Monday, April 14, 2014

The Marathon One Year Later: To Endure is To Win

Marathon (noun) 1. a foot race over a course measuring 26 miles 385 yards  2. any contest, event, or the like, of great, or greater than normal, length or duration or requiring exceptional endurance                     
 --Random House Dictionary

Just keep going.

No matter what happens. No matter what obstacles appear in your path blocking the way.  No matter how much your legs ache or your lungs burn or your spirits flag and all you want to do is stop and rest. 

No. Just keep going.

One foot in front of the other, step by step and stride by stride, mile after mile after mile after mile.  Do whatever you have to do to keep running.  Imagine the finish line in your mind and crossing over it.  Say a prayer to God to give you the strength to endure the pain. Don’t think about the distance which lies ahead.  Focus on the next landmark, the next corner to turn, the next mile marker to pass. 

Just keep going.

Distract yourself if it helps.  See the crowds cheering you along. Read the brightly colored handheld signs of encouragement. Listen to the shouts of support and love.  “You can do it!”  “Just five more miles!” “Almost there!”  Or focus on your breathing.   One breath in. One breath out. 

Yes, just keep going. For you. For every one. Especially this year.

I tried to write about the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings and this year’s race so many times in the past month.  I kept coming up empty, wordless, mute. What more can be said about that awful and awe-filled April day?  Bright blue skies and terror filled streets. Victims lying across Boylston Street in a nightmarish urban war zone. Brave first responders and bystanders scrambling to save someone, anyone.  Sketchy and confusing news reports--what happened?!

And I wasn’t even there, nowhere close to the finish line.  I can’t, most of us, can’t ever imagine what it was all really like…for the families of the three spectators who died, or the sixteen people who lost a limb, the 264 hurt, the runners frozen in fear at exactly 2:49  pm, the cop gunned down in the manhunt. No words or sentiment could ever capture it all.  All I can offer is one prayer and plea and hope as 36,000 runners and millions of marathon fans walk back into the memories.

Just keep going.  KEEP GOING! Keep running. Keep striving.  Keep on keeping on until the very last runner finally crosses the finish line next Monday afternoon. 

In response to trauma, sometimes that’s all we humans can do and that’s a good thing and that’s a miracle and a victory. To face death and grieve deeply and then carry on in life somehow. To be knocked down by circumstances beyond our control and then find the grace and the grit to pick ourselves up and start running again.  To live through tragedy and terror and then refuse to let it break us and instead go on with life, even, especially, when it is so incredibly difficult.   To run and not grow weary.  To stumble but not fall.

To just keep going.

So bring on the 118th running of the Boston Marathon next Monday. It is time. It will be a bittersweet day of memory and memorials, an anxious day as we remember where we were and what we were doing. But I believe the marathon has already been won before it begins, before anyone departs Hopkinton for that 26.2 mile journey. 

For you see, we can and we must and we will, just keep going.  GO BOSTON!




Monday, April 7, 2014

An April 15th Truth: Taxes Make Life Better

“The expenses of government, having for their object the interest of all, should be borne by everyone, and the more a man enjoys the advantages of society, the more he ought to hold himself honored in contributing to those expenses.” 
 --Anne-Robert Jacques Turgot

It is tax time again.

Less than a week to go before most of us will carry out that most civic and most slandered of civic acts: paying taxes. Come April 15th 136,000,000 or so Americans will meet their legal obligation to pay some $1,042,000,000,000 in federal income taxes (more than 1 trillion dollars!); 3,171,000 Massachusetts taxpayers will pay approximately $11,933,400,000 in state income taxes.
That’s a lot of money. A lot of taxes.

These numbers don’t include the other taxes we pay too: “sin” taxes (alcohol, cigarettes, etc.), corporate taxes, property taxes and the sales tax.  There are more exotic taxes too: on the cars we rent, the plane tickets we buy, and the hotel rooms we sleep in.  Is there anything not taxed?  As the Beatles 1966 song “Taxman” proclaimed, “If you drive a car, I'll tax the street; If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat; If you get too cold, I'll tax the heat; If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet; ‘cuz I’m the taxman.”
Taxes—we’ll pay and we’ll complain.  Loudly. Rant, rave, and protest. Some will call themselves “patriots” as they kvetch about how awful all these taxes are. How unfair, and odious, burdensome and “un-American”.
If there’s one civic punching bag Americans love to pummel even more than the government, it is that same government’s authority to tax. Yet…I just can’t hate taxes. I can’t do it, even as I mail in my tax returns, even as I see a big chunk of all my hard earned money going away to Washington and Beacon Hill.  For you see I always come back to the people I know who are directly helped by and through the payment of my taxes, our taxes.  On April 15th I remember how taxes actually benefit me and my loved ones and my community and nation so much.
There’s my grandfather and mother who are well cared for by Medicare. My neighbor who was transported to the hospital by the local fire department when an emergency struck.  My friends whose house caught fire. A 911 cal and the police and firefighters were there in minutes.  The University of Massachusetts, the school I proudly call my alma mater: if not for the taxes which support that school and underwrote my loans, I never could have attended.  I think of my friend the army chaplain who cares for his soldiers in such an amazing way. Or the relative saved from life on the streets by extended unemployment benefits and Mass Health Care.  My Dad who was the first in his family to get a Masters degree because of Uncle Sam and the GI bill.  The prisoners I work with at the Norfolk County Jail receiving treatment for their drug addictions.  Taxes underwrite the hope that when they are released they’ll stay out of trouble and be clean and sober. 

All programs funded by taxes. All people directly served by taxation.  No taxes? No government services.  No national defense. No first responders.  No Head Start or food stamps or senior housing or health care for the poor and the elderly.
Every American could easily write a very, very, very long list of all the ways the paying of taxes makes life better, safer, gentler, and healthier.  It’s just that when we get all self-righteous about taxes, especially around the 15th, we tend to forget. We suffer from civic amnesia. 
Like taxes. Hate taxes. The choice is ours’.  But there is no ignoring one absolute truth: taxes directly benefit millions of us every single day. 
So I will pay my taxes. Try to pay my fair share.  Pay because as a citizen and a “patriot” that is my duty.  My obligation. My responsibility.  It is my “rent” in a way, for being blessed by God, lucky enough, to call this great country and this great state my home. I pay taxes because I am grateful for all the ways my government serves my family, friends, neighbors and strangers, especially the ones who are in need.
Let the choruses of tax griping begin.  Sing right along but remember… taxes are an integral part of what it means to live in community, and to be responsible for, and with and to each other. 

See you at the post office on the 15th.

Monday, March 31, 2014

On Opening Day, All Things Begin Again

“People will…walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon… where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters….The one constant through all the years…has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers…been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”   --from the film “Field of Dreams”

I write this column on a cold and rainy Monday morning, as only New England can offer on the final day of March.  Piles of dirty ice and snow still dot the front yard after the longest winter in recent memory.  Spring is extra stubborn this year and hasn’t really shown up, not yet.  But that’s ok.  For you see in just a little less than four hours, the first pitch of the 2014 Boston Red baseball season will be thrown. 

Same as it ever was.  Same as it will ever be.  And that is good.

So for the next 182 days, until September 28th, (perhaps even beyond!) I’ll be there with the Sox and they’ll be with me too.  It’s been this way for me for forty seven seasons. I’m not sure exactly where or when I first caught baseball fever, began to mark the passage of time in my life through a kid’s game, played by nine men on a diamond, and not just any team but by the Sox.

Maybe it was one spring night long, long ago: Dad had the game on in the car and I started to ask him about balls and strikes. Or it happened as I played wiffle ball in the backyard with Joey from next door, each of us arguing about which Red Sox star we’d portray, Carl Yastrzemski or Rico Petrocelli.  We’d swing away at pitches until dusk fell and then our Moms would yell out the backdoor that it was time to come in for supper.  There was my first Fenway Park visit, Grandpa marching five of his grandsons into a July afternoon game.  Sitting in the bleachers in the hot sun, peanuts shells crunching underfoot, fans shouting at the players, vendors singing out, “GETCHA HOT DAWGS HEAH!”

Seems so long ago.  Seems just like yesterday too.

That’s the amazing nature of human life.  It all goes by so fast sometimes, at a pace which can be breathtaking, even overwhelming.  Sweet memories—wasn’t that just yesterday?  Has that much time really gone by?  In the midst of this often frenetic life journey, I know I need some truth, some reality, some thing, which does not change. Which is dependable and right and real and that I can count upon to just be there, to return once again.  

That’s why I need baseball, this year and every year.  The Red Sox. Spring in New England.  Warming April days and muggy August nights.  A game on the radio as I drive down darkened roads and highways, the window rolled down, a summer breeze blowing in, Joe and Dave lazily calling out the action.  Mornings turning first to the sports pages to see what happened the night before. 

Baseball is back again.  All is right in the world.

Yes, I know it is just baseball: a game, a diversion, entertainment.  I know it is easy to be cynical these days about modern sports with its overpaid spoiled athletes, steroid use, and overpriced tickets, blah, blah, blah.  I know that for many folks baseball is passé now, no longer the national pastime, too slow, too nuanced, too dull. 

But for this little boy who still lives inside the man, baseball is one of the few things in my life which always beckons me back: season by season and generation to generation.  If we are blessed by God, we can all claim a few such truths: a family who loves us through all the years no matter what, faith in a God who sustains us day by day and, yes, a game, a game which grows up with us and then begins again every year, without fail. 

So dust off the glove.  Retrieve from the shelf in the closet that faded red and blue cap.  Stock up on some mustard for the first hot dog of the year.  The Sox are back.  Spring is here.  Summer can’t be far away.

Listen for it…”Play ball!”

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Mystery of Flight 370: Lost...

Lost (adjective) 1. no longer possessed or retained; no longer to be found; bewildered as to place, direction, etc.    
--Random House Dictionary

In 2014, how can a commercial jet airliner just seem to vanish, be lost?

It is a jumbo jet after all, a technologically sophisticated flying behemoth.  The Boeing 777.  Fully loaded it weighs a million pounds.  Fully powered it zooms through the clouds at almost 600 miles per hour and soars to 35,000 feet.  Two hundred and forty two feet long the plane can carry up to 451 people and travel nearly 10,000 miles non-stop.  Everything we know about this human made marvel would seem to suggest, even somehow guarantee, that a “thing” this substantial, this real, could not ever disappear.  Go missing. Right?

Not in our hyper-connected brave new world. Not when breathtaking technology links us in a second to others, to anywhere else worldwide.  Sitting in Massachusetts I can easily call a friend in Caracas, or Skype a buddy in Cairo or surf the web to read an Africa based blogger or book a flight, then jet off to Timbuktu or Taiwan.   

Click, tap, type, send: the distance from here to there seems so short, so small, so controllable. Google “map it” and we can see, be anywhere on God’s green earth, up close, as if we are right there.  We are a global village.  More wired, more linked, more integrated than ever before in human history.  There’s nowhere which is “nowhere”, yes?

So where is Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the 239 souls onboard her?  Lost. Lost.  No avoiding this hard and sobering truth.

For the families of those missing folks, this mystery is heartbreaking, tragic, and awful.  I can’t imagine what it’s like to have absolutely nothing to go on: no news, no evidence, no real leads. Those loved ones have a right to protest, to push, to insist, and to demand that those in charge give them answers.  No question on that.

But what’s amazed me in weeks since the airplane’s disappearance is how totally freaked out so many of us are at the fact that even today, getting lost and being lost is still a real possibility, a risk.  That for all humans think we know about reality, about existence, about the big blue marble we call home, life is still a mystery.  Not every question can be answered, certainly not always immediately, maybe not even ever.  Not every solution is attainable. Not every corner or part of this vast world or even bigger universe has or will ever be fully plotted or parsed or tamed.

You wouldn’t know this by turning on the TV or opening up the newspaper or surfing the net.  Coverage of Flight 370 has been wall to wall since the day it vanished. Everyone has an opinion.  The rock singer Courtney Love tweets her theory and it goes viral.  CNN features alien abduction theorists and the ratings soar.  I get the natural tug of trying to figure out something so wondrous, so odd.  The drama of wondering “why?”  The newsworthiness of the story. It makes for riveting journalism.      

But what’s lost in this tale of loss is a humble recognition that the world is still a very, very, very big place and we humans are well…kind of puny. Flight 370 is tiny compared to the size of the oceans it may or may not have flown over.  A needle in a haystack is the operative cliché.  The earth is comprised of 196.9 million square miles of surface area, land and water.  That’s huge. 

What’s lost in our global speculation is the reality that even as humankind creates “safe” or “foolproof” or “life changing” machines, when we place these in the hands of fallible human beings, assume they’ve been engineered well, there is always a chance for failure.  Always. A plane vanishes from a radar screen.  A mass produced automobile kills and injures scores of drivers.  A tainted drug sickens unsuspecting patients.  No machine is perfect.  No human either, even in this modern world where it is so easy to assume we can know it all, explain it all, control it all and answer it all.  But we can’t.

As the author of Psalm 8 writes in a prayer to the Creator of the Universe, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is [hu]mankind….?”  The mystery of Flight 370 reminds us of our true place in the cosmos.  Not at the center of all things.  Not the master of all things.  Not the maker of all things. Nope. We are just one part of this beautiful and scary and wild and awe inspiring place called Creation.

I do hope and I do pray that Flight 370 is one day found. The largest air and sea search in the history of the world is bringing us closer to a final answer.  But for now…it is lost.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

March In Massachusetts Means Mud Season

"Here in purgatory, bare ground is visible,
except in shady places where snow prevails.

Still, each day sees the restoration of another animal: a sparrow, just now a sleepy wasp; and, at twilight, the skunk pokes out of the den, anxious for mates and meals…”

Earth’s open wounds – where the plow gouged the ground last November -must be smoothed; some sown with seed, and all forgotten.

Beside the porch step the crocus prepares an exaltation
of purple, but for the moment holds its tongue…
                        --excerpted from “Mud Season”, by Jane Kenyon

In northern New England this time of year is called the fifth season, mud season, when after a long and earth chilling winter, the ground finally begins to thaw out.  It’s the season in between seasons, a “not quite yet” time.  And this year with all the cold and snow we in the south have experienced, it is mud season here too.  A time of natural transition. Winter fades, and oh so slowly releases its grip, but is not ready to fully relinquish its hold upon us or Creation. Days warm up with tantalizing temps and gaudy sunshine but nights still dip below freezing, the backyard bird bath a mini skating rink.  Birds have returned and sing out but you get the feeling they do so with tiny scarves wrapped around their necks. We even use daylight savings time to trick us into thinking the earth is about to turn and yet the calendar forces us to wait. 

To face into the mud. To trek right through it. No detours. No shortcuts.

And so for the next few weeks we’ll just have to wade through the mucky landscape which is March in Massachusetts. Scrape the mud off our shoes before we walk into the house. Listen to the squish of mud beneath our feet as we march to the mailbox. Shudder as the mud suck our boots downward on that walk in the woods with the dog. 

Mud is a curious thing.  It is messy, mucky, and chilly, especially in March.  “Dirty” by definition. First blush might tempt us to conclude mud’s not good for much of anything but creating a big mess. Yet within it are all the nutrients needed for life, for the greening again of the world. That seed planted last fall in fact depends upon the embrace of mud to wake up and begin to bloom.

No mud, no spring. No crocuses pushing up, no blue jays blasting away, no green buds exploding on the branches. Mud is life. Mud reminds us that even from the coldest depths, life always seems to find a way to push up, to push out, to push through.  Mud is the stuff from which God made humans. “God formed Man out of dirt from the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life. The Man came alive—a living soul!” (from “The Message”, by Eugene Peterson)

So even though a part of me wants to protest and skip over this sloppy time of the year,  jump over our fifth season, I know, the earth knows, and God knows we just have to wait in the mud this March.  Wait and trust that April is approaching, and will be delivered to us, faithfully, by a Creator who can take the mud and make a new thing, once, always.

Bring on the mud.  Let the thaw begin.  Let the slush give way to water. Give me earthworm filled dirt and spongy clay and bouncy topsoil waiting to be turned over. Sure, it may be messy.  But it is our New England mud. 

Winter is almost gone.  Spring is so darn close.  That’s the good news of mud. 

The bad news? Don’t forget to wipe your feet before coming in the house.


Monday, March 10, 2014

In The Best Saint Patrick's Day Parade, Everyone Gets to March

“Rudeness is the weak man`s imitation of strength.”
--Edmund Burke: Dublin born Irish statesman and philosopher

Who doesn’t love a parade?

Especially a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Especially in Boston, the most Irish city in America, with 20.4 percent of its citizens claiming Irish heritage.  The parade!! You know: rosy cheeked Irish step dancers and patriotic military honor guards and spirited high school bands and shamrocks everywhere. Maybe even a first hint of spring in the air too.  When the parade steps off next Sunday, thousands of marchers will be cheered on by upwards of a million greater Bostonians, many directly descended from a people who first immigrated to the shores of Massachusetts in the 1700’s.

Everyone here is Irish on the 17th, right? Well…maybe not.

Ask members of the gay and lesbian community in Massachusetts if they’ll feel included on the 16th in the parade and they’ll say “No”.  They’ve been trying for years to gain the right to march: as veterans, as Irish, as Americans. Negotiations this year have gotten close to a resolution. But the parade organizer, The Allied War Veteran’s Council, has consistently said to these folks, “You need not apply”. The Council is so adamant in its opposition that they took their fight to the United States Supreme Court. In 1995 it ruled the exclusion legal, on the grounds that as a private enterprise the Council had a free speech right to just say “No”. Even though this very public affair takes place on three miles of public streets. Even though the city of Boston will spend more than $300,000 on police services for the parade, and thousands more for trash collection.

But here’s my lament, beyond any legal debates.  Why do my fellow Irishmen insist on a spirit of downright rudeness when it comes to “their” parade? Why the closed door? Why the parochialism? Why the inhospitality to fellow Irish folk, fellow Americans? Like those excluded and those included, I’m Irish too, and proud of that heritage. I’m fourth generation, the great grandson of an Irish immigrant who first made his way from County Roscommon to Boston in 1897.  I was born in Dorchester. I’m named “Fitzgerald” after Boston's own Irish-American U.S. President.

So this Irishman? I say just let ‘em in the parade.  Let ‘em in. Let them march. Let them be who God made them to be. Let them stand side by side with other Irish folks, and with other American neighbors, and all in a gracious spirit of welcome and inclusion. That’s the Irish way, at least in the clan I grew up in.

Irish—not the stereotype of corn beef and cabbage and (ugh!) green beer, which no self respecting Irish person would ever, ever drink, especially on the 17th.  No—real Irish. Irish: who know what it is like to be excluded.  To be kicked around by bullies, like the English landlords who watched as one million Irish died of starvation in the Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid 18th century.  Remember that Irish history?

Or the tens of thousands of Irish immigrants who fled that human disaster and landed in Boston, only to find “No Irish need apply” signs in most shop and factory windows. They were discriminated against the moment they got off the boat. They fought against virulent, often violent, anti-Catholic prejudice. Then the Irish lived on just about the lowest rung of the social ladder.  Yet in just a few generations, the Irish overcame that bigotry and today can march without fear and in full freedom for all to see. As Irish. As Americans. So how about extending a real Irish welcome to people who still face obstacles for full societal inclusion? We once faced unfounded fear based prejudice. Remember?

It is 2014 after all.  Boston is one of the most liberal, young and diverse cities in the country, not perfect, but trying. Chicago’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade has welcomed gay and lesbian groups since the mid 1990’s and their celebration is one of the best in the country. So what’s the hold up?  What’s the problem?  I know this may be heresy to suggest but….it is just a parade after all. And for me, Irish and grateful to be so, I think the parade will  be that much better when its organizers finally stop saying “No” and start saying, instead, “Yes. Join us.  You are more than welcome.”

So from this Irishman: “Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!” The 17th is a day when everyone is truly Irish.  Everyone. No one left out. No one left behind. No exceptions. No one shunted so far back in life that they miss the march of inclusion. 

Now that’s a parade I could love.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Youth Suicide and the Pressure to Be "Perfect"

“Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…”    
--“Anthem”, by Leonard Cohen

His name was Roee Grutman, and he was a 17 year old junior in high school from Newton, Massachusetts.  On February 6th of this year, he took his own life and thus became the third Newton high school student to commit suicide since last October. I cannot imagine a worse nightmare for parents or a family or peers or a community than a young person getting to a point in life where they feel so down, so despondent, so trapped, and so bleak that the only way they see out is death.  

Always there is the lingering question of “why?” Much of the time this has no clear or immediate answer.  Suicide happens for a host of reasons: mental illness, life circumstances, substance abuse, trauma. Suicide among the young is also a “hidden in plain sight” public health epidemic across the United States. It is the second leading cause of death among Americans ages 10 to 24. Every day in the U.S. 5,400 middle and high school young people attempt suicide. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined.” There are no simple nor obvious answers to the question of what moves a young person to take their own life. 

But in reading a recent Boston Globe article about Roee and his life and death, it was these sentences which most caught my heart, and then broke my heart.  “[Roee’s] family, who moved here 14 years ago from Israel, believes the stress of an overwhelming course load and an American obsession with elite universities contributed to his death, though they recognize there could have been additional — still unknown — factors.  In the aftermath of the suicides, other parents in town have also begun to question the culture of a high-achieving school community that routinely sends numerous graduates to elite colleges.”   Said his Mom, Galit Grutman, “I really didn’t know that it was not OK to take five AP and honors classes. I blame myself for that.”

Is this overwhelming cultural pressure to succeed, to be “perfect”, a contributing factor to youth suicide, as Roee’s family so poignantly and hauntingly wonders? I really don’t know. But I do know if I had one message I could directly say to the young people I work with as pastor and teacher, the young people I love so fiercely as Uncle and Godfather and friend, it would be that you do not have to be perfect in this life. Ever. 

That your worth as a young person is already there, within you, regardless of any external measurements of so called “success”.  That you are already “perfect” in fact, in your imperfection, your God made human goodness from the moment you came into this world. You are good, great, amazing just as you are, first string, second string, or bench warmer.  You are good, great, amazing, whether you get into Harvard or Holyoke Community College or the military. You are good, great, amazing not because of SAT scores or your number of Facebook friends or your outward appearance, but because God shaped you into a child of God.  Nothing else really matters than this one undeniable truth and fact.    

Roee’s death and the deaths of his two other Newton classmates-- Karen Douglas, 18, and Katie Stack, 15—have made me examine much more critically all the ways in which our over achieving world can so insidiously, temptingly try to convince people of all ages, that we really only matter if we are forever striving for perfection, to get ahead, to be “the best”. Perfect weight. Perfect looks. Perfect grades.  Perfect careers.  A perfect life. 

Turn on the TV, or read a magazine with its glossy ads or watch a movie with its oh so gorgeous actors and actresses and pay attention to the impossible standards of success we far too often worship as a people.  But the truth? All of us are “cracked”, filled with imperfections, traits and temperaments and personalities and quirks that make us who we are.  Already good. Already whole. Already worthy of love, no matter what the world might say or depict as “perfect”.

So this day I hope we can all say a prayer for the youth in our lives and then go beyond prayer and let them know every single day, just how amazing they already are and how much we love them, perfection be damned. 

We’re all imperfect. And that’s ok.