Monday, October 20, 2014

Hope I Die Before I Get Old: NOT!!!!

“I hope I die before I get old.”          
  --Pete Townsend, “My Generation”

William Shakespeare called it “the undiscovered country”.  Jesus warned his followers that no one knows when it will come, neither the time nor the place, and to believe otherwise was folly.  “The Who” defiantly sang about it, as twenty something rockers, daring it to just take them before they all got too old.


There, I said it. Got the word and the concept right out there.  Death. I hope you’ll keep reading. The cliché is that it is impolite socially to talk about politics, sex and religion. I’d add death to this taboo trinity. The end of life. The great equalizer, along with birth.  The moment every last human being experiences at some point. No denying it. No negotiating it away. Mortals all are we who face mortality. 

I get why death is not the stuff of every day conversation.  It’s sad, the thought of us, others, no longer living on this side of the grass.  It’s scary.  What comes next?  Folks of faith trust the comfort of an afterlife—I know I do—but still we resist talking about death. We push away talk of death because it is morbid. Because it makes us feel uncomfortable. Because in our youth obsessed world we work so hard to push it away.

Not everyone is so reluctant to talk about death. In this month’s issue of The Atlantic magazine, one writer declares exactly just when he wants to die: at 75 years of age. Not before. Not after.  The writer, 57 year old Ezekiel J. Emanuel, is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. 

In “Why I Hope to Die at 75”, Emanuel writes, “I am sure of my position. Doubtless, death is a loss….But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining…robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute…It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”

If Emanuel was trying to provoke a response about the end of human life, he certainly did so. Some critics worried he advocates suicide—he does not. Some were offended by his unsympathetic stereotyped description of people in their mid seventies and beyond. I think of all the vital and amazing post 75 year old folks I know—including my own 100 year old grandfather---and I blanch at Emanuel’s generalizations. Some were upset because he dared to even talk about his own death in such a stark and honest way.

First: read the article and draw your own conclusions. And if Emanuel’s essay moves us to just think more about the end of life, he does a good thing. Not so much in his provocative opinions but in his prodding us as a culture to be much more intentional in planning for, being thoughtful about, and most important, talking directly to our loved ones, about our deaths, before our deaths. 

I speak as one who has been in the death and dying business for twenty five years, as a clergyman.  I am the one who is invited to be bed side when a family member is in their last days or hours.  The one who gathers folks in a circle to pray. The one who sits in uncomfortable waiting rooms…waiting.  For death.

Such moments are often profound, poignant, even beautiful.  Yet such moments can also be marked by confusion, questions and anguish. “What would Mom want us to do?”  “What were Grandpa’s last wishes?”  “How did he want to die?”  We ask because no one ever talked about death.  No health care proxy was designated. Who makes the decisions?  No orders were given by the family to “do not resuscitate” and so the patient is given heroic measures which result in gut wrenching, sometimes unnecessary medical procedures. Then a good life can lead to a not so good death.

Doesn’t have to be so.  Not at all.  Instead, we can talk about death with courage and clarity.  Talk about death while we still have life.  Talk about death and see these intimate conversations as a gift to those we love, wise preparation, and a compassionate legacy.  Talk about death before circumstances beyond our power take hold. Talk about death so when that time comes—and it will—we’ll do the best we can with God and our loved ones, to live well and to die well.

Unlike “The Who” and Emanuel, I don’t hope I die before I get old.  But I do want to talk about it.



Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Information Overload: Can't It All Just Stop!?

Bandwidth (noun) 1.a person's capacity to handle or think about more than one thing at the same time.      
                    --Random House Dictionary

My niece Caroline was three or four years old. It was Christmas morning, the first year she fully experienced what that holiday meant for her as the sole grandchild in a clan full of adults, who all wanted to shower her with gifts galore. She was up at dawn, bouncing off the walls, munching on coffee cake, and then ripping into something like forty presents, all for her! But then mid-unwrapping, without warning, Caroline swooned back into the pile of discarded paper and bows, curled up and lay very still. 

Overload.  She’d exceeded her bandwidth limit.

It was all too much for her little mind to fathom.  Too many gifts.  Too much attention, stuff, colors, people, music. My brother Ed gently scooped her up and then into her bed for a nap and later she was fine.  But on that long ago December day, I saw what happens when we humans reach a limit in life, when we can no longer digest it all.  Face it all. Consider it all. 

When life is too full our bandwidth runs out.

Happens to toddlers, to adults, to all of us when the world throws too much at us and too fast. I’ve noticed this feeling of communal overload lately in the culture; like the world is spinning much too furiously and we can’t get off. 

We’ve got ISIS, with its gruesome beheadings plastered all over the Internet and the war its actions have triggered, a brand new war for the United States to lead and fight. Didn’t we just get out of two wars? And who’s on our side this time?  Turkey? Maybe. Syria? No, but we’re helping them. The rest of the world?  Who knows?

We’ve got the Ebola virus which has killed thousands in Africa and now seems to be knocking on the door of our shores. Or consider that poor man from Dallas who died from the virus, who also, inextricably, was sent away from the emergency room on his first visit. I trust the reassuring words the government agencies offer, that it will be ok, that there’s no threat but still—it’s scary stuff.

We’ve got the stock market which within twenty four hours last week registered its biggest one day loss of the year at 344 points, right after it shot up by 313 points, one of its biggest gains of the year.  Last week’s Dow Jones graph looks like a wild roller coaster ride, all peaks and valleys. Is one of the longest bull markets in history (five years and counting) coming to end?  Are housing prices and stock values too red hot, bubbles waiting to burst—AGAIN!?

Overload. Bandwidth exceeded. 

In 2014 we live in the most plugged in, over hyped, over informed, and overheated time in human history. We know too much for our own good and if we attempt to keep up with all the daily news, it can be like trying to drink from a fire hose. Doesn’t work.  We’re choking on information.  We plug ourselves into machines and streams which never stop: TV blaring, email sharing, cell phones ringing, texts pinging, Facebook updating, Twitter tweeting.  We’re techno addicts who don’t know how to cease checking in, looking at the screen, waiting for the next cyber rush.  And so of course, at some point, our spirits go on the fritz.  Sputter.  Overflow.

Can we just stop? STOP!

Maybe that’s the spiritual answer to our overloaded, bandwidth crammed days and nights.  To stop.  To breathe. To rest. To play. To turn off the phone and have dinner with the family with no interruptions. To turn off the TV and take a walk under a technicolor canopy of leaves. To turn off the laptop and ride a bike. Pick some apples. Jump in a pile of leaves. Find the best pumpkin you can and then carve it up.

ISIS? Ebola? The markets? They can wait. Taking a break doesn’t mean we don’t care or that we don’t want to do something. But the human heart and mind and soul can only absorb so much.  Too much stimulation and information and we will eventually crash. 

Stop.  That we can do.  The world’s daily crises, real and imagined, harrowing and hyped—they’ll all go on. Me? I’m going to let God carry it all, for just awhile.   

I heard the foliage is spectacular this year and I want to view firsthand and up close that miraculous God given show, to feed my soul and get off the merry go round but first: I have to stop. STOP. Give my bandwidth a well deserved break. 

May you do the same too.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

To Everything There Is a Season: Death, Birth and One Last Race At Suffolk Downs

“To everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance….”           
--Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

One last horse race…

Even though I’ve never been to a thoroughbred race track, never placed a bet, never heard up close the beat of pounding hooves, never cheered as jockeys and steeds whipped around an oval course, still, when I heard the news, I was kind of sad. 

You see this past Saturday the final horse race was held at the Suffolk Downs Racetrack in East Boston. After seventy nine years, the track is closed for good.  Not that Suffolk Downs didn’t have a unique place in history. It was there in 1937 that the storied race horse Seabiscuit set a track record in front of 40,000 rapturous fans. In 1966 the Beatles gave their final Boston area concert at the track. Once one of eleven tracks in the Bay State, the death of Suffolk Downs now leaves only one horse race facility left, in Plainville, and that is only kept alive by the possibility of casino gambling. 

At Suffolk Downs, it’s no more win, place or show.

This death of Suffolk Downs got me thinking about some other Bay State enterprises which are now no more.  Filene's Department Store at Downtown Crossing where my grandmother worked at the jewelry counter. The Boston Phoenix newspaper I used to read on the “T”. Brigham’s where I went for ice cream as a kid. Saint Williams Church in Dorchester where my family attended Sunday services.

They’re all closed now, all gone, joining a very long list, local and global, of things and places and icons either fading or faded away.  Building 19.  The Boston Braves baseball team.  Landline telephones.  Travel agencies.  Afternoon newspapers.  Network TV. Sundays as Sabbath.

To everything there is a season. 

Why do such entities die? Times change but institutions fail to change along with the culture. Human tastes and habits shift. Social movements can’t or won’t adapt or they forget their mission.  Businesses convince themselves they can do what they’ve always done. A new generation finds an older generation’s passionate pastimes passé. 

The temptation in the face of all these endings is to wring our hands at the death of such places. Pine for the good old days. Crankily critique a world that just doesn’t appreciate things like we do. I get that impulse. The longer we live, the more common it is to witness the demise of that we once knew as precious, as our own.  It could be something as simple as a race track or as profound as a church.   

Yet the spiritual lesson I take away from all of these deaths is life. Life: because for the new to be born, the old must give way. For new ideas to flourish, old ideas sometimes have to be discarded. For new ways of living and believing and thinking to take hold, previously held beliefs and thoughts and lifestyles must change. God made our world not static or stuck, but vibrant and ever changing, adaptive and dynamic.  Things just change.   

It has always been so. It always will be so.

I may not have Brigham’s anymore but I do love Ben and Jerry’s.  I loved Filene’s Basement but truth be told, I’d much rather shop online. Newspapers may be thinning but I’ve got cyber access now to more news and information, with the click of a mouse, than I’ve ever had before.  And though I’d love to see my flock in the pews every single Sunday morning, I trust that I can also pastor to them through a text message or a blog post or by email or with a phone call or over a midweek cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Farewell Suffolk Downs. You served your world well.  But it was time to go. What’s next?  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Real Story Behind NFL's Fumble: Domestic Violence In America

Domestic violence (noun) 1. acts of violence or abuse against a person living in one's household, especially a member of one's immediate family.    –Random House Dictionary

It is not about football.  Not finally. Not really. I’ll say that right up front. 

True: NFL star players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson are both accused of domestic violence and their alleged crimes have dominated the news for weeks.  Rice caught on tape punching into unconsciousness his then fiancé Janay Palmer, dragging her limp body out of a hotel elevator.  Peterson indicted for child abuse, using a switch (a tree branch) to whip his four year old son’s backside. Rice, Peterson and the NFL’s handling of these and other domestic violence cases have elicited widespread anger and shock.

That’s good. We should be angry that a man, any man, would use his physical power to hurt another, a woman, a little boy. Should be angry at the clumsy, insensitive, “save the brand at all costs” response by the NFL.  Should feel uncomfortable at cheering on field violence by modern day gladiators, even as a few of them can’t seem to stop throwing punches once the whistle blows.  

But then let’s face the true issue here: domestic violence in America.  That’s what been lost in this culture wide conversation about Rice, Peterson and the NFL. The victims. The ugly truth about battered women and children in our nation. The millions of heartbreaking stories beyond the headlines: black eyes hidden behind sunglasses, purple welts and bruises explained away as “old school discipline”, families fleeing in the dead of night for shelter from a raging abuser.

That’s the story here, the real tragedy, yet this is still not being reported or talked about, not nearly enough. Not clearly enough.  Instead fans, pundits and players continue to worry if the NFL can “redeem” itself as America’s national pastime. Wonder if Rice and Peterson will ever play again.  Speculate about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s job security. Sponsors fear besmirched reputations for being associated with abuse.  Networks scramble to maintain sacred TV ratings.

So much hand wringing. So many crocodile tears. Such wasted cultural energy, worrying about “the game”, as if whatever happens on the field is ever as important as the shameful and brutal acts which happen behind closed doors.

It is not about football.

It is instead about this: the “twenty people per minute [who] are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States…more than 10 million women and men per year…the nearly 2 million women [who] are raped in a year and over 7 million women and men [who] are victims of stalking in a year.” (The Centers for Disease Control, National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010).

It is about this: America’s “678,810 victims of child abuse and neglect….a rate of 9.2 victims per 1,000 children in the [U.S.] population.” It is about the fact that, “Victims in their first year of life had the highest rate of victimization at 21.9 per 1,000 children of the same age in the national population.”  (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Child Maltreatment Report, 2012).

But because these statistics are so much more difficult to contemplate than the sordid soap opera which is now the NFL, the temptation is to just look away.  Stick to the scores on the field. Try to go back to “normal”. Let someone else worry about it. I get why we may want to respond thus.  Domestic violence is scary. It is stomach churning. It is awful.

But as a lifelong football fan, as a Pastor, and as a person of faith, I can’t turn away from the innocent and the powerless who are abused, who need our help, and who need our attention.  Now.

It is not about football. It is about a battered woman, a beaten child, life and death.  That’s the real story.  The real page one banner headline.   

It is not about football.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Remember When Sports Was Only A Game? It Still Is.

“Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.”                     
 --Michael Jordan

A scuffed white wiffle ball, a canary yellow plastic bat, and a patchwork of dirt and grass for a playing field: those are my first vivid memories of sports and games in this life.  My next door neighbor Joey and I would have season long backyard tournaments from late June until early September, play ball for hours, until our Moms would join in a chorus of “SUPPER!” calling us in from the fading light of dusk. What games! Two boys, eight year old best friends, trying to hit a winning home run at Fenway Park, a rusted chain link fence our Green Monster. 

It was just a game.  And we loved it. 

No adults to set the rules or pick the teams. No fancy uniforms. A travel game meant we played two streets over.  It was always pick up. Who ever showed up joined in. Other times of the year we switched from one pastime to another.  Basketball in suburban driveways, shirts versus skins. Touch football on the town green, with cries of “one Mississippi, two Mississippi…” Street hockey in a church parking lot with a green tennis ball for a puck. Pond hockey on frigid winter days in the marsh behind our house.  Then back to baseball again.

We marked the turn of the seasons by whatever games we played.    

We worked hard to win, wanted to win, but in the end I think we knew somehow in our young wisdom that it was always just a game. A joyful activity which allowed us to burn off the frantic energy of childhood and to test out our growing bodies.  Later when I played organized sports, I loved those games too. Savored the hits and drama of football and I played into high school.  But still, for me, it was always just a game.  A diversion to take my mind off of school and whatever other stresses ailed my teen life.  Then one day when it was no longer fun, when it no longer felt like a game, when it became more like a job and less like play, at the end of that last season of youth sports, I left the team.       

But I never lost the fun of playing games and sports. 

Watching games and sports for fun too: the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics, and Pats.  Like most New Englanders I went crazy when the BoSox broke “the curse” ten years ago on a full moon October evening and finally won the World Series. THEY DID IT! Sunday afternoons in the fall and winter are often about the couch and football and then turning to the sports page on Monday mornings for a recap.  Offer me tickets to any game and I am there: a Coke in one hand, a hot dog in the other. 

Professional sports as fun.  Games played by overgrown kids.   

At their best, spectator sports entertain; provide a respite from work and all the real news in the rest of the world, which weighs so heavily, the outcome of which actually matters. For me that’s what makes fandom so enjoyable.  If the Pats or Sox lose there’s really nothing at stake.  Nothing. No one dies. Nations don’t totter and fall because of the final score, and there is always the next game to get excited about. 

Because for me, finally, sports are just that…sports. Games.  Nothing more. 

Competition played between the lines, a gift from God, to give us the pure enjoyment of playing and watching games. I think our world needs to remember that truth every once in awhile, the purity of play for play’s sake. We need to keep sports in perspective. We need to teach our kids that sports are an important part of growing up and so too is family, community service, school, work, God and just being young and having fun. We need to stop feeding the sports media monster which creates false idols out of the players and teams and then tears them to pieces when they end up disappointing. Plenty of that happening these days.  We need to learn again, that before sports became big business and big time, it was played by kids and amateurs, for the love of the game.

Because I do love sports: playing, watching, cheering, and competing. Sports make this life better. But in the end? It is only a game. 

Thank God.



Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Thirteen Years After 9/11, What Does It Mean to Be Patriotic?

“Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”                --Adlai Stevenson

I confess.

I didn’t want to stand up when the crowd sang “God Bless America” at Fenway Park last Sunday, at a baseball game on a gorgeous, sunny late summer afternoon.  Didn’t want to take my hat off. Put my hand over my heart.  Belt out the lyrics with 30,000 other fans.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d like to think I’m patriotic. I love singing our real national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”. Hat off, placed over the center of my chest. Watching as a huge American flag whips and curls in the breeze.  Then as Francis Scott Key’s song builds to a crescendo of  “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!”, I cheer at the top of my lungs.   

The singing of “God Bless America” is a new tradition and became the norm at major league ball parks right after September 11, 2001.  It started at New York City’s Yankee Stadium, at the first game played there after that awful Tuesday morning of terror, death and fear thirteen years ago this week.

The singing of the America’s official national anthem at sporting events is a much older ritual. It began in the 1918 World Series, which took place right before the end of World War I. During the seventh inning stretch, a band struck up an impromptu version of the anthem.  Red Sox and Cubs players faced the flag in centerfield and the crowd stood up and joined in.  The singing of the anthem at every game was formalized when America entered World II as a way to unite folks in that common cause. 

Fans singing together then knew all too well about shared wartime service and sacrifice.  Every person in the park was touched by war.  Moms worried about their sons and daughters overseas. Gold Star families mourned loved ones who died in battle.  Neighbors struggled with wartime shortages and rationing.  Tired factory workers toiled on double shifts to support the war effort.  Then the national anthem was a sincere call to patriotism, for Americans to work, work, together to protect and defend their homeland.

It’s hard to fathom that this Thursday, 4,749 days will have passed since 9/11.  Half a generation.  Millions of words will be written and spoken to mark this anniversary and most will extol patriotism.  But post 9/11: what does it mean to be a patriot, patriotic?  That question is why I struggle with the singing of “God Bless America” as a vestige of 9/11. Not because of the sincere motives of those who sing. Not because of the desire to honor 9/11 victims and the millions of service men and women who served in two wars birthed on that day so long ago.

What worries me is that the “patriotism” which has emerged since 9/11 is marked largely by symbolism and rhetoric, not so much by shared sacrifice. Patriotism “light”.  The ubiquitous flag lapel pin adorning every politician.  The perfunctory ending of every speech, with, “And may God bless the United States of America”.  The contradictory adoration of soldiers and veterans, even as so many of them receive terrible care at the hands of Uncle Sam.  Or can’t find work.  Or suffer from trauma. 

America has been at war continuously since 9/11, but the truth is that few of us have done anything in support of that effort.  Are we ready to send our son or daughter into harm’s way?  Pay extra taxes to finance our wars, instead of going into debt that our kids will one day have to pay back?  This week our world will be saturated in patriotic symbols and speeches and services and stories, yet is this really patriotism?   

For me patriotism is a verb, not a noun.  Patriotism is what we do to make our country strong, not what we say or sing or declare.  Patriotism is about voting every single time we have the chance. Patriotism is about paying our fair share of taxes as a duty, not an onerous task.  Patriotism is about saluting the veteran in the parade and then making sure she has everything she needs to get on with her life.  Patriotism is about volunteering: serving on town boards and committees, coaching kids in sports, dropping off a bag of groceries at the food pantry, worshipping God in freedom and being grateful for that gift.  Patriotism is about keeping up with current events and knowing our history. Patriotism is sometimes about protesting the government, calling it to live up to its highest ideals. 

Patriotism is so much more than standing up at a ballgame or singing a song, or flying the stars and stripes outside of our house, or saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school.

This 9/11 week of remembrance: let’s be real patriots.  Do something, anything, to make America a better place; honor the lost and the fallen through action, and not just public ceremonies and private prayers.

Thirteen years later, that would be a real blessing to America.






Monday, September 1, 2014

Take A Road Less Traveled--It Will Make All The Difference!

“It is remarkable how easily…we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived [at Walden Pond] a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side...How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”  --Henry David Thoreau

Ever heard of Heath, Massachusetts? 

Probably not. With a population of just 706 souls, this farming and summer community, 102 miles northwest of Boston, hugs the southern border of Vermont. Heath is the kind of hidden away place that one typically finds only if you are very lost, or maybe trying a shortcut to get from here to there. It is easy to miss Heath if you blink or lean over to adjust the radio as you drive down Main Street, a white clapboard community hall on one side of the road and a simple country church on the other. You’d probably just pass on by. Zoom right through.  Skip Heath completely in the rush to get somewhere else.

That is unless you are willing to take a risk and get off the beaten path.  Throw away the well worn map book.  Disregard the Trip Advisor recommendation. Turn off the GPS and instead explore territories heretofore unknown.  Take a long detour and discover an unexpected little gem like Heath.

We are entering the season of road trips here in New England.  The leaf peepers will soon be out in droves searching for the perfect foliage, a Mecca of golden yellows and maple reds. The streets of Boston are filled to overflowing with out of town parents and wide eyed college kids, many discovering the city for the first time.  This past Labor Day weekend, 35 million Americans took to the roads and drove 50 miles or longer for one last summer journey, a three day jaunt to bid the season adieu.

But here’s the truth about all those millions of miles in travel. For the most part we’ll be all too human and just stick to the beaten path.  Familiar places. Well worn roads and oft traveled highways.  And we’ll all too easily miss a special place like Heath.

Instead we’ll take the Mass Pike, which will be packed with traffic and then we’ll stand in line with scores of other weary travelers at a rest area McDonalds. We’ll scurry over to Boston’s Faneuil Hall with its tourist kitsch, prepackaged history for the masses.  We’ll clog the Maine Turnpike and wait in line at the toll booths, visions of a rocky coast dancing in our heads while the horns honk and patience frays.

That’s travel. That’s life. 

To stick to the way we’ve always journeyed, revisit the destinations we return to again and again and again. I’m as predictable as the next person when it comes to making a choice between the familiar or the foreign, the dependable or the surprising, the mundane or the mysterious.  Too often I stick to the beaten path, reluctant to set out for parts unknown.  I want to know what’s next, what will appear around the bend in the road. 

What if I get lost? 

Yet the best places I’ve discovered in all my road trips have almost always come about because I took a risk and got off the beaten path. Discovered the best orange sherbert ever at a road side stand in Lake George, New York. Found a perfect front porch to explore at the General Store in Underhill, Vermont, in the middle of a long hot August bike ride. Went down a side street in Manhattan and stumbled upon the Firefighting Museum of New York City. 

And in Heath?  I met Ruth Johnson, a kind and hospitable trustee of the local historic society. She took me inside the Union Evangelical Church, an 1830’s house of worship. There I stood in a simple wooden historic pulpit, where in the summer of 1943, a theologian and preacher named Reinhold Niebuhr ended his sermon thus: “God, grant us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”  The Serenity Prayer, perhaps the most widely prayed prayer in the entire world: it was born right there in Heath, Massachusetts. 

To find this out, I first had to get off the beaten path. Take the exit off the superhighway and trust that the back roads in life would get me to where I needed to go.  As we move into a new season of life and the year, may God bless our life road trips and give us the courage to look for places like Heath. 

In the words of the New England poet Robert Frost, try the road less traveled.  That just might make all the difference.