Monday, April 23, 2018

What Does It Profit Us to Gain the World But Forget the Soul?

“Inside us there is something that has no name, [yet] that something is what we are.”
-- José Saramago, Blindness

Every Sunday night from January to May, I am in the soul shaping business. On those evenings I meet for two hours with a class of rambunctious and curious and antsy eighth grade young adults. There I challenge them to do one very unusual thing: to think about their souls.  Not their minds that are well cared for in school all week.  Not their bodies that are challenged in sports and pushing through puberty so that each of them might grow into amazing young women and men.

No. What I seek to help them realize, cherish and develop is their souls. My faith tradition, all faiths recognize one essential spiritual truth. The best life, a good life, the most meaningful life, always works on soul shaping. Soul growing. Soul nurturing.  A soul: the unique part of ourselves that makes "me", me and "you", you, unlike any other human being among the 7.6 billion people who call planet earth home.

I know that for most of us "soul" is a very squishy idea, hard to nail down or define, and yet, we each do have a soul. Some "thing" within, more than our bodies, the mere physical containers within which we move through the world. A body is finally just a collection of chemicals that makes it possible for us to walk and run and breathe and eat and speak and laugh and procreate and touch and live.   

Nor is the soul about our minds either: the center of our ability to think and reason and learn and imagine and create. One hundred billion neurons, the cells that send and receive electro-chemical signals to and from the brain and nervous system: these fire our minds.  Make it possible for a toddler to say "Mama" for the first time and for Albert Einstein to propose E=MC squared, unlock the secrets of time and space.

Yet the soul is so much more than a body or a brain. 

Remember the first time you really fell in love and your heart leapt for joy? That was your soul.  The moment you cradled in your arms your newborn son or daughter and your heart broke wide open? That was one soul meeting another soul. The anger you feel at the world's cruelty and injustice and the conviction that moves you to do some good and make this world a better place. That's a soul in action.  The feeling you have that there must be more to life than arising, eating, working, sleeping, repeat.  That's a soul wondering.  Or the sparks of connection you experience in another: their energy, personality, passions, quirks, ideals, and essence?  You are encountering their soul.

Our culture does a great job in telling us how important it is to take very good care of our bodies and our minds.  So we spend hundreds of billions of dollars and spend lots of time and effort on going to the gym and playing sports and visiting doctors and taking medicine to make sure our chemical containers are in the best of shape. 

We spend the first 12 to 16 years of life, even beyond, in the full time business of learning, of filling up our brains with knowledge, honing the life skills we need to survive and thrive. We test and test and test our kids to make sure that their minds are up to speed, push them to get into the "best" schools, and pray that they will find a calling and work in life, and always be able to make a living.  

But what of our souls?  How well do we take care of the soul within each and every one of us?  How is your soul this day?  How are the souls of the folks you love: your children, your family, your community? What are you doing (or not) to shape the one soul that God gave to you?

A wise teacher once famously asked, "What does it profit a person to gain the world but lose their soul?" He knew that a life of wealth, power, material possessions or external beauty: it all falls short if a person does not also do the soul work of life. To find meaning and purpose in what we do and who we are. To live for others and not just for self alone.  To look beyond the external appearances of a fellow child of God--race or class or sexual orientation or ideology--and instead just see and honor another soul.  To love, not as a transaction, but as a gift and a courageous leap into life.

This is the work of the soul.  So absolutely, go and workout this week, hit Planet Fitness, take your pills, and eat healthy.  Read a book, go to school, soak in knowledge.  But don't forget to take care of your soul too.  And if you'd like to join my Sunday night confirmation class, you are more than welcome!

All souls invited.


Monday, April 16, 2018

He Kept a Promise for 81 Years and Showed Up. Could You?

“Faithfulness is not doing something right once but doing something right over and over and over and over.”        --Joyce Meyer

Four point two years.

That's the average time an American worker holds a job, according to a January 2016 United States Bureau of Labor Statistics report. So if you or I are "average" in our work life, we'll switch jobs every fifty months or so. That translates into ten job changes in a lifetime. But not everyone is so typical or average when it comes to work.

Take Phil Coyne, an usher for the Pittsburgh Pirates major league baseball team.  Last week he retired from his job of helping people find their seats at the park, directing folks to the concessions, and greeting fans with a smile to ensure that their time at the game is memorable.  After ushering for more than 6,000 games, beginning in 1936, Coyne, at 99 years old, finally decided to give up his calling, his faithful calling, to serve the fans.

To show up.

How faithful was Coyne, how dedicated was he to that work? Except for four years when he served in World War II in Germany, Italy and France, Coyne showed up to every single Pirates home game for 81 years.  When he began ushering in 1936 as an eighteen year old rookie, the new Baseball Hall of Fame had just inducted the living legend Babe Ruth. Franklin Roosevelt was President. Radio was the hot media outlet.  Admission to a ballgame cost about a buck .

Beginning then, Coyne, for the next eight decades, or 54,000 innings, at three ballparks, witnessed hundreds of thousands pitches and foul balls; heard "RED HOT PEANUTS!" tens of thousands of cries; stood tall in the hot August sun and the cold April rain; and watched as the Bucs most often finished just okay in the standings but then finally won World Series in 1960, '71 and '79.

All by just showing up. Every time. Every game. Dependably. Faithfully.

Faithfulness is a human virtue our world doesn't much honor or celebrate anymore. Fidelity: the ideal that when we make a commitment or a promise to a person or a job or a cause or a faith or a country or a community, job one is to just show up. To do what we have been asked to do or hired to do; to do our duty, to meet our responsibility, and not just because of "what's in it for me", but also because faithfulness is the glue that binds all human relationships.  Faithfulness is the right thing to do. When we are faithful to someone, when another is faithful to us, life is just better, safer, stable, whole. 

Like when you went to a Pirates game, you just trusted that if you sat in section 26 or 27, Phil Coyne would always take very good care of you.  Always.

Consider: there are lots of folks in your world whose faithfulness makes your life a gift, in fact they make your one life possible.  Parents who stood by you. A spouse who loves you, for better and for worse. Friends who always show up for you.  A God and faith that has supported you through everything, all your life changes.  Even baseball is faithful, a game that still returns every single spring.

So thank you Phil Coyne. 

For showing up. For teaching us about the hope and the call to always, faithfully, show up.  Show up for the folks who need us. Show up for a country that right now needs citizenship and civic fidelity so desperately. Show up and in showing up, building a better world.  All one day, one job, one commitment squarely met, at a time.

For in the game of life, the winners always, ALWAYS, show up. See you at the park.



Monday, April 9, 2018

Think It's Not Rocket Science? Actually, It Is.

"Apply your mind to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge."        --Proverbs 23:12

Physically ill.  An upset stomach. Butterflies in the gut. Shaking hands. A racing heart. 

I suffered through all those symptoms every single Sunday morning I had to preach a sermon, for the first five years I practiced ministry. Somehow I got through those bumpy initial years of my profession, preaching way too many long winded speeches that put folks to sleep. I still had a lot to learn.  I was a rookie after all, so new to my calling.

But with lots and lots and lots of practice and experience, I've become better at my craft. Through practice: spending ten hours a week for 48 weeks a year for almost 30 years, researching and writing sermons. Through experience: delivering upwards of 1,400 Sunday talks. 

Do anything over and over and over, over a long period of time, and chances are very good you will eventually master it.  Become an expert.  Preaching. Teaching.  Singing.  Researching.  Building.  Managing. Governing.

Or...maybe not. Maybe we can just cut the line of experience and practice and instead be really good at something just because...we think we'd be good at it. Because...we want to be good at it.  Because...we can be an expert by just declaring to the world, "I'm an expert! Trust me!"

We are living in an age when the idea and ideal of experts and expertise is under attack.  Think of how "up for debate" the hard science of climate change still is, even though the numbers are incontrovertible and rising tides don't lie. Just ask folks who live in Boston's Seaport district. Or how about the news?  Attack hardworking honest journalists often enough, hard enough, loud enough and eventually no one, no news outlet or body will be trusted as experts or truth tellers. Goodbye Walter Cronkite--you'd never make it in 2018.  

Or consider the recently announced candidacy of actress Cynthia Nixon, running to become governor of New York state, an office with responsibility for almost 20 million citizens and a budget of $168 billion. Nixon is a talented person, an expert in the arts, a Tony award winning Broadway actress and former TV star of "Sex and the City".  But in formal governing or public office? She's without any experience. None.  Not even time on a local school board.

As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote recently about Nixon's lack of experience: "You wouldn't want to be operated on by a surgeon with only a few surgeries under his or her belt, and the assurance that this doctor brought a fresh perspective to anesthesia and incisions....So why the romance with candidates who have never done a stitch of government work before?"

Great questions.  Why would a reality TV star be qualified to win high office? Why are experts and expertise now so suspect to so many of us?

The internet doesn't help.  Once knowledge and expertise was contained in books and libraries and "experts" alone. Now seemingly all knowledge is available to us immediately, with just a "click" or a swipe, so much so, that we are tempted to conclude we are experts. Why? Because, "Hey! I googled it!" So too the line between opinion and fact: there is no line anymore.  Believe that something is true long enough and it will become true, at least in one's own mind, even if factually, it still isn't true. Not one legitimate scientific study has ever linked childhood vaccines and autism and yet: millions believe that this is so, a fact.  Experts and scientists be damned. 

I applaud Nixon for her civic spirit and sincere desire to change things for the better.    She'll absolutely shake up the race for governor.  But in a larger sense I wonder what will happen to us as a society if we continue to move the line or erase the line that marks the difference between a neophyte and an expert, a rookie and the master. Give me the wise one who is thoughtful and competent, from years of experience. What scares me is the fool who speaks up the loudest because they think they are an expert, and so they must be an expert. Right?

Life doesn't work that way. God gives each of us raw talents and gifts and our job is to then work hard and long to hone those skills into true expertise. Life finally takes practice and experience.

I know I've still got lots to learn.  How about you?     



Monday, April 2, 2018

Fifty Years After King: Does America Have a Conscience?

"I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.”     
 --The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., February, 1968

Fifty years ago this week, a man who dreamed a dream for America died on a second floor motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. As his friends waited at the car to go out for dinner, that southern preacher, in town to support striking sanitation workers, ran back to his room to get a windbreaker. It was a chilly spring night and he wanted to ward off the cold. Seconds later the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

April 4, 1968. 

King was just 39 years old, amazingly accomplished for so young a man. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. Leader of the largest non-violent movement for change in the history of the United States.  For millions of his fellow citizens then and now, and for me, he was also the conscience of America. 

Conscience: the voice within a person and even a community, that reminds us we can always be better than we are at any given moment. Better. Wiser.  Kinder. We do not have to give into the base or cruel impulses that tempt us to hate or hurt or hit or lash out or live for self alone. The philosopher King might have framed this as good versus evil. The minister King might have preached it as sin against virtue. The historian King might have quoted the words of Abraham Lincoln, who in his second Inaugural Address, appealed to a warring nation to return to "the better angels of our nature".

Fifty years on from King's death, pundits, historians, politicians and Americans: we will  all debate what King's legacy is to the nation he so passionately and tirelessly worked to change for the good.  Racial justice and reconciliation.  Peace and non-violence.  Economic justice for the poor and forgotten. What I most love King for, respect him for, still look to him for, as a role model, icon and fellow pastor, five decades after his cruel death, is how as a leader he always called forth the best from the folks he led.  He sought to organize, not a mob to tear it all down, but instead a beloved community to build it all up, and for every last child of God too.

That's what great leaders do: in politics, from the pulpit, in business, on the playing field and in the arts.  The greatest leaders seek to bring out the highest of virtues and behaviors in the people they serve. Here's what King had to say in one of his most famous sermons, "The Drum Major Instinct", delivered just two months before his death. “We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. ... And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. It is a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.”            

Can you imagine a celebrity office holder or preening preacher uttering those inspiring words to a crowd of cheering acolytes in 2018? I'm hard pressed to do so. We are living in troubled times as fraught and frightening as fifty years ago.  Wars and rumors of war.  A nation torn asunder along lines of class, race, politics and gender.  Creation groaning under the strain of overuse and exploitation.

Yet what really scares me now is the scarcity of any moral or inspirational voices like King's.  King was not perfect or, a saint.  He struggled as all humans do with personal sin and temptation.  But when his times called for a powerful moral voice to call forth, to call America back to it highest ideals and hopes, leaders like King spoke up. Appealed to America's most noble aspirations.  Called citizens to be good neighbors, to work for non-violent change and to create a nation where all people, every last one, are a part of the American dream. No one left out.

Instead too many of the voices of leadership I hear in 2018 appeal most often to the very worst in us. Try and convince us it is most patriotic to pay as little in taxes as possible, to turn off the light in the Statue of Liberty until further notice, and to define a nation as great, not by self-sacrifice but instead self-centeredness. Every person for themselves. Such rhetoric doesn't appeal to the better angels within me. How about you?

So I miss you Reverend King.  Your voice.  Your leadership.  But most of all, I miss your conscience.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Holy Is Everywhere. We Just Have to Look for It.

"I believe God is everything....Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you've found It."     
 --Shug, The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

If you are one of billions of Christians or millions of Jews around the globe this week, these days are holy days, an entire holy week in fact. Holy: a sacred time set aside from "normal" time for God; for falling back into ancient religious tradition and ritual. For returning to church or synagogue, maybe for the first time in a week, or maybe for the first time in a very long time.  Gathering around a common table for a family meal, familial reconnection.

At their core all these celebrations, all these religious observances, all these traditions, come down to the holy. Searching for the holy.  Maybe even finding the holy, God, in this life, sometimes.  If we are blessed.  If we look.

So beginning Thursday night and stretching into Sunday morning, many Christians will attend holy services that tell the story of the farewell, trial, death and resurrection of their teacher, Jesus Christ, some 2,000 years ago. On Friday night and for the next seven days, many Jews will mark Passover, with holy rituals and a sacred meal, that tell their story of being liberated by God 3,500 years ago, from slavery into freedom.

There's only one problem with such "holy" things.

That's the tempting cliché to imagine these "holy" times are only reserved for the especially pious, for the select and devoted few, for the particularly, obviously "religious" folks.  In this limited definition to be holy and know the holy, is rare, unique, and mostly unattainable.  So "holy" is the black clad nun on bended knee reciting rosaries for hours on end. An Orthodox Jew bowing again and again as ancient Hebrew prayers waft up to heaven.  An orange robed Buddhist monk sitting lotus style, meditating in perfect stillness. 

All holy, absolutely, close to God and yet....

Linguistically, the word "holy" is actually rooted in a much older Indo-European word,  "kailo", meaning whole, as in complete. What if we humans saw holiness not as the province of the few but instead the search, the deep desire, we all have as human beings, as fellow children of God, for connection to something bigger and greater than us? Maybe all humans, regardless of faith or tradition, we are all holy.  

All seeking holiness and wholeness: whenever we look for meaning and purpose in life beyond the immediate, the now. Whenever we look up into the stars at night and wonder just who or what brought everything into being.  Perhaps we are holy when we feel love and give love and this action stirs a spirit so deep within us, something so much more than mere instinct or appetite. Maybe all things in this world are holy: not only set aside holidays or special seasons, not only ancient texts or centuries old sacred spaces, not only prescribed religions or systems of thought.

I like what the character of Shug, a jazz age blues singer in Alice Walker's 1982 Pulitzer prize winning novel "The Color Purple" says of her search for the holy and God: "Here's the thing....I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don't know what you looking for."

So may this be a holy week for all.  Holy: for folks of faith who embrace again the God story given to them by their parents and grandparents and forebears.  Holy: for all who seek wholeness and answers in the quest to figure out just what this life is all about, and just whom our Creator is calling us to be. 

On this one day. This one holy day.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Can We Please, PLEASE Just Be Kind to Each Other?!

"If you want to be a rebel, be kind."    --Pancho Ramos Stierle, activist and humanitarian

Sometimes its hard to tell apart the mature grown ups from the immature toddlers, in the current climate of divisiveness and division America lives within. 

So last week an "adult" named Leslie Gibson, a Republican candidate for a seat in the Maine State House, publicly mocked and disparaged two "kids", Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, survivors of the massacre at the high school in Parkland, Florida. Hogg and Gonzalez' very public activism in the days since the shootings--advocating for gun control, demanding that politicians make schools safe for children and youth--this was apparently too much for Gibson.  And so he took to Twitter and called Gonzalez a "skinhead lesbian" and Hogg a "moron" and a "baldfaced liar".

To their credit neither of the young people shot back with a Twitter tirade of their own, a tit for tat unkind tweet. Hogg did respond, in part, in an interview: "We need good people in office--people who are actually human and have an ounce of empathy."  And I might add, we also need people in public office who are, simply, kind. 

Kindness: the human virtue whereby we actually treat each other with decency. Agree to disagree yet always see the "other" as a fellow human being, a fellow citizen, a fellow child of God, worthy as much as ourselves of dignity, respect and care. In faith traditions we look to the Golden Rule for guidance on how to be kind: do unto others as we would ask that others would do unto us.

We all know such human kindness when we experience it.  When as a stranger we are welcomed in. When as a stumbler or mistake maker we are helped back up and gracefully forgiven.  When as a vulnerable person--poor or sick or young or powerless--someone watches out for us.  When kindness happens, it is such a gift, so beautiful.

We also know human cruelty when we experience it. When those with much give little or nothing to those with little. When lawmaker adults just cannot seem to understand the frightened and angry cries of children and youth they are called to protect. When to win at all costs--an election, a debate--trumps doing the right thing, the just thing, the honorable thing. When cruelty happens, it is such a tragedy, so ugly.

Ugly enough to want to publicly shame two teenagers, I suppose, two young adults who witnessed the murder of their friends and thus just want to change things for the better. And this is why Gibson was so nasty, so unkind?

Maybe I am naive or softhearted but I just don't get such hardness of heart, such bare knuckled mean-spiritedness.  And I'm also unsure of why our common civic life is so sharp and savage these days.  Politicians furiously fulminating in daily tweet storms that eviscerate and insult anyone whom they perceive as a threat to their power. Media filled with people who spend most of the time yelling at each other. Social media, with anonymity and speed, empowering us to be cruel in a split second, as thousands of folks join in with glee.

It doesn't have to be so.  The great thing about kindness is that to make it happen, to see its amazing, miraculous effect upon relationships, communities, a nation--all we have to do kind. That's it. 

Offer kindness both to the folks we see eye to eye with and to the ones we disagree with too. If we are to ever find common ground for the common good we must begin with respect for our opponent.  Follow the teaching of our parents, our elders: if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything. More often than not it is wiser to just keep our mouths shut. To not send a text in anger. Not re-tweet an awful story or share a terrible news item on Facebook. Instead use technology to spread love, to lift up others, to share good news about people and the world we live in. If Gibson had followed this advice he'd still be running for office.  Or be kind where you are right now: in your family, at your workplace, in your faith community, in your town or city, in your neighborhood. We may not be able to stem the tide of unkindness in politics and popular culture but we can sow seeds of love on the ground, where we live. Kindness always begins with you, with me, with one person deciding to just be kind.   

So be a rebel.  Buck the trends.  Push back against the temptation to join in our culture wide scrum and instead make this one choice today. 

Be kind.

Monday, March 12, 2018

When a Tree Falls, Can It Teach Us Something About Life?

"If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees."  --Hal Borland

It is called the quercus alba, or the white oak tree.  

Quite common in New England, chances are good that there is at least one of these trees growing in your yard or neighborhood. It is known by its gray gnarled bark ands its oversized green leaves with rounded edges, almost shaped like human hands. The white oak's most distinctive trait is the elegant upward arch of trunk and branches that reach to the sky, almost as if it is lifting hands up in prayer to its Creator. 

At my home five white oaks, each more than 100 feet high, have stood sentry like in the front yard, shielding me from the world beyond my cozy abode. In summer the trees' green canopies give shade and a place to sit and read in my Adirondack chair.  In fall oversized brown leaves carpet the yard in a lush brown overlay. Come winter the trees are stark, bare, resting, as snow piles up. In sweet spring I know new life is on the way as green buds appear on branches, signaling earth has woken up again.

Trees are amazing life forms, about the most plentiful, ubiquitous species on the earth. One recent study by British zoologists estimates that earth contains some 3 trillion trees: that's 450 trees for every single man, woman and child alive. Especially in this part of the world, trees surround us. Trees hug the land, mark this place, provide natural boundaries and thoroughfares as we travel from here to there. Fly into New England and its breathtaking to see just how tree covered, how green and lush and overstocked even, we are, with trees.

And yet, when we lose a tree, especially one we've come to know and even trust in a way, it can be a jolt, dislocating. That's what I felt last week when, upon awakening, the morning after our latest n'oreaster, and looking out the window, I saw that sometime during the night one of my great white oaks had crashed to the earth. Covered in a thick blanket of snow, it lay horizontal across the yard and driveway, felled by the weight of heavy snow or wind or age or disease or just exhaustion, I suppose.

I know, its just a tree.  I know, that given how many trees knocked down power lines or came down on cars or houses in the past few weeks, many of us would be more than happy to be rid of lots more trees. 

Yet losing that one tree reminded me of all the great trees that have been a witness to my one life. The tree in my childhood backyard I scrambled up into as an energetic little boy. The tree I leaned back against on the lawn facing the Charles River in Boston, at graduate school, my sacred place to study. The trees that grace the garden at the church I serve, especially the delicate red Japanese maple that always keeps me company as I write and think and pray.

Trees are mystical, magical, and mysterious somehow, perhaps more so than any other non-human species on the earth. I think it is because they live so long: the oldest white oak ever recorded was six hundred years old. The oldest living tree ever is a spruce in Norway, that is 9,550 years old and still going strong.

Trees stay. Trees stand and remain while human generations come and generations go.  Trees remind us that we are a part of a much larger cycle of life and death and creation and extinction, of beginnings and endings, a God authored story that stretches out far beyond our little lifetimes or stretch of minds.

Trees have been. Trees are. Trees will be, long after we are gone.

The poet Joyce Kilmer was right. "I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree....a tree that looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray....poems are made by fools like me but only God can make a tree."

So thank you God, this day, for trees.