Monday, December 31, 2012

God, Google and the Search for Answers

Search (verb) 1. to look through carefully in order to find something missing or lost; to examine carefully in order to find something concealed; to explore in order to discover                 --Random House Dictionary

100,000,000,000: that’s how many searches users worldwide undertook on a monthly basis in 2012.  How did I come by this fact? Well…Google of course.  So if you do the math that means on alone, which controls about 70 percent of the search market, folks around the globe last year searched 1,200,000,000,000 times, 1.2 trillion. That’s a lot of searching.  True—most of the time those searches were neither earth shattering nor life altering. 

The search was for the trivial when you were out with friends and wanted to know who played the captain on the TV show “McHale’s Navy”: Joe Flynn, aka Captain Binghamton. On Thanksgiving: how long it takes to cook a 25 pound turkey: six and a half hours at 325 degrees. In the car: how far it is from Boston to Albany: 168.77 miles.  Maybe even at church: what books begin and end the Bible? Genesis and Revelation. 

Did we search this much, seek answers to our questions so obsessively and so frequently before Google?  Probably not. Back then a search would have meant a trip to the library and maybe a perusal through “The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature”.  (I know you’ve probably never heard of that book. You’ll have to google it.)

I’d like to report the five most popular Google searches in 2012 were profound but mostly they weren’t. In reverse order, or as one website proclaimed “What the World Searched For!”: Diablo 3 (video game), iPad3 (computer), Hurricane Sandy (natural disaster), Gangnam Style (a song) and, the number 1, most searched for, most sought after area of curiosity? Whitney Houston, a pop singer who died of a drug and alcohol overdose. 

I’m not sure what that says about our world and what we are ultimately searching for.  Perhaps this. Google is really, really good at providing answers to certain, clear, and precise inquiries--who, what, where, how—but it is not so great on “Why?”.  If you type “why?” into Google you’ll receive 3,100,000,000 “answers” in .28 seconds, the first result being a link for a website about a California hip hop and indie rock band. 

No. “Why?” is the hardest question of all in the human search for meaning.  It can’t be googled or quickly looked up any where or answered in a single keystroke.  “Why?” is the province of the human heart and soul.  “Why?” is what we ask God or the Universe when we lie in bed at 3 am and ponder our lives or this messy, broken world.  In 2012 “Why?” was what we most heartbreakingly asked when we heard the news…about Newtown… Aurora, Colorado…the shooting of a little girl in Pakistan by the Taliban…the thousands who lost everything in Superstorm Sandy…the chronic inability of our leaders to lead and govern.  “Why?”

So if I had but one prayer to offer for all humanity as we enter 2013 and say goodbye to what was in many ways a hard year for God’s Creation, it would be this. May we all  continue to have the courage to continue to ask “Why?” even as we confess answers may not come.  For when we ask “Why?” we seek a better, deeper life in a way: with more knowledge, wisdom, meaning, and truth.  We go beyond Google to God.  We dig into our faith traditions or seek out new ones and gather in community, because asking “Why” together is always better than asking “Why?” alone. 

Most important: we keep on searching and keep on asking the greatest question of all: “Why?” As the author Richard Bach wrote in his book “Illusions”, “Here is a test to find out if your mission on this earth is finished. If you’re alive it isn’t.” 

See you in the New Year.   

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Have Yourself A Content Little Holiday...

Expectation (noun) 1. the act or the state of expecting: to wait in expectation.
2. the act or state of looking forward or anticipating. --Random House Dictionary

It is now Christmas week, one day post the 25th but still six days to go in our yearly holiday journey.  How’s your spirit doing?  Your yuletide yearnings? Your holiday expectations that got so built up in the days leading up to the 25th?

Strewn about the house is the detritus from the big day.  Scrunched up balls of torn and wrinkled wrapping paper.  A recycling bin overflowing with empty wine and beer bottles.  A half finished carton of eggnog in the refrigerator, a caloric time bomb ticking away.  Your special holiday stretch pants are stretched to the limit. The tree by now may be listing a bit too, ten degrees to the west, groaning under the weight of too little water and too many ornaments. 

December holidays, and all the human hopes that go along with them, have become mighty large in our modern world: promoted, advertized, mythologized and pumped up beyond any realistic outcomes.  Admit it. At this time of year it is so easy to fall victim to an unattainable vision of just how these holly days are supposed to go. 

Everybody is supposed to absolutely love what we got them.  “It’s perfect!”  The Christmas Eve party is supposed to come off without a hitch, every guest fully welcomed, every hor d'oeuvre fully enjoyed.  The tree is supposed to stand true and tall and every ornament hangs just so. The family is supposed to all get along, domestic bliss, a silent night when all is calm, all is bright.  That longed for toy or gadget is supposed to be easily assembled, directions in real English, no missing parts. 

But here’s what happens.  Some gifts are deeply appreciated and some gifts are just tossed over the shoulder of the receiver as they dive into the next bauble.  At the party cousin Victoria got drunk again and stumbled over Rudolf in the front yard but lots of the guests didn’t notice. PHEW!  The tree is pretty but the cat just used it as a litter box. Christmas dinner was delicious but it was kind of sad to remember someone was missing from the table this year.  And it took until 3 am to put together that %$#@& dollhouse!  Expectations hoped for and expectations dashed.

The reality is that Christmas and the holidays are usually like most other days in how they come together and how they fall apart.  There are precious moments when we can’t believe how blessed by God we feel, how wonderful life is. There are sharp times when we get hurt or disappointed.  It snows: YEA!  SLEDDING! It snows. BOO! THE PLANE IS DELAYED!  The turkey is moist and tender and the rolls are burnt to a crisp. Always in life, whether on a special day or just another day, our outcomes usually wind up somewhere in the middle and maybe that’s ok.

There’s a worldwide “happiness” survey that’s been taken the past few years which compares the level of bliss in various countries. Almost every year the Danish win.  The Danes—what’s the deal with that?  They’re frozen out much of the year. They’ve got that midnight sun thing, months and months of winter darkness.  They do well economically but aren’t as wealthy as many other nations. I mean they haven’t even got a Super Bowl! But in the U.S. we ranked 23rd out of 97 nations surveyed in 2009. What gives?

Professor Kaare Christensen at the University of Southern Denmark offers this conclusion. “What we basically figured out is that although the Danes were very happy with their life, when we looked at their expectations they were pretty modest.  By having low expectations, one is rarely disappointed.”

Wise thoughts.  So when it comes to the holidays maybe we would all do well to decrease our expectations and increase our gratitude for the simple gifts of the season.  A warm and safe house.  Folks who love us.  Faith in God who sustains us.  Time off from work.  Just one gift that made us smile.  A glass of sweet eggnog after the kids go to bed. A child home from college. Sitting in front of a brightly lit tree and savoring the quiet.

Me? I’m letting go of all those holiday expectations this year. The perfect holiday may happen in the movies and at Martha Stewart’s house but not here on this imperfect earth in my imperfect life or in my imperfect home and that’s how it is supposed to be.   

Have yourself a content little holiday season! 

The Rev. John F. Hudson is senior pastor of the Pilgrim Church, United Church of Christ, in Sherborn ( If you have a word or idea you’d like defined in a future column or have comments, please send them to or in care of the Dover-Sherborn Press ( 


Monday, December 17, 2012

Hush, O World, Please Just Hush

Silence (noun) 1. the absence of any sound or noise; stillness; the state or fact of being silent; muteness; absence or omission of comment   --Random House Dictionary

Time stopped and then there was silence. That’s the only way I can describe my gut response and sense at the exact second I heard the news about the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday. It was that rare spiritual moment when it seemed as if the whole world was hushed and the minutes ceased to tick away on the clock. The earth stopped rotating from day to night.  Everything froze up in mute disbelief. 

When something so awful, so overwhelming, so horrendously unreal happens, that’s our human response.  The circuits in our brains fill to overload with information we can’t compute.  Our hearts fill to breaking with truth we cannot face.  It is all too much.  All we can say is, “Oh my God.”  All we can ask is “Why” and confess we may never, ever receive an answer. 

If I had but one piece of spiritual wisdom to offer to all of us in the wake of this event, and the far too many like it which now happen on a regular basis, it would be that we need silence. Silence and space. To grieve.  To weep. To wonder. To worry.  To be broken but together in our brokenness.  Silence: to light a candle and to pray for ourselves, personally and collectively, and for the victims, for that community.         

Silence and space. Unless we’ve lost a loved one in similar circumstances, none of us can ever even come close to fathoming the grief and pain of Newtown parents and grandparents and educators and neighbors and classmates and first responders. None of us.  We are so far removed as witnesses to this tragedy.  We are bystanders at best and we need to honor this sacred boundary.

But the truth is there may be no such boundaries in our culture anymore. There certainly hasn’t been since the millisecond the Newtown news broke and for that I worry greatly for our world. It’s now all sound and noise and clatter 24/7.  We’ve been drowning under a torrent of knee jerk opinions, presumptuous pontifications and blatantly political declarations since the 14th.  I am exhausted by this.  I just need some silence to take it all in, to think.  How about you?

I get that all of us have thoughts about the event. That’s normal. Yet in 2012 do we really have to immediately share these ideas so publically, so instantaneously, so loudly, on Facebook and on Twitter? On “The Today Show” and “Fox and Friends”? From pulpits and in press conferences?  I am spiritually suffocating under the weight of our national inability to be thoughtful anymore, to be silent, if just for one second, when it comes to our plugged in lives.

Then there is also another weirdness in our culture to lay on top of all this.  Why do we have to now so vicariously, digitally, quickly enter into the suffering of others?  Is it about them?  Is it about us? The motives may be good but the results are unsettling. This too has haunted me in the days after Newtown. 

It is as if none of us knows how to be silent anymore. How to possess an unshared opinion or thought. How to keep raw and unformed ideas to ourselves for just awhile. How to hold a precious and tender hope or grief between us and our God in silent prayer.  How to give ourselves and others the silent space they need to just be.  Instead we now bury each other in an avalanche of digital information with no time to pause or ponder or be still.   

Human life is far too big, messy, awful and awe-filled to be parsed immediately, to be opined or dissected or understood in the seconds it takes to make a status update or send a tweet or post on a blog or write a news story.  Six days after Newtown I feel as if even these words are so woefully inadequate.

Silence. Space. Quiet.  That’s what we all need right now. In the words of Christina Rossetti’s Christmas hymn, “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.” 





Monday, December 10, 2012

The End of the World As We Know It...I Feel Fine

Doomsday (noun) 1. the day on which the Last Judgment will occur; any day of reckoning; characterized by predictions of disaster --World English Dictionary

Eleven days and counting until the end of the world, Friday, December 21st—or at least that’s the rumor.  If you’re one of the six people in Creation who actually haven’t heard by now, there are tales swirling around the entire globe that the world and all there is within it will cease to exist a week from next Friday.  I guess I should be scared, right?

Because what better authority to trust than a 7,000 year old stone calendar created by the Mayans of ancient Central and South America?  For whatever reason, the calendar ends on the 21st and so many folks around the world see this abrupt numerical cut off as clear and incontrovertible evidence that the end is near. (My theory is that the calendar maker took a coffee break and forgot to come back.)

I suppose I could be petrified, getting ready for the last day of my existence, you know picking up the house, making sure the iron is turned off, packing a suitcase but then I wonder. What does one pack for Armageddon?  Fleece I’ll bet—you never know what the weather might be like.

But thank goodness the United States government, on its blog, has weighed in with its opinion on this cataclysm.  (Who knew Uncle Sam blogged?)  Under the oh so odd headline “Scary Rumors About the World Ending in 2012 Are Just Rumors” we learn: “False rumors about the end of the world in 2012 have been commonplace on the Internet for some time. Many of these rumors involve the Mayan calendar ending in 2012 (it won’t), a comet causing catastrophic effects (definitely not), a hidden planet sneaking up and colliding with us (no and no), and many others. The world will not end on December 21, 2012, or any day in 2012.”

Well I think that’s a relief, though I really wish I hadn’t learned that there are also rumors about a rogue planet or crazy comet crashing right into the earth too.  According to the blog, NASA has received thousands of letters from concerned citizens complaining about the whole planetary mash up thing too. 

Thank goodness the feds are all over these apocalyptic scenarios.  For if any one power can save us from the end of the world, it is…the federal government?  Wait. These are the same folks who are about to drive us over the other impending doomsday, THE FISCAL CLIFF.  So even if the world doesn’t cease to be on the 21st on the 31st the world will end for United States taxpayers! 

On that bleak day, the rivers will run red with blood, and the skies will rain down frogs and folks will drop to their knees and look to the heavens in dread and despair because come New Year’s Day we will careen over THE FISCAL CLIFF! Taxes will rise!  AAAAHHHHH!

But take heart America.  We can trust in the mature leadership of those we have elected to steer us clear of THE FISCAL CLIFF….OK. Maybe not.  But it is fun to type FISCAL CLIFF in all caps.  My advice? Open a bottle of champagne and get in touch with your CPA.

The real truth is that when it comes to the end of the world, whether it be mystically Mayan, or fiscally federal, or comets crashing, there is finally not much we humans can do about it, except one thing.  We can choose to not be afraid, not give into fear. That life attitude is not always easy.

Fear has become big business in our world: in the media, among our leaders and seemingly everywhere.  Fear leads the 11 o’clock news. Fear saturates the Internet. Fear always tries its best to get us to live less than full and abundant lives.  Fear finally tricks us into not having faith in anyone or anything, save the worst case scenario. That’s no way to live.

So up until and right through the 21st and the 31st I’m keeping the faith, in spite of all the fearful rumors and predictions.  Faith in a God who works through everything for the good. Faith in a battered world that always seems to be able to get through to the other side of whatever challenges humankind faces.  Faith in the promise of tomorrow and the miracle of life, just today. 

In the words of that great theologian Bob Marley, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, ‘cuz every little things gonna be alright.”  Here’s looking forward to the 22nd.



Monday, December 3, 2012

The Gift of December Darkness

Night (noun) 1.the period of darkness between sunset and sunrise...nightfall...the darkness of night; the dark.                     --Random House Dictionary
So my three “42 Inch Cool White Twinkling LED Snowflake” outdoor Christmas lights returned to action this past Sunday night, after having slumbered away for the past eleven months in my garage. From early December to the first weekend next January, my trio of oversized white plastic flashing hexagons (which can be yours for just $24.99 apiece from Target!) hang from three trees in my front yard. From sundown until midnight, they twinkle away with an otherworldly glow. Not hard to miss. 
Tacky? Gaudy?  Over the top?  To my east I’ve got one neighbor who swears by the understated simplicity of single candles in the windows and a green wreath on the front door illuminated by a spotlight. But then down the street on his front lawn another neighbor plants a life sized plastic blow up Santa Claus striding atop an airplane. Each night Saint Nick inflates and sets down upon a candy cane landing strip.  When it comes to holiday lights, I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Yet it this very human impulse to light up the night at the darkest time of the year which fascinates me.
December is finally about the night more than any other month of the year in this part of the world.  It is dark and will get darker right up until winter solstice on the 21st. Dusky days diminish in natural light. Even at high noon on a clear December day the quality of sunlight is subdued, slanted and diffuse. We arise in the shadows and come home in the dark.  And so in this twelfth month we face a choice: to push back the night, to deny the night and fight or even fear the night or to love the night and all that it brings.
Not easy, for the night and the dark can get a bad rap.  It was in a darkened room as children, after all, that we first learned to fear the night with its imagined bumps from under the bed and shadows on the wall.  Dark is the absence of light, a negative definition.  Thieves forever skulk in the night. Souls full of sin are named as “dark”.  It is at night we struggle the most with worries that seem to only fade away with the sunrise and light. 
But consider the gifts of the dark. It was in the dark God formed us in our mother’s wombs, the dark and warm waters of life. It is on the darkest of night, no moon in sight, no clouds above, when we remember our place in the vast and amazing universe, stars blazing away in an indigo sky. We look up and see the work of the Creator and know everything is made of the same cosmic stuff.  The dark reminds us that we need each other: a hand to hold on to, a friend to depend upon, a family to sit with in front of a warming fire on an ice cold night.
The dark is fully democratic. The star I view from the safety of my suburban front porch is the exact same star the homeless man on Boston Common sees. The night reminds me that he needs me and I need him, for together we each live in one miraculous and interdependent world, forever marked by the light and the dark. If we are going to wade into the night, let’s do it together. 
There is finally no escaping the dark and the night.  It holds us for half of life.  It returns every December. It circles around every afternoon or evening.  So I say put up all of those holiday lights and then go out and buy even more and hang up those flashing and twinkling and pulsating lights too!  Bring it on! Soft and sweet icicle lights that swing from the gutters.  Rudolph the Red Nosed reindeer balanced on a rooftop.  A Hanukah star all ablaze and Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus camped out too, right on Main Street. 
It is all good. It is all light.  It is night. In the words of Sarah Williams, from her poem “The Old Astronomer”, “Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
See you in the dark.

Monday, November 26, 2012

How Black Friday Consumes Us

"A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society…built on sand."          --Dorothy L. Sayers

Here’s what I did last Thursday night and Friday, Thanksgiving Day and the day after our national day of thanks. Watched my New England Patriots completely demolish the New York Jets while I sprawled out on the living room floor in hopes of aiding my overconsumption of turkey and all the fixings. Next morning I bid a bittersweet goodbye to old friends who had been my houseguests for three wonderful days.  I created a behemoth Turkey sandwich for lunch, with stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce spilling out the sides.  I read.  I napped. Then that night I planned for dinner and the latest Steven Spielberg blockbuster movie, “Lincoln”.

Here’s what I did not do. I did not leave my house at 10 pm Thursday night to get in line with hundreds of other at the local Best Buy so I could secure a midnight “door buster” deal on a flat screen TV. I didn’t rush out from the Thanksgiving dinner and drive north to New Hampshire where that state’s Wal-Marts opened at 8 pm Thursday night, the earliest ever.  I didn’t go any where near a mall, not even close, knowing that the traffic jams would be of apocalyptic proportions.

I didn’t shop. I didn’t buy. I didn’t consume. Call me odd. Call me weird.  Call me out for my reluctance to join the race from turkey consumption to consumer goods consumption to mark the start of the holiday buying season.  I just couldn’t do it.  Couldn’t get on the frantic shopping train that each year seems to start up earlier and earlier and then won’t stop until the last minute on December 24th.    

But 137 million of my fellow Americans did so on Black Friday (as it has come to be known), and Black Thursday night (as it is coming to be known). On average they spent $423 apiece.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ll be doing my own Christmas shopping in the weeks ahead and will probably approach that spending figure. I’ll do my part for consumption, helping companies get in the “black” (profitable) for 2012.

I’m not anti buying.  Consumer spending does after all constitute seventy percent of the overall economy.  I mostly enjoy making my Christmas gift list and figuring out the exact thing I plan to give to each of my loved ones.

I guess what really shocks me each year on these “Black” shopping days is the frantic, desperate and even bleak spirit which marks the communal ritual of descending upon our cathedrals of commerce en masse. Folks standing out in a midnight misty rain, in a quarter mile long line outside a big box retailer, all to snag a 32 inch TV for $199.  Shoppers pushing crammed carts, heavy laden with brightly colored boxes and baubles at two in the morning, looks of complete exhaustion on their unsmiling faces. Store workers forced to curtail or even skip their family holiday plans because they just have to serve this sacred shopping “tradition”. And far too many of us spending money on things we really do not need, with money we really do not really have, all to celebrate, theoretically, a holiday that was once a holy day, December 25th.  That’s why I find the yearly consumption fever so hard to fathom.

Remember? All this gift buying and gift giving, at least for Christians, is supposed to be about honoring God’s gift to the world: a baby, born to unmarried and poor parents, a child come to bring peace on earth and goodwill to all peoples. Regardless of what faith tradition we may claim, if any, it is hard to argue against the true gifts we all hope to find come these December days.  Peace. Joy. Love. Light in the darkness. Generosity. Family. Those are the real presents that I want this year and every year.  How about you?

So here are some alternative gifts I pray we might find under the tree in just 27 days: meaning beyond consumption, giving beyond self, generosity beyond commerce, community beyond isolation and love beyond belief.

May God grant us all truly happy holidays.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Formed for Life At The Family Dinner Table

“Every lesson I learned as a kid was at the dinner table. It is where we laughed, cried and yelled but most importantly, where we bonded and connected.”
--Michael Symon

This week on Thursday afternoon I’ll sit down for my 52nd Thanksgiving meal. That’s a lot of lifetime turkey!  In my clan various foods always vie for epicurean loyalty year after year come the fourth Thursday in November.  There’s Mom’s walnut pie with its caramelized sugar filling and a delicate flaky crust. My sister’s “magic” green bean casserole topped with crunchy onion rings.  Yes there are taste bud tussles at our table.  Should we go for the homemade “artisan” cranberry sauce? Or the canned stuff with its perfectly round gelatinous slices, totally processed and totally delicious? My favorite food is the potatoes, mashed and whipped and silky smooth, with a perfect indentation on top to pool fresh made gravy and melted butter. YUM!

I can’t wait. Not just for the food but more important for the people who will gather around the dining room table in my home, the folks I love the most in this world.  My family and my good friends. Our cast of characters has changed over the years.  My Dad who once ruled over the turkey, carving knife in hand, is no longer with us, nor my Uncle Frannie. We miss them. The little ones who once were pushed up to the table in their high chairs now may bring around their boyfriends for pie and coffee. Responsibilities for making the feast fall upon a new generation, Mom having cooked a brood of turkeys through the years. 

But what is faithful and true and unchanging on Thanksgiving for us is the ideal that always we are summoned to come together again around a common table and to break bread.  It’s a tug and a desire as old as Creation itself. It reflects two of the most basic human needs: food to fuel our physical bodies and love to fuel our hearts and souls. Having a trusted and familiar place to return one year later. Our lives have no doubt changed for the good and the not so good in the past 364 days. We’ve got a new job or a new beau.  Or it was a hard year because of illness or unemployment or divorce. We share the stories of our lives. We tell corny family jokes.  We are re-formed.

There is something sacred and precious about a table and folks gathered around it to eat and talk and laugh and cry and say grace over plates and bowls and platters of food.  Consider just how many meals have you eaten around such a table in company of others. Hundreds, thousands even.  In a world where too many folks can’t get to that table for lack of food or because of war or conflict or a family split or for whatever reason, we should never ever take for granted the miraculous gift of a shared meal.  

Every major world religion reflects the sacredness of “the table” in their beliefs and rituals.  The communion table for Christians. The Sabbath table for Jews. The fast breaking table for Muslims.  The sacred vegetarian meal prepared and blessed by Sikhs in the Temple and then shared with others.  For finally it is at the table, perhaps more so than at any other place in this human life, that we are finally shaped and formed and made and loved into who we are. 

So once again this year…may we pass the turkey. Hand over the fresh rolls just out of the oven.  Let’s lift up a glass of eggnog. But first: may we offer a prayer of real thanksgiving to God for our Thanksgiving meals and for the sacred tables where those feasts will take place.  There is no other place quite like “the table” in all the world.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

In Politics, Sports and Life, Leave It All On The Field

Leave Everything On The Field (phrase) 1. to commit wholly to, or to try one’s best at a sport or a game. (first reference 1986) --from the radio program “A Way With Words” 

I’m a fan of two American pastimes: sports and politics.  Both involve outsize personalities and cut throat competition. Each features dramatic storylines about second chances, messy falls from grace and last minute come from behind victories. One, professional sports, seems important but is really only entertainment. The other, politics, is often packaged as entertainment yet really needs to just be more important. And each endeavor offers arcane facts and odd statistics for the diehard fan.  So here are some final numbers to wrap up last week’s Presidential election….

11:12 pm, Eastern Standard Time, election night: the first major network calls the election for President Obama. 607 days: the length of the campaign, beginning March 11, 2011 when former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty declares as the first Presidential candidate. $2,000,000,000: amount spent by the campaigns and their supporters making 2012 the most expensive election in United States history. 72 percent: Governor Mitt Romney’s share of Utah’s votes, making the Beehive state the reddest state. 71 percent: Obama’s take in Hawaii, as the Aloha State went true blue. Infinity: if you live in a swing state, that’s the number of campaign ads on TV you had to endure for the better part of a year.

But the stat I’m most intrigued by is 12:55 am, a week ago last Wednesday morning right here in Massachusetts. That’s when our former Governor got up to deliver what must have been the hardest speech of his life. I cannot imagine what it is like to work so hard for so long to achieve something so dearly desired and then to fall short. To get so close with 48.1 percent of the popular vote. It may have been an Electoral College  “landslide” but last week’s election was the fourth closest Presidential race in 112 years.

I wonder what that long solitary walk on to the stage at the Boston Convention Center was like for Governor Romney. He spoke for just three minutes, 628 words in total. Then with a final wave he left the stage, exiting into the shadows of American history.

But that’s how it is in American politics, American sports and this American life.  We love our winners, the victors, the ones who claim the gold.  And often far too quickly, we dismiss or diss or just forget the losers. The runners up.  The also rans. 

Yet the truth is that if we compete and participate with gusto and passion on the field of play or field of life, like President Obama and Governor Romney, we’ll probably end up losing more often than we win, stumbling more often than we soar. Certainly gives me sympathy for how the Governor must have felt on that chilly November night.   

Remember how many interviews and resumes it took before you got that good job?  How many doors did you knock upon, phone calls did you make all for just one sale?  We may be married or in a great relationship but how many first dates turned out to be first duds? We can’t all get straight “A’s”, no matter how hard we try.  Most humans actually end up in the middle of the grading curve. That’s life.   

That’s why I like the outlook Romney expressed the afternoon of the election when asked about his state of mind and heart now that it was almost over. "I feel like we put it all on the field. We left nothing in the locker room. We fought to the very end and I think that’s why we’ll be successful." He was wrong in his prediction but right in his attitude. 

To play so hard and try so hard that regardless of the final score or tally we can at least take heart in knowing that we truly left it all on the field. No effort spared.  No last minute push neglected. No hesitation in the final stretch for the goal line. The game is over and we are fully spent.  No one likes to lose.  But even worse perhaps is the notion we that did not give it our all. 

President Theodore Roosevelt, who lost very badly in his last run for public office, once said, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failures, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory or defeat.”

So congratulations to President Obama and to Governor Mitt Romney. One lost.  One won.  But they both left it all on the field.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

In This Life We All Need a Good Neighbor

“…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”    -- Matthew 12:30-31

My favorite neighborhood pizza restaurant closed a few days ago.  Once a week, for the past five years that I’ve called this corner of God’s world home, I’ve ordered a pizza there.  Always the same: large pepperoni, with a bottle of Fresca on the side.  Those slices were delicious, absolutely. I’ll miss the culinary enjoyment of getting my supper there, the ritual of it.  But what I’ll miss even more is the neighborliness of the store, the fact that most of the guys there knew my name. That when I picked up my order they always offered a cheerful “Hello!” That when I called in on Sunday nights I could always count on a friendly voice and good service. 

I suppose I could have traveled a bit further away to get a pizza. It might have been as good, maybe even better, or cheaper.  But the folks who ran the shop were my neighbors and so I wanted to support them as a good neighbor too, right there in my neighborhood.  My ‘hood, my corner, my street, my village, my community, and my home.

In a time when we supposedly all live in a “global village”, as one philosopher called our technologically dominated modern life, it can be easy to forget the comfort of claiming a geographic, physical, specific, real place in the world as our neighborhood. Where we talk over the fence about the kids or the storm the night before or the new person who’s moving in down the block.  Where we stop by at Christmas with fresh cookies or drop off a casserole when someone is sick.  Where we have folks right nearby who can save us in a pinch with last minute childcare or a cup of sugar to save a recipe. Neighbors.

I know this sounds quaint, even archaic in our Facebook hyper-connected world.  Who needs friends nearby when we’ve got so many “friends” on line? Why catch up face to face when you can just update your status?  Forget real conversation. Just send a quick text.  So much easier, quicker, cleaner, right? Maybe. But me? I need a real neighborhood with real neighbors in a real world that some times can be a real stormy place.

Because for all the virtual ways we humans claim so called “cyber-neighborhoods”, there is finally no substitute for human contact in an actual neighborhood, on a street, an avenue, a block, a lane or a cul-de-sac.  Just ask all the folks slammed by Superstorm Sandy last week. 

Neighbors rushed over to help folks pull all of that stuff out of the basement in the moments before it flooded.  Neighbors with power welcomed in other neighbors and gave them a hot cup of coffee, a warm meal and a shoulder to lean on. Neighbors checked on one another, offered electric plugs for cell phones and computers. Neighbors literally offered shelter from the storm. No electronic screen can ever replace the gift of folks right next door who know our names and are there to lend helping hands or even just to bake a pepperoni pizza pie.

So farewell to the village pizza parlor.  You’ll be missed for the food but even more so, for just being such good neighbors.



Monday, October 29, 2012

The Holy Mess of God and Politics: Bring It On!

(Writer’s note: This Sunday November 4th, Boston College Professor Alan Wolfe, one of America’s foremost experts on the interaction of American faith and American politics, will speak at the eighth annual Cornerstone Forum in Sherborn on the topic “God and Politics: Divine or Divisive?”.  It takes place at 4 p.m. at the Sherborn Community Center and is free and open to the public.  With less than a week to go before our national elections, Wolfe’s topic got me to thinking about religion’s role in the democratic process.)

“Do you ever talk about politics from the pulpit?”  Now there’s a loaded question.

My Mom recently asked me this as we talked about the election next Tuesday. Clergy from her church had come out against Massachusetts ballot question 2 (“Prescribing medication to end life”) and were encouraging members of her church to vote “no”.  As her church’s leader, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, wrote in his blog, “I believe all people of good will should join me in opposing this deplorable ballot question.”

Should clergy and churches take public stands on political issues that they believe are of great moral, ethical or spiritual importance to our nation?  To push this question even further, should clergy and churches endorse or oppose specific candidates for office? And what of the folks in the pews? Should they bring their God and religion into the voting booth?

As a person of faith, a clergy person and a citizen I believe one precious concept and ideal trumps all others when it comes to God in the voting booth: human freedom. This is the sacred notion that as free thinking and informed citizens, it is finally up to each one of us, in the privacy of the voting booth and in the privacy of our relationship with God (if we claim such a belief) to decide for ourselves how to vote.

The Constitution protects both freedom of religion and religious practice, and freedom from any government endorsed religion, freedom from religion in a way. The government cannot tell me how to worship my God or whether or not to even believe in God. Religions and religious folks are then free, if they so choose, to take all the public stands and make all the public endorsements they want.  Now that’s real freedom!

Pro-life or pro-choice.  Anti death penalty or pro death penalty.  Health care for all as a moral imperative or health care for the few as a private affair.  Even though the IRS frowns upon communities of faith endorsing specific candidates for office and threatens to pull the tax exempt status of such institutions, I’d say let them be as free as they wish. Endorse away if they want to!  Let the fractious and sometimes chaotic cacophony that ensues from the interaction of American politics and America’s religion continue unfettered and free. 

That’s the miracle of democracy: freedom. We do not fear ideas based upon whether or not we believe they come from God or come from man. We do not fear the free exchange of ideas either: from a church or a clergy person or club or a corporation or a person or any one or anything.  In a way we as Americans say, “Bring it on!” and then we make up our own minds.  We freely choose for ourselves.  We politic. We debate. We argue.  We wade into a free press and research.  And then we vote. If we want to bring our God along with us on election day we can.  If we want to leave God at home or reject any notion of such a Deity, we can do that too, all because we are free. 

God and American politics: yes it can be holy mess. But I’d have it no other way.  See you at the polls.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Democracy Belongs To Those Who Show Up

“Don’t blame me. I’m from Massachusetts.”       
--1970’s bumper sticker

The death of Senator George McGovern this week recalled the most lopsided presidential election in United States history, fifty years ago next month. The 1972 race between incumbent Richard Nixon and McGovern was a blow out for the ages. Nixon beat McGovern with 68 percent of the popular vote and 97.7 percent of the electoral vote.  Only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia went for McGovern. But it was the coda to that election which was most startling. Just twenty-two months later, Nixon became the first President to resign from office, facing impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors that he and his staff committed, ironically, all to get him re-elected in ’72.  But that’s how it is in a democracy. You never, ever really know.

We can never predict what will happen in an election or post-election. Until the vote actually takes place and the ballots are counted, no decision has been made, no man or woman elevated to our highest office. History is still unwritten, just waiting for us to participate.  Whether an election is a landslide or a squeaker, every vote does really count. Consider John F. Kennedy who defeated Nixon in 1960 but did so only by .17 percent of the popular vote.  

So why do so many Americans still not even bother to show up and vote in our presidential elections?  We may call ourselves the land of the free and the home of the brave. 2012 may be the most important presidential election in our lifetime, as many pundits and pols declare. But then why will millions of our fellow neighbors and citizens stay at home on election night and neglect to make their voices heard?

In 2008 131 million Americans eligible to vote did vote, but 98 million other eligible voters just sat out.  57.1 percent voted but 42.9 percent didn’t bother to go to the polls.  That was the highest percentage of voters in fifty years, back to that infamous ’72 election, but I wonder.  Why all the no-shows? 

Is it apathy about the process? Cynicism about the candidates?  Maybe frustration with the whole chaotic process?  I get that many Americans are fed up with the way our country elects its Presidents.  By November 6th, Romney and Obama will have spent a combined $2 billion to get elected, about $15 per vote. Voters have been buried under hundreds of thousands of hours of radio and TV spots and scores of robo phone calls.  I think most Americans are polled out, debated out, and electioned out.   

Yet this does not excuse any American of eligible voting age from embracing the most precious and hard fought human right we possess as citizens: the simple privilege of voting.  Think of it. We show up at the polls and there are no tanks parked out front to intimidate or harass us, no gun toting soldiers blocking the doors.  There is no one looking over our shoulder in the privacy of the voting booth. We do not fear arrest or imprisonment or torture because we choose to vote.  No religion or political party or movement or tyrant rules us with an iron fist.  We are free. We can vote.

So yes, feel free to join in on all the complaining about how democracy is such a messy experiment at times.  Argue your point.  Praise your candidate or skewer the other guy. Make some civic noise—that’s the right of every single American.  But then a week from next Tuesday, vote. VOTE!

Get up off the couch, put down the screen, click off Facebook and Twitter, stop texting for just a little while, get to your local polling station and then vote.  Be freedom in action, freedom embodied, freedom alive.

As the patriot Samuel Adams declared in 1781, “Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote he is…executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.”

Don’t blame me. I’m from Massachusetts and I’m going to vote.  How about you?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Girl Who Wanted To Go To School

“Few…are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.”   --Ernest Hemingway

If you don’t yet know the story of 15 year old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai, you should. Every one in our world should.  If you care at all about human rights and dignity, get to know this incredibly courageous young woman. 
      Her dream was and is the dream of many children and youth in our world: to be able to go to school and to learn.  But for that desire, and for her very public advocacy of this hope for all the girls and young women of Pakistan, a week ago last Tuesday Malala was shot point blank in the head by a Taliban assassin. As I write this column, she lies in a hospital bed in Great Britain, breathing through a ventilator and clinging to life.
      Malala’s public story began in her hometown of Mingora in the Swat district of Pakistan. For years Swat has been the focus of radical Islamic fundamentalist Taliban insurgents who seek to impose harsh religious laws upon the populace, including a total ban on the education of girls and woman. The Taliban has already blown up and destroyed hundreds of schools for girls and women across that nation. In 2009 Malala became a very visible target for her outspoken and thoughtful opposition to this policy. While her neighbors and fellow Pakistanis often turned a blind eye to the Taliban or even agreed with their warped religious views, Malala spoke right up.  She wrote a very public blog for the British Broadcasting System and was the subject of a New York Times documentary on her life and work, and all at just 11 years of age! 
      As Malala blogged, “I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat. My mother made me breakfast and I went off to school. I was afraid going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools. Only 11 students attended the class out of 27.” And, “On my way from school to home I heard a man saying ‘I will kill you.’ I hastened my pace and after a while I looked back if the man was still coming behind me. But to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone.”
      Yet Malala’s fears turned out to be all too true.  Her public stature grew. She was nominated for an international peace prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  She became the Chair of the District Child Assembly in Swat.  The Taliban warned her and her family that she would be shot if she continued to go to school and to speak out.  And so on October 9th, as she and her classmates sat on a school bus, Taliban “soldiers” boarded the vehicle, put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. All because, in the words of one BBC editor, “She was just the girl who wanted to go to school.”
      Such brutality, cruelty, and evil leaves me almost speechless.  What kind of “army” or human being or supposedly “religious” person or movement would assassinate a teenage girl all for the “crime” of trying to go to school?  Pakistan is supposedly America’s ally in the war on terror but where are the Pakistani voices of outrage, protest, and bravery to speak up for and protect the children like Malala? 
      Where and when will the voices of moderate Islam finally emerge in that country and the world? Who will have the guts to finally wrest their faith back from the hands and hearts of folks like the Taliban and their supporters, who use the cover of religion to justify patriarchy and cold blooded murder? Seems to me the citizens of Pakistan need to show much more courage. They already have a great role model in Malala Yousufzai. 
      In an interview on a morning news show in Pakistan last December, Malala said she was speaking up in spite of the danger and even imagined confronting face to face the Taliban. “I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.”
      Pray for Malala.



Monday, October 8, 2012

Big Bird Wins But Voters Lose

“All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players..."              
 --William Shakespeare, "As You Like It"
     I only watched the first fifteen minutes of the Presidential debate last week before I switched the TV over to view the last Red Sox game of the season.  Admittedly that wasn’t a very inspiring choice either, as the Bronx bombers destroyed the BoSox 14-2 on a rainy Wednesday night. But I’ll admit it. I nixed the first debate. I don’t plan to tune into the other two debates either, nor the Vice Presidential smack down between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan or even the televised tussles between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, which I like to call “He Said-She Said”.
      I’m guilty as charged, a civic slacker I guess. Unlike 67.2 million of my fellow Americans who watched Obama and Romney go toe to toe, the next time the dark suited contenders stride on to the stage to perform, I’ll be watching a rerun of “Mythbusters” or maybe “CSI” to chill out after a long work day.  Yes I’ll absolutely read the newspapers and listen to the radio and surf the net the next day to learn about what happened and what was said. But watching it live? I’ll pass.
            Because there is one truth I think most citizens, politicians and media types know about the debates but are reluctant to name out loud. Debates are about performance more than anything else. Debates are theater, political theater sure, but theater nonetheless. Debates are for the most part highly scripted events, right down to each and every body movement, gesture and seemingly “spontaneous” remark. 
            It’s no mistake debates happen on the stage, before an audience, in a theater like setting.  The stars are two actors who have prepped for weeks and weeks to learn their lines cold, and have rehearsed over and over before the big night. Then finally it is show time. The curtain rises. The thespians stroll on stage and the drama begins. Act 1. Scene 1.  They act. They perform. And just in case one of them actually says something unplanned or unrehearsed their minions and sycophants await just offstage ready to spin it all back on script.   
            And then there’s us, the audience. I’d like to believe that when we watch a political debate we’re sincerely trying to learn more of the substance of what a candidate might actually do if elected. Yet the truth is we are also hoping to be entertained and amused by a candidate’s flub or a debater’s one line zinger, right?  We secretly watch a car race for the crashes.  Why should this blood sport be any different?
            The most talked about, tweeted about, discussed remark by Obama or Romney last week was not the Governor’s plan to cut federal taxes. It was not Obama’s defense of universal healthcare either. No. It was Governor Romney’s remark about cutting funding for Big Bird and “Sesame Street”.  Big Bird.  Is this the central takeaway from the two men who would lead the United States of America for the next four years? Yes it is a cute line and certainly quotable and I’ll bet Obama wishes he’d come up with something similar.  But really?         
            Yet that’s how it has always been for these Presidential sitcoms, political reality TV writ large. No one remembers the substance of the debates but everyone can recall that one great line. Walter Mondale asking President Reagan in 1984, “Where’s the beef?”  Candidate Reagan grabbing a microphone at a 1980 Republican debate and angrily declaring, “Mr. Green I paid for this microphone!” 1988 Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen skewering Dan Quayle: “Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!”   
            Lots of light.  Lots of flash. Lots of heat. Lots of posturing.  Good for a YouTube viewing. Then lots of critiquing the next day about who “won” and who “lost”, who “came across” as Presidential and who seemed flat and listless but not a lot of substance. Not much gravitas. Reading the debate articles the morning after, I wondered if I was perusing theater reviews rather than cogent political analysis and thought. 
            One New York Times reporter wrote Romney looked like an upbeat choirboy and Obama like an uptight college professor.  Well thanks for that analysis!  We certainly now know much better who can govern our nation through the most challenging and momentous times in a generation or more.
            So during the next month I pray that every American will read and think and consider carefully all the issues before casting their vote. But for me and my civic discernment, how a candidate “performs” on a debate stage has little or nothing to do with the real work of the Oval Office.
            All the world may be a stage, but finally, being President of the United States is not an act.