Saturday, August 27, 2011

In Common....

Common (adjective) 1. belonging equally to, or shared alike by, two or more
2. pertaining or belonging equally to an entire community, nation, or culture
3. joint; united             --Random House Dictionary

Though we as a nation have caught our collective breath after the ugly political brawl in Washington over the debt-ceiling, don’t get too comfy just yet.  Round II looms large, with a November 23rd deadline. By that day the 12 member bi-partisan Congressional Super Committee is supposed to agree upon a formula of spending cuts and tax increases to slice $1.2 trillion from the federal budget, or automatic cuts of the same amount will kick in. There’s even a Round III, as the 2012 Presidential campaign begins. Yes, THEY’RE BAAAAACK!       

At the heart of this argument/fight/standoff is one basic question.  What is the responsibility of individual citizens towards each other, in this community called the United States, and through this human made institution called “government”? You can ask that philosophical query in other ways.  Who matters more: the individual or the collective?  What matters more in civic life: rights or responsibilities?  Is it government’s role to provide an unfettered environment for individual achievement and in doing so, benefit the whole?  Is it government’s role to undertake and finance collective works to benefit the many?  Should we tax more and cut less or cut more and tax less?  When we do spend too much, who pays the bill?

All these question come down to one conundrum, what “in common” really means.  After all politics is the coming together of people in common to determine what is best for the people.  That’s what faith always seeks too: this noble ideal called “the common good” and the hope that we will work together to achieve the most good for the most people. Faith does add one caveat. Don’t ever forget the most vulnerable in all these calculations: the poor, the old, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. These are the ones who almost always have no lobbyists or folks in power to speak up for them. 

I think this “common” debate, which will surely intensify in the year ahead, is a rich one.  It gives Americans the opportunity to consider again just what it means to be “in common” with each other.  That’s a perpetual discussion in our 235 year history. Asking just what “E Pluribus Unum” (“from many one”) stands for.  Hearing again the preamble, “We the people”.  Claiming a common nation to call home. And in 2012 struggling to come together and find a way to govern this amazing amalgam of 312 million folks.  The stakes are enormous.  Our future awaits. The world is watching.  God is too, I think.

It’s a beautifully elegant and clear word, “common”.  It’s prefix, “com” means “with” or “together”. It births many other profound words: community, comity (meaning civility), commitment, compassion, commonwealth, and complete.  We already know how key the notion of “in common” is to life itself.  What is a family, a church, a neighborhood, a town, a city, a world without such commonality, common ties, common hopes and dreams and interests?
So my one hope for all of us, as this national dialogue ensues, is that we will somehow come to reaffirm that in spite of all our civic fault lines, we are one.  There’s got to be something more than politics, geography, religion, race, demography, education, language, culture or class to bind us together and keep us in common. We’re always quick to pay lip service to this cliché of national community in our pledges and patriotic hymns and flag pins, but do we really believe it? Are we the United States of America?  Are we in common with our neighbor and the stranger? Or are we so far apart, that this commonality and the hope of unity elude us?

There are no quick or easy answers to these difficult communal questions. None of our present political leaders or the Presidential wannabes has arrived at a solution yet, all their claims aside.  But maybe right now, we can thank God that we are having such a spirited and important debate.  For it truly goes right to the heart of who we are and how we understand ourselves as a people.

How fitting as well that our discussion takes place in the shadow of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Remember that day?  There was absolutely no doubt on that awe-ful September morning that we were one.  Seems so long ago.

Will we be “in common”?  I pray “Yes!” But this is not just up to you or me.  It’s up to us, all of us, in common.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Endless Summer....

Thoughtful (adjective) 1. Absorbed in or involving thought  2.meditative 3. Characterized by careful reasoned thinking.        
--Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

Twelve days and counting until the end of summer. I know the almanac notes that summer does not officially end until September 22nd, some three weeks hence but the truth is that for most of us summer, the trappings of summer, the feeling of summer, and the precious gift of summer: these usually fade on that first Tuesday after Labor Day.  That day when the year really begins. When we return to school and work and familiar routines.  When we pack away summer clothes and memories and lean into the busyness of fall and all its new beginnings.  So in preparation for this summer swan song, take a moment and think: what are the blessings of summer that you appreciate the most and will miss the most? As summer fades, what do you need to hang on to, maybe even bring from this season into the weeks and months ahead?

Maybe it's the tastes of summer which for you evoke most sensually the thrill of summer. The sharp tang of mustard on a snappy hot dog, sweet drippy watermelon juice on the chin, or the bite of a cold beer as reward after a hot afternoon working in the yard or garden. Perhaps it is the sounds of summer you'll especially miss. The crack of a ball on bat, the boom and pop of fireworks, or the lullaby of crickets chirping at dusk.  As a visual person summer may be all about what you see: the lush green of the lawn at Fenway Park, foamy whitecaps breaking on a stormy sea, or the rainbow of hues in your flower bed. Me? I’ll most certainly miss all those things as this season ends and yet, the summer present from God I’ll most miss is this: thoughtfulness.  Not the kindness kind, though God knows the world could always use TLC.

Thoughtfulness, as in finding the time to be immersed in thought. Thoughtfulness: discovering space in this life to breathe, to think, to ponder, to daydream, to consider, to wonder, to just be "thought-full".  That's what this summer and all summers give to me, with their less hectic pace and less cluttered calendar. It is as if for two months a year the Creator gives me a hall pass, and allows, even expects me to just chill out, slow down and remember the miracle of spacious thought.  So I find time on my back porch in a battered and worn Adirondack chair to read and write, no schedules pushing me onward.  I rediscover the gift of unplanned moments to ponder, or maybe even just daydream.  I cherish the grace of being away somewhere, which just by its geographic newness somehow gives me permission to break out of my routines.  Did you find some time this summer to be thoughtful? To rest.  To loll under puffy white clouds and wonder.  To encounter nature and see some reflection of God.  To put down and turn off the smartphone, the I-Pad, the laptop and trade the virtual for the real.

September, with all its incessant demands and commitments, each year seems to try its best to rob us of such intentional thoughtfulness. The ninth month can feel for many of us like we are boarding a speeding roller coaster and whoosh right back into the race, with little time to think and so much to do.  This is the curse of our modern life, if we are not careful.  Filling up every waking moment with something to do or someone to see.  Scheduling our kids with wall to wall activities until their heads spin. Feeling guilty if we are not accomplishing something, anything. Or worst of all, mistaking busyness in life with meaning in life. Sound familiar? You are not alone.

The gift of a faith tradition is that a connection to God and true life meaning always asks for and requires human thoughtfulness.  Try as we might we cannot multi-task and also find our center in the Holy One. To get to God and spiritual calmness we have to be thoughtful about how we live.  Thoughtful so we can take an hour on a Sunday morning or Friday night for worship. Make the time to pray in the morning or do yoga after work.  Find the time to meditate or write, to do the things which bring us back to our center.  Just slow down and stop moving ahead so instinctively to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.

Summer’s simple lesson is this: be thoughtful, and not just from June to September, but all year around too.  And so as the days wind down and we go back to school or work or what ever looms just up ahead, my prayer is that each of us can try our best to bring summer thoughtfulness into the weeks and months ahead.  We may not be able to drag that hammock into autumn, or return to our favorite vacation spot until next year, but we can make a promise to ourselves that this year we will be more thoughtful.

Think about it. And see you in September.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Who Do You Trust?

Trust (noun) 1. reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, of a person or thing; confidence.                    --Random House Dictionary

The markets are on a roller coaster ride again, with dips and surges reminiscent of 2008.  Some market watchers peg this return of stock volatility directly to the announcement on August 5th that the Standard Poors (S&P) Rating Agency had downgraded United States long-term government debt from AAA status, its highest, to AA+.  For the first time since 1917 when such ratings began, Uncle Sam’s ability to guarantee its debt to lenders, is being questioned.  Through the Great Depression and two world wars, American debt has always been AAA, and was considered a golden investment: rock solid, dependable, and most important trustworthy.  As the term goes, “the full faith and credit of the United States government”.  But apparently, no more, at least not in S&P’s opinion.

The downgrade evoked some harsh responses beyond Wall Street. Politicians and pundits opined that given S&P’s abysmal past record of rating mortgage backed securities during the 2008 meltdown (it gave AAA grades to debt which completely tanked), the company has no leg to stand on.  Some also pointed out that the other two ratings agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, still considered American debt AAA.  But lost in the debate is one truth S&P attempted to hammer home in its downgrade.  As their downgrade report stated, “The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy … [This] weakens the government’s ability to manage public finances.” 

Shorthand: S&P no longer trusts the folks in charge of making sure that America can make good on the money we owe. It’s not just the level of government debt which worries S&P and many others.  As a percentage of gross domestic product the United States has been more deeply in hock, as during World War II.  Instead S&P’s fiscal slap in the face to the feds is also about plain old trust, or the lack thereof.  Can Uncle Sam and the American people actually be trusted to do all that which is necessary to reform entitlements programs, reform the tax code, rein in spending, and guarantee the long term solvency of Social Security and Medicare?

As the author G.I. wrote in “The Economist” magazine last week, “[The American] economy is lubricated by a sophisticated and stable credit market whose most vital component is also the most ephemeral: trust. As the [debt ceiling] crisis amply demonstrated, when trust erodes, the system freezes up. America has built a reputation for responsible and credible management of its finances over the centuries, and that reputation has been reduced to a political football…. Henceforth a foreign pension fund or central bank that once mindlessly ploughed his spare cash into Treasuries will have to think twice.” 

Can we be trusted? Trust as a human virtue is central to anything and everything that matters in this life.  Folks of faith live by their belief in a trustworthy and faithful God to guide them. “Trust in the LORD forever, for in the LORD GOD you have an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:5)   Trust is at the heart of all our human relationships: between spouses, parents and kids, and neighbors and friends.  We need to be able to trust the institutions which govern our lives: the Church, education and schools, and family.  When trust is present, we have confidence.  With trust we move through life with vigor and energy, believing that the ground we stand upon is solid, unmoving, and worthy of our fidelity. 

But without trust? Life just rocks and rolls.  Marriages crumble and fall apart. Families split.  Institutions falter.  The terra firma each of us so needs to stand upon for support shifts uncomfortably and in that shift we become afraid and we stumble and maybe even begin to worry if anything or anyone can ultimately be trusted. Not a very comfortable place to be, life without trust.

And so as our nation and its citizenry contemplates the continuing fallout from the debt crisis, we need to face into the even larger and more profound question of “the trust crisis”.  Can we trust the women and men we vote into public office to do the right thing and not merely the politically expedient thing?  Can we trust that they will keep all of our interests in mind, America as a whole, and not just the petty and often narrow interest of getting re-elected or keeping high priced lobbyists and Washington elites happy? Can we trust ourselves as citizens to have the fortitude and unselfishness to make the sacrifices necessary to keep our civic ship afloat for generations to come? Tough questions with no easy answers.

So as our national economic debate continues, I pray we will keep one thing in mind. It’s not just about the debt. It is also about trust.      


Monday, August 8, 2011

Make a Difference for the Good

Local (adjective) 1. pertaining to a city, town, or small district rather than an entire state or country                    --Random House Dictionary

Folks reading news headlines last Monday morning in the Boston area awoke to some tough events, at least from a national and world perspective.  “U.S. Credit Rating Downgraded”.  “Stocks Expected to Tumble in Worldwide Trading”.  “Democrats and Republicans Return to Bickering After Short Lived Bi-Partisan Truce”.  “Worst One Day Death Toll in Afghan War”.  Makes you want to skip the front page and make straight for the comics!  But if you had dug into the news a bit deeper, you might have found this encouraging headline: “8,000 Bicycle Riders and Volunteers Raise Record $34 Million for Cancer Care and Research in Pan Mass Challenge”.      

As one of the sore but satisfied folks who participated in that amazing weekend of endurance cycling and caring and community at The Pan Massachusetts Challenge (PMC), the largest athletic fundraiser in the United States, that’s the good news I’m reading today. Good news. Local news. Next door news. News that hits right at home.  About record charitable gifts for a world class cancer care facility right around the corner, the Dana Farber in Boston. News of neighbors and friends who rode along with me for upwards of 190 miles across this beautiful little state of Massachusetts. News of ninety of my family and friends donating $7,350 in my name to find a cure for cancer. News about the thousands of folks who lined our bike route from Sturbridge to Provincetown and cheered us on every mile.  News of Dads who rode in honor of parents who died of cancer, Moms who rode for children who are sick, and folks who rode for total strangers, all because they simply want to make a positive difference in the world.  To do good:  locally, personally, and directly.

True: this goods news won’t sell a lot of newspapers, or garner the lead on CNN or Fox News.  President Obama won’t tout it in a news conference and Speaker Boehner won’t lift it up in his press face time, but the miracle is that a lot of good like the PMC happens in this world every day locally, in the places that we live and the cities and towns we call home.  In this intense time in our nation’s history, when it seems as if almost nothing is going right, perhaps we “little people” need to remember and affirm this one truth.  Each of us, in large and small ways, through simple acts of kindness and courage and generosity, we can make this world a better place. 

We may not have the sway or the power of high priced lobbyists in D.C. or on Beacon Hill.  We may not have the ear of the elites, the powers that be.  Individually we can’t move markets or end wars or bring together our squabbling “leaders”. We may even be tempted to be cynical about the shape of things, our collective and national impotence in the face of huge problems.

But this we can do: have a loving and powerful impact at the local level.  With our one life, we can do something.  And that something always starts with “me”, how each of us chooses to live every day.  We can love or hate. We can reach out in compassion to the hurting or shrink back in fear.  We can be generous with our money or we can be stingy and hang on to it for dear life.  We can have hope or we can walk away in frustration.  But finally, locally, the world we call home will be either “good” or “bad” depending upon what we do and how we respond at the most intimate of levels, face to face and neighbor to neighbor.

I’m not denying the importance of working for big change, global change, profound change.  This work clearly matters.  But as Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  So if human hunger tears at your conscience, pick up an extra bag of food each time you shop then drop it off at the local food pantry, or better yet volunteer there.  If each time you see a homeless person it breaks your heart, give some time and money to the Pine Street Inn or Rosie’s Place.  Angry about how so many folks of faith seem to only sow seeds of hatred and intolerance? Then get back to your faith tradition and make it right by committing to a God of love in your church, synagogue or mosque.  Anxious about global warming? Take a look around your house and start using less energy. Want to help find a cure for cancer? Then get on your bike and ride in next year’s PMC.

The nineteenth century Massachusetts preacher Edward Everett Hale may have put it best when he declared, “I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.”

That’s the good news for today.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Gift of Our Families

Family (noun) 1.  a primary social group consisting of parents and their offspring, the principal function of which is provision for its members  2. any group of related things or beings     
--World English Dictionary

It’s always the baked beans which remind me that I’m home again with my family.  Served on sturdy white paper plates, on a steamy summer afternoon, as kids play in the back yard and adults swap family tales, the beans and their sweet fragrance of brown sugar and salt pork, mark a return to my clan, my blood relatives, and my origins.  The recipe for the baked beans is my Father’s and though he is no longer with us to share his culinary gifts, he is here in a way.  For it is family reunion time again. 

Most summers like clockwork, since I was a kid, my Mom or my Dad’s side of the family gathers together, cousins and second cousins, in-laws and children, grandchildren and an adopted family friend or two.  After all: we’re family.  And so like spinning electrons inexorably attracted to each other even as we fly off in different orbits, we reunite and connect again in family, as family. 

The beginning of the reunion can be a bit awkward.  It might have a few years since we’ve last seen each other, at a sad family wake or a raucous family wedding.  So much changes so quickly in the unrelenting passage of time. That little boy you remember is now a six foot tall college freshman. There are new babies to meet and patriarchs and matriarchs to mourn.  A new spouse to introduce.  But then, inevitably, we settle into one another again. We fall back into the God-given gift that finally is a family. 

Not perfect by any means, that is for sure.  The Russian author Tolstoy once remarked, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and this observation holds true for my family and all families.  We human beings cannot spend all of our lives in and with family, without the natural ebb and flow of life, tears and laughter, death and birth.  So there are always triumphs to report: a new job, a beautiful new baby, a marriage, success.  And there is pain to share as well: unemployment, sickness, divorce, just plain old human struggle.  Yet even in all of these peaks and valleys there is a grace that happens in families who stick together and stay together and hang together through all that which this life sends our way.

Even God needs a family. In my faith tradition Jesus doesn’t just appear—POOF!—on this earth and start preaching away. Instead he is birthed into the world and into a family. By a Mom who nurtures him, a Dad who teaches him, siblings who walk with him, Aunts and Uncles and cousins, all who shape him into who he is to become.  That’s how it is with us humans too, always.  We might imagine at times we’ve gotten to where we are in this life all on our own, through sheer will or smarts, but the truth is that we are all created in and by the families we grow up within.  By blood ties.  By birth. By genealogy.  By the love ties which bind us together, most of the time for the better, sometimes for the worse, but always for sure.

Even as the definition of family has expanded in our world to include same sex couples, and grandparents raising grandkids and adoptions and miraculous medical ways of bringing a child into the world, the hopeful goal for all families of every shape and size never, ever changes.  For in family, God teaches we are made not for ourselves alone, but for others too. God makes us in a family to teach us how to be in relationships.  Humanity is never, ever a solo affair.  We all need love.  We all need to love and it is within a family that this call is born, tested and played out most powerfully.

And so, we all sit around and savor the baked beans. We watch in joy as a one year old tries his best to blow out his first birthday candle.  We huddle in inter-changeable groups of two or three or four and talk about all that has happened since we last gathered. We lament and remember the ones no longer alive.  We marvel at the young kids and hope that someday they’ll be the ones to organize the family reunion.  We tell bawdy and bittersweet family tales until the sun goes down and the stars appear. 

We are together. We are family. Thank God.