Friday, May 27, 2011

Memorial Day: It's All About Sacrifice

Sacrifice (noun) 1. the surrender of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim.                   --Random House Dictionary

One Memorial Day weekend not long ago, driving home from a three day holiday in the Green Mountain state, I saw a sign for the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph, just off Interstate 89, south of Montpelier.  All weekend I had partied and barbequed and visited, but truth be told I hadn’t really remembered to remember the fallen. That’s the real reason for our national day of memory.  So I pulled off the highway and made my way to a lush and green resting place for soldiers, women and men who had served their nation and, in some cases, made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives for their country, for a cause so much greater than themselves. For family. For freedom.  For home.  For sure.  Sacrifice.

Ever been to a Veteran’s cemetery?  It’s not like a typical graveyard.  The headstones are usually simple and uniform in size, white granite squares, or oblong slabs, planted in the soft earth, row after row after row after row.  There’s a humbling democracy to the placement of these markers: no one person’s sacrifice is greater or lesser than another.  They all gave. They all gave up: time, family, career even a life, for others.  Generals are buried next to privates. The killed in action lay side by side with those who served and then were discharged and went home.  On each marker is a cross or Star of David designating the veteran’s religion.  Then the full name of the deceased, military rank and what branch they served in, what conflict they fought in and finally birth and death dates. On holidays like Memorial and Veterans Day and the 4th of July, tiny flags stand guard at each marker, waving gently in the breeze.

I know why I stopped at the cemetery and it wasn’t because I knew someone who was interred there.  Wasn’t because I am a veteran. I’ve never, ever really been asked by my country to sacrifice anything and that truth makes me a bit sad and even embarrassed.  I’m not much of a flag waving patriot either. But I do love my country even with all its stumbles as of late and so I visited this place, I suppose, to remember the civic and the ethical and the religious virtue of sacrifice.  This Vermont cemetery is a stark reminder of the ultimate sacrifice in war: to give one’s life.  Vermont, with a population of 610,000, has the highest per capita rate of death in the Iraq war, 3.54 per 100,000 folks.   

Sacrifice: the noble ideal that at certain times all humans are called upon to give of themselves, sometimes unto death, for something greater than themselves.  That humans, far from being mere individuals or solo acts, are in fact always a part of a greater group: a faith community, a family, a neighborhood, a town, a state, a nation, a world.  And that in order for these communities to thrive and survive, the folks within are asked to sacrifice at times. Parents giving up for their kids.  Folks of faith giving up time and money and skills to help heal a hurting world.  Soldiers giving in service for a nation.  Citizens paying taxes to support the common good, volunteering time for community efforts, serving in public office, and remembering that true patriotism always involves so much more than lifting a beer and waving a flag on a hot May weekend.

It’s that last category, civic sacrifice, which I fear is most wanting in these troubled and often conflicted times for our democracy.  Democrats and Republicans, tea partiers and liberal activists, scramble to save their own political hides. None offer a real vision of shared sacrifice to get us out of our fiscal and political woes.  Instead the pols tell us exactly what we want to hear. What we selfishly demand they say to us. We can have it all with no sacrifice.  Government benefits and programs like Social Security and Medicare and national defense, with no tax increases and no program cuts.  A spiraling national debt which we will just shift on to the shoulders of those down the road. 

The governmental gridlock we are now witnessing is not about a lack of answers or solutions.  We know what we have to do.  It is simply this: a lack of will and a lack of courage from the government and the governed.  Does Uncle Sam have the guts to tell us we must now sacrifice, all of us, everyone?  Does the citizenry have the commitment to country to then sacrifice, to give, and even give up, for the common good?  I hope so. I pray so. Time does feel as if it is running out.

And if we need some examples of sacrifice, just pay a visit to a local veteran’s cemetery.  Walk among the gravestones and markers and ask those men and women what they were all willing to do when their country asked them to serve a cause so much bigger than for mere self alone. 

They gave.  They fought.  They served. They died.  They sacrificed. Now the time for us to do the same too. 




Monday, May 23, 2011

The end of the world...oh really?

Absolute (adjective) 1. free from imperfection; complete; perfect, positive, certain
                                                                        --Random House Dictionary

I’m still here.  We’re all still here.  So apparently the end of the world is not yet, much to the chagrin and surprise of a band of fundamentalist Christians who were absolute in their beliefs, absolutely certain, that God would initiate the end of the world last Saturday, May 21, 2011, at 6 pm.  (Not sure which time zone.) What was supposed to happen? The “faithful”, a tiny band of “true believers” in Jesus Christ would be bodily transported up to heaven in a “rapture”. Those left behind would then live on in a six month period of global tumult and catastrophe: earthquakes, wars, etc.  Then, finally, all would truly cease to be on October 21st, later this year.

But Saturday night came and went without anything out of the ordinary occurring, cosmically speaking.  Folks ate dinner with their families.  People went to the movies or tuned into the Red Sox-Cubs game.  Preachers like me toiled away on sermons for Sunday.  Parents tucked kids into bed.  No rapture. No global apocalypse. No end times.  Interviewed at his home last Sunday morning, 89 year-old fundamentalist preacher Harold Camping, whose “prophecy” about the 21st led to all this global speculation, had this to say about the non-event.  “I’m flabbergasted.”  It’s actually the second time Camping has struck out in his predictions. In 1994 he also declared the world was supposed to end.

As a very visible person of faith it was an odd weekend.  At a party on Sunday folks asked me what I thought about this brouhaha. I found myself having to justify my faith, to explain that most Christians are not as fringe or out there as Camping’s followers.  In all major world religions, predictions of the apocalypse are pretty standard material in sacred texts like the Bible.  Jesus did say, “Heaven and earth will pass away” but then followed up with this warning: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only [God].” 
The press and wider culture certainly picked up on Camping’s prophecy and had a field day, in most cases mocking the notion of end times, portraying those who actually believed in the event as naive at best, buffoonish at worst.  Facebook too was filled with sarcastic, funny, snarky and at times downright nasty remarks about religious faith.  I even heard about one band of entrepreneurial atheists who offered, for a hefty fee, to take in the house pets of folks who were convinced they’d be raptured.  Funny? Kind of. 

But sad too. That some people, almost always of a religiously inspired fundamentalist bent, have such a desperate need for absolute certainty.  About life and death and this world. About all the questions every human being naturally has about existence.  What is it about life on earth which drives this longing: for absolute answers, absolute outcomes, absolute guarantees, and an absolutely “correct” and unassailable faith in God? 

Absolutism is a wide philosophical stripe which runs throughout all religions and all ideologies, secular and sacred, which form the narrative for our lives here on earth.  So folks of faith declare, my group is in, on the way to heaven, and your group is out, on the way to hell. Absolutely.  No doubt.  Folks in politics declare, my party knows the right way to civic salvation and your party is dead wrong.  Absolutely.  No reaching across the aisle to cooperate.  That would be heresy. Nations declare, we are exceptional and the rest of you are run of the mill. Absolutely.  My country right or wrong.  And underneath all of these hard line assertions?  Fear.  Plain old human fear.  Of the unknown.  Of mystery.  Of ambiguity.  Of this deep truth: that in spite of our deepest desires for certainty, most of life cannot ever be controlled or predicted, that instead life is anything but absolute. 

And so we respond to this reality in one of two ways.  We frantically and sincerely try to box life up in neat little categories and then stand our ground and hope for the absolute.  Or we fall back in to mystery and in faith. We trust that somehow God is holding it all together, the good and the bad, the victories and the defeats, life and death, and that it is not up to us humans to somehow declare in arrogance that we know how it all turns out. For we don’t know.  We can’t know.  Creation, in all its beauty and banality, its preciousness and its brokenness, is all too much to fathom.

So it’s not the end of the world, not yet, not now.  Absolutism may bring short term comfort but finally, God only knows.  That I can say absolutely. 


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Two wheel safety

From the Milford Daily News, March 30, 2011, by Brian Benson: “A 74-year-old Wellesley doctor died Wednesday after being hit by a car while riding a bicycle on Rte. 115 in Millis…. Stanley Sabin, 74…, a retired pulmonologist… and director of the MetroWest Free Medical Program, was traveling north on Rte. 115 at 1:07 p.m. when a Nissan Sentra… struck him. [The driver] was charged with one count of motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation....Sabin was taken to Milford Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead soon after arrival.”

As an avid bicyclist, a human, and a child of God, this story breaks my heart, especially on these warm spring days as the roads are filling up again with bikers and cars. Sabin was actually killed on the route I bike the most.  What a waste of a good life, a terrible ending.  What a horrendous tragedy for the driver. She’ll always carry that man’s death with her.  No winners and with a little courtesy and a little more attention it all would have been avoided. 

These deaths and serious injuries happen a lot.  Last spring in Boston, in just the span of seven weeks, two cyclists died in accidents.  Worse, neither was wearing a bike helmet and both took unexplainable risks in traffic. One attempted to pass a bus on a very busy city street.  The other ran through a red light and collided with a car.

As one who is an enthusiastic, committed and experienced cyclist, I’m doubly sad for the fact that just by following basic rules of bicycle safety, these tragedies might have been avoided.  I say this as one who has biked thousands of miles in thirteen years of long distance road biking.  I’ve biked over a wide variety of roads: narrow rural streets, packed city avenues, stretches by the sea, long mountain hills.  I’ve ridden in charity rides from Boston to New York, Raleigh to Washington, D.C. and San Francisco to Los Angeles. This summer I’ll ride for the second time in the Pan-Mass Bike Challenge.

In all of those miles and all of those years I’ve never once gotten on a bike without first strapping on a helmet.  That’s a given for anyone who takes biking seriously.  A bike is not a car.  A bike weighs twenty or thirty or forty pounds. A car or truck, of course, weighs a ton or more.  A bike is nimble.  A car traveling along at the speed limit cannot maneuver so quickly. Whenever those two vehicles collide, the biker always loses.  No contest. And when cyclists lack head protection, these accidents go from bad to worse to downright terrible. 

                        The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that nationwide, in 2008, 716 cyclists died in accidents, and 52,000 bikers were injured in bike/vehicle accidents. Ninety-one percent of those killed were not wearing helmets. No doubt some of these collisions ups were the fault of rude, unthinking, texting, talking on the phone, not paying attention, in a rush drivers.  But we bikers need to own up to our part of that equation too.  When we fail to wear a helmet.  Fail to keep a straight line on the road and stay within or on the road’s shoulder.  Fail to ride single file.  Fail to obey the rules of the road: stopping for lights, making hand signals, acting responsibly as the vehicle on the road that we are. Fail to be safe and wise in sharing the road.    

So here is a simple plea to bikers and drivers as we both go out for rides in this the busiest biking time of the year.  Drivers: please watch out for us.  If the road is narrow give us some space.  Hang up the phone and watch the road.  If you see a biker coming down the street and you are tempted to quickly pull out, please consider letting us pass by first. If you’re parked on a busy city street and are about to open your door, take a quick peek behind to see if a biker is coming.  Please take care as you share the road with us. Thank you.

Bikers—wear a helmet, always, everywhere, no questions asked. No excuses.  No whining about how much it messes up your hair or how hot it makes your head.  Nothing compares to a traumatic brain injury. Nothing.  Follow all the rules of the road.  All of them. It is our responsibility (and the law) to do so.  Give up riding double or triple file so you can chat with your buddy.  Talk when you get home. It is rude to drivers and rightfully frustrates folks behind the wheel.  If you ride in a group, police the other riders too. Bike etiquette is everyone’s responsibility.  Keep a straight line when you bike. Drivers expect this—no weaving.  How you bike, with consideration or thoughtlessness—this reflects on all the other bikers out here.  Too often when I tell folks I’m a recreational biker they tell me how arrogant or clueless so many bikers seem to act on the road these days. 

And parents? Don’t just tell your kids to wear their helmets. Wear yours’ too.  Insisting that your kid stay safe on her bike, while you go bareheaded, isn’t exactly the wisest of examples. Legislators? How about making the wearing of bicycle helmets mandatory for all ages, not just those 16 and younger, the present law in Massachusetts?

Every time before I go out for a ride I say a little prayer to God and ask for a safe ride.  That’s my spiritual insurance.  But so too, I also try my best to ride safe and to ride smart.  As the proverb might note: “Pray to God but bike with safety.”   We all travel a common road.  So please watch out for us two-wheeled travelers and we’ll watch out for you.

Monday, May 9, 2011

No Time to Celebrate

"I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded, who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell."     --General William Tecumseh Sherman

Relief. That’s the main emotion I experienced at hearing of the death of Osama Bin Laden a week ago Sunday night.  Relief.  That at long last one cog, the main cog, in the terrorist war network was gone, dead, buried at sea. No longer a living symbol for extremists eager to use religion and ignorance as a volatile mix to murder innocent people.  Relief. That perhaps this death might signal the beginning of the end of the war in Afghanistan, a ray of peaceful hope in a dark ten year tunnel of struggle. Relief.  That with Bin Laden’s death we as a nation might somehow find a way to move beyond the 9/11 atmosphere of fear and anger which has gripped us as a people, longer than any other war in our nation’s history.  Relief.  That with the demise of Bin Laden, a warped symbol of religiously inspired hatred, we Americans might begin to view our Muslim brothers and sisters as fellow citizens, not stereotypes, wrongly grouped together as one big threat.

But here is what I did not feel, not one bit: joy, as tens of thousands of others did (mostly the young) who poured out into the streets on the evening of May 1st to celebrate Bin Laden’s death.  We all saw the photos and videos, people waving American flags, chanting “USA, USA!” or singing “Osama, hey, hey, hey, goodbye!”  We read the headlines, especially one so raw: The New York Daily News trumpeting, “Rot In Hell”.  In blog posts and interviews and analyses since that night, those death revelers have most often justified their actions with one central argument.  They partied because the fear they’d had for almost ten tears was now gone. The fear they’d grown up with, first born on a sunny September morning, was now somehow magically lifted.

But still, I don’t get it, this dancing on the grave of an enemy.  This communal spiking of the football in the end zone.  Maybe it’s because of how the folks really affected by 9/11 responded.  The people who lost a loved one on that day long ago. They didn’t jump for joy at the news of Bin Laden’s death.  They wept.  They had old wounds re-opened.  They pushed away nosy reporters with “No comment” but those who would have been quickly forgiven for partying? They kept it somber.

There were no reports of soldiers in the field or on base doing high fives. Instead the day after Bin Laden’s death those soldiers did what they have always done. They carried on, quietly sacrificing, selflessly serving and doing their duty on our behalf.  Even the pols kept it down low.  They were thoughtful in their reactions, humble for the most part. 

So here’s my take.  There is something weird, disconnected, and plain wrong in so joyfully heralding the death of another. Even Bin Laden. Even the enemy.  Even one person who seemed to embody evil human impulses so clearly.  Instead my faith tells me that always, in the largest moral sense, war is just plain wrong and never to be celebrated. War may be morally justifiable in the short run: to defend the innocent, to protect the weak.  But finally, no matter what the noble cause is; no matter how justified we are in our anger against the enemy, war is always hell on earth. War is a sin. War in trying to do the right inevitably does much wrong too.  It takes down bystanders with cruel precision.  It robs a nation of its youngest people.  It consumes billions of dollars which otherwise could be used for the good.  It distracts the body politic which should instead be working to improve the lot of a nation, to beat swords into ploughshares and trade guns for butter.

War is not a video game.  War is not just standing up at a ballgame and singing the National Anthem as jets fly overhead: how hard is that for us?  War should at least demand real sacrifice on the part of all the people whom the enterprise is carried out for.  But the truth is, as one commentator noted, Americans since 9/11 have been asked to do little or nothing in the war on terror.  Take off our shoes at the airport.  Borrow billions on Uncle Sam’s credit card to pay for war and then pass on that cost to our children and grandchildren.  How many of us actually know someone in the active military? Few of us I’d bet.  The people who fight for us are for the most part anonymous, even forgotten.

So I say forget the communal celebrations, the revelry, the jingoistic chanting, the hollow triumphalism. It’s tacky. It’s tawdry.  It’s ugly. Instead, together, let us all pray that Bin Laden’s death will lead to less death, less violence, less hatred and ultimately the end to the hellacious war we are fighting.  Pray that someday soon as a nation, we’ll be able to welcome home our sons and daughters one final time and just get out of the nasty business of war.  That day will be the day to party.

Not now. Not yet.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Thoughts on the death of Osama Bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden is dead and gone. Been thinking a lot about this truth since Sunday.  Still not quite sure how or what to conclude but this: my personal discomfort at the level of “celebration”, even giddiness, at his violent death. Snarky newspaper headlines like “Rot In Hell”. Late night chant filled rallies. I am heartened that the threat he represented is gone.  But I do pray that the hate he represented is not equally met with the same force of hate.  As a Christian, I remain convinced that in the end only love can overcome the worst that evil throws our way.  In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”  In Ghandi’s words, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”        

Monday, May 2, 2011

A May Miracle

"The world's favorite season is the spring.  All things seem possible in May."
                                                                        --Edwin Way Teale

It is the softness of May weather, its quiet gentleness, which most comforts me after such a long, cold, snowy winter. The warm breezes which gently stir the wind chimes on the back porch.  The surprise of the first really hot day when it is finally safe to wear a t-shirt again.  Our bodies almost forget the sensation of warming sun on cool skin.  The sponginess of the soil which gives way easily to a spade, as you plant the first annuals of the year, bright purple and shocking yellow pansies. So…welcome back May.  Welcome. Come right in and please, stay awhile. We thought you might never return.

For now forty five days into the spring, Mother Nature in this part of the world has finally lost some of her sharper edges and settled in.  Finally.  No more even remote possibility of snow and that’s a gift, given that the winter of 2010-11 was a doozy, 80 inches of the white stuff, double the normal amount. Wasn’t a record (that would be 106 inches in 1995-96) but come late February it sure felt like it might never, ever stop snowing.  (A caveat: on June 17th, 1952 it did actually snow in Boston but let’s not even go there.)  The last pile of dirty brown snow is gone and this feels liberating, amazing. Remember last January when driving down streets felt like an amusement park ride on “The Snow Tunnel”, gargantuan snow banks everywhere? Then it was almost impossible to imagine the return of songbirds to the backyard, of lush green lawns resurrected.  So right now, let’s just enjoy a May moment, a May interlude, a May pause.

Not sure why it feels like it took so long for spring to be born again.  As a person of faith I know the lateness of Passover and Easter didn’t help much.  Lent seemed to go on ad infinitum.  Easter 2011 was April 24th, one day less than the absolute latest it can possibly occur.  It all has to do with pesky nature again, in this case the lunar calendar.  But no worries: we won’t sing in Easter on April 25th until 2038.  Or maybe spring feels delayed because of the pathetically slow start of the Boston Red Sox.  What’s the best way to curse the Olde Towne team?  Pick them to win the World Series as many sports writers did just a month ago. Today on this second day of May, the Sox are a 12-15, dead last in the AL East.  Their new $140 million whiz kid outfielder Carl Crawford is batting .168—ouch!  Seems like old times.

But here’s the real May miracle.  This time of year all things seem possible, anything seems as though it just may happen.  Summer is knocking on the door.  Students stare out windows at the blossoming cherry and apple trees and fantasize about long days and cool nights soon to come. “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.”  The single and seeking among us reawaken to the possibility of love.  What better month than May to be smitten, to have your heart soar, to fall into romance?  Families sit at table with the summer calendar open, planning out the lazy and restful vacation days which will be here soon.  What will it be this year?  June by the sea. July in the mountains. August in a backyard hammock, grilling away and sipping an ice cold beer.  If May had an emotion it would be hope. 

So we dust off the golf clubs and dream of endless pars.  We tune up the bicycle and imagine pedaling a century or farther.  We roto-till the garden and as the sweet smell of turned soil envelops us, we imagine an abundant crop of shiny red tomatoes and glistening golden corn.  Oh May, please just linger here for a bit.  Keep us in this place of anticipation, of new life pushing back the old, of sunshine pushing back the dark, of winter finally giving up and going away for a long, long time. 

So thank you God for May.  For hope. For anticipation.  For renewed life. For love.  For resurrection. For spring. Just today, this one beautiful May day, it is all good. (P.S.—if you could help the Sox that would be great too!)