaration. "God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31)  My faith tells me that this belief is indisputable. I believe the world is a very good place, is created perfectly, and is ours' for a home, but only if we are very careful and wise stewards of planet earth.

Fact: the world is warming. Fact: left unchecked this will eventually damage Creation beyond repair. Fact: if our leaders do nothing, we are going to be in very, very deep trouble, and very, very soon. 

And those facts? Not very good. No.  Not at all.        

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Creation Is Wild: We Pay A Price In Forgetting This Truth

 “There is a patience of the wild – dogged, tireless, persistent as life itself.”
--Jack London, "The Call of the Wild"

In the end, the wild in this world still wins sometimes. 

Mixed within Thanksgiving 2018 week news reports of how to cook a turkey just right or about Black Friday deals on flat screen TVs or heartwarming stories describing folks traveling thousands of miles to get home, there was an odd story. A tragic story. A wild story. The story of John Allen Chau.

Chau, a twenty six year old from Washington state, an apparently fervent Christian singularly devoted to spreading his faith to the wild places and wild peoples of this world, died in that effort on November 16th.  A month before he had traveled to the wildest of places, North Sentinel Island, an isolated spit of land in the middle of the Indian Ocean, hundreds of miles off the coat of India.  There live a Sentilese tribe of 50 to 100 people, who have intentionally isolated themselves from the rest of the world for thousands of years. The Indian government considers the island off limits to all outsiders and tries to protect it.  But Chau was not to be stopped from his "mission". 

For four weeks Chau repeatedly tried to land on the island, at one point (according to his diary) yelling to the inhabitants from his kayak in the waters offshore: “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you!”  He was attacked by spears thrown by the islanders, had his Bible pierced by a razor sharp arrow, and was repelled by the tribe, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone. Left in the wild. Left to themselves. Yet still Chau insisted, persisted and so the inevitable happened. Chau finally landed on the island and was killed, his body buried under the sands of that wild and mysterious place. Efforts to retrieve his remains have thus far failed.

As a Christian, the same faith as Chau's, what most strikes me about his death is what a waste of a life it is, what a product his demise is of naive arrogance found in the human idea that we can somehow tame all that is wild. Control all that which is ultimately out of our control.  Presume we "civilized" folks know best how other "wild" fellow human beings are supposed to live. Chau foolishly, tragically died, a victim of the wild.

Yes, the wild still has much power in our world in spite of what we humans might believe or imagine. Chau's death shows this truth. Yet in 2018 it is so easy to assume that the wild no longer has reign in Creation. 

Our world is more connected and interconnected than ever before, billions of us able to communicate with each other through one tap on a smart phone screen. Diseases that once ravaged this world in wild and frightening ways--smallpox, polio, malaria--have been eradicated through the work of modern science.  Travel has shrunk our world to hours spent on a jet plane, one day in Boston, the next in Senegal or Mongolia or Madagascar. 

The world has been tamed but so too this world is still untamed, a very, very wild place. Witness the California wildfires that ravage the coast and burn in spite of all we humans try to do to stop them. Witness climate change, born from the arrogance of humans who presume we can tame wild mother earth, recklessly use all of her resources and then not somehow pay the price for our avarice. Witness our shared lives, the countries we call home, the systems of global organization that seemingly unite our fractured global community. 

All it takes is a handful of wild leaders to destabilize world order.  So now the United States is singlehandedly beginning to dismantle the community of western nations created post World War II in the cause of peace. The forces of Brexit in Great Britain insist upon divorce from the European community even though such an action is likely to wreck the British economy. Wild despots reemerge as bullies on the world stage, like Putin in Russia.

The world is still a wild place. A very wild place. Even our God is forever wild, a God we too often insist upon taming through rigid orthodoxy, narrow religious belief, and the arrogant notion that our little tribe possesses God's truth, all others need not apply.

We as Christians, as a species and as children of God would be wise to remember this truth, the wildness in the very DNA of God and the stuff of Creation. To respect the wild places and wild peoples and wild nature. To have a bit of healthy and fear and true humility when it comes to how we engage and encounter the wild in this life.

Because sometimes, even in this twenty first century, the wild still wins.



Thursday, November 22, 2018

Deep Thanksgiving Begins In This One Miraculous Moment

"It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. All that was going on in life and we never noticed....Do any human beings realize life while they live it? Every...every minute?"           
 --Emily, from "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder

Last summer I undertook an unusual spiritual practice. I tried my best to pay attention, pay deep attention, to singular and sacred moments in time. Moments that came. Moments I lived. Moments I loved. Moments that ended, gone forever.

While training for my yearly Pan Mass Challenge, a long distance August charity bike ride for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, I took one photo of my bike every single time I went out for a ride. One snapshot for each journey, from early May until late August. One image of my bicycle posed in front of a landmark that embodied each journey, every single trip. At summer's end I had a photo service organize those thirty moments into a poster, to remind me what a great and fun and hard and adventurous and blessed time I had riding through my life in the summer of 2018. What a gift from God that time was, each and every minute, every second.

I wanted to realize that time somehow. To be awake and alive to it. To really remember it. To be grateful to God for it, and to say "Thank you!"

There's a photo of my bike on the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, snapped on a lovely spring morning ride with my 12 year old Goddaughter BJ. An image of my cycle leaning against an ancient player piano someone left by the side of the road in Natick on a hot July day.  On the scorching August Friday when I rode all the way to Rhode Island and back, there's a picture of my bicycle leaning against a road sign: "Entering Woonsocket". That was an epic trip! A snapshot of me at the end of the PMC shows me holding my bike high over my head in joy, a ride marked by driving rain the final 48 miles. Then one final photo, my bike leaning against a wooden fence, with the blue and white surf of Nantucket Sound in the background.

I wish I could say I was just as attentive to the rest of my life, to the more mundane and typical and routine moments too. Days like so many other days: when I arise in the morning and drink my coffee and go to work and write sermons and visit folks and eat meals and watch TV and then go to bed. Because even in the midst of those seemingly everyday days, a beautiful and miraculous life is still unfolding, if I 'd only realize it. If I'd only see, really see: the smile of my co-worker Jose who greets me each weekday morning with grace and care. Nature all around me: a bright yellow sunrise, gorgeous colorful leaves on the trees, or an unexpected November snowstorm blanketing the world.  How about hot coffee, smoky and delicious? Or the people who love me, the folks I love?   

I need to pay attention more to my one life. We need to pay attention more to this life, appreciate it, never take it for granted, especially as mortals, we who live lives that will not go on forever, that instead have an expiration date. So maybe the spiritual question for life is this clear and simple: are we paying attention to the divine and God given moments we live, we are given?  Really, really enjoy days and hours and minutes and seconds, being fully within that time. Time that comes. Time that goes, never to return. 

Here's a Thanksgiving Day challenge. When you sit down at your table, take a moment and look around, really look into, the faces of those gathered together and then dare to thank God or thank the universe for gifting you with that exact minute and those exact people. Savor the rich food: the smells, the tastes, the memories these evoke of holidays past.  Because this one day will be unlike any day that has ever happened before or will ever happen again.  Your precious son or daughter will grow up and go off to college. Your sometimes annoying cousin will one day not be able to make it back east for a visit. Even if the turkey is dry or the rolls are burnt or a political squabble breaks out, what a gift this time will be, all of it, every single tick of the clock. 

If only we would pay attention. Then we humans might actually realize life while we live it. Every...every moment.  Happy Thanksgiving.






Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Don't Give Up On Our Unkind World Yet: Instead Be Kind.

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
--The Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist Leader

True story. Last weekend my Aunt found herself in need of a little human kindness.  She'd driven into Boston to visit my Mom, her sister, who'd had surgery, but in Carol's rush into the city and then into the parking garage and then out of her car and then up to the room, somehow she'd lost her keys. She searched the room, the hallway, the elevator, the shuttle bus that had taken her to the hospital. No luck.

"Can I help you?" a man in green scrubs asked, as she looked through the elevator again.  On the edge of tears, she explained her dilemma. Downtown. Alone. Stranded. This person could have easily walked on by, gotten to where ever he was on his way to. Seen someone in distress but kept going.  But instead he said, "Let's look again." Then he walked with her down the stairs and into the cold dark garage, searching right along with her and then finally back to her car, where they discovered those keys, right there in the ignition where they'd been the whole time.

"Thank you!" she said, so grateful for his help. Seeing his attire Carol asked if he worked at the hospital. "I'm a surgeon," he answered. He was on his way home after a long day of operations from dawn 'til dusk. And then they parted: two human beings, connected by circumstance and now bound forever by one simple act of human kindness. One soul assisting another soul in need.  One stranger daring to ask another stranger: "Can I help?" 

If we were able to have a bird's eye view of the hospital on that chilly Friday night, we'd no doubt have witnessed a hundred, maybe even a thousand such acts of simple human kindness. A taxi driver helping a limping man outside the emergency room.  A gentle nurse taking the blood pressure of a scared little boy, soothing his fears with quiet words of reassurance.  A flower delivery person evoking a mile wide smile in a cancer patient.  The security guard who gave a car battery jump to help a couple from Oklahoma, in town to visit their daughter who was in a terrible car accident.

Each in their own way making this world a little kinder, a little softer, a little better, and a little more loving.  Each anonymous.  Each making a conscious choice to be the light in a world we too often might imagine is only shadow filled. Each having that rare gift of empathy, the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes and then in that imagining, responding with compassion.

It's tempting these days to see this world through the lens of cynicism, even despair, when it comes to the hope for simple human kindness. Our President regularly insults, demeans, bullies and verbally bludgeons anyone whom he perceives as an opponent and the crowd cheers for more.  Our nation has been rocked by acts of cruelty and violence perpetrated by sick souls who worship at the altar of hate.  Our press doesn't help: it almost gleefully reports upon such meanness of spirit and actions, 24/7, always looking for the next thing to shock us with and to drive up ratings.

But here's one truth I am absolutely sure of: there is much more kindness than cruelty in this world. There are many, many more folks willing to stop and to help than to walk on by in apathy. Most folks are, at their core, decent people, who try their best each day to be good neighbors and good citizens and good people.  We need to remember this, to have faith and then dare to believe that in the long arc of human history, kindness always wins. Always.   

That deep truth will not sell many newspapers. It will not appeal to the preachers who want to condemn this world in fear and anger or the politicians who exploit human cruelty for their own personal power. Kindness might be written off as weakness by the strong or as corny by the annoyingly ironic. Don't listen to those voices. Don't give in. Don't give up. 

Instead look for human kindness. Ask for kindness from others. Teach kindness in your religion and to your family and community, then live it, and take it out into your daily life. Kindness will always make your one life "great" in the truest sense. Kindness is a gift from God and a loving universe but it only works when we put it to work.

Someone this day needs your kindness. You can do it. Be kind.



Thursday, November 8, 2018

America's Epidemic of Violence and Hate: God Grant Us the Courage to Do SOMETHING

"No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them."   --Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, author of "Night"

"Are you...are you okay? Can I do anything?"

That was the only response I could think to offer my friend, a kind and funny and talented person who sings with me in my community choir. I asked because he's Jewish. Because just a week before, the most violent act of anti-Semitism in United States history happened:11 people killed at a massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue, all of them shot, and why? Because they were Jewish.

"Are you...are you okay? Can I do anything?"

I could have just as easily asked the same question of my African-American friends too, in light of the murder of two people of color at a Jeffersontown, Kentucky grocery store late last month. The killer in that tragedy first went to a predominantly black church to presumably murder folks in that house of worship, but finding it locked, he drove to a nearby Kroger's and opened fire.  Two folks cut down while shopping and why? Because they were African-American.

"Are you...are you okay? Can I do anything?"

I might ask those questions of my women friends after the killing of two female yoga students at a studio in Tallahassee, Florida last week. The man who wielded the gun in that crime had a long history of hating women, of posting misogynistic videos on YouTube, who as a college student was arrested twice on charges of violence against women.  Two people murdered and why?  Because they were women.  

What can I do? What can we do to fight such sick and evil hatred? To name and confront the sins of racism, of religious intolerance, of deadly sexism?  To stand with and for all in our world who are threatened with injury or death or hatred because of the God they worship, the color of their skin or their gender?

As Americans, as humans, as people of faith, we have to ask these questions. Have to move beyond the lazy and specious responses too many offer when such hate crimes happen.  The killer was just crazy, mentally ill, yeah...that's why he did it.  It was random, an anomaly. Such acts of terrorism are so rare they are a fluke somehow.  That's not really who America is, who we are, right? It's easy for me to offer such platitudes, me. Who never has to fear going out in public because of my race or religion or gender. Me: who's never been stared at in suspicion or fear or sick lust because of who I am. 

Can we do anything? Will we do anything?

Or will we just let these tragedies quickly fade away in the insane news cycle that is America in 2018? Just wait a couple of days. Something worse will happen. We live in times when it feels as if we are so overwhelmed by so many stories about so many vicious acts of human hatred that we become numb to it all.

That's no excuse for apathy. We must do something: as individuals, a nation and as children of God. Because here's the hard truth: until neighbors truly love all their neighbors; until we refuse to tolerate as "the norm" the -isms that separate us one from another; until we call out "leaders" who by their indifference and bullying ways fan the flames of bias, we are all a part of the problem.  All of us. By choosing to do nothing we allow the status quo of hate to continue.

Will we do anything? Or will we not?

As concentration camp survivor and German Pastor Martin Niemoller warned the world in 1933, "First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—        because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."