Tuesday, April 16, 2019

One Nation, With Liberty and Tax Responsibility For All

“The expenses of government, having for their object the interest of all, should be born by everyone, and the more a man enjoys the advantages of society, the more he ought to hold himself honored in contributing to those expenses.”    --Anne Robert Jacques Turgot

Tax Freedom Day. Tax Deadline Day. This year both of those days fell on the same date in Massachusetts: April 16th, 2019.  Tuesday.

Tax Freedom Day is a "holiday" invented by the Tax Foundation, an anti-tax Washington, D.C. based think tank and lobbying group. According to the foundation, April 16th was the day when Americans worked long enough in the year to have met their total tax bills. Tax Deadline Day is, of course, the day we Americans are supposed to file our state and federal taxes. This year it fell on the 16th because of the Patriots Day holiday in Massachusetts.

So in honor of these two competing days, let's consider some facts about Americans and taxes. The Tax Foundation reports that in 2019, Americans will pay $3.4 trillion in federal taxes and $1.2 trillion in state and local taxes, for a combined tax obligation of $5.2 trillion. That's 29 percent of the nation's income, a lot of money.

A lot to pay and so I do no victory dance as I walk into the post office each April to mail out my tax returns. Like most Americans I get frustrated with how the government can waste my tax dollars. Taxes take a good bite out of the pay I take home every week from the salary I earn as a minister. Taxes mean I have less to spend on the needs and wants of my life: food, shelter, health care, transportation, and entertainment. It would be easy for me to be automatically anti-tax like millions of my fellow citizens, like most Americans and the politicians who lead us. 

What legislator has the guts or chutzpah to get up in public and declare how much he or she love taxes? Not one I've ever seen. Give any pol the chance to rail against taxes and we will applaud them and then definitely vote for them. The fact that America was born out of a tax rebellion makes our anti-tax sentiment a part of our civic bones.

And yet, I still can't envision my life or our shared lives without taxes, can you?

Think about it: a tax free country. Yahoo!! Right? But what would America’s civic life be tax-less? No state or federal income taxes. No property taxes.  No sales taxes.  No gas tax. No Social Security payroll taxes or Medicare taxes or capitol gains taxes or inheritance taxes.  No obligation to financially contribute to the common good, a greater commonwealth, common defense for safety and security, a compassionate cushion for the old and the infirmed and the poor, equal opportunity for those who need an education.

Makes me wonder what my late Dad might have to say about this, he who was cared for by Medicare, earned his MBA through the GI Bill, and secured a low rate mortgage with the Veterans Administration?  Or my grandfather who lived in a federally subsidized senior housing complex and collected Social Security every month.  Or a single Mom friend of mine whose children were temporarily covered by Mass Health after a messy and costly divorce.  Or the developmentally disabled young man who bags my groceries and lives in a state funded group home. Or even me, who enjoyed a world class education at the University of Massachusetts, supported by my fellow Massachusetts taxpayers. Thank you, by the way!

Call me wacky or a socialist or even un-American but I truly believe that paying taxes is in fact patriotic. As citizens it is our duty, like voting or serving in the military when and if the call goes out. Taxes remind us we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves: a town or city, a state, a nation and some of the price we pay for this is paying our fair share of taxes.      

Taxes remind me of the most basic lesson I learn in my religious faith.  By living in a community I have an ethical and moral obligation to give up some of what I have to ensure that others might not go without.  Who I am as a relatively wealthy person makes me directly responsible to care for the least of these, my brothers and sisters. This is what paying taxes means to me.

Tax Freedom Day or Tax Responsibility Day? A taxing choice to be sure.

What will it be?     

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Encourage Just One Soul Today. You Can Do It!

"Instruction does much, but encouragement does everything." --Johann von Goethe, author

"Knock their socks off John!" 

Thirty years ago this month I was about to set off on a road trip for my very first job interview. Graduate school was ending. The real world and my future called and boy: was I scared, gripped by anxiety. Sweaty palms. Racing heart. Did I have the right stuff? Would I come across as a confident candidate or a nervous neophyte?  Or maybe get lost in those pre-GPS days as I drove 110 miles west to the far away land of suburban Connecticut?

Could I do this? All I needed was just a little encouragement.

Not more instruction. My textbook days were over. Not a critique about how my suit was too wrinkled or my tie too loud.  Not unsolicited advice from a wizened elder who supposed they knew a thing or two. I just wanted someone to remind me that I could do it, that I had the talent within me and all I needed was to remember this.

Then an old friend and mentor, Sandy, leaned into my car and said words that have stuck with me, even now, three decades later.  "You are going to be great. You are ready. Knock their socks off, John!" And then I did! Nailed that interview. Got that job, my first in my thirty years as a pastor. I'll never forget what a difference her belief in me, made. She made me believe in me. She gave me courage.

That's what "encourage" means: to give heart.  To remind someone than they are always so much more than they might imagine. That they actually do have the right stuff.  All that is needed is for a fellow soul to speak encouraging words, to love another so much that we want the best for them. It is amazing what a difference just a little encouragement makes in the life of a fellow child of God, in my life, in your life too, I'll bet. It is amazing to consider what happens when a child of God lacks for someone to encourage them, or worse, is surrounded by folks who tear down or put down or dis-courage.

I re-learned this life truth last weekend when I was blessed to be a judge in a local student film festival sponsored by a community arts center.  Forty teams of budding high
school film students submitted short films. It was my job, along with fellow judges, to watch all those movies and then offer opinions about which films deserved to be honored.  The best part of the festivities came after all the awards, as young people mingled in a post-festival reception. There were smiles and laughter but most of all, a palpable atmosphere of young artists ready to soar, needing only one thing. 


A kind word.  An engaged conversation. An adult to take the time and let them know that they just might be the next Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg. Who knows?!  There is nothing like watching a person's face light up with joy and confidence when all you've done is offer encouragement. Like how you were encouraged once: when you thought you could not get that job or hit that baseball or ask that person out for a date or publish that story or become who God made you to be. But then someone gave you courage and...you did it. YOU DID IT!

I know this spiritual advice seems so obvious, so simple, so clear.  But in our far too often cold and even cruel world, a world forever focused on results and winning at the detriment of participation and effort, encouragement can get lost and forgotten as a virtue. By youth coaches who berate and yell at the kids, believe a win on the field at all costs is actually more important that nurturing young souls. By politicians who rip folks to shreds on social media and gleefully encourage followers to tear apart anyone who gets in the way. Even by religions that worry far too much about "sin" and condemning the "sinner" and far too little about the essential God given goodness within each of us, within all of us. 

If only we would take the time to offer encouragement: what a better world it would be.

So this week: encourage someone. Just one soul. A son or daughter or grandchild or spouse. A player on a team you coach or a new employee at the office or a struggling friend who needs one other person to care. Encouragement is so easy. It is free of charge. It is always heart shaping. Someone once encouraged you. Remember?

Now go and do likewise. You can do it!

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Real College Admissions Scandal? Higher Education For the Highest Bidder.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” ― W.B. Yeats

To make a living? To make a life?

Those are the questions I keep returning to as I've read with increasing sadness about the college admissions scandal revealed last month by federal officials right here in Boston. Prosecutors charge that fifty wealthy and privileged parents used bribes, totaling more than $25 million, to get their sons and daughters admitted into the "best" colleges and universities. Ethics and legalities be damned. Buy off a coach to put your kid on a team even though she never actually played the sport. Pay off a cheating adult to take a test for "junior" so he won't have to actually make the grade himself.  Above all do whatever you have to do to ensure that your kid is "in". 

Rules? Laws? Those are for other folks, I guess.   

What bothers me most about this episode is not the shamelessness of these Moms and Dads, college employees and college counselors who carried out this alleged fraud. No, what really depresses me is the transactional nature of the crimes. Pay enough money and you can buy anything, even a "perfect" future for your kid. Come up with the bucks and your child gets a pedigreed (emphasis on greed) sheepskin, that in just four years will open every single door to the "good life".

It's all about the cash, not the classes. Education is thus reduced to dollars and cents, economics, and the bottom line. Getting your money's worth. The final assumption is that the better your school the more money you will make thus ensuring you get to live a "successful" life. Checkbook learning. 


But God help us all if that is the ultimate the goal of higher education. Granted, we all have to learn how to make a living, make enough money to support ourselves, to pay the bills, to live. Yet the best education is always about so much more.  Education is about shaping young hearts, souls and minds, an exciting journey for the young as they work to figure just what their unique God given gifts, talents and strengths finally are.

Who are they made to be and to become? What are their passions? What matters most to them? The best education exposes a person to different ideas, asks them to engage those ideas and wrestle with them and then draw their own conclusions. To think for themselves. A great education opens the young, and all of us, to a world far beyond our upbringings and introduces us to a diversity of people and experiences. This isn't Kansas anymore nor is it supposed to be! 

Education as transaction or education as discovery? To make a living or to make a life? What will it be?

How we answer those questions as parents and citizens and folks who care deeply about our children: it matters. It's not just the future that's at stake. It's the future hopes and dreams of our sons and daughters too.

It's not an easy time to be a college student or college bound or college hopeful.  Young folks and parents are going more deeply into debt than ever before to attain education.  What were once research and education oriented places of higher education are now too often sharp elbowed players in a multi-billion dollar highly competitive business. Colleges close as the pool of applicants shrink.  Foreign students coming to the United States to learn make it harder and harder for U.S. young people to secure a place at the school of their choice. It's not hard to see why so many children and parents feel under so much pressure when it comes to picking a college or university.

My hope is that even in this highly charged atmosphere we won't ever lose sight of the greatest gift of all that comes from increasing our knowledge and wisdom as human beings.  Growth. To grow up into the persons we are meant to be and made to be.  Philosophers and writers. Engineers and artists.  Doctors and craftspeople.  Managers and parents.  Farmers and factory workers. Soldiers and first responders.

When it comes to the education of our children as they discover life calls and life paths: these can't ever be bought, not with all the money in the world.  Our sons and daughters must make this discovery for themselves. 

Let this be the lesson we all learn in the classroom called human life.





Monday, March 25, 2019

Don't Worry. Be Reasonably Happy.

"Be happy while you are living, for you are a long time dead."    --Scottish proverb

Eighteenth out of 157 countries.  Really? Is that the best we can do America? Apparently, yes--at least this year, at least when it comes to happiness. 

Last week the United Nations released their annual "Worldwide Happiness Report", an annual survey of 157 nations. Folks are asked to rank their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10: the best life being a ten, the worst a zero. Upwards of 3,000 people participate from each nation and are also asked to rank their overall happiness with the basic parts of life all humans share: business and economics, citizen engagement, communications and technology, diversity, education and family life, emotional well-being, the environment, food and shelter, government and politics, law and order and safety, health, religion and ethics, transportation, and work.

Hand it to Finland and the Finns, our friends 4,000 miles across the Atlantic, who were number 1 again this year. Since the report was first issued in 2012, they've consistently been in the top rankings, along with their Scandinavian neighbors Denmark and Sweden as well as the Netherlands and Iceland. Those countries all share the distinction of being among the most generous communities when it comes to government promising to provide the basics in life: housing, food, education, child care, health care and employment. True, Scandinavians also pay the highest taxes in the world but apparently that trade off is acceptable for them not having to worry so much about the things so many of us as Americans certainly angst about.  Can I make enough money to support my family?  Rent or buy an affordable house or apartment? Will I have health insurance? Can I afford to send my child to college?  If I lose my job, how will I get by?

So one conclusion is clear: the higher the level of economic and life security for a person, the happier they will be, which is kind of a no-brainer if we think about it.  If you spend all your time scrambling for things like food and shelter or just scrape by each day, barely making ends meet, stress gets very high and then of course, unhappiness follows.

Not that more money alone can buy happiness.  A widely cited recent report in the journal Nature Human Behavior, based upon interviews with 1.7 million people in 164 countries, concluded that the happiness of people actually peaks and then levels out at about the $60,000 level, which leads to another conclusion. Happiness is also found in the intangibles of this life.  Like love and the depth and quality of our closest relationships. Having work that matters and gives us a purpose.  Feeling safe where we live.  Trusting the people whom we empower to govern us. Having a vision that life can and will get better. Claiming a faith in a power greater than ourselves and drawing comfort from that belief.

The thing I love most about the yearly happiness report is that it challenges us as individuals and communities to ask ourselves: are we happy and if so, why? And if not, why not?  As a person of faith these questions remind me of a wonderful phrase from a familiar prayer, one of the most recognized prayers in all the world, "The Serenity Prayer", written by Reinhold Niebuhr, as in "God grant me the serenity...."  The long version of this prayer, not often cited, prays for this one simple hope: "that I may be reasonably happy in this life." 

Imagine that--being reasonably happy and being happy with that. Not always trying to be amazingly happy, or blissfully happy, or home run happy.  How about "a single up the middle" happy? Or "it's a beautiful sunrise this morning" happy?  Or "my kid brought me a wonderful crayon drawing from school today" happy? Or "I made one other person feel loved" kind of happy? Or "I served another and made the world a better place" happy?

Yes, we do need money to be happy. Nothing wrong with admitting to that truth. Yes, we also need love and security and work and good health to be happy too. But what would it mean for us to also pray for "reasonable happiness"? To temper our sometimes overblown expectations about being happy and instead try and live a life of gratitude for all the God-given gifts of life, the small miracles of life. The grace-filled moments of life. The day to day ways our hearts are touched and our souls are filled as we make our way through each sacred 24 hours?

Might that make us happy too?

So here is a charge for each of us as we go out into our day and our lives. May we seek to be reasonably happy. Pray for it. Look for it. Live it. Then maybe next year we can move up from 18th place.


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Hate Speech Online:Technology Is Not The Problem. We Are.

"There are no morals about technology..... Technology expands our ways of thinking about things...doing things. If we're bad people we use technology for bad purposes and if we're good people we use it for good purposes."   --Herbert A. Simon, American economist

It's hard to imagine there might be anything more shocking than the massacre last week at two mosques in New Zealand that took the lives of fifty innocent people, the youngest victim just four years old. All those faithful folks murdered in their houses of worship. The fact the attack was carried out by a self avowed white supremacist acting alone: it chills me. Makes me worry that it could happen anywhere, any place, anytime.

But what really shocked me even more so than the act itself, was how a small minority of folks on the internet responded to the attack, which the shooter live streamed on Facebook. With a tiny camera attached to his headgear, that person broadcast to much of the wired world, his evil actions. Second by second, minute by minute, in real time, for millions to view, if they so chose.

Chose to look. Decided to watch. Stared at their screens. Vicariously participated in a way.  But who would do such a thing? View and spread such vile and obscene imagery?

Try at least a million and a half Facebook users. That's the number of folks who as the attack unfolded and immediately afterwards, tried to upload the video onto the wider internet and share it with the rest of the world. Within minutes of the attack's conclusion you could find raw footage on YouTube and Instagram and Snapchat, social media platforms that make such sharing as easy as a few clicks of a mouse.

Who has the heart or the soul to do such a thing?  To spread such hate, disrespect and rejection of basic moral and human decency? The shooting is unfathomable but so too, for me as a human being and child of God, is the fact that it became fodder, even "entertainment" for a small group of people lurking in the hidden shadows of our cyber world--it sickens me. It makes me despair to think there are folks who actually watched the video, who still search the internet for a glimpse.

And so the angry calls by citizens and politicians for tech giants like Google and Facebook to suppress such online hate rise up. We demand they clean up the internet. Police it so that such abhorrent material--and other shocking online images and words--be completely erased. 

Several years ago, Daniel Quinn, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped by ISIS and in 2014 he was executed on camera. I remember thinking then I would never, ever watch such a video. But an internet search even now still turns up hundreds of similar videos. 

The truth is that no matter how hard tech companies try, they will never, ever be able to suppress completely such awful and subhuman images.  They will never be able to censor all the online hate speech in bulletin boards and on Twitter feeds.  Never be fully successful in ridding our cyber world of the more ugly and more sinful reflections of human behavior. Even in places like China and Iran, nations that work in partnership with high tech to limit access to the internet, stuff still gets through.

The hard reality of the technology laden world we live within now is that the problem is not technology alone.  The problem is also human beings. Us. Technology is finally just a tool, an amoral container within which all the very best and the very worst of humanity is on display for all the world to see, us to see, when we decide to look. Or to look away.  Our cyber world is a reflection of humanity, the heights of goodness to which we can aspire and the depths of depravity to which we might stoop. Everything in between too. Cat videos and car crashes. Instant amazing news and fake news. PhD level information and pornography. Live streamed violence and live streamed family reunions.

The genie is out of the bottle. No going back.  

What we can control (or at least try our best to control) is how we live in this wild wired world. We do have the ultimate power to self edit and self censor. To put down our phones. To close up our computers. To be vigilant about where we travel and what we see and read (and what our kids experience) out there on the internet. We can choose not to participate in Twitter hate wars or to follow anonymous hateful trolls or to visit the seedier corners of cyberspace. But still, God help us all.

For when it comes to our brave new world and the question of whether or not to watch? 

That is up to us.         



Monday, March 11, 2019

Beware the Scourge of SOCIALISM In America! Really?!

"Americans shirk the word 'socialism', but what else can one call it?" --H.G. Wells

I talked to my Mom about her doctor's appointment and was so relieved she did not have to pay for that medical care. I took a 763 mile road trip to Columbus, Ohio on Interstate 90, a beautiful stretch of road. Thank goodness I did not have to take a slow local route for my journey. My friend serves in the Coast Guard. I am in awe of his service and commitment to guarding America's borders. I'm a proud graduate of the University of Massachusetts. The reduced costs of state funded schools got me to college. I live in a town that has the top rated public schools in the state. Anyone who moves here can attend for free. I sometimes visit a local county run prison and help lead a gathering on substance abuse and recovery. I pray these men might one day be free and clean and sober. I love and support all of these government programs.

Does that make me a socialist?

Is a socialist one who believes that certain functions are best overseen and run by the government?  Functions that benefit the many, that if the government did not undertake these, no one would. Collecting taxes from the citizenry to fund communal services.  Health care for everyone over the age of 65 and for the poor. Food subsidies for folks who need help to feed themselves or their families. Prisons that house criminals and at their best seek to rehabilitate a person. Public schools that try to guarantee equal access to a good education for all. The military, the biggest part of our federal budget by far, called to defend our nation and fight to keep us and others free. I passionately believe in all of these things as a person of faith and as an American.

Does that make me a socialist?

I ask this because a new election cycle is beginning and yes, I'm just as depressed about that as you are. Candidates fall all over themselves to promise everything and anything. Medicare for all! Break up Facebook and Google! On the other side incumbents use red herrings like the threat of SOCIALISM, to rile up their base and scare the hell out of the rest of the country. This pseudo debate about SOCIALISM is cranking up to eleven in the media. It just may be the central point of contention as 2020 looms.

What's not said is that SOCIALISM, at least in a hybrid form, is already how we do some things in the United States. But nuance is never rewarded in politics. Instead hyperbolic claims like the false enemy or false savior called SOCIALISM is how we do elections. And yes, I promise I will eventually stop writing SOCIALISM in all caps.   

Does government always get it right? No. Like any institution, government wastes money and burdens some with bureaucracy and onerous regulation. Government is made up of fallible human beings, after all, like you and me.

But neither does the private sector always get it right. Drug companies can gouge sick people with outrageous charges for medicines and treatments. Think Mylan, a company that raised the cost of an EpiPen from $50 to $600 and then made a billion dollars. Certain companies don't offer decent health care insurance to employees thus forcing the government to pick up that cost. Think Wal-Mart. Banks have acted recklessly, played fast and loose with depositor's money and put the whole economy at risk.  Think 2008. The private realm is made up fallible human beings, after all, like you and me.          

Here's my witness. I want and need my government to do some things, no question. I want Uncle Sam and Beacon Hill to continue to try and provide health care for as many people as possible. To provide a social safety net for the poorest and the sickest and the oldest of Americans. To build roads and bridges and infrastructure that are safe and efficient. To teach children and youth and young adults for free, to ensure all have a chance at the American dream through the gift of public schools.

I believe in this as an American and as a person of faith. Does that make me a "socialist"?
Well then, I suppose, if we collect Social Security or use Medicare and or go to public schools or drive the Mass Pike or serve in the armed forces, we all get to wear that label.

SOCIALISM! Couldn't help myself.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

One Year After Parkland: And Youth Shall Show Us the Way of Peace and Justice

“The secret message communicated to most young people...is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they — at some distant point in the future — will take over the reigns. [But] society is not running itself nicely…the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties."   --Alvin Toffler, American writer and futurist

One year ago this week, our country was reeling from the latest school shooting, a literal Valentine's Day massacre at the Marjorie Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida. The toll: seventeen students and staff members dead. Seventeen injured. Communities traumatized. Families broken and mourning. Parents around the nation once again wondering about the fate of their children as they send them off to class. 


But then something different happened in the days post Parkland. Unlike after other mass shootings that most often inspired and still inspire lots of vapid "thoughts and prayers" offered by shallow politicians and spineless legislators in the grip of the National Rifle Association, this time the youth, the teens most deeply hurt by this disaster: they decided to act. To get angry. To do something. To do anything. To work to pass laws that would push back against the "normalcy" of kids getting killed for the simple reason that they went to school one day.

Young people from Parkland spoke up and spoke out. Made the rounds on the TV news shows. Called out the hypocrisy of "adults" who claimed to have the best interests of young people in mind but who refused and still refuse to do anything that might disturb the gun lobby that owns Washington, D.C., lock, stock and barrel, from the Oval Office on down.  The Parkland youth organized huge national protests that spawned thousands of local protests and walkout at high schools around the nation.

And guess what? The youth won. Not completely. There is still much to be done to curb gun violence in the United States, but this time young people showed us the way.  

According to a February 13th United Press International story, "The movement after Parkland inspired 27 state legislatures to pass 67 gun-control laws, the most in a single year since the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012."  Then just last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a universal comprehensive background check bill, closing a huge loophole in federal law.  While no one law can ensure that folks who should not have guns will not get guns, HR8 makes important progress. 

Yes, the U.S. Senate probably won't even take the bill up for a vote and yes, the White House has already come out strongly against the bill, but its passage is the most significant new gun control legislation in more than a generation. And youth led us. Not high paid lobbyists. Not feckless representatives. Not sound bite media folks.  Not the so-called adults in the room. It was young people.

These days, really all days, adults like to paint a cliché image of youth.  You know, as oh so self involved. In love with their phones and social media and unplugged from current events. Or if youth are politically active, they are much too naive to actually understand how the "real" world works. Condescending elders pat young people on the head and thank them for their ideas and then those same seniors go back to the dangerous and necrotic world of the status quo.  Of politics being about more self preservation and re-election and not so much about courage or protecting the innocent or actually making a difference for the common good.

I've been blessed to be a pastor and teacher to youth for more than thirty years, spent thousands of hours at Sunday night church youth groups and summer church camps and teaching young people in religious education. I would not trade those experiences and community for anything.  Because it has pushed me to open my ears and my heart and my mind, to really listen to and respect the ideals of youth. It makes me recall when as a youth, I was on fire for change. I dreamed of making this world a better place. I refused to accept things as they were just because someone with gray hair told me so.


So one year later: thank you to the young people who showed and show us the way.  Who won't give up.  Who have the energy of being young and filled with hope.  As the preacher Tony Campolo once said, "We are as old as our cynicism and we are as young as our dreams."

Dream on, youth. Dream on.