Friday, December 30, 2011

In Life Expect Detours

Detour (noun) 1. A roundabout or circuitous way or course, especially one used temporarily when the main route is closed.            --Random House Dictionary

My two friends made the best of travel plans, down to the last detail. After a week’s vacation in Florida for Christmas to visit family, the plan was to get to the airport with plenty of time to spare, find the gate, settle in, board the plane then fly straight home to Boston.  What could go wrong?  They had a plan.  No detours, right?  

But the gate they went to was the wrong one and they didn’t realize it until the last moment.  So they made a mad dash to the correct gate but their plane had already whooshed away.  So they scrambled to get another flight but now they had to fly to Buffalo, Baltimore, Chicago and then to Boston.  Fourteen hours, 2,887 miles and multiple plane changes after leaving the Sunshine State they finally made it home.  But it was a good plan, yes?

Plans made. Plans changed.  To do lists carefully created and then altered and then edited some more and then just tossed out.  We always make plans, it’s just what humans do, but then life is just life and everything changes. Detours happen.  Some are a mere inconvenience like my friends’ travel odyssey.  But some detours are jolting, jarring, completely out of left field. 

We plan to stay with our love for all of life and then divorce happens.  We plan our kid’s lives to a “T”, all so they’ll be happy and then they struggle or fail or get in trouble.  We arrive at work and get a pink slip.  Walk into the doctor’s office and receive bad news.

Some detours are a gift.  Told she’ll never get pregnant a young woman finds she is with child, a miracle!  We connect with an old friend and this chance encounter leads to a new job.  We pull a pair of jeans from the laundry pile and find that check we thought we had lost.    

Detours.  Could the people of Japan have ever imagined one year ago that millions of them would be so storm tossed by a deadly tsunami and nuclear emergency?  Did the folks of the Middle East dare to dream that in 2011 the winds of democratic change would blow so powerfully and radically over lands which for so long had lived under brutal and violent rule? Who could plan for these world changing events, these unforeseeable, unpredictable detours? No one.  Because always there’s the human plan.  And then there’s life: capricious, mysterious, complicated, and wondrous with all its twists and turns. As the proverb says, “Man plans. God laughs.”

Doesn’t mean that God somehow plays dice with the universe or throws curveballs our way to upset our best laid plans for sport or show.  That’s not the God I believe in.  It does mean that one of the best spiritual lessons of life, especially at the beginning of the year when so many of us make a plan, is to plan on that plan changing.  To plan that the road we are on will absolutely include detours, both globally and personally.  To expect the unexpected and when we must, throw out the old plan, remembering that much of life is not about precision but improvisation.  Just doing our best each day with whatever life tosses our way.  To trust that God is not a great chess player in the sky when it comes to the game of life, that instead the Universe will give us the tools we need to get through, especially when the plan falls apart.  But first we may have to let go of the plan.

So in this first week of the New Year, go ahead.  Make a list. Make a plan.  But use a pencil with a nice big fat pink eraser at the end.  That way when the detours come (and they will), we can change the plan. 

For there’s the plan.  And then there’s life. See you on the road.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Spiritual Housecleaning for the New Year

“Let it go.”  --English idiom meaning to leave behind, forget, or release

Two days until the really big countdown that will usher us all from 2011 into 2012.  Since last December 31st at midnight, when that big shiny ball descended in Times Square, New York, we’ve lived exactly one year or 12 months or 52 weeks or 365 days or 8,760 hours or 525,600 minutes or 31,536,000 seconds.  WHEW!  We’ve walked through all four seasons: from the snows of January and the mud of March and the buds of May and the dog days of August to the colors of October and the frost of December.  

We’ve aged one more year. The red cells in our blood stream have replaced themselves three times, the white cells once and skin cells 24 times or more.  If young we’ve grown up, perhaps added a few inches in height or a shoe size or two.  If on the older side of life we’ve gotten grayer or maybe even slowed down a bit.  All quite an amazing trip, this journey called human life.  For finally time is unrelenting.  It can’t be stopped or frozen.  Time goes and goes and goes, keeps on ticking. No turning back the clock.   

So how was your year, all that time passed by, all that activity, the energy, the forward momentum? That’s a great question to ask ourselves as we begin a new year.  To look back. The cliché is for us humans to make plans about all we hope to do or to be or to accomplish in the next 365 days. “I resolve to….” 

But before we depart that which was, for that which will be, here’s an alternative New Year’s spiritual exercise to consider.  What do we need to let go of before we cross the threshold from MMXI to MMXII ?  What do we need to leave behind?  To forget? What do we need to forgive ourselves or others for?  What mistakes that we made in 2011 need to be finally laid to rest?  What regrets are we hanging on to that are best left behind in the dust of 2011?  What are we still carrying that is all too heavy for our hearts or our souls or our minds?  And are we ready to let it all go?

For always the past is like a closet, one we humans can easily fill up with all kinds of memories and ruminations that we keep on piling up and accumulating, stacking sky high in the recesses of memory and thought.  A person we hurt by what we said or did not say, by what we did or did not do.  A relationship still unreconciled. A regret for something we hoped to have done but then fell short.  A goal not quite achieved. A dream deferred or lost.  An ending that happened too soon.  A beginning that never had the chance to bloom.  What’s in your 2011 closet?  And are you ready to let it go, to clean out that cluttered psychic space at years’ end?

In religious faith, believers have formal ways of achieving this house cleaning, this letting go.  Christians confess, name their sins and stumbles and then receive absolution from God.  In the Jewish tradition Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the day to go to temple and repent for sin, to give it all up to God then let God take it all in and in this ritual find forgiveness, even redemption.  Buddhists confess their faults to the Buddha in meditation.  Faithful Muslims pray five times daily and in this act bring their whole selves to Allah.  A good friend of mine makes a “let it go” list each year on the December 31st and then seals it up in an envelope and tosses it into a roaring fire.

Regardless of the “hows” of this rite, the effect is the same.  A weight is lifted.  A slate is wiped clean. You get honest with yourself and your God and maybe even another human being.  Most important you let it go. And then in letting it go, you are ready to begin again, to begin anew, in a new day or a new year.

So perhaps along with prepping the house for the 31st, we can also prep our souls for the year ahead too. This is the week to spiritually clean house, to muster up the courage and the humility to venture into the back closet, discard that which weighs us down and then get on with this amazing and wonderful and awesome and hard and challenging trip called life.  God knows we are all dragging around things which are best left behind in yesterday and last year.

2012 is coming. 2011 is fast drawing to a close. But before we cross that bridge, let it go.  See you next year.



Thursday, December 22, 2011

How to "Keep Christmas"...

“Keeping Christmas” by The Reverend Henry Van Dyke (1912)
            “Here is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is keeping Christmas. Are you willing to forget what you have done for other people and to remember what other people have done for you; to ignore what the world owes you and to think what you owe the world; to put your rights in the background and your duties in the middle distance and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground; to see that your fellowmen are just as real as you are and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for you; to own that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life; to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe and look around you for some place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness.
Are you willing to do these things even for a day?
            Then you can keep Christmas!
            Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children; to remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old; to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough; to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts; to try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you; to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you; to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings with the gate open—
Are you willing to do these things, even for a day?
            Then you can keep Christmas!
            Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love?
            Then you can keep Christmas. And if you can keep it for a day, why not always? But you can never keep it alone.”

Monday, December 19, 2011

Have Yourself an Imperfect Holiday!

Perfect (adjective) 1. conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type   
2. excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement              
--Random House Dictionary

Ready for a perfect holiday? Maybe this year it will finally happen.  A holiday with nary a glitch, if I only work hard enough and plan well enough, right?  So first cue up a perfect holiday song, say “The Christmas Song” by Mel Torme and Bob Wells, sung by The Carpenters.  “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yule tide carols being sung by a choir and folks dressed up like Eskimos…”  

Now picture the living room. A fire blazing away in the fireplace, just so. Every last gift has been bought and is perfectly wrapped and tucked under the tree, which is also perfectly dressed up in brightly colored ornaments, not one out of place. The whole house is perfectly clean in fact. All the family members you hoped would be home are home, safe and sound and everyone is getting along perfectly.  Your neighbors envy how perfectly decorated your house is, twinkling white lights gracing perfectly landscaped shrubs and trees out front.  It even snowed yesterday, but just a little, just enough for a picture perfect white dusting. 

OK: now stop the music.  Halt the perfectionist fantasy.  Walk away from the worship at the altar of a perfect holiday.  Instead get ready for an imperfect holiday. 

So I want to build a fire but every year I do that the house fills up with smoke.  I bought a tree but now it is tipping to the left about thirty degrees, a Yuletide leaning tower of Pisa. The house is a mess, half rolls of wrapping paper strewn across the floor and I thought I bought Aunt Mary a gift but now I’m not so sure so does that mean I have to go out to the mall again? I wish the whole family was here but Cousin Tom is still in Afghanistan on deployment and this is the first year we’ll celebrate without Grandma. We miss them both so much.  Kind of sad.  I had planned to go all out on the house decorations outside but work was so intense with all the layoffs this year.  So all I put up was the candles in the windows: that’ll have to do.  And now they say it may snow on the 24th! 

A perfect or imperfect holiday.  What will it be?

The holidays are coming. That’s non-negotiable. Nothing we can do about the calendar. But what we do have control over is how each of us spiritually frames these days ahead, the spiritual attitude we bring to our holidays.  That’s a lesson not just for December but for all year round too.  Because life is never ever perfect. Life is not some perfect image come alive from an old fashioned Christmas card.  Life instead is a work in progress. Some days we burn the Christmas cookies and some days they come out just right.  Some times we love the gift of today we get and some days we can’t wait to return it and just move on to tomorrow. The acceptance of this truth, whether at the holidays or any day, may just be the key to being a happier person, finally at peace with life just as it is, even with all its imperfections. Imperfect. And that’s ok. That’s life.

I always like to look to the story from my faith tradition which sets the tone for my holy imperfect days ahead.  It stars a teen girl named Mary with a very unplanned pregnancy. An earthly Dad named Joseph who sets aside his hurt and faithfully stands by his betrothed.  A bumpy and exhausting eighty mile donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  Arrive to find out every room is booked at the ancient Motel 6 so the birthing room will have to be in the stable with the animals.  Disheveled and unkempt shepherds crashing into the delivery room moments after labor.  And then three uninvited kings who don’t bring diapers or food but instead show up with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Kind of imperfect, huh?

As the poet Max Ehrmann wrote in “Desiderata”, “Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive [God] to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.” 

A beautiful world.  A beautiful life.  A beautiful holiday. But always imperfect.  Never perfect.  That’s the truth I hope to find gift wrapped under the tree this year.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Declaring a Truce in the "War on Christmas"

“I guess if you want your children to learn the story of Christmas, you just might want to take them into a church, not Wal-Mart.”
--National Public Radio Commentator Scott Simon

The so called “War on Christmas” debate is being fought, right on schedule in these days before the 25th.  On one side are folks like Fox News Commentator Bill O’Reilly who for the past fifteen years has used his prime time TV show to rail against a culture he sees as robbing Christmas of its “true” elements.  Like not allowing religious nativity scenes on public property.  Having kids sing only secular, non-religious songs in concerts at school.  Banning Santa Claus in public schools. Substituting the word “holiday” for “Christmas”, “Happy holidays” as a seasonal greeting versus “Merry Christmas”.  Or this year, perhaps worst of all for pro-Christmas crusaders, calling a “Christmas tree” a “holiday tree”.  It’s this last seasonal “sin” which touched off a Christmas controversy, right down in little Rhode Island.

As The Boston Globe reported: “Governor Lincoln Chafee…is blamed for sparking a national fight by referring to the [state’s official Christmas tree] as a ‘holiday tree,’’ for which he has been lambasted on television and in e-mails and telephone calls. He stands accused of taking the Christ out of Christmas. The governor’s office has fielded nearly 4,000 calls related to the tree, mostly from out-of-state, after the dispute made national news last week….Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin laid into the governor on the tree.  ‘It’s a silly attempt to be inclusive and really has done more harm than good.’” 

So livid were Ocean Staters that hundreds showed up at the official statehouse tree lighting ceremony to protest, angrily singing “O Christmas Tree” while carrying placards declaring “Saving One Christmas Tree at a Time!”  Defending his decision (which had also been the policy of Rhode Island’s last governor Donald Carcieri), Chafee said, “If it’s in my house it’s a Christmas tree, but when I’m representing all of Rhode Island I have to be respectful of everyone.”

So much light and heat, all over a holiday.  Or should I say a holy day?  For just what is Christmas? What has the 25th and the entire season from Thanksgiving to the 1st of the year become in 2011? 

Is Christmas a strictly religious celebration? Then Christmas is Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they confess is God come down to earth in a child, “Emmanuel” meaning “God with us”.  Christmas is Christians attending church, worshipping God in a preparatory holy season called Advent, moving towards Bethlehem in faith and hope, where that baby was born.  And in that journey many Christians honor God and this miracle by carrying out acts of intentional kindness, especially to and with the poor, in food drives and charitable donations, and increased gifts to charity.  Christians believe this in-breaking of God into the world heralds a new vision for all creation: peace on earth and goodwill to all people, as the angels declared. All people.  And no more war says this prince of peace. No more poverty. No more despair because now God is here, all in a tiny infant born some 2,000 years ago. 

Is this Christmas? Yes. Absolutely. And I love it.

But Christmas in 2011 is also about all the energy and the activities and the trappings of the season. Christmas songs on the radio, ones you’ve sung for years.  The buying and giving of gifts to the tune of $877 billion, according to one estimate. Stringing bright lights on the house and in doing so somehow pushing back the darkest time of the year.  Attending Christmas parties at the office and with neighbors and sending out millions of cards to reconnect with the circle of love we call our extended community. Getting some blessed time off at years’ end and just resting.  Returning home for Christmas and then being with family and loved ones around a holiday table overflowing with rich food and sweet memories.  Getting away on vacation and skiing or lolling on a sunny beach.  Christmas is a time to pause at the end of 365 days.

Is this Christmas? Yes. Absolutely. And I love it, at least most of the time.

Now the cliché response for me as a Christian would be to surely join in on this argument about the “War on Christmas”, right?  To get all offended and huffy at the substitution of “holiday” for “Christmas” ?  To rail against how folks have taken Christ out of Christmas. 

But not me.  Because the key I think, is to not get the holiday mixed up with the holy day.  To not confuse a secular celebration in December with what is for some like me, a spiritual exercise in the last month of the year. To not mistake gift giving with the gift of Christ, which Christians believe is the greatest gift God has ever given to the world.  Both celebrations are great but each is now completely separate from the other.  And I’m ok with that.

So here’s my Christmas and Holiday personal declaration. There was never any war on Christmas to begin with.  I don’t need the culture to affirm or somehow support my personal religious beliefs, my idea of Christmas, the holy days of Christmas. That’s why I go to church and practice my faith. That’s my Christmas.  I really don’t care what folks call their tree. That’s their business, not mine. I don’t expect a government sponsored event like Rhode Island’s state tree lighting to include anything religious.  “Holiday” away Governor Chafee. 

If I had a child I’d want them to sing “Silent Night”, not at a school assembly, but in church, on the night of the 24th, so they’d know what the song is really talking about. Religion should be learned in the home and in houses of worship, not school.  If I want to see a nativity scene I’ll look at the one in my church or my living room.  I don’t need one on the town green to somehow buck up my faith.  If I want my nieces or Godchildren to be introduced to the Christmas story, the place to do this is not the mall. It’s in a faith community.    

So Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!  Both work for me.  Both usher in a great time of year.  But each is finally separate from the other.  One is personal, private and pious. One is public, fun-filled and busy.  Thank God for the holidays and the holy days.  It’s all good.  Let’s declare a truce in the war and then be on our way to the 25th!



Monday, December 5, 2011

We Reap What We Sow

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” 
--Sir Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion

The reaction to the reality that casino gambling is absolutely coming to Massachusetts has begun, at least in my little world. While having dinner a few weeks ago with close friends, a family who live in a quiet and bucolic metro west Boston suburb right next to my own town, they told me this.  “Well if a casino goes into the next town over, we’re probably going to have to move.  We just don’t want to be anywhere near that kind of place. It won’t be good for our kids or the traffic or the town or our home value or anything.” 

For every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.  That’s how the natural world works.  That’s how all of life works too.  Push here and something else pokes out there.  Make one choice and its effects ripple out both for good and for bad.  Say “yes!” to one thing and you may have to say “no!” to another. 

So if Bay Staters can wade through all the sunny and optimistic claims about what “good” will come about now that Las Vegas is coming right here to Massachusetts, we also need to face into the “bad” of this decision too.  The reaction in response to this action.  I mean we didn’t really think we could make a deal with the devil of gambling interests and not pay a price, did we? 

Yes, we’ll see thousands of construction and other jobs created by the gambling boom.  State and local government coffers will be filled up with new revenue.  But other negative actions will happen too.  Massachusetts is already number one nationwide in per capita spending on the Lottery, some $806 per person each year, and casinos will no doubt add to this number in overall gambling expenditures.  So who and what loses in this zero sum game? 

There may be less money for charity.  Why gamble on the offering plate when you can get better odds at a slot machine, right? Or perhaps less money for basic household expenses like a mortgage or food on the table or college tuition.  More poor souls becoming gambling addicts.  You know what day is often the busiest at Connecticut casinos?  The day after Social Security checks come in.  Then there’s the traffic. And the increased crime.  And the huge potential for government corruption, as millions of dollars pour into the state in the years ahead, from folks who really don’t care much about Massachusetts.  As if our leaders need more encouragement to be on the take.

Yet this is how it is with the choices we make in life.  Everything is finally interconnected.  So when our state representative votes “yea” on casinos, a young family in his district is forced to move so that their children don’t have to live right next door to honky-tonk central. Makes me wonder just how close that same state representative will live to a casino.

Faith traditions teach us of the truth that all our life decisions, large and small, always come back to visit us. “Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.” (Ecclesiastes 11:1); “…whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Galatians 6).  This law of reaction just plays true whether in the world of physics or the world of the soul. No getting around it.

There are no free rides finally. No do overs.  No “get out of jail free” cards when we make decisions.  Every choice we make, whether ethical, moral, spiritual, communal or personal: these all matter.  Every choice we make evokes an equal and sometimes powerful reaction.  I think we need to be reminded of this reality.  It’s so easy to forget. 

Remember when folks thought they could just keep pulling money out of their homes in equity loans because the market was just going to keep on going up?  That bread came back.  Remember when Wall Street was sure they could just keep packaging and repackaging toxic debt in an insane game of musical chairs? The music stopped.  Remember when Uncle Sam thought he could just keep printing and spending money, tomorrow be damned?  We’ll reap what we sow in this case, at some point, absolutely.  Remember when Massachusetts decided to chase after the siren song of gambling?  Those seeds are now in the ground.  Now we get to watch them grow, for better and for worse.

So here’s a sure bet.  Every choice we make creates an equal and opposite reaction.  No gambling on that proposition.  Our bets are now on the table. The hand has been dealt.  I just pray and hope that the house doesn’t win.  Because if it does, we just may end up losing in our roll of the dice on casino gambling.