Monday, November 17, 2014

Just Say "No" to Christmas in November: PLEASE!

“No" is a complete sentence.”                --Anne Lamott

Here’s a thought. How about we all just say “No” to the Christmas rush now cranking up to full speed?  Have you noticed?  Barely halfway through November and the push has begun: for holiday shopping, holiday music, holiday sales, and holiday hype.  Yuck.

Christmas? Now? Already? 

No. Not yet. Please?! It’s just too soon. It’s way too early.  It feels forced, rushed, fake.      

NO! I don’t know about you but I just can’t face the looming visage of Santa Claus while there are still leaves on the trees.  I can’t think about holiday shopping a full week before Thanksgiving. Wasn’t it just Halloween? I can’t stand hearing “White Christmas” on the radio for the next 35 days. I still miss summer! I haven’t put away the patio furniture yet. I can’t watch the barrage of cheery holiday themed commercials already running wall to wall on TV and the Internet, in the newspaper too. 

I know this is probably a losing battle. “Christmas creep” is the norm now in our culture.  That’s where 12/25 keeps sliding further back and back on the calendar. The shadow this secular holiday casts over all of December, even much of November, gets longer and longer every year. I don’t mean to sound like a Christmas crank.  I love Christmas: in its right time, at the right time. I love all the kitsch and the music and lights and traditions.  Heck I “do” Christmas for a living. I work to make this holiday a holy day too, for those in my faith tradition. 

I just want Christmas to be…well, Christmas, and nothing more. Christmas: limited to days, not months.  Christmas: about family and time off and faith. Christmas: with clear boundaries around it: a time of the year with a sane beginning, middle and end.    

Some folks seem to be pushing back. In response to retailers like Wal Mart, Target, Macy’s and Michael’s, opening their doors on Thanksgiving Day as early as 4 pm, other stores proudly declare that they will be closed, until midnight. Nice of them to let their underpaid workers stay with loved ones until 11:45 pm, Thanksgiving Eve.  Then the hordes will descend and the fights over big screen TVs and video games can begin.

Is that really Christmas?

Long ago my New England Puritan forebears actually outlawed Christmas as a holiday and a holy day here in Massachusetts. Up until 1870, when Christmas became a federal holiday, most folks in the Bay State worked on the 25th.  It was just another day. Puritans and other faith purists saw Christmas as a pagan holiday, more about debauchery and drinking, than anything sacred.  Not that I want to return to this extreme prohibition.

All I’d like to see is more sanity in how we as a culture and individuals mark what is supposed to be just one very special day at the close of the year. One day. A few weeks beforehand where anticipation and excitement lift up our spirits and soothe our weary winter souls at the darkest time of the year. A special season, made that much more sacred by its limited nature.  A very short time when regardless of whether or not we practice faith, humans hope to be more generous, giving, kind and loving, especially to those who are hurting or poor or lonely.

Christmas is Christmas because it has boundaries, from midnight on the 24th to 12:01 am on the 26th.  No sooner. No later.  Right? 

The best kind of life is one in which us humans know how to set and honor such clear boundaries.  Know when to say “yes” and know when to say “no”.  Remember when it is time to celebrate and when it's time to just wait for the celebration.  Not easy. We live in a world now largely without boundaries.  We can work 24/7. Shop 24/7.  Go to McDonalds at 2 am and eat dinner, watch a movie on Netflix whenever we want. Text a friend or answer a text before we even get out of bed.  There is no culturally agreed upon idea of Sabbath, or stopping, or resting.    

No boundaries.  None anymore. Unless we set them. For ourselves. Our families.  Life.

So I will get to Christmas, when I get to Christmas, and not a day earlier. I’m still looking forward to Thanksgiving.  Remember that holiday? So pass the turkey please, and put on the football game.  Make space on the couch for a long nap.

Then, and only then, after that wonderful holiday, just maybe I’ll be ready to meet December. Not a day sooner.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Life: More Than a Selfie (And Why It's Not Smart to Take a Selfie with a Bear)

Selfie (noun, informal) 1. A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media

You can’t live in our world these days without being aware of the social phenomenon of “the selfie”, a digital image in which the one who snaps the photo is always the center of attention.  The focus.  The number one subject.  There may be other elements in the picture, other people or landmarks, but pretty much most of the time a selfie is, by its nature, all about “me”.   “Me” at the Grand Canyon.  “Me” at a Patriots football game.  “Me” at a wedding on the Cape.  Me. The selfie formula is then completed by uploading that self portrait to cyberspace where other “me’s” can see their fellow “me’s” too.  Me looking at me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.

I tried a few times to take a selfie.  Epic fails.  I couldn’t figure out how to get my phone to make the shot. It felt kind of weird to indulge in such self focused portraiture.  And when I did finally snap a picture, it was at such an odd angle, that it came out as a warped view up my nose. Probably wouldn’t garner many “likes” on Facebook so I deleted that photo. I’m a selfie sad sack. 

The taking of selfies has even become risky business, as some scramble to get the absolute best and most dramatic photos. At last summer’s Tour De France bicycle race, several riders were thrown off their bikes and injured when enthusiastic selfie takers stepped right out onto the course.  “CHEESE!” and then a selfie snapper got run over by a cyclist zooming at 25 miles per hour.  Or there’s the selfie folks at Lake Tahoe in California who take “bear selfies”, posing right in front of live grizzlies. I’m not making this up.  Park Rangers are, of course, trying to ban this dangerous practice but I’m waiting for the selfie photo of the split second just before a bear acts like a bear!  Then I suppose the next selfie will be from a hospital bed.

I’m not anti-selfie. There’s joy and fun in capturing a moment in time when we are really happy or excited, or visiting somewhere we’ve never been before. There’s a loveable goofiness to snapping a selfie and then sharing it with others, a kid like declaration of “Hey! Look at me!”  I get that.

But when I look at all the most important photos in my life, the pictures I’ve saved and framed and display in my house and office, almost every one of them is with other people. There’s not many selfies in the bunch, very few solo shots.  Instead there I am with family at my brother’s wedding twenty nine years ago, all of us smiling and happy, together. There I am embraced by my father on one side and my grandfather on the other, three generations standing tall on a summer day long ago.  A snapshot of me baptizing a little baby girl, pouring water over her forehead, as I cradle her in my arms, the blues skies of an October Nantucket day as a backdrop. There I am with my six year old Goddaughter in a booth at a pancake restaurant, our special breakfast together, her smile a mile wide, ringed by chocolate.

I do have a few selfies I guess I could matte and frame and then hang on the wall.  There’s the stiff formal portrait I had taken for the church photo directory. But no. It’ll stay in the drawer, for the picture makes me look like Mr. Potato Head.  There’s one of me on my bike in a recent charity ride, but that photo is missing my teammates, who gave me the courage to finish all 88 miles. If not for them I might not have kept riding. 

So…I think I’ll stick with group photos, when I am in a crowd, a community, a relationship. These remind me that in almost all of the times in life when I am happiest, at peace, connected to God, making a difference, giving love and feeling love: it’s not a “me” moment. It’s a “we” moment. Photographic memories teach me that with other people: this is how I find my true place in the world.

I’ll leave the selfie taking to other folks. Especially the ones featuring a grizzly bear.




Monday, November 3, 2014

Mayor Menino: One of the Last True Public Servants

“The only reason to be in politics is public service. There's no other reason.”
--Malcolm Turnbull

Was Mayor Thomas Menino the last true public servant we’ll see in our lifetimes? I wonder about this, as Boston and Massachusetts mourn the man. I worry that Menino was the last of a dying breed, politicians who embrace the noble call of public service. Men and women who actually believe that when elected to serve the public, their job is to serve the public. Promote the common good.  Protect the interests, not just of the moneyed, powerful or well connected but also the anonymous, the powerless, the every day folks who make up the heart of any community.

A public servant.

Menino: Mayor of Boston for a record twenty years. He did so much.  Shephered the renaissance of Boston as a world class city. Brought new jobs and businesses into the city.  On watch when gang violence dropped to record lows. He wasn’t perfect. He ruled with fear at times: you didn’t want to get on his bad side. His record on the schools was mixed. He was called “Mayor Mumbles” for his less than soaring oratorical skills. 

But what I loved about the guy—and I was blessed to have met him and his wife—was that from the start of his mayoral career, he was in it for the work.  For the job. To do something, anything, every day, to make his city a better place.  He never saw being mayor as a stepping stone to some greater office. His administration was amazingly corruption free.  By one estimate Menino personally met as mayor, more than half the residents of Boston. He lived in the same modest Hyde Park home for years, championed racial reconciliation and embraced the LGBT community long before it was popular to do so. And when things went wrong in his city he showed up. In Dorchester after a shooting. On the day of the Marathon bombings, checking himself out of the hospital.  He was everywhere.   

He was mayor to be the mayor: from his first day in office to his last day at City Hall.

What makes Menino’s departure from the world all the sadder is that public service as a vocation and calling is in crisis in our country.  Who serves the public anymore? The overly obtrusive media makes many reluctant to serve. Cynicism among the electorate is at record highs. The ability of government to get anything done, at least in Washington, is in question. Office holders are afraid to take a stand for fear of being voted out.  Perpetual re-election mode is the norm.  Big money skews elections, democracy for sale. And when pols leave office, so many cash in unashamedly, with high priced jobs as lobbyists, consultants, corporate board members, think tank prognosticators, and media loud mouths: for hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars.

Let Menino’s legacy and death, then, remind us all that public service matters.  That the best elected officials always see their job as a public trust. That the real public servants make a true difference in people’s live, in folks being heard and served: in everything from potholes repaired to a nation summoned to greatness. 

To serve the public is not supposed to be about ego or financial gain or power or celebrity. It’s not about hitting the jackpot with a TV reality show or some cushy gig upon retirement. Public service is about seeing what is wrong in our world and then trying one’s best to make it right. Public service is about entering into the rough and tumble world of politics and doing something, beyond issuing a press release, posing for a photo op or showing up an opponent. 

Doesn’t matter if you are a selectman, a mayor or the President. 

So God bless you, Mayor Menino.  You did well, very well. We will miss you.  Whether or not you were our mayor, you showed us that there is still a need for women and men to hear the call to public service. To roll up one’s sleeves, stand for election, and then work for the public, the greater good for all the people.   

Thank you for being a true public servant.  Rest in peace.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

To Vote or Not to Vote November 4th? What's Your Excuse?

“By far the most dangerous foe we have to fight is apathy - indifference to whatever cause, not from a lack of knowledge, but from carelessness, from absorption in other pursuits, from a contempt bred of self satisfaction.”--William Osler

            The dog ate my homework.  No. Really!

            That’s the classic excuse in the rationalization hall of fame. Excuses: reasons we give for not doing something that we know we should have done. A promise. A duty.  A commitment.  At work: we miss a meeting. At home: we blow off a chore.  In sports: we drop the ball.  In love: we forget a birthday. Being human, afraid to fess up, we fudge the truth and offer an excuse.

            Not ever having a dog, I can’t use that excuse.  No problem. Excuses for not getting the job done abound. Technology excuses: I never saw the email.  My computer crashed.  My phone’s been acting weird.  Memory excuses: I forgot. Didn’t write it down.  Been busy. If all else fails try misdirection. Gee you look nice today. And how ‘bout those Patriots?!  We can obfuscate all we want but finally, maybe the best policy is to just tell the truth. 

            So…what’s your excuse going to be for not voting vote in the election November 4th? 

            You see chances are very good that a majority of Americans won’t bother to cast a ballot next week and not just because it is a mid-term election.  Americans like to imagine themselves as worldwide leaders in democracy but the fact is we are mediocre in the civic responsibility department. Also rans.  Compared to other democracies we kind of stink.  No other way to put it. Less than 40 percent of eligible U.S. voters will vote the first Tuesday of November and that places us far behind many of the world’s democratic peoples: Germany, Japan, Belgium, Australia, Canada, etc.  If democracy were a class America would get a solid C-.  

            What’s your excuse? 

            Cynicism is popular.  It’s chic to trash our government. Complain that politicians are all the same. Money has corrupted the process. One vote doesn’t make a difference. I’m staying home.  Sorry—that’s lame. It’s a cover for civic laziness.  How about this?  No vote. No voice. No right to whine about our country.  Democracy belongs to those who show up and participate. Consider Hong Kong, where thousand of protesters are putting their lives on the line to secure the right to one person, one vote.  Angry about your government? Then vote.

            “I’m too busy!” many will say.  Too busy to register. Too busy to know the issues and candidates. Too busy to get to the polls. Bologna.  If we can plop down on our backsides to watch “The Good Wife” or “The Walking Dead”, update Facebook, text endlessly, and play Farmville online, we can find 30 minutes to vote.  Too busy?  Nope.

            The one excuse which does not cut it in 2014 is that there is not much at stake in the election.  Try these issues.  Control of the United States Senate.  Casinos in Massachusetts. Sick leave for workers. You want more? Global warming. Student debt. Health care.  War and peace.  Your kid’s future.  Your future.  Elections matter.  Elections determine what we will do as a nation, a state, a region, and a town. To think otherwise is foolhardy and shortsighted.  Your vote counts.

            So VOTE!

Because by not voting, not being an active and engaged citizen, not caring about the freedoms secured by the sacrifice of others, an apathetic citizenry gets the government it deserves. Absolutely. In the words of the American philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins, "The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment".

Still I still hope for something better, something more from my fellow citizens.  As  Boston patriot Samuel Adams declared in 1781, “Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote he is…executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.”

To vote. To not vote.

What’s your excuse?

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.