Monday, February 11, 2019

True Presidential Greatness Can Save a Nation and a People

"And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand."   --Mark 3:25

What makes a President, a leader, an office holder, great?

By the time President Abraham Lincoln stood up to give his second inaugural address on a blustery and rainy Monday the 4th of March, in 1865, the Union, what was left of the United States of America, an experiment in democracy less than ninety years old--the country lay in tatters. Torn asunder from coast to coast, from North to South, between slavery abolitionists and slavery proponents. Violent partisanship and anger marked the political and civic dialogues of the day.   

In less than a month Lincoln would be dead, the victim of assassination. In five weeks, the Civil War would finally end, but not before claiming the lives 618,222 soldiers on both sides, two percent of the nation's population. Imagine 6.5 million war deaths in 2019 and the scale of that cataclysm is clear. And although Lincoln had won a second term, the vote, of course, did not include any of the secessionist southern states. His election opponents, the Democratic Party had called for an immediate peace while Lincoln insisted the war must waged until the unconditional and complete surrender of the enemy.

So on that day Lincoln might have been "right", even justified, to condemn the Confederacy in his speech. Vilify them as traitors and turncoats, seditionists to the last man. Lincoln could have used the speech to outline his plan for a harsh Reconstruction, describe how he would now punish these fellow citizens, mete out sharp justice on all those who had started the war, dared to found a new "nation" on the continent.

What makes a President, a Senator or Congressperson, truly great, the right person for the right time in history?

Listen.

Lincoln, in just seven hundred words, the second shortest inaugural address ever--the man from Illinois known affectionately as "honest Abe" and "Father Abraham": the President chose to lay down his sword, unclench his fist, set aside self interest and party, and instead offered a powerful vision for peace and reconciliation.  He did so first, by reminding the country that each side imagined itself in the right. "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other....[then] let us not judge that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered." 

What makes a President, a legislator, truly great, one who serves the common and highest good, not for personal gain or power, but instead as a servant of the people?

Instead of humiliating the South, Lincoln knew that peace would only be realized if both sides approached the other with sincere humility and honest confession before the God each claimed as their own. No one escaped the guilt and responsibility for the insanity of warfare. All had blood on their hands. For civic fractures to be repaired, for a nation to be reunited, for opponents to work together again, Lincoln knew the only path to true justice and shalom was mercy.  Was forgiveness. Was grace. Was love.

As he concluded on that long ago day, "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

On this Presidents Day weekend, we are right to ask as nation, as a people sorely divided by party and partisanship and self-righteous surety, we are still right to ask. What makes a President, a leader, any candidate for high office, great?

The question still matters, 154 years after one of our greatest Presidents gave the answer and reminded America what true greatness could be and still is. Thank you President Lincoln. God help us all to never, ever forget you and your wise, wise words and great leadership.  

Happy birthday.


  



      

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

I Was Homeless and You Gave Me a Place to Lay My Head

“I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”   
--Albert Camus, The Plague

It's something I always wonder about, even worry about, on those sub-zero frigid nights New England is known for this time of year.  Maybe I'm running out to my car from my warm workplace, a fifty yard parking lot sprint in the chill.  Or I shuffle down my driveway to get the mail and feel the icy sting of wind.  Or I awaken and see the snowflake like frozen patterns on my bedroom windows, a toasty 68 degrees inside but just 8 degrees outside.

What is it like to live on the street in such winter weather?

What is like to hunker down under a cardboard box below a Route 93 highway overpass and try and stay, not just warm, but alive? What is it like to wander the streets of the city all day, a backpack filled with your meager possessions, your route taking you to churches and shelters who can protect you from the cold--at least for awhile? What is it like to struggle with mental illness or an addiction, or both, and have those afflictions doom you to a life forever wandering in this world, never finding a stable place to lay your head?

I especially wondered about these questions last week when the mid-west (and Boston to a lesser degree) was hit with its coldest temperatures in more than a generation.  It's one thing to live on the streets when it is merely freezing. Its another when to live on the streets is a potential death sentence, as temperatures plunged in Chicago to -50 below zero.  In such extreme weather frostbite happens in minutes.  Fall into a snow bank and pass out and you could die oh so fast.

But one Chicago women, Candace Payne: she decided to go beyond asking those questions, wondering and actually did something to love and protect and care for the homeless folks in her city. On the most bone chilling of nights in the windy city last week, on the "spur of the moment" in her own words, Payne spent $4,700 of her own money to rent hotel rooms for more than 100 homeless people in Chicago. Putting out a call on social media for help transporting folks to that shelter, Payne was soon inundated: with more volunteers, and with even more donations, some $10,000! Thus those folks experiencing homelessness got to stay in a warm and safe hotel room not just for one night but for four nights. And Payne didn't stop at lodging: she also purchased and solicited donations of food and toiletries and clothes. Area restaurants brought by fresh meals.  There were pre-natal vitamins and care for two pregnant women.

It was all kind of a miracle: especially at a time when it is so tempting to see only the harder aspects of life in our country these days, or to listen only to the bullies and the braggarts, or to the folks whizzing around town in their no doubt toasty limousines, doing little or nothing for strangers on a cold winter night.             

So why did Payne act with such generosity and commitment? She was not employed by a social service agency nor for a religious organization nor is she a social worker or counselor.  Payne is actually a real estate broker.  What moved her to actually do something? What moves any person to respond with mercy to the struggles of a fellow child of God?

I think it was Payne's compassion.  That's the human ability to enter into and be able to imagine another's suffering, and then to act to alleviate that pain. Compassion remembers, "That could be me." Compassion demands moral imagination, the gift of being moved by another's plight so much that we dare to love them, even a stranger. Compassion sets aside the need to judge or worse to not even see the "other". 

Said Payne, "I am a regular person. It all sounded like a rich person did this, but I’m just a little black girl from the South Side. I thought it was unattainable, but after seeing this and seeing people from all around the world, that just tells me that it’s not that unattainable. We can all do this together.”

On a cold winter's day, when our deep freeze will settle in for at least another six weeks,   I know Payne's compassion is good news that absolutely warms me up. Reminds me that there are every day regular people doing extraordinary things each day to make this world a better and kinder place.  To live with compassion.  

Someone was cold and needed a warm place to sleep. Someone said, "I will help."  So thank you and God bless you Ms. Payne for reminding us that each of us can make a difference in this world.  We just have to wonder about another's lot in life and then roll up our sleeves and get to work.

We can all do this together.




  

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Hot Mess that Is The News in 2019: What to Believe?


Pig pile (plural pig piles) noun, (United States, colloquial) A disorderly pile of people formed by jumping upon a [person].         --Wiktionary.org

I was all set to write about it for my last column: the now infamous confrontation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial between Kentucky high school boys, a Native American leader and a "religious" group called the Black Hebrew Israelites. To recall: all three groups were in Washington, D.C. to protest in one form or another.  The high school kids were there on January 18th as a part of a "March for Life" anti-abortion rally.  The Omaha Native American tribe elder, Nathan Phillips, was there to lift up the issue of Native American rights.  The House of Israel Black Hebrew Israelites, labeled a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, was there to lift up their particular brand of "religious" bias.

All three groups converged by accident in front of one of America's most potent symbols of liberty and reconciliation.  How ironic. How sad. And what a brouhaha! So...what really happened? That depends: on who you listen to. Who you believe. What you perceive occurred as you watch videos of the clash, images posted on line and then viewed at one point, more than 2 million times in less than three hours.

The boys were the inciters, right? They were wearing "Make America Great Again" hats, did you see that? And that one kid going face to face with Phillips with that smug look on his face?  I heard they were chanting "Build a Wall!" too. Talk about a bunch of scary confrontational kids.  What kind of parents raise boys like that?  I even heard they come from a Catholic high school. They should all be ashamed.  As one twitter activist, New York Times Op-Ed writer Kara Swisher, angrily tweeted, "I am thinking of finding every one of these sh***y kids and giving them a very large piece of my mind.” 

That's what happened and who is guilty, right? Well...maybe not. 

It's a little more nuanced and complicated.  Phillips claims he heard them chanting "Build a wall" but then he back tracked from that story and said he waded into the crowd to protect the kids from the "Hebrew" group who apparently, for more than 45 minutes, were hurling insults at the boys. Calling them sodomites, school shooters, etc.  And while the boys were not chanting about walls, many of them are seen on the video mockingly doing "tomahawk chops" with their hands as Phillips continues to bang on his drum.  Phillips claimed to be a Vietnam Veteran. He was in the Marine Reserves but did not serve in Vietnam. 

Are there any conclusions we can draw from this hot mess? Any truths to name, as the story fades away, as our culture waits for the next confrontation or event to get all angry and self-righteous about?  As we await a new pig pile to jump on: today's latest YouTube video or breathless CNN report or tirades on Twitter from the President on down.  Because in the news climate we are living within, you must have an opinion and you must share it, tweet it, post it on Facebook, and let the world know what you believe immediately!! Even better, if the "news" makes people look bad you must condemn them in righteous rage.

Or not.

I'm reminded of this bit of wisdom offered by the author Edgar Allan Poe in an 1845 short story. "You are young yet, my friend,” replied my host, “but the time will arrive when you will learn to judge for yourself of what is going on in the world, without trusting to the gossip of others. Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see."

I'm as guilty as the next one of getting all riled up in these frantic news days, when there is too much news from too many source and when the latest news rushes in and yells for our attention on all of our devices and then just as quickly departs for the next "big" story.  These days, we take no time, we have no time to think. To reflect. To investigate for ourselves. To ponder.  To wonder.  To ask others, "What do you think happened?" To maybe even declare in the face of seemingly "true" news, "I'm not really sure what to believe or who to believe." And then to leave it at that. Or at least to give the story time enough to flesh out and become clearer before we draw any conclusions or make any hard and fast declarations about the "truth".

That's my hope and prayer for the hothouse of current events that we all we call home in 2019.  Let us pig pile less and be thoughtful more.  Let us be suspicious of any hard and fast opinions and judgments and instead actually decide for ourselves.  Better yet, let's turn off our phones, slam shut our laptops, click off our always on TVs and just breathe. 

The news can wait.






      


  
           


Friday, January 25, 2019

Dear Mr. President and Congress. Do Your Job. No Work. No Check.

"Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men."                                  --John Adams

Federal workers going without pay since December 22, 2019: 800,000

Lost wages per workday: $200,000,000
  
Average yearly pay for a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) employee: $17,890

Poverty level for a family of three in the United States: $21,000

Average yearly salary for Federal Bureau of Investigation employee: $37,118l

Average yearly salary for the Bureau of Prisons: $59,580

Yearly salary of the President of the United States: $400,000 (plus $50,000 for expenses, $100,000 for travel, and $19,000 for entertainment)

Yearly salary of the Speaker of the House of Representatives: $223,500

Yearly salaries of the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders: $193,400

Average net worth of a United States Senator: $3.2 million

Average net worth of a member of the House of Representatives: $900,000

They work for the common good, the common good: the 800,000 furloughed and/or unpaid employees of Uncle Sam who have gone without a paycheck now for more than a month. Everyone from Park Service rangers who protect America's backyard to IRS agents who help ensure the solvency of the U.S. Treasury to Coast Guard employees who protect our borders to the TSA employees who keep us safe as we fly the friendly skies.

They don't work for the private sector, but for the public--for you, for me, for all of us.  They don't work for profit. They don't work for prestige or power either, most of the time.  No: the majority of them are clerks or administrators or managers, folks right in the middle of the job world, paid well but not paid all that much. Like lots of Americans many of them live paycheck to paycheck. Those who are dismissive or suspicious of government like to label these workers as "bureaucrats", a pejorative used to stereotype the thousand of folks who do the basic work of government.  But I see them as good folks, just trying to do their jobs well and then get paid, like any other workers.

They answer our questions about tax returns and handle Medicare bills for our aging parents.  They represent the United States overseas for the State Department and are scientists too at NASA, real rocket scientists. They distribute food stamps to the hungry and aid to farmers.

They are not "them". They are us.

But the problem is that their ultimate bosses, the Congress and the President: these folks are incapable of getting people back to work, where they belong.  Our political leaders are more committed to posturing and preening, blaming and tweeting, arguing and throwing tantrums, than actually doing what they are supposed to do too: work for the common good, America's common good.

So here's a modest proposal. Until those 800,000 folks get paid and return to work, not one of our Senators or Representatives or the President should be paid either. Let them feel the squeeze for awhile. Then maybe, just maybe they will heed one simple request to address and fix the longest government shut down in United States history.

Just do your job. No work, no check.  It's only fair and just.  And while you are at it: can you please remember you are supposed to work for the common good too?  It's about time.







Monday, January 14, 2019

Who's to Blame for the Shutdown? Ask an Ideologue.

Ideologue (noun) 1. an adherent of an ideology, especially one who is uncompromising and dogmatic.                  --Google.com

Whose fault is the federal government shut down, now the longest in United States history? 

Is it the fault of an intractable President, unwilling to budge one inch from his position that he must have a border wall and it must be fully funded? Is it the fault of a newly elected and energized left, who insist that the wall is "an immorality" and not one dollar must be devoted to its construction?

Who is to blame?

That's the main political parlor game playing out these days as "Closed Until Further Notice" signs hang on locked office doors throughout the federal government at agencies and commissions and branches that are supposed to do basic things for you and I and others, citizens of the United States.  You know, like...distribute food stamps to hungry people. Ensure that the person next to you on an airplane is not a terrorist. Patrol our borders, land and sea, to keep us safe from outside threats.  Make sure that our air is clean and our waters are without toxins. Collect enough taxes to fund services for veterans and housing for the homeless and health care for our aging parents. 

Just who is to blame?

For the truth that right now, all those governmental functions either are not happening or might soon come to a screeching halt?  Who birthed this current mess, this embarrassment to our republic, this pathetic and shameful example of how we Americans seem incapable anymore, at least in Washington, D.C., of even being able to govern ourselves, keep the lights on, run the government, carry out the most basic of civic work?  To legislate. To pass laws.  To oversee with care and commitment the collective life of 325 million Americans.

I think what most amazes me is how unashamed both sides act in the midst of this disaster.  One side tweets away and spends most of its energy posturing and pontificating, pointing fingers and acting like petulant children. The other side stakes out what they are convinced is an unwavering "moral" position, preaching from on high about how they are completely correct, and then they get in their limos and go home for the weekend.

Just who is to blame for this train wreck?

The media? Somewhat. Yes, some among the fourth estate report about the real negative effects that are beginning to be felt because of the shut down.  Long lines, even cancelled security lines at the airport. Mortgage applications that can't be processed.  Scientific research that has ground to a halt. I can't imagine being one of the 800,000 federal workers who worry about how to pay the mortgage or make the rent or fill a needed prescription because their bosses are so inept that they could not even pass a budget. 

But in much of the media, the shutdown is reported as some kind of glorified political wrestling match. Talking heads from both sides yell at each other on split screens. Countdown clocks tick away at how long Uncle Sam has been absent.  Polls about blame are trotted out as the next Presidential election cycle begins. ARE YOU SERIOUS? Didn't we just have an election!!! UGH!

So who is to blame for the mess we find ourselves in? 

Here's an unpopular opinion. I think we are. We, the American people. We who elected these folks, these ideologues, these politicians who are ideologically pure on the left and right but who have forgotten how to govern.  How to meet an opponent half way on their demands.  How to "get" in negotiations but also how to "give".  How to compromise.  How to remember that the good of the country always, ALWAYS, trumps the good of any political party, either party, both parties.  We voted in leaders who seem much more concerned about getting re-elected, or elected, than actually doing their jobs.  We worship before the TV screens of Fox and MSNBC, eating up news that tells us just what we want to hear, news that neatly fits our political ideology, no other views needed.

Where's the good news?  Maybe, just maybe, stateswoman and men, true public servants,  might emerge from the fray and teach us all again about good governing and the practical and pragmatic art of politics.Politics as the art of the possible. Politics as a place not just for ideologues, but for legislators and lawmakers too. Folks who actually get stuff done. Who govern.

That's my prayer. That's my hope.



  


Monday, January 7, 2019

Singing Saves the Soul and Soothes a Broken World

"Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone's very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food."           
 --Anne Lamott, "Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith"

My name is John and I love to karaoke: singing in public accompanied by a pre-recorded song, the louder, the better.

There: I admit it. I absolutely love grabbing a microphone at a house party or a local bar, picking out some moldy golden oldie from the past, preferably the nineteen seventies, and then singing out at the top of my lungs in front of a crowd, whom I hope will also join with me in singing and bringing joyful life to a tune, a song.

I wasn't always like this. For years I was a karaoke hater, which is pretty common. As the comedian Tom Dreesen notes, "Karaoke bars combine two of the nation's greatest evils: people who shouldn't drink with people who shouldn't sing." The world is basically divided into two camps: those who cannot stand karaoke and those who see it as an ultimate way to celebrate and have fun. Think the divide between Republicans and Democrats is a wide chasm? Try talking someone into singing karaoke if they just do not want to: it's basically impossible. Anti-karaokers would rather get a root canal without Novocain or watch a Presidential debate or sit through hundreds of YouTube cat videos than actually sing in public.

I get that fear. For a long time I didn't want to sing because I worried I would embarrass myself. It made me feel self conscious. I didn't want to sing because to get up in front of others and try to carry a tune is potentially very, very nerve wracking.  Glossophobia, fear of public speaking (and singing) is a phobia that upwards of 75 percent of folks suffer from. Many folks can't or won't sing because somewhere along the way in their lives some unthinking or clueless person--a music teacher, a parent, a sibling, a friend--told them that they had a bad singing voice. Then we go mute, sure that our out of tune crooning is somehow causing others to suffer.  

But still I challenge you to consider singing in this brand new year. Make it a resolution.   
It doesn't have to be at karaoke. Try singing in the shower or the car. Sing in church or a house of worship with a chorus of many others. Sing a hymn that you know by heart, a sacred song that moves you to tears. Sing while you clean the house or ride your bike or take a walk. Because singing: it always makes us feel more alive somehow. It opens up our lungs and our hearts. It stirs the soul and taps into a part of our brains that produce endorphins, hormones that flood our nervous systems and give us a natural high.  No drink or drug needed. 

Sing in a choir and the effect is multiplied. As the tall guy in the back row of the bass section in a local community choir these past eight years, I can truly say that some of my most life happy moments have come when I joined with 30 or 40 other folks and created music.  Even if you are not a singer now, I'll wager you can think back to moment in your life, perhaps as a child, when you did love singing, when singing was not about performance or judgment but instead just fun. Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream....

Just sing.

Given the current state of our world--the chaos, the cruelty, the division and the pessimism--it seems to me that singing out and singing loud and singing true and singing proud is as a good an antidote to hopelessness as any other activity.  Singing can and does actually change the world. What would the Civil Rights movement have been without "We Shall Overcome"? Singing brings beauty and art and truth to Creation.  Singing taps into a primordial urge within all humans souls. As long as we have been living as species we have also been singing.

To quote the philosopher duo of Karen and Richard Carpenter, "Sing, sing a song. Sing out loud. Sing out strong. Sing of good things not bad. Sing of happy not sad....Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear. Just sing, sing a song."

And yes: that would probably make a great karaoke song.

Just saying. Just singing.



            
 

      

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

No One Knows What the New Year Will Bring. That's the Adventure!

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."   --Yogi Berra

Here's my one solid prediction for 2019, for the new year that has just begun. Ready? After much research and thought, this is my conclusion. I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen in the next 52 weeks. Not a clue. Not a hint. I got nothing.   

Okay, I do predict that the sun will come up every morning and then set at night. I do predict that the year will contain exactly 365 days, not one more or one less. I do trust and pray that most all of us, me included, will still be around in early January 2020 to look back on a year just finished. 

But what exactly will happen in 2019? We'll know next December 31st.

That's the only definitive thing we can declare about this twentieth year of the twenty first century. Not that some won't try their best to predict the future, to look out into the mists of time and imagine that if only they are smart enough or wise enough or lucky enough or prescient enough, if they can crunch the statistics and numbers just right, they will be able to envision with accuracy all of our tomorrows. 

But most of the time our human predictions are wrong.

The website fivethirtyeight.com, the most famous and infamous of predictive enterprises these days, declared last March that the Boston Red Sox had a six percent chance of winning the 2018 World Series. Oops. That same site of predictors said Hillary Clinton was a lock for President and had a 71.4 percent chance of winning on November 8th, 2016. Well that was bit off.  Or think of us Patriots fans, we who were absolutely sure our hometown team would just crush the underdog Philadelphia Eagles in last February's Super Bowl.  The betting line in the game had the Pats winning by at least five points.  Millions of dollars were lost and thousands of hearts broken, all in making a wrong assumption.

Because we don't know what we don't know. 

I get why we want to, even need, to try and predict the future.  We want to be in control. We want to know what is coming before it arrives, to prepare ourselves. We want to believe that chaos and random chance finally are not in the fabric of the universe, that there is instead an underlying story about the world and our lives that's already been written. We just have to figure it out what that is. Some even imagine that the greatest super power to possess would be to know the future, to see what's coming before it comes.  Anybody up for playing Powerball?

But not me.  I don't want to know, or even care to predict what is to come this year, even though the future sometimes scares me with its unpredictability. Yet the future also excites me with its unpredictability too. Sure, bad things will happen but good things will happen as well. Where is the adventure in a life, if not in the living out of life day to day? Putting forth all of the personal effort, the energy, and the dreams and hopes and work of shaping our own destiny for the good? Even when we fail, even when life throws us a curveball, would we really want to know the outcome before it happened? How boring life would then be. 

And so a new year beckons, a year that's never, ever been before. Like a blank canvas it stands before us, a gift from God, who challenges us to embrace with gratitude the whole year, to make it all our own: all the joys, all the sorrows, all the challenges, and all the passion yet to come. 

Yes: we have no idea what is coming and we cannot predict the future that tomorrow holds for us. Thank God. I'm psyched for 2019. Who knows what it will bring? No one. But I still say, "Bring it on!" 

Happy New Year.