Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit and the UK Exit: It's Just Another Brick In The Wall


"No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if [one is] washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind..."          —British priest and poet John Donne

It was like a death: the vote last week by citizens of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, after calling the EU home for forty three years. The fallout was immediate and disastrous. The British pound plummeted in value. The Prime Minister plans to resign. World markets fell, including a 600 point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, wiping out all of its 2016 gains. 

What’s next after “Brexit”? No one knows. This is unchartered political territory, a nation essentially saying to the wider world, “Thanks, but no thanks. It was good while it lasted, but we’ll be leaving you now.” UK voters have legitimate gripes about the EU: frustration with overregulation from a distant government bureaucracy, fear of unfettered immigration overwhelming their island nation, and anger at the loss of jobs due to globalization. 

Yet is this really enough to justify an exit? A full scale retrenchment from Europe?  The mighty British lion packs up her suitcase, buys a one way ferry ticket back home and  pulls up the drawbridge as she retreats. To many in the UK, it is good riddance to their European neighbors. One “Leave” proponent, interviewed on National Public Radio, suggested the Brits fill the English Channel tunnel to France (the “Chunnel”) with cement. Just seal it up for good. 

Brexit is about politics and economics. But Brexit also represents a more profound spiritual struggle that human beings have wrestled with since the world was created by God. Is the wider world a bad place, a threatening specter to be met with building ever higher walls and ever stronger barriers to protect our “home” and keep out the “foreign”?  Or is the wider world a good place, filled with diverse peoples and ideas that, when encountered with generosity and curiosity, make us better as a species and planet?  To lock the doors and close the windows and fearfully take shelter within, or to open the doors and open the windows and welcome the world in, with courage and commitment?

Those are questions not just for our UK friends but for us too, as Americans, as we begin the run up to the fall Presidential election. Whither the world? Is it friend or foe?  Enemy or neighbor? Is the stranger a threat to be contained, even repelled, or a fellow child of God like you, like me?  Brexit embodies the challenge all citizens of the planet face as we encounter people every day who are “different” than we are. People with a different skin color, a different God to worship, a different family to create, or a different language to speak. 

Yet the diversity of the world is non-negotiable and God made all of it. ALL of it and ALL of us. In the Book of Genesis, after seven days of glorious Creation, God finished making the whole world and declared it not just “good” but “very good”.  This truth doesn’t ignore the fact that world building is hard work.  The world is a messy place and we as a planet must do our best to continually figure out how to get along with each other.  Make peace. Share the wealth.  Work and fight for freedom for every human being.  Oppose tyrants.  Protect the weak and vulnerable.  The world has always been, will always be, a work in progress, but that work must continue. We can’t turn back, turn within, turn away.       

I know I would be less as a human being, diminished, if in my one life I had left the rest of the world behind and stayed put in my little home. I might have felt safer but oh what I would have missed in my years of traveling this amazing planet. I never would have helped build a Habitat for Humanity house with Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants in a Belfast suburb, and helped build peace too.  Never would have shared a meal of tortillas and corn meal with a Quiche Indian family in the northern highlands of Guatemala, and been touched by their generosity. Never would have been woken up in my Istanbul, Turkey hotel room at 4 am by the cacophonous calls to Muslim prayer that echoed out over that beautiful city.  And all my Brazilian friends, my British friends, my Australian friends, my world friends: I might never have opened myself up to what they teach me about life as a fellow human being.

No man, no woman, no child, no one, is an island, unto themselves.  Not the United States. Not the United Kingdom.  Not any nation or peoples.  God made just one world. One.  It is up to us to continue the blessed work of planet building.

No exit.


     

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Week That Just Was: The World Needs a Major REBOOT


Reboot (verb) 1) To…start [a computer] up…after a computer crash….starting a process over again. --The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy

Veteran PC users know the drill, especially, if like me, they live in the Windows computer universe. I’m hard at work on a document or spreadsheet or surfing the net and suddenly the screen freezes up. Nothing responds, even as I tap at the keyboard in frustration and panic. The dreaded “turning circle” icon pops up. A “not responding” message appears. The computer is hung up, caught in an endless loop.

I can’t go back. Can’t go forward. Can’t save my work.  Can’t do anything. I’m stuck in digital purgatory, suspended between the hell of losing all my data and the heaven of full recovery and so, there is finally only one thing I can do.

Reboot.

Shut down the whole system. Begin again. Strike three keys simultaneously (Ctrl, Alt and Delete), or click “Restart”, for cyber resurrection. The screen goes blank, the system whirs and then miraculously, the Windows icon reappears. Life recommences. 

“THANK YOU JESUS!”  OK: that’s my personal exclamation when I’m saved from a computer crash. Reboot is my “go to” hack for any electronic problem.  Turn it off. Turn it on. Say a little prayer too.

If only we could reboot our world. Wouldn’t that be awesome? At times of massive stimulation overload, we could just shut the whole world down, turn it off, hit a switch, strike ctrl/alt/delete and begin again. For sometimes in the machine called humanity: we go on overload too. We have much too much information coming in that doesn’t compute. The circuits of our brains and hearts and souls are flooded to overcapacity.

“Not responding”.

That’s how I’m feeling more than a week after Orlando. In a week when we marked the one year anniversary of the Charleston church shooting. In a week when the life of a young person gunned down in the halls of a Boston high school was remembered too. I just want to turn the whole world off and reboot. Return to a “before” time, before all those innocent lives were lost to hatred and chaos. Before far too many of our so called “leaders” responded in typical fashion to the next cataclysmic event.  Not with wisdom or action, but instead with blustering judgments or perpetual inaction. 

Reboot.

I want to shut down the unrelenting 24/7 news cycles that overwhelms most of us with far too much information and far too little understanding. I want to shut down the social media orgy that can bring far too much heat and far too little light, into our collective efforts to build community. I want to shut down the folks who are absolutely, completely convinced, that they alone are right. I don’t care about their political leanings or religious faith.  Right now, we’ve got too much self righteousness and too little humility in our national dialogue. I want to shut down the volume of our culture. Hit the mute button, until the day when we finally learn how to talk with each other and not merely at each other. 

I even imagine God in the heavens, sitting before a computer called Creation.  I wonder if God is tempted to hit the “reboot” button too.  To ask, “What is it about ‘love one another’ that my children just do not seem to understand?”   

Reboot.

My prayer for all of us in these overloaded days, when it feels as if our communal computer may be about to crash, is that each of us has a place to spiritually reboot ourselves. At its best this is what faith in God is all about. Rebooting regularly. Being together. Loving each other. Loving “the other”. Loving God. Loving the world, even in all its brokenness.  Last Sunday I was so grateful to return to my faith community: to talk together, pray together, worry together, be together, and act for the good, together. We’re far from perfect. But God knows we are trying. 

How about you? Do you have such a sanctuary, or a tradition, or some beloved community to return to for a reboot? I really, really, really hope so. If the past days have taught us anything, it is that we all need each other, maybe now more than ever.   

God help us all…to reboot.






Monday, June 13, 2016

After Orlando: When Will We See the Face of God in the Face of Our Neighbor?


“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes…see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.”         --Frederick Buechner

It’s a cruel irony that in the hours immediately after the largest mass shooting in the history of the United States, we knew more about the shooter, Omar Mateen, than any one of his 49 victims. The image of Mateen’s face showed up on media websites by mid-Sunday morning, less than four hours after his deadly act of terrorism and hate.  By noon we knew his name, faith, marital history, work background and had quotes about him from his father and his ex-wife. It was not until just after 5 pm last Sunday night that the names of the dead began to be released by the city of Orlando.

To be fair, the process of identifying the dead and notifying the next of kin is gruesome and painstaking work. Those charged with this heartbreaking task no doubt did and are doing the very best that they can.  I cannot imagine what it is like to have to make that awful phone call: to a Mom or Dad, wife or husband, son or daughter, to tell them that the one they loved: he, she, is gone forever.  That they went out on a Saturday night with friends for an evening of dancing and celebration and now, they will never come back.

But regardless of the timing, here’s a hard truth to consider. More ink will be spilled, more words will be written; more opinions will be offered and more political posturing will be proclaimed about Mateen in the days ahead, than about any of the innocent women and men that he killed.  Why this propensity to inadvertently lionize the criminal and so often ignore the victims? Why this gruesome fascination with “the radical Muslim”, “the ISIS inspired domestic terrorist”, and “the LGBT hating” Mateen? Why is he the lead on the front page and the evening news, that face of his staring back at us with hatred and anger? 

Because it is just too hard, too sad, too overwhelming, to face the faces of all those lost.  Their oh so young faces: smiling and hopeful, serious and thoughtful. Thank God that finally their portraits are showing up on line and in print. Let’s post those images on Facebook and Twitter, in the New York Times and the Boston Globe.  Let’s speak out loud their individual names in prayers and remembrance.  Let’s face those faces and then skip on by, try and ignore for just awhile, the face of the one who took life itself away from 49 people in the Pulse nightclub last weekend.

For when that shooter opened fire, he did not see the faces of “real” people, or fellow children of God, or human beings. Instead, apparently motivated by a warped and false religious faith and fueled by homophobic rage, he “saw” no one.  How else could he do what he did? Mateen and others of his ilk, symbolize what may be the greatest of human sins, writ large: humanity’s chronic and ancient inability to see “the other” as equally worthy of love, honor and respect. 

When will we finally see the stranger or those folks we can so quickly label “different”, as instead part of our human family: each and every one of us good, precious, and beautiful?  When, O God?  When? When will we let go of our communal need to divide this world by race and faith, by class and ability, by the people we choose to love and the God we choose to worship?  When?
 
So today I choose to remember the face and the person of Stanley Almodovar III, 23, of Clermont, Florida. Stanley was one of the first named victims.  He grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts and worked as a pharmacy technician. He lived with his Mom, Rosalie Ramos, who said she expected her son to come home from the club that night hungry, so she left some of his favorite food for him in the refrigerator. Stanley was studying to be a pharmacist. His Aunt Yoly said he was, “an amazing person with a good soul.”  He would have celebrated his 24th birthday later this month.

May our God of love bless us with the vision to see in each and every person whom we encounter, a real person. A neighbor. A fellow inhabitant in this beautiful and broken world that we all call home.  May God bless Stanley. May God bless the dead and injured and their loved ones. 

Remember them. Remember their faces.





Monday, June 6, 2016

Think You Know What It Means To Be "The Greatest" ? Think Again.


Great (adjective: also greater, greatest) 1. notable; remarkable; exceptionally outstanding: important; highly significant or consequential     --Random House Dictionary

“I am the greatest!”   --Muhammad Ali

Trevor Berbick. 

If that name doesn’t ring a bell, don’t be surprised. Berbick was Muhammad Ali’s final boxing opponent. Ali’s sixty-first professional bout was held on December 11, 1981 in the Bahamas. That night Ali--overweight, overmatched and well past his prime---lost in ten rounds.  He never fought again. Three years later he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the cruel neurological affliction which marked his final years on the earth, until his death last week at the age of 74. 

In all the media coverage of Ali’s death, I had to dig pretty deep to find any mention of the Berbick fight, because by then Ali was not so “great” anymore, at least not athletically. After a stellar career as the greatest boxer ever (no exaggeration there)—a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, a world heavyweight championship then winning back that championship twice—by 1981 Ali was done. 

But he was still “The Greatest”.  Great: beyond the ring and all the fame and all the money and all the celebrity.  It all depends on what we think makes a “great” human being.      

1967.  Ali was on top of the world, the champ, undefeated, but then was drafted to serve and fight in the Vietnam War.  A recent convert to Islam, Ali reported for his induction and said that because of his religious beliefs, he could not and would not fight and would instead seek conscientious objector status. He was indicted for draft evasion, a felony, and convicted. Stripped of his title, he was vilified, hated by most of the fans who had just cheered for him.  Public opinion came down upon him like a roundhouse punch. He was labeled a traitor, a coward, un-American. 

Ali could have taken a dive.  Denied his Islamic faith. Fled to Canada.  Instead, for almost four years Ali fought another battle, in the courts and in 1971 he finally won, in what may have been his greatest match of all.  The Supreme Court ruled 8-0, that Ali’s beliefs were sincerely held and legitimate.  A knockout for religious freedom. Maybe that’s what it means to be “great”, beyond being able to throw a punch or take a punch.  Standing up for your beliefs. Sacrificing your own good for a greater good.

Great.

Makes me wonder about how so often we humans and the culture just get it wrong when it comes to being “great” or boasting of “greatness” or thinking that something or someone is just so “great”.  Cheap greatness I’d call it.  False greatness.  Pseudo-greatness.

Like politicians, celebs, athletes, the ones who strut and declare just how “great” they are, and not just at doing some things but instead, everything.  Why the need to bluster so? To boast? To contemptuously dismiss others as not so great, all to convince yourself that you are so great? To puff one’s self up like a preening peacock?  Memo.  If you have to remind people constantly just how great you are there’s a great chance you aren’t really all that great.

Great. 

Is a “great” life one in which we make millions of dollars?  Invent some app or device that’s hip or hot but which finally does not add much goodness to life?  Is it “great” to accumulate material goods while others go poor?  “Great” to live a life centered on one’s self alone?  Funny what we humans think is so “great” in the larger scheme of things. Power.  Prestige.  Physical appearance. Status. 

Jesus was once asked just who was the “greatest” among his followers.  His answer? He took the hand of a little child and said, “Whoever welcomes this child…for the least among all of you is the greatest.”  Didn’t see that spiritual punch coming.

Far beyond the narrow confines of a boxing ring, Ali was truly “The Greatest” and perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all of us.  For there is “great”. And then there is great.  Which do we aspire to in this life?

Rest in peace champ.



Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Working Poor of Massachusetts: Invisible, Forgotten



“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”                     --Plutarch

It was late on a recent Monday night, 10 pm or so. On the way home from a friend’s house in Belmont, I stopped in at a late night gas station in Newton for a soda.  Standing behind the counter was a very tired looking young man—mid twenties or so, maybe a bit older. His name tag read “Antonio” and with a smile and a “thank you, sir”, he handed me my change and I went back to my car.

I wondered what life was like for him, as I drove home to my big suburban house. I thought about how completely exhausted he looked.

As a clerk he probably makes the Massachusetts minimum wage for such a job, $10 per hour.  Work 40 hours and after taxes, that’s about $17,000 per year.  I wonder if he has to work another job just to pay his rent, or maybe support his spouse and children if he has any. Food on the table, clothes and shoes, medicine.  Or maybe he’s in school.  How can he hit the books if he has to work 50 or 60 hours a week just to get by?

I wonder…how does he live, survive, economically? Especially in the Boston area.  Must be very close to the bone, that’s for sure. 

Two recent Boston Globe articles make that reality very clear.  The first reports that Boston now has the highest rate of economic disparity among the 100 largest American cities. More than half of the Hub’s residents make $35,000 or less, per year.  Like Antonio. Maybe he and his wife both work full time jobs at or near the minimum wage.  There must be plenty of others like them. The woman who is a crossing guard at the neighborhood school. The man who serves you coffee at the drive-thru.  The kind lady who takes care of people at the nursing home.  The gentleman who works in a group home for the disabled. 

I wonder…how can they find a decent place to live on that kind of pay? Say, a two bedroom apartment.  Who knows? Because the second Globe article reports that Boston is also now the fourth most expensive rental market nationwide.  Want that apartment? You have to make $58 an hour, or $120,000 a year just to move in.  Where are people supposed to live when rents get that sky high? The Boston area may be in the midst of a biotech boom with high tech entrepreneurs and young people flocking to live in the city.  But it is also a place where the divide between the “haves” and “have nots” is about as wide as it has ever been in recent memory.

I wonder…what can be done about this? Is anyone—Marty Walsh or Charlie Baker or the Legislature—doing something to help the working poor? Building more affordable housing? Ensuring that the city and this area that we all love so much won’t become a place where only the few can live comfortably.
I wonder…about Antonio, as I write this.  I wonder about him and all those other folks whom I most often just do not see, really see, as I go about my life.  The folks who work hard at tough jobs; who stand on their feet all day and put up with cranky customers, who take care of our children and aging parents, who drive our school busses and plow our driveways, who serve us lunch and pack our grocery bags. 

I wonder…if sometimes they wonder if anyone really cares about them. Sees them.

I wonder…what my faith has to say about all this.  Jesus did once declare that the poor would always be with us but Christians often read that passage without realizing Christ was actually quoting an older, longer passage, from the Old Testament.  The full verse says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” I wonder why I seem to always forget the second part of that scripture.

All I wanted to do that night was get a Coke for the ride home.  And then I encountered Antonio and he made me wonder…about what life is really like for the working poor of Boston and its suburbs.    

I wonder….

Monday, May 23, 2016

They Deserve the Thanks of a Grateful Nation. Do We?



“Non nobis solum nati sumus." (Not for ourselves alone are we born.)
--Marcus Tullius Cicero

It gets me every time. 

No matter how often I preside as clergy at the funeral of a military veteran or active service person, the haunting ritual at the end of the graveside service always moves me.  It fills my eyes with tears. Gives me a lump in my throat, as I place my hand over my heart and watch…

“Taps” is played on a trumpet and its mournful notes wash over the assembled and the hushed cemetery. Two service people—an honor guard—approach the flag-draped casket, reverently lift up the stars and stripes, and neatly fold it into a fabric triangle.  Finally, one from that guard approaches a widow or widower, or the eldest surviving son or daughter, or a relative, and presents them with the flag.  What’s not often heard by those assembled, are the words always spoken by the soldier, as the flag is handed over.

“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army (or Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard), and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service.”
                                                                                       
A grateful nation. 

Grateful, because that man or woman was called to serve or chose to serve, the United States of America.  His country. Her home. He was summoned through the draft, or inspired to join up, because of Pearl Harbor or 9/11.  She joined with others, in service to a cause greater than herself: to defend the nation she loved or to give back in gratitude for her homeland.  

But here’s the real civic miracle symbolized in that ritual. They served.  Served. Me and you.  Served fellow citizens, millions of people, most of whom were strangers to them.  They served, sacrificed a chunk of their lives and precious time with family and loved ones. They stepped out of careers or school. They left behind sweethearts or children. They served, sometimes in not so hard places, but often in the worst of places. On the beaches of Normandy or the jungles of Pacific islands or in Vietnam, or on the cold plains of Korea, or the sweltering sands of Iraq and Afghanistan. They served, in the prime of their lives, as a nation sent forth its sons and daughters.  

They served. 

And always their example makes me wonder, even worry: could I do that?  Serve, as they did, as so many millions still serve this day?  Could you? Would you, if asked, if needed by our nation, leave it all behind and serve? When I die, will the nation I call home, be grateful for the one life that I’ve lived, the causes I’ve served? 

To serve. 

In these cynical, sometimes nihilistic times, it is all too easy to forget our shared civic life and responsibilities. This call to serve. It is so tempting to just leave it up to somebody else to do our heavy lifting. To snarkily dismiss the notion of a citizen’s duty as quaint, old fashioned, the vestige of an earlier age. But when we do so, we forget that individual and communal service to others: this is what truly made and makes a nation great.  That when the call goes out for sacrifice, citizens respond. 

For America is not finally “great” because of the size of our GDP or the wealth of the few or the fame of our pseudo heroes or the allure of power. America was and is a “great” nation for the most noble of ideals. Like freedom and folks ready to defend it.  Community and a commitment to living a life not just for “me” but also for “thee”.  Patriotism: not the cheap kind, sporting a .99 cent flag lapel pin or knowing all the words to the national anthem.  That’s easy.  Real patriotism is stepping up and serving your neighbor and it happens in the military and many other settings too. Service: in faith communities and families, in suburban neighborhoods and on city streets, in running a business or volunteering to coach kids, or serving on a town board or feeding the hungry.

Service is life, in a way.  We all got to where we are in this life because some one else sacrificed on our behalf.  They served us.  Remember?

So my prayer for this Memorial Day weekend is simple. In between all the soccer tournaments and baseball games and barbeques and flag waving, may each of us as citizens and humans consider just what we are doing to serve others.  The smallest life is one devoted to self alone. The greatest life always seeks to serve others. In gratitude, let’s not forget that.

Happy Memorial Day.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Drivers and Cyclists: Can't We All Share the Road? PLEASE?!


"Boston cyclist killed Friday was a surgeon at Beth Israel"   --Boston.com, August 9, 2015

“You’d never catch me on a bicycle these days!”

That’s the emphatic answer I received recently when I suggested to a friend she take her road bike out of storage. Dust it off and join me for a ride.  Just a ride.  What’s the big deal?  Who doesn’t love riding a bike?

Remember? As kids, riding a slick new Schwinn ten speed or a Raleigh, the one with the banana handlebars: that was the way to get around town. Cycling as freedom: it was and is still for most kids, a first foray into independent transportation.  My bike got me to middle school football practice and Duke’s Corner Store for a cold Coke on a hot August day. My bike made me into a budding young entrepreneur as I delivered newspapers in the cool morning air.  When I hit my late forties and decided to do something about my growing mid section, it was a bike that got me back into shape. Even if you haven’t cycled for years, the cliché holds true. Riding a bike is just like riding a bike. Our bodies somehow never forget the sweet sensation of forward motion on two wheels and all under our own power. 

What makes me sad is that lots more folks like my friend would bike if it didn’t seem so darn dangerous.  In my fifty years of cycling, I’ve never been more concerned for my own safety, and for one simple reason: so many drivers now do anything but drive. I see it every single time I’m out for a ride.  Drivers don’t pay attention anymore.

Drivers text and talk, eat and drink and then turn around to yell at the kids.  Driver fiddle with increasingly complex screens and knobs and buttons that the newest cars boast. Drivers look down but not up and out at me.  Little me…a 190 pound person on a twenty pound bike gliding at 14 miles per hour.  I have little or no chance of surviving unscathed a collision with you, in your 2,000 pound mass of metal, flying along at 30 or 40 or 60 miles per hour.

Yes, I know that some of my biking peers are cowboys, even rude when they go out for a ride. You see them now, especially on weekends, packs of cyclists, sometimes clogging narrow roads and angering drivers. I’ve even seen some of my fellow bikers talking on their phones too! Some bikers neglect the basic rules of what it means to share the road.  They don’t ride single file when possible.  Don’t keep a straight line or stay as far to the right as practical. They weave like drunken sailors. Don’t follow traffic rules or use hand signals. 

So here’s my plea: don’t judge the majority of well mannered, respectful cyclists by a handful of outliers who make us all look bad.  Instead remember this: all most cyclists want to do is what drivers also want to do: get from here to there.

And bike…because we love the exercise and reveling in the gift of seeing the world at a slower pace.  We bike because we love saving the environment, one commute to work or the grocery store at a time. We bike to make us feel young again, to push our bodies and rest our minds and souls.  We bike for charity, for rides like next August’s Pan Mass Challenge which will raise more than $40 million for cancer care and research.  That’s why I’m out riding now.    

So please, PLEASE, PLEAAAASE!!! 

Watch out for us as we take to the roads this spring and summer.  I don’t want to become a sad statistic or a tragic story in the newspaper about the next cyclist seriously injured or killed by a car or truck.  When it comes to two wheeled vehicles versus four wheeled vehicles the statistics are sobering.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2013, 743 cyclists nationwide died on the road, and 48,000 were injured. 

Those aren’t just numbers.  They represent real people. A kid killed biking to CVS.  A doctor crushed under the wheels of a truck, as she made her way to work on the busy streets of Boston.  A Dad coming home from a long day at the office and being clipped by a speeding SUV. He now lives with a severe head injury. Maybe you know someone from your close circle of friends or your family, who wanted nothing more than to ride in peace and safety but then paid the price. For a bike ride.   

There is only one road. We all need to share it. All of us.  My prayer is that drivers and cyclists will do so, with attention, civility, respect and care. I’ll be looking for you on the road.  Won’t you look out for me too?  I promise you a friendly wave and a smile.    

Thank you.