Monday, September 1, 2014

Take A Road Less Traveled--It Will Make All The Difference!

“It is remarkable how easily…we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived [at Walden Pond] a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side...How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”  --Henry David Thoreau

Ever heard of Heath, Massachusetts? 

Probably not. With a population of just 706 souls, this farming and summer community, 102 miles northwest of Boston, hugs the southern border of Vermont. Heath is the kind of hidden away place that one typically finds only if you are very lost, or maybe trying a shortcut to get from here to there. It is easy to miss Heath if you blink or lean over to adjust the radio as you drive down Main Street, a white clapboard community hall on one side of the road and a simple country church on the other. You’d probably just pass on by. Zoom right through.  Skip Heath completely in the rush to get somewhere else.

That is unless you are willing to take a risk and get off the beaten path.  Throw away the well worn map book.  Disregard the Trip Advisor recommendation. Turn off the GPS and instead explore territories heretofore unknown.  Take a long detour and discover an unexpected little gem like Heath.

We are entering the season of road trips here in New England.  The leaf peepers will soon be out in droves searching for the perfect foliage, a Mecca of golden yellows and maple reds. The streets of Boston are filled to overflowing with out of town parents and wide eyed college kids, many discovering the city for the first time.  This past Labor Day weekend, 35 million Americans took to the roads and drove 50 miles or longer for one last summer journey, a three day jaunt to bid the season adieu.

But here’s the truth about all those millions of miles in travel. For the most part we’ll be all too human and just stick to the beaten path.  Familiar places. Well worn roads and oft traveled highways.  And we’ll all too easily miss a special place like Heath.

Instead we’ll take the Mass Pike, which will be packed with traffic and then we’ll stand in line with scores of other weary travelers at a rest area McDonalds. We’ll scurry over to Boston’s Faneuil Hall with its tourist kitsch, prepackaged history for the masses.  We’ll clog the Maine Turnpike and wait in line at the toll booths, visions of a rocky coast dancing in our heads while the horns honk and patience frays.

That’s travel. That’s life. 

To stick to the way we’ve always journeyed, revisit the destinations we return to again and again and again. I’m as predictable as the next person when it comes to making a choice between the familiar or the foreign, the dependable or the surprising, the mundane or the mysterious.  Too often I stick to the beaten path, reluctant to set out for parts unknown.  I want to know what’s next, what will appear around the bend in the road. 

What if I get lost? 

Yet the best places I’ve discovered in all my road trips have almost always come about because I took a risk and got off the beaten path. Discovered the best orange sherbert ever at a road side stand in Lake George, New York. Found a perfect front porch to explore at the General Store in Underhill, Vermont, in the middle of a long hot August bike ride. Went down a side street in Manhattan and stumbled upon the Firefighting Museum of New York City. 

And in Heath?  I met Ruth Johnson, a kind and hospitable trustee of the local historic society. She took me inside the Union Evangelical Church, an 1830’s house of worship. There I stood in a simple wooden historic pulpit, where in the summer of 1943, a theologian and preacher named Reinhold Niebuhr ended his sermon thus: “God, grant us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”  The Serenity Prayer, perhaps the most widely prayed prayer in the entire world: it was born right there in Heath, Massachusetts. 

To find this out, I first had to get off the beaten path. Take the exit off the superhighway and trust that the back roads in life would get me to where I needed to go.  As we move into a new season of life and the year, may God bless our life road trips and give us the courage to look for places like Heath. 

In the words of the New England poet Robert Frost, try the road less traveled.  That just might make all the difference.

Monday, August 25, 2014

To Grow In Knowledge or Harden in Ignorance? Learning=Life!

“The world is a university and everyone in it is a teacher. Make sure when you wake up in the morning, you go to school.”
 – Bishop T.D. Jakes

I always get a bit envious this time of year as I watch the young people in my life go back to, or start, school.  I get wistful when I’m in Boston and drive by the moving vans that clog the narrow streets of the Hub, as college kids reoccupy the city.  I get nostalgic at the excitement of Matthew, a little boy in my church, who on Sunday literally jumped for joy as he told me that this year he gets to go to all day kindergarten! I may even get teary when I have coffee with a young woman named Anna, before she begins her studies this week at my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts.  Was it really thirty five years ago that I was in her place, when my Dad dropped me off at UMass, with an overstuffed steamer trunk and a head full of dreams? Even the familiar smell of a brand new notebook or a freshly sharpened pencil or a bright pink eraser can set me off, take me back to the twenty years I spent sitting in classrooms.

I want to go back to school!  I want education as my sole life objective.  I want to sit with fellow students and passionately debate ideas.  I want a backpack full of books waiting to be read. I want to learn.

But maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to formally matriculate or register or enroll in a school to do this.  To learn.  To arise each day and be curious about the life we live and place we inhabit.  To see the next twenty four hours as an opportunity to gain a new skill, learn new information or understand a differing viewpoint.  To view the world, the whole world, as a classroom, filled with people and experiences and ideas which, when encountered with an open heart and an open mind, absolutely have something to teach us. 

To learn. To be a student. Not just in life, but of life. Not only in a building or lecture hall but on the streets too.  To see this quest as life changing and world changing.  To embrace the beautiful gift of curiosity our Creator gave us and then to use it wisely and well in our life’s journey.

To learn, for the mind and the heart are like muscles.  Use them often and vigorously and they will flourish and strengthen.  Use them sparingly and stingily and they will atrophy and harden.  I’ve got a 100 year old grandfather who still lives on his own, who has outlived almost all of his peers. I imagine it would be easy for him to just give up and say, “I’ve learned enough.” Yet whenever I visit him, he’s always reading a new book or watching “Jeopardy” on TV.  He asks me about my life: what I’m doing, where I’m traveling.  I’m convinced his longevity and lucidity are the direct result of his willingness to learn something new every day.   

Learning is not about age. It is about attitude. You can be 99 and fully alive to knowledge or 19 and completely hardened in your ideas.  The best life is always about constant learning, constant curiosity and a constant commitment to grow: in heart, mind and soul.

Imagine what our world be like if more and more people lived with learning as their goal. Our collective hearts have broken in these waning weeks of summer at how much our world still has to learn. Israel/Palestine bombs Hamas in Gaza and Hamas bombs Israel/Palestine. An unarmed black teenager is gunned down on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. A bright and wonderful young woman is caught in a hail of bullets in Dorchester and dies. A brave American journalist is beheaded by so called “religious” soldiers who revel in the brutality and violence of their warped ideology.

Many factors led to these tragedies but I think plain old ignorance is what most fuels the human sins of such cruelty, stupidity and callousness. People of “faith” who blindly follow a narrow theology and refuse to respect or learn about the God walk of others.  All they care about is their twisted view of the Divine. People in nations that claim a right to “defend” themselves, human rights be damned.  So what if innocent civilians die in war?  People of different races and classes who lack the emotional intelligence to imagine what life is like for “the other”, the one who looks back at them over the barrel of a drawn gun.  If only we took the time to learn more about our “enemies”, the ones we deem “different”: the world would certainly be a much better place.

It is time to go back to school.  For our world. For ourselves.  Be curious. Many lessons await. The school of life is now in session.







Monday, August 18, 2014

Robin Williams and The Inner Battle of Being A Human Being

"This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past....It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with let him understand that we are also fighting a battle."  --Reverend John Watson, 1898

I never knew. 

That's a very common human response to that most uncommon and shocking of news: a fellow human being has taken her own life and committed suicide.  By his own hand a loved one or neighbor or stranger or celebrity has killed himself. 

I never knew.

That she was in so much pain.  That he was an addict who struggled for years to tame his inner demons.  That she suffered from a mental illness which pushed her over the edge: depression, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder. That he was so wounded by life.  That she hurt inside so badly.

I never knew. 

Finally we humans do not know, cannot ever fully know, what inner battles a fellow human being is fighting. What psychic battlefields that person next to you on the subway or the street or in the pew at church is walking through. We can't know.  We don't know.

It's been fascinating and frustrating to witness our culture's response to the recent suicide of comedian and Academy Award winning actor Robin Williams. Social media in particular has been filled with weird, wonderful, wacky and wild ideas about Williams' death.  Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said Williams' suicide somehow had something to do with his liberal politics.  Complete strangers who never knew Williams, never met him, posted intimate and teary tributes. Kind of touching, I suppose.  Kind of strange too, so reflective of our fame obsessed world. Some used his death to raise awareness about mental illness and suicide.  That's a positive.  Some news outlets, like voyeuristic vultures, reveled in the gory details of Williams' death.   

In the rush to fill the eerie silence following so swift and shocking a death as Williams', the temptation in this age of media immediacy is to always instantaneously respond, act as if we know. And then opine, declare, conclude, pontificate. Yet most of these often self serving lamentations shed little or no light upon the private and unknown personal psychic battles Williams fought and apparently, eventually, succumbed to.

Suicide is awful for so many reasons.  It leaves those left behind with the ragged and ultimately unanswerable question of "Why?" It cuts short whatever gifts a person might have brought to the rest of their one life and the world.  It can haunt a family for generations to come.  It tears at the fragile cloth of what it means to be a human being and leaves in its wake bittersweet mystery.     

For me the one clear spiritual truth I take from Williams' so sad death is this. Since we can't ever know fully what private battle he was fighting in his heart, what any human finally faces in her dark night of the soul, all we can do, must do, is to treat others, treat ourselves, with tender care.  With soulful compassion.  With God inspired love. With gentle and patient understanding, because all of us, at one time or another: we fight the battle within.   

We wonder if we are really worth it.  We lie awake at three o'clock in the morning and stare at the ceiling, overcome by anxiety.  We are confronted by the uncontrolled appetites of addiction and try our best to stay clean and sober. We worry about our loved ones. Are they safe?  Will their lives turn out well? We pray to our God and sometimes hear a response and sometimes wonder if there is really anything or anyone out there listening. 

We are human: beautiful and broken, happy and haunted, serene and striving, every last one of us.  None of us is exempt.  So I pray that we can all remember this shared reality as we travel along together in the journey of life. 

Thank you Robin Williams. May you rest in peace. Peace.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Lost In Thought: Making Time to "Just" Think

"Never be afraid to sit awhile and think."       
 --Lorraine Hansberry, "A Raisin in the Sun"

It was the kind of news item that can easily get lost in the torrent of information we wade through these days, but one which demands a second look.  In the July 4th issue of the journal Science , researchers reported on eleven studies in which participants were given a seemingly straightforward and simple task.  To sit in a room, all by themselves, for six to fifteen minutes and just think, with no external stimuli. No phone, no computer, no reading material, no writing implements, nothing, save their own company. 

Here's where it gets a interesting and then a bit weird.  A majority of the folks did not like being alone in thought or daydreaming, not at all.  As University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson reported, this discomfort with solitude was widespread, from the old to the young, from college students to retirees. "Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising – I certainly do – but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time."

Now the odd part. Wilson and his colleagues decided to give some participants the option of administering mild electric shocks to themselves for stimulation while alone, to presumably take away their boredom and discomfort with solitude. Hmmm...sit still and ponder, let the mind wander, or zap one's self?  Twelve of fifteen men and six of twenty-four women chose this self-inflicted pain!  One man even shocked himself 190 times!

Concluded Wilson, "The mind is designed to engage with the world....without training in meditation or thought-control techniques...most people would prefer to engage in external activities."  I kind of get that and self-reflection, keeping one's own company, just sitting and thinking sometimes, really all that bad?  That hard?  So difficult that some of us would even choose to experience pain over being alone?

We do live in a time when external stimuli is more available than ever before in human history.  I've become much more aware lately of how cocked and ready so many folks are with their cell phones, in hand or in pocket.  When the conversation lulls or the movie ends or there is some space to just be, so many of us now reach right for our device and then look, swipe, type, and lose ourselves in that screen.  At home we flip on the radio or turn on the boob tube or crack open the computer without thinking.  At work the "ding" of constant emails interrupts any chance to wonder and wander in thought. 

The price for such unconscious addiction to stimulation?  No time for careful thought.  No space for creative impulses, an "A ha!" moment.  No chance to give our brains a rest from constant activity.  To think freely, to journey within, to slow down and just be still.  To hear the sound of our own breathing.  To face into the relationship we have with ourselves. To pray to and know and be known by our God.  To be a human being and not just a human doing.

I'm lucky. I get paid to think, as a pastor and preacher and writer.  The truth is our world expects most of us to be constantly on the go, on the run and forever engaged with the external.  The next shoe to tie or dinner to make or soccer game to rush to as a parent.  The next project to tackle at work.  The next TV show to "showverdose" on, as Netflix beckons to us.

But to be still? Really thoughtful? Even, especially in 2014, we need this "activity" too.  Need to find spaces and places for reflection.  Church.  A screened in back porch.  A hammock.  A favorite well worn path in the woods or on the beach.  A comfy chair in the corner.

It's all about balance.  Thought then action.  Prayer then wisdom.  Daydreaming then direction. Wonder then work. 

To sit. To think.  Can we do it?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

EXTRA! EXTRA! Read All About It! Good News For a Change!

“The news media are, for the most part, the bringers of bad news... and it's not entirely the media's fault: bad news gets higher ratings and sells more papers than good news.”
       --Peter McWilliams

Flesh-Eating Bacteria Kills 10
Seasickness on Stranded Whale-Watch Boat
Faulty Tanning Bed Sends Three to ER
            --top headlines,, 7/30/14

It’s been a miserable few weeks for our world, at least according to all the downbeat, doomsday and depressing news erupting in the media.  War in Israel/Palestine.  War in the Ukraine.  Planes shot out of the sky.  Immigrant kids face rage filled protesters who tell those innocent children to just go back home.  That’s just globally.  Locally, if is to be believed, flesh eating bacteria is on our shores, whale watching is a potentially vomit marked disaster, and even tanning beds can hurt you, though we already knew that. 

Read the news, hear the news, face the news and it’s almost impossible not to be pessimistic about our chances as a species and planet, yet here’s a truth which will never make page one.  There is actually good new about the world but it doesn’t sell newspapers. Doesn’t drive folks to news websites. Doesn’t fill up the Twitter-sphere with millions of re-tweets.  Bad news is very, very big business.  As the journalistic cliché proclaims, “If it bleeds, it leads.” 

But the good news is…there is good news.  Try this.  According to the latest statistics from the United States Department of Justice, violent crime in our country has been cut in half during the last 20 years, from 747.1 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants in 1994 to only 366.1 crimes per 100,000 last year.  A fifty percent drop.  Where are the banner headlines? 

Or how about this news from a 2013 report on global poverty by the United Nations? "The world is witnessing an epochal 'global rebalancing' with higher growth in at least 40 poor countries helping lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and into a new 'global middle class'. Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast."  I haven’t heard that lead trumpeted on any news broadcasts—have you?  Where’s the celebration about this world changing event?

Warfare: compared to other times in human history, the world right now is actually the least violent it has ever been.  The least warring.  The good old days?  One hundred years ago World War I raged, a conflagration which resulted in the deaths of 37 million people.  World War II, just a generation later, killed 60 million people, 2.5 percent of the world’s population.  A conflict today would have to produce 176,150,000 deaths to compare in scope.  Wars are always bad, always, but statistically speaking war is not now what it once was. Not even close.

Global health is improving too, especially for kids.  The number of children under five years old who die from diseases like malaria, malnutrition, polio and measles has been halved, halved in the last twenty years, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.  Or how about human freedom?  A generation ago millions of citizens lived under autocratic communist rule throughout Eastern Europe in places like Poland, East Germany, Romania, and Hungary.  Today the Cold War is a footnote in history and all those folks are now free, in still emerging democracies, not perfect, but certainly much better than in 1985.  How soon we forget.

Heck, last weekend I was one of 5,500 bicycle riders who rode the length of Massachusetts in the Pan Mass Challenge and raised more than $40 million dollars for cancer care and research.  It garnered no headlines on but good news rarely does.  Like stories about folks of faith who faithfully feed the hungry day in and day out.  Kind hearted souls who shelter the homeless.  Good neighbors who care for one another.  That’s not the stuff of Pulitzer Prizes but we need to hear this news too. 

I’m not ready to say these are the best of times.  Old problems go away and new ones inevitably arise: global warming, terrorism, violent religious fundamentalism, government dysfunction.  Yet is our world really as bad as the media makes it out to be?  Or is instead the news we consume about the world perpetually slanted to the awful, the sensational, the bloody and the bad, and all for boffo ratings and plentiful profits?

I choose to be hopeful about the days ahead, in spite of the daily deluge of bad news, because this is never the whole story.  I choose to believe that within humanity there is always the possibility of renewal, redemption and even peace. My faith in God inspires this, but so too does faith in my fellow human beings.   

So here’s to the good news about our world.  It is out there. Find some good news to read today, or better yet, with your one life, make some good news for others.  As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Film at 11!

Monday, July 28, 2014

WHAT! SUMMER? OVER!? Not Yet....

“What?! Over? Did you say 'over'? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!” --John Belushi, as Blutto, in "Animal House",1978

Excuse the cheekiness but I had to find some way to answer the naysayers among us who have already begun to lament that the summer of 2014 is practically over. You know them:  the lamenters, complainers, and kvetchers, who right now are saying that before we know it, the lazy and languid and lovely days of warm temps and slow schedules: it will all be gone.  For them September is pounding on the door already, demanding to be let in, and so we should all just begin to prepare for the inevitable day after Labor Day. 

WHAT! SUMMER? OVER!?  Nothing is over until we decide it is!

Me?  I’m not getting back on the crazy train called back to school and back to work and back to full speed until I absolutely have to, until the last minute, the very last second of summer.  Calendar wise we are certainly in summer’s sweet spot right now. The season officially began June 21st and ends next September 21st, so the mid-point, the exact middle of summer is Tuesday, August 5th.  Not one day sooner. 

The weather’s summery, no hint of fall’s crisp and cool air.  We’re in the dog days, the hottest time of the year, named thus because of the rising and falling of Sirius or “dog star” at sunrise and sunset.  As the ancient Greek poet Homer wrote in “The Illiad”, “Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky, On summer nights, star of stars, Orion's Dog…brightest of all...bringing heat.” 

Summer’s not kaput.    

I mean I haven’t even done everything I need to do each summer, not even close.  Haven’t been to a Red Sox game to cheer on the BoSox who valiantly fight on to defend their world championship. O.K.  That probably won’t happen.  The Sox are in last place as of today, ten and half games out. Reminds me of what life used to be as a summertime Boston fan pre-2004.  But they are still our team, every summer. 

Summer isn’t gone, not yet. 

I haven’t taken a long road trip, miles whiling away, the hum of tires on pavement as the countryside zips by on a muggy evening. Haven’t cracked open my big summer book, Stephen King’s latest.  Haven’t seen the sun set over my island get away.  Haven’t tasted sweet watermelon or eaten enough fresh corn or seen the latest summer blockbuster movie.  In these rituals I find my summer place.

I’ll bet you’ve got more stuff to do too.  Catch a firefly in a jar.  Spend the afternoon at the pond building sandcastles.  Have a picnic on the town green and listen to the tunes at dusk.  Kayak in a quiet bay or cycle on a leafy back road. And when those “Back to School” commercials come on the TV? Switch the station or better yet turn off and put away the screen and get outside. They’ll be plenty of time for vegging on the couch next March.

I’m not quite sure why every July there is always this cohort of people who insist upon reminding anyone who will listen that summer is now “basically done”.  Cooked. Fini. Roll the credits.  Maybe it’s because they took all their vacation days in July and are in anxious waiting mode for the ninth month.  Maybe they’re just killjoys, who whine about the heat in August and snow in February, and forget how beautiful and amazing New England weather is, so extreme, such a gift.  Maybe they’re melancholy.  Summer can break our hearts because it is too short. 

But here’s the news. The big news. IT IS STILL SUMMER and this is the season that God has made and our job is to be alive to it. 

So get moving. Have some fun. Enjoy summer while you can.  We can’t hold back time but we can be fully nailed to this present moment and revel in the miracle of today.  Just this day. Just this one summer day.

It ain’t over.  Happy rest of summer!


Monday, July 21, 2014

When Adults Wage War, Children Pay the Highest Price of All

“...the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child,“Whoever welcomes one such child…welcomes me. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones… it would be better for you if a great millstone was fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea."   --Matthew 18

I’m not a big fan of the whole “angry God” school of theology.  This “God” has been used much too often throughout human history by religious fanatics and zealots to justify less than Godly behavior. 

But after this past week, as I witnessed how children are treated in our world, I just might have to revisit this notion of a God who holds humanity fully responsible for its actions, especially when it comes to the innocent. Because right now God must be very angry and very sad about all the careless and cruel ways that kids pay the price for the sins of adults. 

Adults who battle in wars. Adults who fight in politics.  Adults who flail away at “enemies”, with no thought as to the consequences of conflict upon the powerless.  When nations and peoples and politicians go to war, it is always children who suffer the most. 

In Ukraine. Last Thursday a plane full of 298 passengers was shot out of the sky by a missile, killing everyone on board. At least 80 children were on that flight, boys and girls who had no stake in, no knowledge of, the bloody and violent war being fought 32,000 feet below. The world mourns every last victim who died at the hands of the barbarians who fired that rocket. Yet there is something doubly tragic about all those young lives ended so suddenly, swiftly, terribly. Photos from the crash site show gut wrenching images of children’s books and stuffed animals strewn across a farmer’s field. 

What kind of people would do such a thing? 

In Israel/Palestine. Last week Israel launched a full scale invasion of the Gaza Strip, after bombing it from the air for days. Israel says it is defending itself against terrorists.  Hamas, the terrorist group firing rockets into Israel, says it is retaliating for crimes against the Palestinians. Thus far 500 Gazans have died, including more than 100 children.  Scores of children on both sides have been injured and traumatized, cowering in basements and shelters, as the bombs fall. Fleeing from their homes to escape the carnage.  “Adults” in this conflict claim moral justification in waging war. Yet it is always the innocent who get hurt the most: kids who know nothing of geopolitics or national security or the “right” to self defense. 

What kinds of governments do such things?

And yes, in the United States too.  Consider the 57,000 undocumented immigrant children and teenagers who have been detained at our borders since last October.  They flee poverty, drug wars and violence.  Sent north by their parents, they are exploited by adults who profit by transporting these poor souls across the desert. 

Our response as a nation? Send them all back home as fast as possible. Use the kids and their plight to score political points. Ratchet up our perpetual partisan war of words. Even the effort to treat these kids with just a little mercy, by temporarily housing them to allow deportations to proceed: that’s a disaster too. States are falling all over themselves to just say no: Connecticut, Ohio, Delaware, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado. Thank God our own Governor Deval Patrick has the courage and compassion to say “Yes”. 

These are children, remember?  Boys and girls as young as four. Orphaned.  Lost.  Most had no choice in their doomed march. Are we as a country now so xenophobic, so politically split and hard hearted, that we would turn our backs on “the least of these, our brothers and sisters”? They are here. They need someone to step up and to care. 

What’s so difficult to understand about that?

Jesus was right.  Adults everywhere have a moral obligation to care for kids, all kids, every last one. When we stumble in that duty as a world and fail to protect the children from violence, we have sinned mightily.

God help the children, because the “adults” of this world? We are not.