Monday, July 25, 2011

Cutting Compassion From the Budget

Budget cut (noun) 1. the act of reducing budgeted expenditures

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; 
it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."     --Franklin D. Roosevelt  
What could be a more noble cause than giving books, free of charge, to kids who otherwise could not afford them?  That’s what the “Reading Is Fundamental” (RIF) program has been doing since 1966, forty four years of opening the minds and hearts of impoverished boys and girls, making reading accessible to all, regardless of income.  A public-private partnership, RIF has done an amazing job. As of 2010, its 400,000 volunteers distributed 16 million new books to 4.5 million low income children in all 50 states each year.  

“Distributed” is the key word here because as of last March, RIF’s funding by the United States Department of Education was zeroed out, cut to nothing, as a part of the stopgap federal spending bill passed by the Congress and signed into law by President Obama.   Savings to the taxpayers? $25 million.  Since about 90 million Americans actually pay some federal income taxes, that works out to a savings of twenty seven cents apiece. 

It’s important to keep such budget numbers and budget realities in mind as our leaders in Washington rush to embrace even more draconian cuts to the federal budget in the months ahead.  For now its cut, cut, cut.  Cut to the bone. Cut back. Slash. Reduce. Eliminate.  As the debt ceiling and budget debate rushes towards the zero hour of August 2nd and the pols scramble to come up with a plan, the numbers they are suggesting in cuts to government programs like RIF are staggering.  The highest figure I’ve seen so far is one suggested by President Obama last April: 4 trillion dollars in federal budget reductions over the next 12 years.  That’s $4,000,000,000,000.  That’s a lot of cuts.

The popular things for politicians and pundits to trumpet is how such slash and burn budgeting will reduce our national debt and save taxpayers money.  True and yet: absolutely no one in power who so casually bandy about such numbers is ever specific about what these cuts will mean for the people who benefit by what Uncle Sam does with its revenue.  It is as if the federal budget is some abstract idea, disconnected from the reality of life in our country for so many of our citizens who depend upon federal dollars for an astonishing variety of programs, services and support structures.           

These cuts may be framed as fiscally necessary.  But let’s at least get real and face into about what these cuts might mean. Like no more books for poor kids.  Less food stamps for the fifty million Americans who struggle with hunger every day. More expensive health care for the poor, the elderly and the unemployed.  Less money for basic research and innovation through agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.  Less money to support veterans as they return home from the battlefield.  Less money for national parks and space exploration.  More expensive individual payments to Medicare and raising the age of eligibility for seniors to 67.  Defunding National Public Radio and the National Endowment for the Arts.  Closing community health centers that provide basic medical care for the poor.  Less funding for developing solar, wind and other alternative energy.  Less money to combat air and water pollution. 

All of those cuts are on the table and many, many more.  All of the spending cuts will directly translate into a huge impact upon the citizenry and in particular the most vulnerable.  The federal budget is not just an equation, not merely numbers or dollars and cents.  What Uncle Sam spends is about people and making this human life better.  So when all the cutting is finally done, let’s confess that we will not be a better country for it.  We may get our books in order, but the danger is that our national fabric will be torn asunder.  We will be less compassionate. Less generous. Less community minded.  Less united.  We’re not just cutting funds.  We’re cutting the national spirit too.

As a person off faith committed to hope, I want to be more hopeful about this crisis, want to have faith that the politicians and the citizenry will rise up.  Will cut wisely and agree to pay more in taxes, even just a little more, to ensure that the basic social safety net of our nation can survive intact.  But right now the atmosphere in Washington is anything but thoughtful or prudent.  And even though polls show the majority of Americans want a more balanced approach to the budget, Obama and the Democrats and Boehner and Cantor and the Republicans have all got the knives out. Nothing is safe or sacred anymore, save perhaps The Department of Defense. 

So for now it is more bombs and less books.  Is this really who we want to be as America?    

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Clock Is Ticking....

 "I shall [ride] through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not [ride] this way again."  --Stephen Grellet

We’re all on a long ride called human life. So how’s that journey going today?  And as you travel, are you taking the time to spread some good and some kindness and some treasure and some love along the way? The ride.

You’ll excuse me if I’ve got riding on the brain. You see right now I’m in the midst of hard training for a real ride, a long bike ride, next month’s Pan Mass Challenge, the largest athletic fundraiser in the world.  Come August 8th the PMC will have collected $34 million in gifts for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, one-hundred percent of all donations going to find a cure for cancer.  Dana Farber delivers compassionate and cutting edge treatment each year to thousands of cancer patients from around the world. 

Along with personally having to raise $4200 in donations I and 5,000 others will pedal upwards of 200 miles in two days, August 6th and 7th, from the hills of Sturbridge to the dunes of Provincetown.  Kind of crazy in a way, don’t you think?  It will take something like 152,000 pedal strokes per rider to get us from here to there.  There’s the weather.  Will it rain?  Will it be a hot August dog day only New England can deliver?  There’s your posterior.  Suffice it to say that when you’ve got your derriere on a bike seat for upwards of twenty hours over two days it can get a bit sore down there. There’s all the training you have to do in advance, hundreds of miles and hours, time away from family, up so early for a quick ride, out at dusk for a few more miles.  But still we ride.

Why?  We aren’t paid.  There really is no apparent or tangible pay off for the marathon bike ride, not in an obvious way at least. So me? Well I ride to recognize one simple truth.  Life is short. All of us are stamped with an unknowable expiration date the day we are born and then the clock of finitude starts ticking away.  As soon as we enter this world we begin the ride towards our exit. 

That’s an obvious truism but one I think many humans tend to forget and even deny.  You know the excuses.  As in I’ll forgive that person who hurt me some day, but not now. I’m still mad. I’ll give more money to charity some day, but not now.  I’ve got to take care of me.  I’ll work less and spend more time with my family some day, but not now.  My career is my number one priority.  I’ll get back to church and God someday when things are less busy, but not now. Haven’t got the time.

And then some cruel event happens and all of our plans for “then” come crashing to the ground.  We wake up to the fragility and preciousness of this God given finite life.  Cancer does this.  Today we are ok. Then tomorrow we find a lump or a shadow on an X-ray or read a scary lab result.  Ask anyone who’s faced or is facing “The Big C” and they’ll tell you that the day they were diagnosed everything changed.  Disease jolts us awake.  Accidents can too and natural disasters like a tornado which appears out of a bright June sky.  Just the circumstances of life.  And then in an epiphany we realize that we do only pass and ride this way but once.  How will we ride? How will we live?    

Faith in an infinite God constantly reminds us that finally we human beings are all finite.  Life is precious. Life is a mystery. We have no idea when our lives or the lives of others will end.  When we adopt this attitude of spiritual finitude, of living with the truth that dying comes to all of us, it can radically change the way we live, act, and ride in this life. 

We can love more and neglect less.  That someone who needs to know that you love them? Tell them now. Don’t wait.  We can give more away knowing we cannot take it with us.  All that cash and all our stuff will not fit into the coffin, no matter how hard we try!  We can take risks and pay attention to the bucket list.  What have you always dreamed of doing?  Get to it! We begin to live, not for ourselves alone, but for others too.  The smallest life is always the one which only concerns “me”. In the face of death we can become more alive!  Imagine that. That’s why I ride the PMC.

You and I will only ride this way but once.  What are you doing to make it the ride of a lifetime?  Get on the bike and get moving!

(To make a donation to the PMC, go to and just follow the directions.)


Monday, July 11, 2011

It is Time to "Can-Do"!

Can-Do (adjective informal) 1. characterized by or exhibiting a determination or willingness to take action and achieve results --Oxford English Dictionary

It all happened forty two years ago on a hot July afternoon.  An eight year old boy and his older brother are called by their Mom to come back inside the house and leave behind a back yard wiffle ball game.  The boy’s family gathers in the basement, in front of a black and white television set and watches a ghostly image on a jet black background. One man steps down and stands upon a world that no human being has ever visited before.  The moon.  Taking one hop onto the lunar landscape, Neil Armstrong says, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

I was that little boy and I’ll never forget that day.  Like many from my generation I was fascinated by the romantic and gee-whiz notion of human beings traveling to the moon.  It’s hard to imagine now, when spaceflight is mostly received with a collective societal ho-hum, but back in 1969 the race to land a man upon the moon 238,000 miles away galvanized and fascinated a nation and a world.  In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy stood before the Congress and challenged that body and the United States to undertake this massive effort, manned space flight was still more science fiction than science fact.  Nothing on that technological level had ever been attempted by any country in the history of the world.  It would be very expensive, very difficult and perhaps even on the edge of impossible.  Was America up to it? Did we have the right stuff? The Apollo space program demanded America act boldly with its best “can-do” attitude. 

In a speech at Rice University in 1962, Kennedy emphatically declared that America could and would and must do it.  “We choose to go to the moon in this decade…not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win….”  Can-do!  Did do, just seven years later.

There is something wondrous and inspiring in such a can-do attitude.  For such a philosophy refuses to roll over and play dead in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  It never accepts “no” or “it can’t be done” for an answer.  It musters the courageous vision to see that which must be done and then rolls up its sleeves and does it. 
Faith in God is certainly a perpetual can-do effort.  The hungry—we can feed them. The homeless—we can house them.  The war-torn—we can build peace.  The community—we can create it.  But first, with God in the lead, you have to believe you can do it. 

All great human endeavors in fact, especially those that are “hard” in Kennedy’s words, begin with a passionate belief that something can be done.  Thus charged the work begins: for individuals, a nation, and a world.  When America is at its best as a nation, this can-do idealism is embedded in our civic DNA.  Achieve independence? Can-do. Overcome the Depression? Can-do.  Make the world safe for democracy? Can do.  Send a man to the moon? Can-do.  Be a world leader in invention, entrepreneurial spirit, freedom? Can-do.

Seems to me these days our country is in sore need of a renewed can-do attitude, a reminder we have overcome the greatest of national crises. The times we live in certainly present us with enough challenges which demand solving, everything from the debt to the wars to an anemic economy to bickering politicians.  What we seem to lack is the confidence and commitment of leaders and citizens to do the hard work which lies ahead and believe that together, in sacrifice and solidarity, we can do it. 

So remember. We’ve done it before. We can do it again.  Do we believe this? I know I do.  Just ask that amazed little boy who saw the impossible come true on July 20, 1969.   We did it then not because it was easy, but because that hard work called forth the best which is America. 

Can-do. Let’s get to work!



Friday, July 1, 2011

What Am I Doing To Serve Others?

“Life's most persistent and nagging question is, 'What am I doing for others?’"
 --The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. 

I presided at a poignant memorial service last week for a humble and sweet and selfless man who after eighty-seven years in this world passed on to his God.  In my faith tradition, many of us hope for one encounter when we pass from life to death, from earth to heaven.  God, welcoming us home at the pearly gates, and saying: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” We hope that when we return to our Creator, the One who gives us life, we’ll be able to say that in life, we gave back too.  We served.  We sacrificed. We were generous with our time, talents and money.  We lived our days, not just for ourselves, but for others too.  We tried to be servants in the service of love.  Such service is at the heart of all great faith traditions.    

And so John, the one whom our church memorialized?  He was a servant, and then some.  A World War II veteran who served in the dangerous waters of the Pacific.  A community volunteer serving the elderly, serving on town boards, being a Mason and a Shriner and serving seriously ill children.  A forty-eight year church member, in the balcony without fail each Sunday with his beloved wife Ruth, he was always cleaning up the kitchen or doing the recycling or manning the church elevator.  A faithful friend who twice each month visited a nursing home patient who might have otherwise been forgotten.  A servant, plain and simple.

I’ll bet you can quickly think of such a servant, a soul who modeled for you the importance of such giving.  A coach. A clergyperson.  A neighbor.  A grandmother.  They respond to that persistent question of Reverend King’s: “What am I doing to serve others?” by answering the call to serve with a “Yes!” and an “I can help!” and a “Sign me up!” They make up a rare group of folks who see service to others as a given, not just an extra.  Who view service to others as natural as breathing.  Living by this ethic, they believe that to be a member of a community always carries with it this great responsibility: to give back to others, in large and small ways.  For them service is the norm, not just something to do when every thing else is done.

Servants.  We can applaud them, thank them, laud them but how about this?  Can we become like them too?  Serve others in our lives, our town, our faith community, our country, our world?  That’s what the witness of a life like John’s persists in asking each of us as citizens and children of God and human beings. This week we’ll spend hours and hours working and playing, consuming and buying, texting and typing, driving and rushing.  That’s the world we live in.  But in the midst of all this activity, is there room for service to others too?  For taking some of what you might have spent on yourself and instead putting it into the plate at church or towards tornado relief for our neighbors just down the road?  For marking up the family calendar not just with one more birthday party but maybe some service time too?   

Service.  Is this your norm in 2011? How many hours a month do you volunteer? Do you devote a good part of your wealth to charity?  How many hours a month do you volunteer? Coach a team? Lead the Scouts?  Serve a hot meal at a soup kitchen? Build a home for Habitat for Humanity?  Visit the homebound? Help at the library? Do you vote and help make your town or city a better place? Is service central or an afterthought, an extra, that thing on your chores list that never quite seems to get done? Do you meet your neighbors in a church or synagogue or mosque and find your God, or is Sabbath just something Grandma used to do?

Service.  The world we live in continues onward and upward in large part because of the service that others have done and do for each and every one of us.  It’s tempting to imagine we got to where we are through individual pluck and solo efforts.  But the reality is we got to where we are as well on the shoulders of the servants who carried and carry us.  Parents who gave up that we might thrive.  Volunteers who loves our children and care their souls.  Teacher who take personal time after classes to connect with a struggling youth.  The man who drives our grandfather to worship each Sunday or mans the Meals on Wheels van.  The citizen solider who puts his life on the line for me and you this very day.  The coach who inspired you when you were a kid.  The Sunday School teacher who helped you realize that God is love.

What saddens me about the death of folks like John, beyond the personal loss, is the communal loss too.  Of a rare saint who by his one life of service helped create from the ground up a family, a town, a nation, and the whole world.  All by serving others.  For without service and volunteering and generosity, our world would truly crumble.  Of that I am sure. 

So yes, this is life most persistent and nagging question: what am I doing for others?  We are asked.  How will we answer?