Monday, February 12, 2018

The Lesson of the Olympics? Find Your Life's Joy. Then DO IT!!


"Even now I want to keep my amateur spirit, to spend my time, to be in the sport with all my heart."            
--Sergei Bubka, Olympic pole vaulter, former Soviet Union.

My friend Jimmy raises tiny baby sting ray sharks in thousand gallon salt water tanks in his suburban basement. My colleague Barb spends her free time on the frigid slopes of a Vermont cross country skiing course, shushing away in a silent winter wonderland.  My brother Ed straps on a backpack and hikes tens of miles up and down the hills and crags of the northern Appalachian trail.  My fellow choir member Jackie practices her solo in the car, on the way to work, while other commuters look on with astonishment.

And me? I sit down in a chair, stare at a blank computer screen or an empty legal pad, and try and create from thoughts and ideas and words, a coherent and, hopefully enlightening, piece of writing.

And we're all just amateurs. 

Folks who embrace individual passions and pursuits, not for pay or prestige, not because we have to, but because we want to, because we have found some "thing" that we absolutely love doing and thus we do it, with joy, with enthusiasm, and most important, with love.  "For the love of": this is what amateur means--to undertake a sport or a hobby, an art or a craft, a calling or an avocation, because when we do this ONE THING, it makes us happy.  It thrills our hearts.

Which is the main reason I'm watching the Winter Olympics, as 2,925 athletes from 92 countries compete against each other in the chilly mountains of South Korea.  Yes, its awe inspiring to see ski jumpers hurl through the air at sixty miles per hour and figure skaters jump with such grace, to witness the geeky precision of curling and the herculean stamina needed for cross country ski racing. 

But what I really enjoy is seeing how much these athletes so love to do what they are doing. How wide their smiles are; how sincere and authentic their efforts are; how committed and even brave they are, as they do their best, give their all, and not because of a paycheck, not most of the time.  A myth of the modern Olympic movement is that these once "amateur athletes" are now paid for their "work".  The truth is, that save for a few high profile athletes who secure multi-million dollar endorsements, the overwhelming number of Olympians have minimal financial support for their efforts.  Most make great life sacrifices to pursue their dreams of gold.  And most will go home without a medal, but with one truth to warm their hearts, to hold on to as a sparkling memory.

They are doing what they love.  They are still amateurs.  They have discovered what makes their souls soar and their hearts sing, this gift that God gave them, for the love of.

Every human being needs to be an amateur, to discover and then embrace some "thing" that captures the heart and thrills the spirit.  Connects us somehow to the deepest part of the soul. I think of folks who spend hours in the garden and find their place in the world among the flowers and the vegetables and even the weeds. An amateur carpenter who takes a piece of wood and then lovingly shapes it into a family heirloom, a gift someone will cherish forever.  The weekend artist who feels so free when she parks herself with an easel next to the waterfall and then just paints. A cyclist who loses himself in the thousands of circles that he turns on the pedals, with the pumping of his legs, as the world in beauty glides by.

It is the rare person whose full time work is also their full time bliss.  No, most of us find our liberation, our happiness, in some "thing" else.  Volunteering.  Creating.  Sporting.  Playing.  So here's to the amateur in all of us.  What do you really love to do? 

Find that out, discover what God made you to do, to love, and then you will win the gold medal!  Of that I am sure.


Monday, February 5, 2018

When A King Roars, The Free Press Is Doing Its Job


"Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy. It is democracy."
--Walter Cronkite

What scares or angers you more? A free press or unchecked government power?

Those are questions as old as humanity itself, at least as old as the God-given freedom of humans to organize and think for themselves, pitted against the desire of those who govern to control the governed. In the United States its a struggle founded in the first amendment to the Constitution (1789), that declares, in part: "Congress shall make no law....abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...." No laws, yet that has not stopped some in power in government from attacking, even seeking to undermine the freedom of journalists to write freely and therefore of readers to also think, and draw free conclusions, all without fear of retribution. 

This civic tug of war is powerfully portrayed in Steven Spielberg's latest movie, the Academy award nominated The Post. In 1971, President Richard Nixon sought to stop the New York Times and other newspapers from publishing "The Pentagon Papers", a top secret government study about the conduct of the Vietnam War.  The United States government claimed printing the contents and sharing it with the public was a threat to national security. Unspoken was also the truth that the document made the government look bad, and embarrassed it even. 

Nixon lost in the Supreme Court, 6-3. In writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black Blackmun wrote, "...the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors." 

To serve the governed, not the governors.

Which at least for me, puts our latest Commander in Chief's unalloyed disdain, contempt and even hatred for the press, in context. It has been a generation since an occupant of the White House has been so openly hostile to journalists and journalism. And now the public is also hopping on board this anger train as well. Line up! What better target is there for our disdain and disgust and cynicism, than the fourth estate? Those lousy liars!! Those fake news purveyors!! 

I get some of our frustration.  With more news and news outlets available to us than ever before in history, if we look long and hard enough, we will always find media to rile us up, and media to reflect just what we want to believe. It is harder than ever before to tease the truth out of so much false, slanted and questionable news. The days of a predictable, sane news cycle or a handful of networks and newspapers as "sites of record", are long gone, drowned in a sea of information. 

But what is the alternative? 

If there is no free press to keep the government in check, to call out leaders who lie or bend the truth, to confront elected politicians who use public office for personal gain, who will do this vital work of democracy?  We can ask our friends in Turkey. Following an attempted military coup there in 2016, its President put 81 journalists in jail, for writing the news.  How about China? Forty one reporters behind bars. Russia: when it is not meddling in U.S. elections, the Kremlin jails, even murders its journalists. From 1992 to 2018, 58 journalists in Russia lost their lives in seeking the truth, in seeking to be free and to be the press.

I'll take a free press over a thin skinned government and governing class any day.  I'll take the messiness, even the ugliness of democracy, too. The free press it isn't always pretty, this crazy exchange of so many ideas and so much news.  But our free and unfettered media, for all its faults, ensures that the people remain informed and free and that the government remains on notice.

A free press and freedom: we cannot have one without the other.







   
       


Monday, January 29, 2018

The Super Bowl Is Super Because It Is FUN!!!


"The play's the thing..."           --William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Dear New England Patriots,

Thank you.

That's really all I want to say to you in this week before you play in Super Bowl 52, or Super Bowl LII, to make it sound that much more important. Thank you.

For giving us bone chilled, January weary New Englanders something to cheer for, root for, anticipate with joy, in this first month of the year, in the depths of winter.  These are the weeks on the calendar when the promise of spring is still so far away and the memories of the holidays are fast fading, and so by going to the big game again, amazingly, for the eighth time in 18 years, you give us the chance to play again.  No other team or part of the country can make that claim or is this fortunate. 

THANKS!

Thank you for giving us something to rally around, come together for, talk about, discuss, kibbitz: in line at Dunkin Donuts and around the water cooler at work and at church coffee hour.  Right now in our land there is so much that is pulling us apart, separating us, making us seem like anything but united or one people. At least in this part of Creation, for at least these few days, we've got a diversion, a game, just plain old fun, to take our minds off the very divisive issues our nation and world faces.  One game won't make any of our problems go away but maybe for a few hours, over way too much food and drink, we can let that go and play together, be a team. Yell and scream and cheer!

Thanks for the "drama" surrounding the "super" in "Super Bowl".  Will Brady's hand be fully healed? Will Gronk return from his concussion? Will Belichick finally wear something more fitting to a head coach other than that grey, ragged, food-stained cut off hoodie? Will he actually smile? This one week I will skip my hard news addiction for sports talk radio and sports in the newspaper too, eat it all up, escape from the high drama playing out in Washington, D.C.  Makes me wish your team could tackle our more recalcitrant and stubborn political leaders, remind them to stop throwing tantrums and just "DO YOUR JOB!"  If only they took their "game" as seriously as you do.

Thanks, regardless of the final score, come ten o'clock or so, Sunday night.  Yes, I want you to win, we all do, but the greatest gift of a game like this game, is that finally, it is just that: a game.  A competition, played on a playing field. It is PLAY.  The only thing at stake finally, is a win or a loss.  That's the gift of sports to our world, what sports do best.  Sports empower humans to play and to watch and be greatly entertained, and ultimately, all for enjoyment, joy.  FUN.  That's why fans love sports. That's why so many of us play sports too. 

Sports allow us to take the bodies and the minds we have been given by our Creator and then use them to play and to be fully alive, to give it our full effort, to leave it all on the field, to know that we have tried our best.  Sports remind us that practice and preparation, and not just talent, wins. Sports teach us that together we can achieve so much more than going it alone. Sports and teams add richness and sweet memories to our days, make the journey that much more fun, and remind us that play is central to a blessed life.  

Those are good lessons for a Super Bowl.  Good lessons for the game of life too.

So again, thank you New England Patriots. Good luck against the Philadelphia Eagles in Minnesota.  And don't forget to have fun and to play.

Just play.




      

   

   

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Loneliness of January: Reach Out. Someone Needs YOU!


I fear me this—is Loneliness—
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Illuminate—or seal—
--Emily Dickinson, 1862

It was a news item easily missed, overlooked, and lost last week in the avalanche of stories about government shutdown and nationwide protests, another impossible Patriots' win and a cold snap finally snapped. Yet its a fitting story for the depths of winter, gray and spare January, when so many are cooped up inside, isolated and often alone.

And lonely.

Responding to what she deems a public health crisis on her island home, British Prime Minister Theresa May created a "minister for loneliness", a cabinet level secretary responsible for creating programs to address the severe social isolation of hundreds of thousands of Britons. Said May, "I want to...to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by [caregivers], by those who have lost loved ones, people who have no one to talk to...."

A part of me wants to excuse us if we missed, overlooked, or lost that breaking news about the truth of human loneliness. I mean: who's got time to keep up with it all, amidst the craziness and swirl of daily life? We've got enough work to do just for ourselves: jobs to commute to and kids to care for and causes to fight for and games to watch and trips to make and parties to plan. Who's got the time to be lonely or even think about loneliness? 

That's how it is with loneliness. We are not lonely, until one day we are.

Until the kids leave home and move far away.  Until our beloved lifelong partner dies and the house is now oh so big and quiet.  Until we slow down, body and mind, but the rest of the world just keeps on chugging right along so fast it forgets about us.  Until so many of our peers die and while the young may celebrate our longevity, we struggle with it.

It's not just the old or infirmed who wrestle with loneliness.  In 2018 we've got a whole new kind of loneliness to confront, the loneliness of technology, devices which seem to connect us to others but which often disconnect us, push us away from flesh and blood, face to face relationships.  We claim hundreds of Facebook friends but then have no one to talk to when a crisis hits or we need someone to meet for coffee or talk about our day.  We use brightly lit screens to stay connected to everything that's happening "out there" but then we never actually leave the house or the chair or the couch or the bedroom. 

The good news is we don't need a government or institution to take the lead on solving the human problem of loneliness.  Kudos to May for shining a light on our isolation from each other but finally, loneliness can only be overcome when those who are socially vigorous and well connected, connect to those who are not.  When the young slow down enough to reach out to the old.  When we the busy step back enough to ask ourselves: whom am I missing in my life?   

Who is lonely in your world? A grandparent or senior relative who needs a phone call or better yet, a visit or road trip out for lunch. A widowed neighbor who'd love to catch up on some local gossip.  A divorced friend who maintains a stoic facade of strength but who just needs a good friend to care. A teenager who's locked up in her room with a phone or a video game but who in fact might love to get out, talk, laugh, connect for real.   

It's no mistake that God makes us for each other: always has, always will. Adam for Eve.  Mary for Martha.  Sara for Abraham.  You for me and me for you.  We are not built to be alone, not at all.  We are instead made to be with and by each other. Loneliness does not have to happen or be a social death sentence for millions in our world.

But first--we have to do something about it. Otherwise, we'll miss, overlook, and continue to lose the lonely.  So after you finish reading this, reach out to a lonely person who just needs to know that there is one other soul in this big world, who actually cares about them.  Remembers them.  Loves them.

It is January. It can be mighty lonely.  And right now someone in your life needs to hear from you.  They are lonely.  But, God willing, not for long.


 




       

    






    

Monday, January 15, 2018

I'd Like a New Year Please. I Think This One Is Broken.


Chaos (noun) 1. a state of utter confusion 2. the confused unorganized state of...matter before the creation of distinct forms               --Merriam-Webster Dictionary 

I'd like a new year please. I think this one is broken.

I'm serious. I'm wondering if 2018 is defective. Can I return it? Exchange it for a new one? Get a replacement? I don't want money back; just a restart. Because if these first intense, over the top days of the new year are any barometer of how the rest of 2018 is going to proceed, I'm not sure I can take it.

False alarms of nuclear missiles raining down on Hawaii and front page directions from the Boston Globe on "How to Survive a Nuclear Attack". A nasty nor'easter with 15 inches of snow then a polar vortex and then sixty degrees and then flooding rains to wash it all away. A commander in chief who reportedly characterized a whole continent of peoples and nations as one big sh**hole, but who then also humbly reassured us to not worry, because he is the "least racist person you will ever interview".  Thanks for that clarification. Upwards of 1,000,000 people living in the United States--"dreamers" (children of undocumented immigrants) and folks from El Salvador and Haiti---facing deportation. Or not. Or maybe?! An imminent federal government shut down but tax cuts, we've got tax cuts!!! 

Is it just me? I'm exhausted and we've barely put a dent in 2018. 

We can't blame this on manufacturer error. The Creator delivered a new year on time last December 31st, a pristine package of 365 days, ready for our use.  But the living of these days: that's always up to us and so far, the ride's been chaotic, wild, "meshugene", to use a favorite Yiddish word, meaning really, really, really crazy.

A big part of the problem is our media and cultural echo chamber. So a news item is breathlessly reported and then instantaneously parsed and picked apart and then commented upon and then re-tweeted and then blown up and then sent all the way around the world and then we all stand in a big virtual circle and then we yell at each other through our screens.

It is as if we are living in AN ALL CAPS WORLD ALL THE TIME!!!!!

With no time....for thoughtfulness or dialogue or a chance to decompress and think things through and just breathe. Nope. Gotta feed the beast. It's hungry. We're hungry, as news consumers, addicted to the rush of the next outrage or next calamity or next crisis or next social earthquake. And just when you think you might actually have a sense of what is happening, the next "big thing" breaks and it is chaos, again. 

Whew.

The problems we face as a nation and world are serious. Folks who are hurting because of the actions and words of those who hurt others: that's real. Folks of good will and stout hearts and deep faith are called to step up and speak truth to power and demand basic human decency and compassion from those who lead us. That hope holds true no matter what the year: 2018 or 1918 or 2028.

Yet somehow in the midst of the chaos, we need to find a center, space, time to move through life and survive, even thrive, in spite of the chaos that can mark these days.  Maybe its just about being with each other more in the "real" world, putting down our devices and sitting at the dinner table, in the pews, at the coffee house, in a 12-step meeting, at a protest or a prayer gathering.  Maybe chaos is manageable when we remember the narrative of human history, the wars we've fought and won, the crises we've faced and overcome, the bad leaders we've encountered and sent away. Chaos is not new to the human condition. Maybe we believe that a power greater than us is in fact also working for the good, that in the prophet's words "the arc of the moral universe always bends toward justice."           

So it looks like 2018 is here to stay. No returns allowed. It may be crazy, but with 50 more weeks to go, my prayer is simple: that somehow we will find our center in the midst of all the chaos.  





  
 




  

       



 
             

        

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Cure for the Chill of Loneliness? The Warmth of Community.


“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”   --Dorothy Day, Catholic social activist

What do you do on the absolute coldest night of the year? On the absolute coldest evening in many years, almost 100 years? Like this past Saturday, when the mercury bottomed out at -6 degrees outside my door, making this part of the world feel more like Alaska's Bering Strait than the Bay State. January 6th into the morning of the 7th, 2018, was the most bone numbingly frigid day and night we've known and will likely know for many lifetimes. The kind of weather we'll tell our grandkids about one day. 

You'd think the smart thing would have been to keep the car parked in the garage and your backside parked on the couch, hunkered down, binge on Netflix, scroll through Facebook, text friends, and wait it out in the warmth, cocooned, settled in. But for me that night I was hosting a long planned house party for friends from my community choir, and then the next morning, doing church, as me and my faith community do every Sabbath, as we've done for 332 years, something like 17,000 Sundays and counting. 

As both events neared, I was increasingly worried I'd receive a torrent of last minute party regrets and then in the a.m. face sparsely peopled pews in our ancient white meeting house on Main Street.  An empty house at night with way too much food and too few guests, and then a quiet seventh day, maybe a few hardy souls warbling hymns as the radiators clanked and clunked. 

But then...a mini miracle. Community happened instead. Community. Folks actually came.  Folks showed up.  We gathered face to face and heart to heart. Not even the cold and the chill could keep us away. We needed each other.  We needed community.     

So my house party was packed and folks brought hot casseroles and coolers of cold craft beer. Karaoke was sung with gusto late into the night even as ice crystals formed on the inside of the living room windows.  And then on a sharp and clear dawn, church was well stocked too, people greeting one other, praying for peace or for a neighbor with cancer, announcing the birth of a new great-grandchild, sharing ancient rituals with friends and strangers.

All in community.  All in spite of the cold. 

As someone who has been in the community building business for almost thirty years, I know these are strange and challenging days for the hope of bringing people together for a common cause, in common actual places, for the common good, to undertake work or to just play, in common.  The reasons for this are numerous: the death of communal "Sabbath"; 24/7 access to work and technology; racial, political, social and class divides that separate us along sharp lines that seem so uncrossable.

Yet: always we humans need community.  Real community, beyond our phones and computers, our packed schedules and cocooned lives.  Community that gives us gracious time to be with each other and sing with each other and talk to each other and listen to each other and learn from each other and yes, maybe even help each other.  The gift and miracle is that such community still happens, even if it doesn't make the news in these crazy, weird, even scary communal times we find ourselves living within.  Community still happens in choirs and youth groups, in homeless shelters and coffee shops, on playing fields, and neighborhood book groups, anywhere people make the choice to leave isolation, to leave "me" and seek "thee".  

Dorothy Day was right: there is a "long loneliness" within each human heart, a deep spiritual yearning that knows we are created by our Maker for each other.  Even when that's hard.  Even when its wicked cold.  Even when all we want to do is stay inside and keep warm.  But to be truly warm, this I absolutely know. 

I need you.  You need me. We need community.

Anybody up for karaoke?


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Be It Weather or Human Behavior, Extremes Make Life Stormy


"It is the nature of men having escaped one extreme, which by force they were constrained long to endure, to run headlong into the other extreme, forgetting that virtue doth always consist in the mean."      --Walter Raleigh

Fifty one point four degrees Fahrenheit.  51.4

Cool enough for donning a fleece pullover or windbreaker yet just warm enough for a brisk beach walk, a long run in the woods or a leisurely bike ride on a sunny afternoon. That's the "average" weather day, in the Boston area, in greater eastern Massachusetts, the place on God's earth most of us call home.

Though in these frigid days and sub-zero nights we been gripped by as of late, caught in mother nature's freezing fist in the last days of '17 and first days of '18, memories of such an "average" day are cold comfort.  Right now furnaces groan to kick on. Frost cracks and snaps in the dead of night like a ghoulish gunshot. Car batteries sputter and die. Pipes burst. Exposed skin quickly numbs. The dog pleads "thanks but no thanks" for its usually exuberant outside walk. 

For now, we are just cold.  Wicked cold.  Bloody cold.  Numbingly cold.  Dangerously cold.  Caught in an unprecedented one hundred year cold, not felt here since 1918.

Extremely cold. 

The thing to remember is that our current climate challenge is just that: extreme.  An outlier.  Highly unusual. Rare.  And yes, dangerous if we were to live this way for an extended period of time. But soon weather patterns will shift and the air will warm up and temps will hit a balmy thirty two degrees, maybe even higher, and then we'll think that we're caught in a heat wave! Might even recall the extremes of real heat we felt just last June when temps soared above ninety degrees for a third straight day. Then Boston was in the midst of its seasonal second heat wave, the earliest date for such a sweaty event since records had first been kept beginning in 1872.         

Extremely hot.

Makes me hope and pray for a moderate weather day one day soon, that, if you are curious, is most likely to occur in early spring or late summer, on a beautiful April Monday or a sweet September Sunday. 

Moderate. Temperate.  Good for the weather we share.  Good advice for the life we share on planet earth too.  Sure, there is something dramatic, alluring, sometimes even exciting about living on the extremes, on the edge.  Pushing out to the boundaries of behavior or actions or life.  Makes for great headlines and lots for things for us to talk and chatter about, not unlike extreme weather, but after awhile, to live extremely is exhausting at best, threatening at worst.

So just as I'm glad to one day soon bid adieu to our recent extreme weather I'm happy to say "So long!" to some of the more extreme extremes of human life in 2017 as well.  Extreme housing and stock prices that are always more fun for the ride up than the ride down.  Can you say "bubble"? Extremely crude and crass behavior from folks we've elected to lead us, ideological extremists who love to tweet and taunt and pose, but don't do so well when it comes to governing from the center, where most Americans live. Extreme levels of information, ours' for the asking, but an extreme lack of basic human wisdom too, when it comes to understanding just what it all means.  Extreme expressions of religion that co-opt God and insist that the Divine loves "them" more than "those other people", extremists who actually believe that violence and intolerance is an act of holiness.

God help us all.   

Do anything to the extreme and eventually it will kill you: physically, spiritually, communally and yes, when it comes the natural world too.  So bundle up while you must but trust that eventually, we will return to the average, the mean, the middle, on that we can count, at least when it comes to the weather.  Our world in the unknown year ahead?

Like the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., my prayer is that we can be extremists for love.  As for the rest of the next 51 weeks: I'd like an average, moderate, kind of boring, "unextreme" 2018.