Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Real Story Behind NFL's Fumble: Domestic Violence In America

Domestic violence (noun) 1. acts of violence or abuse against a person living in one's household, especially a member of one's immediate family.    –Random House Dictionary

It is not about football.  Not finally. Not really. I’ll say that right up front. 

True: NFL star players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson are both accused of domestic violence and their alleged crimes have dominated the news for weeks.  Rice caught on tape punching into unconsciousness his then fiancĂ© Janay Palmer, dragging her limp body out of a hotel elevator.  Peterson indicted for child abuse, using a switch (a tree branch) to whip his four year old son’s backside. Rice, Peterson and the NFL’s handling of these and other domestic violence cases have elicited widespread anger and shock.

That’s good. We should be angry that a man, any man, would use his physical power to hurt another, a woman, a little boy. Should be angry at the clumsy, insensitive, “save the brand at all costs” response by the NFL.  Should feel uncomfortable at cheering on field violence by modern day gladiators, even as a few of them can’t seem to stop throwing punches once the whistle blows.  

But then let’s face the true issue here: domestic violence in America.  That’s what been lost in this culture wide conversation about Rice, Peterson and the NFL. The victims. The ugly truth about battered women and children in our nation. The millions of heartbreaking stories beyond the headlines: black eyes hidden behind sunglasses, purple welts and bruises explained away as “old school discipline”, families fleeing in the dead of night for shelter from a raging abuser.

That’s the story here, the real tragedy, yet this is still not being reported or talked about, not nearly enough. Not clearly enough.  Instead fans, pundits and players continue to worry if the NFL can “redeem” itself as America’s national pastime. Wonder if Rice and Peterson will ever play again.  Speculate about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s job security. Sponsors fear besmirched reputations for being associated with abuse.  Networks scramble to maintain sacred TV ratings.

So much hand wringing. So many crocodile tears. Such wasted cultural energy, worrying about “the game”, as if whatever happens on the field is ever as important as the shameful and brutal acts which happen behind closed doors.

It is not about football.

It is instead about this: the “twenty people per minute [who] are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States…more than 10 million women and men per year…the nearly 2 million women [who] are raped in a year and over 7 million women and men [who] are victims of stalking in a year.” (The Centers for Disease Control, National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010).

It is about this: America’s “678,810 victims of child abuse and neglect….a rate of 9.2 victims per 1,000 children in the [U.S.] population.” It is about the fact that, “Victims in their first year of life had the highest rate of victimization at 21.9 per 1,000 children of the same age in the national population.”  (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Child Maltreatment Report, 2012).

But because these statistics are so much more difficult to contemplate than the sordid soap opera which is now the NFL, the temptation is to just look away.  Stick to the scores on the field. Try to go back to “normal”. Let someone else worry about it. I get why we may want to respond thus.  Domestic violence is scary. It is stomach churning. It is awful.

But as a lifelong football fan, as a Pastor, and as a person of faith, I can’t turn away from the innocent and the powerless who are abused, who need our help, and who need our attention.  Now.

It is not about football. It is about a battered woman, a beaten child, life and death.  That’s the real story.  The real page one banner headline.   

It is not about football.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Remember When Sports Was Only A Game? It Still Is.

“Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.”                     
 --Michael Jordan

A scuffed white wiffle ball, a canary yellow plastic bat, and a patchwork of dirt and grass for a playing field: those are my first vivid memories of sports and games in this life.  My next door neighbor Joey and I would have season long backyard tournaments from late June until early September, play ball for hours, until our Moms would join in a chorus of “SUPPER!” calling us in from the fading light of dusk. What games! Two boys, eight year old best friends, trying to hit a winning home run at Fenway Park, a rusted chain link fence our Green Monster. 

It was just a game.  And we loved it. 

No adults to set the rules or pick the teams. No fancy uniforms. A travel game meant we played two streets over.  It was always pick up. Who ever showed up joined in. Other times of the year we switched from one pastime to another.  Basketball in suburban driveways, shirts versus skins. Touch football on the town green, with cries of “one Mississippi, two Mississippi…” Street hockey in a church parking lot with a green tennis ball for a puck. Pond hockey on frigid winter days in the marsh behind our house.  Then back to baseball again.

We marked the turn of the seasons by whatever games we played.    

We worked hard to win, wanted to win, but in the end I think we knew somehow in our young wisdom that it was always just a game. A joyful activity which allowed us to burn off the frantic energy of childhood and to test out our growing bodies.  Later when I played organized sports, I loved those games too. Savored the hits and drama of football and I played into high school.  But still, for me, it was always just a game.  A diversion to take my mind off of school and whatever other stresses ailed my teen life.  Then one day when it was no longer fun, when it no longer felt like a game, when it became more like a job and less like play, at the end of that last season of youth sports, I left the team.       

But I never lost the fun of playing games and sports. 

Watching games and sports for fun too: the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics, and Pats.  Like most New Englanders I went crazy when the BoSox broke “the curse” ten years ago on a full moon October evening and finally won the World Series. THEY DID IT! Sunday afternoons in the fall and winter are often about the couch and football and then turning to the sports page on Monday mornings for a recap.  Offer me tickets to any game and I am there: a Coke in one hand, a hot dog in the other. 

Professional sports as fun.  Games played by overgrown kids.   

At their best, spectator sports entertain; provide a respite from work and all the real news in the rest of the world, which weighs so heavily, the outcome of which actually matters. For me that’s what makes fandom so enjoyable.  If the Pats or Sox lose there’s really nothing at stake.  Nothing. No one dies. Nations don’t totter and fall because of the final score, and there is always the next game to get excited about. 

Because for me, finally, sports are just that…sports. Games.  Nothing more. 

Competition played between the lines, a gift from God, to give us the pure enjoyment of playing and watching games. I think our world needs to remember that truth every once in awhile, the purity of play for play’s sake. We need to keep sports in perspective. We need to teach our kids that sports are an important part of growing up and so too is family, community service, school, work, God and just being young and having fun. We need to stop feeding the sports media monster which creates false idols out of the players and teams and then tears them to pieces when they end up disappointing. Plenty of that happening these days.  We need to learn again, that before sports became big business and big time, it was played by kids and amateurs, for the love of the game.

Because I do love sports: playing, watching, cheering, and competing. Sports make this life better. But in the end? It is only a game. 

Thank God.



Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Thirteen Years After 9/11, What Does It Mean to Be Patriotic?

“Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”                --Adlai Stevenson

I confess.

I didn’t want to stand up when the crowd sang “God Bless America” at Fenway Park last Sunday, at a baseball game on a gorgeous, sunny late summer afternoon.  Didn’t want to take my hat off. Put my hand over my heart.  Belt out the lyrics with 30,000 other fans.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d like to think I’m patriotic. I love singing our real national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”. Hat off, placed over the center of my chest. Watching as a huge American flag whips and curls in the breeze.  Then as Francis Scott Key’s song builds to a crescendo of  “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!”, I cheer at the top of my lungs.   

The singing of “God Bless America” is a new tradition and became the norm at major league ball parks right after September 11, 2001.  It started at New York City’s Yankee Stadium, at the first game played there after that awful Tuesday morning of terror, death and fear thirteen years ago this week.

The singing of the America’s official national anthem at sporting events is a much older ritual. It began in the 1918 World Series, which took place right before the end of World War I. During the seventh inning stretch, a band struck up an impromptu version of the anthem.  Red Sox and Cubs players faced the flag in centerfield and the crowd stood up and joined in.  The singing of the anthem at every game was formalized when America entered World II as a way to unite folks in that common cause. 

Fans singing together then knew all too well about shared wartime service and sacrifice.  Every person in the park was touched by war.  Moms worried about their sons and daughters overseas. Gold Star families mourned loved ones who died in battle.  Neighbors struggled with wartime shortages and rationing.  Tired factory workers toiled on double shifts to support the war effort.  Then the national anthem was a sincere call to patriotism, for Americans to work, work, together to protect and defend their homeland.

It’s hard to fathom that this Thursday, 4,749 days will have passed since 9/11.  Half a generation.  Millions of words will be written and spoken to mark this anniversary and most will extol patriotism.  But post 9/11: what does it mean to be a patriot, patriotic?  That question is why I struggle with the singing of “God Bless America” as a vestige of 9/11. Not because of the sincere motives of those who sing. Not because of the desire to honor 9/11 victims and the millions of service men and women who served in two wars birthed on that day so long ago.

What worries me is that the “patriotism” which has emerged since 9/11 is marked largely by symbolism and rhetoric, not so much by shared sacrifice. Patriotism “light”.  The ubiquitous flag lapel pin adorning every politician.  The perfunctory ending of every speech, with, “And may God bless the United States of America”.  The contradictory adoration of soldiers and veterans, even as so many of them receive terrible care at the hands of Uncle Sam.  Or can’t find work.  Or suffer from trauma. 

America has been at war continuously since 9/11, but the truth is that few of us have done anything in support of that effort.  Are we ready to send our son or daughter into harm’s way?  Pay extra taxes to finance our wars, instead of going into debt that our kids will one day have to pay back?  This week our world will be saturated in patriotic symbols and speeches and services and stories, yet is this really patriotism?   

For me patriotism is a verb, not a noun.  Patriotism is what we do to make our country strong, not what we say or sing or declare.  Patriotism is about voting every single time we have the chance. Patriotism is about paying our fair share of taxes as a duty, not an onerous task.  Patriotism is about saluting the veteran in the parade and then making sure she has everything she needs to get on with her life.  Patriotism is about volunteering: serving on town boards and committees, coaching kids in sports, dropping off a bag of groceries at the food pantry, worshipping God in freedom and being grateful for that gift.  Patriotism is about keeping up with current events and knowing our history. Patriotism is sometimes about protesting the government, calling it to live up to its highest ideals. 

Patriotism is so much more than standing up at a ballgame or singing a song, or flying the stars and stripes outside of our house, or saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school.

This 9/11 week of remembrance: let’s be real patriots.  Do something, anything, to make America a better place; honor the lost and the fallen through action, and not just public ceremonies and private prayers.

Thirteen years later, that would be a real blessing to America.






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 him...to 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 yet....is 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?