Monday, December 11, 2017

To Gain the World But Lose Your Soul: What Will It Be?

"What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" --Matthew 16:26

In the best of all worlds, as a citizen, if you were asked to vote for a person to represent you in the United States Senate, who had been accused by multiple women of sexually preying upon them as teenagers, you'd vote "No". 


In the best of all worlds, if you were a person of deep faith and a voter, you'd definitely reject that candidate, for clear and obvious moral reasons. 


In the best of all worlds, that candidate wouldn't just be shunned by the voters but by his political allies too, from the top leader of the party on down, because who in good conscience could support the candidacy of such a person, even if to do so means one more vote for your side in the Senate. 


But we don't live in the best of all worlds in these strange days, and so this week there is a good chance that voters in Alabama will elect Roy Moore to a six year term to the United States Senate, one of the most powerful deliberative bodies in the free world.

The race is tight and it still might go the other way and yet: it raises a much larger moral question, one as old as the ages, as human life itself. Just how far are we as humans willing to go to get what we want or desire in this life, regardless of the moral costs or implications, regardless of what our faith says is right or wrong, or what society declares is good or bad? 

Or as an ancient scripture writer says more poetically: what does it profit a person to gain the world but lose their soul in the process? To "win", but in winning, to give up or set aside any sense of morality, in order to secure a victory or achievement or goal or profit or power?

It's a classic moral quandary, one each of us faces every single day from the youngest of ages. To cheat on a test and get an "A" or admit you didn't study and just take your well deserved "C"?  To fudge the figures on your income taxes and save a few bucks or just buck it up and pay your legal and right fair share?  To go back into the store when you realize the clerk gave you too much money in change, or just pocket the windfall and walk away?

Countries and institutions face this moral test as well.  What is more important: loyalty to partisan politics and party or a commitment to what is best for the country as a whole, the common good? In business: what is the bottom line? The people who work for a company or the profits that shareholders demand?  In sports: does a team compete fairly and squarely on a level playing field or pop a few pills and secure the gold medals?

In the best of all worlds, humans and those we depend upon for leadership: we will do the right thing, even, especially when the struggle for the soul is greatest. The right thing. The honorable thing. The good thing. The noble thing. The decent thing. We will follow the moral lessons we learned in the faith tradition we grew up in, or around the dinner table in the family we called home, or just listen to that still small moral voice from within.

But we do not live in the best of all worlds. We live in a far too often morally ambiguous world, where unfettered freedom and moral responsibility constantly compete for our loyalty.

And so day by day, year by year, we each face the choice: what are we willing to do, or not do, to "gain the world"? We make those decisions as citizens and neighbors, spouses and parents, folks who believe in God and those who do not, CEOs and workers, all of us.  The collection of all those moral choices finally make us who we are: as individuals and communities and as a country. 

We are the sum of our moral decisions.

What does it profit a person to gain the world but lose their soul?  That is the question.



Monday, December 4, 2017


"It's the most wonderful time of the year!
With the kids jingle belling, And everyone telling you be of good cheer
There'll be much mistltoeing, And hearts will be glowing
When love ones are near, 
It's the most wonderful time of the year!*
*(Some restrictions may apply)
--sung most famously by Andy Williams

His name was Larry and he helped me run a church high school youth group many years ago. As a longtime recovering alcoholic, he knew the struggles teens faced. With good humor and real life experience, he witnessed with his one sober life about being grateful one day at a time, having faith, and humility. The kids so loved and respected him.

But each year come early December, Larry's mood would darken, even as everything him around him lit up with all the trappings and bright glow of the season. Twinkling lights and packed shopping malls and festive Christmas parties and unending TV commercials: all proclaiming just how HAPPY EVERYONE IS SUPPOSED TO BE come this twelfth month.  Because....


Until...well, the most wonderful time of the year maybe isn't so wonderful. If, like Larry, the holidays are tough to face, for whatever reason. December was hard for Larry because that was when he gave up drinking. With all the partying around him, he felt like the odd man out, a glass of ginger ale in hand. A single Dad, he also had to work as a tug boat captain on Christmas Eve, far away from his daughter.

Yes, absolutely, the holidays can be and are wonderful. I am "Mr. Christmas" with the best of them! Joyfully hanging my oversized LED twinkling snowflakes and stars from the trees in my front yard. Drinking eggnog 'til my belly pops.  Getting all teary eyed singing "Silent Night" in the candle-lit glow of a hushed church.  Immersing myself in my faith tradition, awaiting a sacred birth.

But yes, the holidays can be hard, too, for folks like Larry. Facing a first holiday without a loved one sitting at the Christmas dinner table. Or being in recovery and fighting the urge to drink or drug while all around you raise a glass.  Sitting in prison or a nursing home alone, wondering if anyone remembers you.  Being poor and watching as the culture buries itself in buying while you struggle to just feed and clothe your children. 

Holidays are happy. Holidays are hard.

Those are the contradictory truths our culture doesn't much like to think about in these days leading up to the 25th and the week after. Holidays are a mixed gift. So intense. So packed into so short a time. This month intensifies our feelings and emotions and memories, for good, for ill, but always for sure.

So my spiritual advice is this: whether you are flying high into the holidays or stumbling low, do for others this month. Reach out. Make your holidays into holy days. I've learned that whatever my life situation, when I share some love, when I get out of myself and help someone else, I always "lighten" up.  Feel better. Have hope, even when it is dark.   

The holiday gift is that opportunities for service to others abound in December. Return to your own faith community: guaranteed they've got a holiday job for you! Connect or reconnect with the "Larrys" in your life, folks often forgotten this time of year.  Invite a stranger to your holiday table. Go non-alcoholic at your open house to make it comfortable for every guest. Reconcile with someone you need to forgive or one whose forgiveness you need.  Visit someone in prison. Take that year end bonus and give it all away to charity. 

Wouldn't that be wonderful?

And Larry? On a December 24th evening long ago, he opened a wrapped gift, tucked away in his tug boat. The kids and I gave it to him, making him promise not to unwrap the box until that silent night. Within it was a new warm wool sweater and a card signed by every member of the youth group.  "WE LOVE YOU LARRY! MERRY CHRISTMAS!!", it read.                       

The most wonderful time of the year...may we make it so.


Monday, November 27, 2017

The Unexamined Holiday: Why Are You Celebrating This Season?

"The unexamined life is not worth living."      --Socrates, Greek philosopher

And so the holidays, the holy days, Christmas days, Hanukkah evenings, Kwanzaa, the whole season, operation Santa Claus has begun, now 'til January 1, 2018. But first a story....   
There once was a man who served a delicious ham for his family every Christmas Day dinner.  But before he’d cook that roast, he always unwrapped it, cut it exactly in half, then placed those two pieces in two pans in the oven. One year his wife asked, “Hon...why two pieces? Why not just cook it whole.” The husband said, “You know...I’m not really sure—that’s just how my Mom always did it, so that's what I do.” So he called his mother and asked, “Why do you cut the Christmas ham in two before you cook it?” and she replied, “Actually I have no idea. That’s just how Grandma did it so that’s how I do it--you might ask her.” And so he phoned his grandmother. “Nana; why do you always cook the ham in two pans for Christmas?  Is it a secret family recipe? Does it make it taste better? Is there some religious significance to it?” She laughed. “No!! One Christmas many years ago I bought a ham that was too big for one pan so I just cut it in half and put it in two small pans. You aren’t still cooking it that way, are you!?”

Funny how we humans so often forget to ask "Why?" when it comes to this life.  As in: "Why am I still doing 'it' this way?"  Funny how we can so easily continue to just do, what we do, because, well, that's what we've always done, and so, that is what we will still do.   Like the holidays.  So we "do" Christmas this way or that way because...well...wait.  When is the last time you or I really thought about this seemingly obvious but rarely if ever asked question?

Why do we "do" the holidays?

Why all the shopping and cooking and buying and partying and overeating and traveling and listing and worrying and singing and praying and hoping and believing and consuming and charging and mailing and decorating and baking and cleaning and finally collapsing?!

Is it about all the stuff?  The purchasing and giving and receiving of things, material items, goods and services?  I wonder.  That does seem to be a huge focus of these holidays.  By the end of December, Americans will spend on average $967.13, collectively $682 billion, for holiday purchases in 2017.  Connect that whopping figure to the flood of advertising in the media and packed mall parking lots and it would be easy to conclude that we do holidays mainly to get and to give.   Maybe that's why.

Is it all about the things to do, the crush of the calendar?  The office parties and the neighborhood shindigs and Yankee Swaps and the holiday lunches and brunches, the way our schedules fill to overflowing at years' end? I wonder.  I know I am busier in December than in any other month, with both work and play and family.   It is a lot of fun to see old friends and party, but boy, there is so, so much to get to and to do.  I never have enough time to do it all. Holidays are always about hurrying.  Maybe that's why.

Or is it about something deeper somehow? Something primordial, spiritual, even mystical?  I wonder.  As the light fades and we enter into the darkest time of the year in this part of the world, and the air chills, there stirs within us a desire for something beyond ourselves to break forth in Creation. To bring us hope. To embody a dream of peace on earth and goodwill to all people. To move us to reunite with loved ones, even reconcile with those we have been lost to or from.  To give not just to those who have much but also to those who have little. To return to a faith tradition.  Holidays then become holy days.  Maybe that's why.            

Why the holidays?

Only you can ask and answer that query if you choose to do so. Only you can encourage your loved ones to ponder that mystery. The holiday extravaganza and machine just keeps on rolling on: of that we can be absolutely sure.  So go ahead. I dare you. Ask, "Why?"  The answer you seek and find may be the best gift you receive this December.



Monday, November 20, 2017

The Amazing Grace Of True Thanksgving

Thanksgiving (noun) 1. The act of rendering thanks or of expressing gratitude for favors, benefits, or mercies; an acknowledgment of benefits received  2. Thanks to God
--Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

I wasn't entitled to it. Didn't deserve it. Didn't ask for it.  Certainly did not expect it, a free, no strings attached gift, graciously given to me on a recent chilly November afternoon at a local Dunkin' Donuts, by an overworked and harried clerk, a sugar powder covered teenager. He was trying his best to serve way too many customers in the after work rush. I was the only customer inside the store. He faced a line ten deep at the drive-thru window.  

I waited five minutes or so and finally he turned to me, took my order, made it hot and fresh and then gave me a prize fit for kings, a gratis giveaway.  One medium cup of decaf coffee, one cream, one sugar, to go. He quickly turned back to serve the next person.

"But much do I owe you?" I asked, taking money out of my pocket.

"Nothing," he replied, and smiled.  "No charge." And then he returned to his underpaid and no doubt sometimes frustrating job of dealing with harried soccer Dads rushing to practice and tired lawyer Moms on the way home, all just needing a cup of java and as I watched, he served each of those folks with care and patience too.

And boy, that was a darn good cup of coffee. 

Just one instance of many times during that day when I received gifts unexpected, the universe, God, karma. From whatever, whomever we might choose to name as the giver of those serendipituous moments in life when are gifted.  When we receive gifts. When we are blessed with blessings, benefits, mercies; times we feel the grace of being the beneficiary of some thing, some act of kindness we know we don't deserve or expect or feel entitled to and yet... there it is. 

Like a free cup of coffee.

Or an extra tight hug from an excited grandchild when we walk in the front door on Thanksgiving.  A phone call from a friend who knows we've been sick and just wants to check in to see if we are okay and need anything.  A hymn at church that makes our eyes well up with tears even though we've sung it a thousand times.  The twinkle of a sunbeam as it catches the last leave on a threadbare autumn tree.  A Thanksgiving table filled with piles of fresh delicious food, as we are surrounded by old friends and cherished family for one more year. 

There's an old hymn which proclaims, "All good gifts around us, are sent from heaven above.  Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord.  I really want to thank the Lord."  This week when we gather to feast upon our Thanksgiving meals, most of us will give some kind of thanks. Say some manner of grace or prayers. This third Thursday in November is that rarest of times in our culture. We are actually asked, expected, as a people and human beings, to think about all of the good gifts around us and then to just say, "Thank you."

Some of us will thank God, believing that God is the source of all things in this life, that all of life is a gift, and so gratitude to the One who bestows it upon us each day is good and right.  Some of us will thank the host or hostess who worked so hard, or be thankful for the hands of the laborers who grew and raised all that abundant food.  Some of us will say "thank you" to an unknown God, not quite sure to whom or to what to pray to or for, but somehow aware that some power greater than us must be at work in this crazy and beautiful world.

But always we have the opportunity to see this thanksgiving as one offered in pure gratitude for the gift of life.  To see all of existence as a miracle, to remember what a wonder it is to get out of bed and take a deep breath and give love and be loved and do work that matters and do good for others and then at day's end go to bed, trusting that perhaps we've actually made our little corner of Creation a bit better.

Thank you.  

And so this week may we be inspired to give and offer sincere thanksgivings, and perhaps because a thoughtful stranger did something nice for us, like give us the gift of a free cup of coffee.  Or because we have a table to call home this week.  Or just because...we are still here.   Alive. Not because we earned it.  Deserve it. Worked for it.  Are entitled to it. No quid pro quo.  Just grace. 

Happy Thanksgiving.     

Monday, November 13, 2017

One Is The Loneliest Number: Smartphones And Our Lost Generation of Kids

Disrupt (verb) 1. to cause disorder or turmoil; to radically change; to destroy

When did the world shift? When did the world turn on its axis, never, ever to be the same again?  When did life, as we know it, change forever?

When you are standing in the middle of history in the making, it's almost impossible to make such judgments. No one would have predicted on October 31st, 1517, that the act of the German monk Martin Luther would so disrupt his world.  He nailed a list of 95 complaints to the door of a local house of worship. Within a generation, a 1,500 year old way of life collapsed. Kingdoms fell, revolutions rose, wars raged and the cry for soul freedom was given voice.

All because of one event.

Who could have have predicted that the failed political coup of an unemployed house painter named Adolf Hitler on November 8, 1923 would one day lead to the most deadly conflagration of the twentieth century? That the defiant act of a tired housekeeper named Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus on December 1, 1955, would give birth to the civil rights movement?  Who could have predicted that June 29th, 2007 was another such disruptive day in human history?   

That's the first day the very first Apple I-Phone was sold.  Hard to fathom it was only a little more than ten years ago, barely a blip from a history perspective, that the first true consumer friendly smartphone was available for purchase.  Just one decade later, in 2017, 1,000,000,000 I-Phones are in the hands of users from the Antarctic to Zimbabwe.  More than 2,200,000,000 folks worldwide have and use smartphones for just about anything and everything: buying and selling, talking and texting, surfing the net and going to school, dating and mating, starting revolutions and starting businesses, and all with a device small enough to fit in your pocket or your purse. 

Utopia, right?  June 29, 2007 was a great day! Thank God for disruption!

At least that's what the four horsemen of the tech revolution want us to believe, need us to believe: Google and Apple and Facebook and Amazon.  They make billions of dollars on such disruption: changing so radically and so fast how we human beings relate to one another, everywhere, all the time.  In our families.  In our communities. At work.  In government.  At church.  As consumers. There is nowhere left on earth that our handheld devices do not disrupt.

But as the comedian and blogger Baratunde Thurston recently said, "Just because you are a good software engineer does not mean you are a good social engineer."  So even as we revel in the disruption and benefits of technology, we also need to try and understand just what this all means for life with one another.  For the quality and the fabric and the depth of all our social relationships: around the dining room table and at temple, and in the voting booth and in the neighborhood, and perhaps most important for our kids, our children, they, who, in the words of author and San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Jean M. Twenge, are "IGen".  As in "Generation IPhone", the young adults and teens and tweens and children of today.  They were born with smartphones in hand.

In a sobering September 2017 Atlantic magazine article, "Have Smartphones Destroyed A Generation?" Twenge's research on kids born between 1995 and 2012, is heartbreaking.  How have smartphones and social media changed our kids' lives? Lenge's research shows that from 2007 on, these young people report spending less time hanging out with friends, are less likely to seek a driver's license, are dating less, are much more likely to report feeling more lonely and more left out, and are less likely to get enough sleep. 

But here's the line from her story that just slayed me.  IGen kids actually have more leisure time than past generations, in part because they do not work jobs as much. "So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed."  That's why reports of depression and anxiety are soaring among high school and college students.  And suicide attempts.  And anxiety.  Imagine looking into a mirror/screen all alone for so many hours and seeing all of these supposedly "great" lives going on and wondering and worrying, "Why can't that be me?"  Imagine being so tethered to a machine that you sleep with it, look at it first thing when you wake up, last thing before you go to bed.

When did the world change?  In years to come, folks in the future just may say June 29th, 2007.  What disrupted everything?  You are holding it in your hand or it is very nearby: chirping, chiming, and always calling: to us and to our children too. 

How will we answer the call of history? May God grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these disruptive days.

(Illustration by Jasu Hu)

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Best Thing About a Really Bad Day? There's Always Tomorrow!

“You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don't help.”
--Bill Watterson, "Calvin and Hobbes" comic

Think you had a bad day? Maybe it started with a lukewarm cup of pumpkin spice coffee from Dunkin' Donuts you failed to discover the clerk had mistakenly given to you in the drive-thru. Stomach churning traffic on the Pike heading into the city for work.  Did you burn the family dinner, go from gourmet cook to culinary disaster in sixty seconds?  Or you forgot to hit "save" on the big project just before your computer crashed.

There's bad days.  And then there's really bad days.

Like those endured by Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish, who in the recently completed epic 2017 Major League Baseball World Series lost not one, but two games, to the eventual champion Houston Astros. Darvish's earned run average (the number of runs he'd have given up if he pitched a full nine innings) was 21.6, more akin to football than the sandlot. In the seventh and deciding game, he and his team fell behind so quickly, 5-0, that most folks in the stands hadn't even bitten into their second hot dog.  And he went down to defeat in front of 54,124 heartbroken hometown fans.

No place to hide. A very public and a very, very, very bad day (night actually).

But give Darvish credit. He didn't have to, wasn't expected to, yet post game Darvish faced a scrum of reporters and reflected on his performance.  Speaking through an interpreter, Darvish, whose first language is Japanese, said, "I had bad days and that means somebody else had a great day." With that bit of eastern wisdom, Darvish packed up his stuff and went back home for an offseason of wondering "why?" 

Why do we have such bad days?  Why on one grey morning when we awaken, do we step into a tidy "package" the new puppy left bedside because we were tardy in letting him out? Why does the toast blacken and the train arrive late? Why are the kids surly and the new boss fuming as we rush into the office at 9:15?  Why is the printer out of toner only when we need to print out the movie tickets? Why does the toilet overflow just as guests arrive for the big dinner party? Why, when the catcher clearly called for a slider, low and outside, did you instead throw a big fastball, a meatball, right down the fat part of the plate?  That one is outta here and still in orbit!

You had a bad day.  We all have bad days.

Filled with bad impulses as we speak, when clearly we should just keep our mouths shut. Bad breaks when it seems like the universe conspires against us.  Bad streaks when we can't catch just a little luck. And so in the midst of this day. How goes it? Good? Bad? Middling? Are you pitching a no-hitter or watching the baseballs just fly out of the park?

Here's the good news about bad days. 

They end.  Eventually you pull your car into the driveway.  You walk in the front door. You remove the bullseye from your back and you sit down and you take a deep breath and you thank God that this one bad day is finally, almost over. Because the truth is that with this one amazing life, beautiful and broken, ugly and gorgeous, miraculous and mundane: every single new morning we get to start it all over again. Our creator mercifully and faithfully, gives to each of us a brand new day to begin again. Every twenty four hours. Guaranteed. A reset. A do over. A reshuffle. 

And so even while those bad days are truly bad, these bumps along the way can make our good days that much sweeter. That much more graceful.  That much more surprising and wonderful.  So the person in front of you at Dunkin' Donuts pays for your coffee in an act of unexpected kindness. And the traffic into Boston is light and you find a parking spot on the first try.  And dinner is a hit with the kids and they actually ask for seconds.  And you finish that work project early enough to watch the game on TV.

Good days. Bad days. had a bad day.  At least you didn't lose the seventh game of the World Series.  And guess what? There's always next year and yes, there's always tomorrow too.  Who knows? It just might be a good day!

Here's hoping....



Monday, October 30, 2017

Learning to Fall: The Grace of Autumn

Fall (verb) 1. to drop or descend under the force of gravity; (noun) the season of the year that comes after summer and before winter        --Random House Dictionary

First there’s the realization that you are no longer fully upright and standing, that gravity has somehow conspired to hurtle you bodily towards the ground.  Then there’s the surprise and split second preparation. Now that I am tumbling downward, what can I do?  Then the response: a hand thrust out, a shoulder prepared for impact on the earth. Then the thud as our body makes impact.  All when we fall.  Go from upright to down low.  From vertical to horizontal.  One moment looking out at life and the next looking down at the ground.

How did that happen? How did we fall?

Well...we miss a step while racing up the stairs with a basket full of laundry and then tumble forward, landing on hands and knees.  We run out on to a slick leaf covered driveway much too fast and go horizontal. We get so caught up in a conversation and the beautiful scenery of an autumnal walk in the woods that we fail to see a branch on the ground just waiting to trip us up. Most of the time when this happens, beyond a skinned knee or bruised dignity, we end up o.k., a bit shaken up perhaps, but once again able to stand back up and yet...aware, that to fall is the most human of realities. 

We all fall at some point.  Fall, stumble, brought back down to earth, laid low, humbled: by our bodies, by our circumstances, by our pride, by our lives, by life, by events beyond our control. 

To live is just to fall.

Toddlers do it as they learn to walk.  Teens do it when they rush too fast.  Adults do it when they forget they aren’t quite as lithe as they used to be. Seniors dread a fall: it can mean an injury and the end of independence.  In the end we humans all fall.  That verb “fall” first appears in language around the 1200s and means to fail, decay or die.  At about the same time the noun “fall”, connoting the season between summer and winter appears, shortened from “fall as a leaf”.

To fall is universal.  No one escapes it.  Not the most well balanced of ballerinas nor the least steady of elders. The question isn’t “if” but “when”.  Then the more important question might be: “So how do we fall?” Fall the right way and we avoid injury. Fall the wrong way and “ouch!”, and not just in our bodies but in our souls too, in our daily journey. 

How to fall?   

That’s the physical and spiritual struggle a man named Philip Simmons faced, when as a 34 year old, he was diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, an affliction marked by deteriorating muscle function. Simmons learned early on that ALS inevitably leads to many falls but he also discovered if he fell the “right” way he didn’t get hurt.  For Simmons this act of falling was about so much more than a little tumble: to fall was actually a powerful metaphor for all the struggles we humans go through as we bang up against our mortality, our frailty as human beings, the finitude of life. 

As he wrote in his beautiful 2000 memoir, “Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life”, “We have all suffered, and will suffer, our own falls. The fall from youthful ideals, the waning of physical strength, the failure of a cherished hope, the loss of our near and dear, the fall into injury or sickness, and late or soon, the fall to our certain ends. We have no choice but to fall, and little say as to the time or the means. We are all—all of us—falling. We are all, now, this moment, in the midst of that descent, fallen from heights that may now seem only a dimly remembered dream, falling toward a depth we can only imagine, glimpsed beneath the water’s surface shimmer. And so let us pray that if we are falling from grace, dear God let us also fall with grace, to grace. If we are falling toward pain and weakness, let us also fall toward sweetness and strength. If we are falling toward death, let us also fall toward life.”

Fall as a season is a perfect time to think about this question of whether or not to fall with courage and acceptance or to fall with fear and struggle. All around us nature is now falling: from abundance to scarcity, from green to brown, and from full to fallow fields.  Animals hunker down and prepare for chilly times.  The Sun wanes and temperatures fall. Earth falls.  The gift of faith reminds us that although we are all made by God as “good” we are also made imperfect and so falls are just a given. That’s the rhythm of life.

Yes fall is right here and right now. This Halloween week is about the halfway point between summer and winter.  Those trees in the yard are well into shedding their leaves, as bits of organic matter let go and then drift back down to earth, fall and fall, and come back down to the ground. Fall is always here: the bittersweet and profound truth that we all fall.  So what and where in your life are you falling into or towards right now?  Another birthday?  A shift in a relationship?  A body which is breaking down? Or just change? 

We all fall. It is fall. So try and remember and trust that God is here in the fall too, not so much to catch us, as to give us the grace to fall and to fall well.  See you on the way down. Happy autumn.