Monday, April 30, 2012

When It Comes to Life, Are you Asleep or Awake?

“Let me respectfully remind you, life and death, are of supreme importance.  Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.  Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed. Do not squander your life.” --The Evening Gatha, Zen Buddhism

What will it take to wake you up? 

To oversleep and then miss an important engagement or appointment is one of my biggest fears.  I’ve got a big sermon to preach in the morning or an extra early flight or a pre-sunrise commitment.  Then I just can’t risk snoozing through.  Some folks are blessed with an internal alarm clock which wakes them up, no worries. They somehow program a wake up time into their subconscious before sleep and then miraculously they wake right up on time. 

Not me. I sleep like the dead, like a rock, like a dead rock. I need a wake up call, a clanging bell, an annoying buzzer, an aural kick in the pants to get me up and out the door.  To just wake me up.  This often means setting not one but two alarm clocks—one next to the bed and the other on the farthest side of the room—whenever I really need to wake up.  Otherwise? Well, I might just sleep through.

To wake right up or to snooze away, and not just in bed but in life too.  Sometimes we all need a spiritual wake up call. These are the sharply realized moments, the starkly clear seconds, the haunting “A Ha!” revelations when life slows down, suddenly clarifies for us what really matters.  Whom we love.  What is finally important.  What we cherish.  How life is such a fragile and tender gift from our Creator. 

And so the doctor gives us the news and our spirits soar or sink.  The phone rings at 3 a.m. and we dread answering it.  We watch through tear-filled eyes our child on his wedding day and our hearts burst with gratitude. We narrowly escape a car accident and as our ticker thumps away, we thank God we are o.k.  We sit in church and mourn a loved one and weep at all the things the departed will now never, ever get to do.  We hold our newborn for the first time and she awakens in us the amazing mystery of existence.

We wake up. 

Or we just continue to spiritually sleep, oversleep even, ZZZZZ away as life passes us by in all its wonder and beauty.  Then we imagine it is our work that really matters the most and so we lose time with loved ones for that oh so crucial deal or that cell phone call we just have to answer. We live for the drama of life, get mired in the petty, the meaningless, the fleeting, the trivial, the need to always be right.  We waste time immersed in technology, texting away, surfing along in a virtual world while the real world unfolds right before us and we fail to see it.  We mistake wealth and money for meaning, hold on to our treasure and stuff so tightly that we convince ourselves we can really take it all with us and cram it into the coffin. We sleepwalk through life.  And then we get a wake up call.

Or we wake up, no call necessary.  Wake up and decide to take this one day, freely and generously been given to us by God, and not waste one second.  Wake up to the folks in life who need our love, right now.  Wake up to the needs of others, next door and far away, and then do something to help. Wake up to hot coffee and sultry spring mornings and birds singing and hugs from the kids and see all these little miracles as precious.  Wake up to passion and purpose and faith.  The choice is finally ours.  To stay in bed or to get up.

What will it take to wake you up?



Monday, April 23, 2012

When Is Enough, Enough?

Enough (adjective) 1.adequate for the want or need; sufficient for the purpose or to satisfy desire                            --American Heritage Dictionary

How much money is enough?  What is the appropriate, the right, the equitable pay for just one person? All depends on whom you ask, I guess.

One day last week may have marked a very small turning point in the societal debate about just how much America’s CEOs and business titans are worth, what they “deserve” to be paid in exchange for the services they render to their companies and shareholders.  As reported by the Huffington Post: “At Citigroup's annual meeting on Tuesday [April 17th], about 55 percent of shareholders participating in an advisory vote rejected [CEO] Pandit's pay package. That marked the first time that investors had rejected a compensation plan at a major U.S. bank. “  

Citigroup is America’s third biggest bank by assets, and its shareholders (and those of other public companies) recently won the right to have “a say on pay”, under a provision of the 2010 Dodd-Frank federal law passed by Congress and signed by the President in direct response to the economic meltdown.  Citigroup was right in the middle of that mess and had to be rescued from insolvency by Uncle Sam to the tune of $356 billion in bailout funds and loan guarantees. 

Citigroup’s Board of Directors had recommended a pay package of $15 million to CEO Vikram Pandit, a seeming return to the pre-meltdown days of sky high executive pay for the elites. But now his salary has been called out, questioned.  One Citigroup director called the rejection “a serious matter” that the board plans to take up.  That board will no doubt research what the “market” is for bank CEO pay then calculate the most they can pay him without risking shareholders’ wrath.  Pandit won’t be poor anytime soon. But one question I doubt they’ll ask is for me the most important one of all, one which is never posed, not in “polite” company.  Not on MSNBC or The Fox Business Channel, not in the pages of The Wall Street Journal either. 

When is enough, enough?  How much money is one person really worth in our world?

By my calculation if Pandit like most Americans works fifty weeks a year with two weeks for vacation, that comes out to 2,000 hours of labor, so by his proposed pay package, he takes home $7,500 an hour, or $125 a minute.  Pandit's pay is above average in comparison to his peers.  According to the AFL-CIO, in 2011 the average pay for American CEOs in the Standard and Poor's Stock Index was up 14 percent from 2010, to $12.9 million, 380 times more than the average worker.  The real whopper of a pay package these days is that recently awarded to Apple CEO Tim Cook: $378 million in salary and stock grants.  Can one person actually hope to spend all that cash in a lifetime?  Is it possible?

When is enough really, finally, enough? 

Yes I know that “the market” will argue these folks and other select few in our world are in fact “worth” that much, at least from a bare knuckled Darwinian economic perspective. If you can get it take it, right?  Others will call any questioning of such outsized wealth accumulation “class warfare”.     

But for me—as a person of faith, I just pray that this one question will continue to be asked in boardrooms and shareholder meetings and in the media and on the factory floor and in the public square.  Spoken out loud: simply, clearly, seriously and consistently. 

When is enough, enough?  Not just economically but also morally and ethically? What is right and fair and good when it comes to the worth of all American workers and not just the ones at the very top of the food chain?  What is best for the many and not only the few? 

In that vote by Citigroup’s shareholders, maybe, just maybe, some one finally said, “Enough is enough.”      


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Living With The Questions...

Why (adverb) 1. For what? For what reason, cause, or purpose? –American Heritage Dictionary

There was awfully destructive weather in the Plain states last weekend.  More than 100 tornadoes flew through parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa.  Hundreds of thousands huddled in fear. Hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage occurred.  Scores were injured and at least five folks lost their lives. I’ve never lived in “Tornado Alley”, the ominous nickname given to the heart of the United States known for violent weather.  In New England we do have our share of weather challenges: northeasters that churn off the coast, blizzards that can paralyze the region and shut us down cold, and even the rare hurricane that makes land fall and sweeps so much away.

But there’s something about a tornado which shakes me right down to my core, just scares the heck out of me.  There are the high winds which can clock in at more than 150 miles per hour. Or the speed with which these storms develop and then tear apart the land: one can boil up and set down in just minutes.  The closest I ever came to a twister was on one scary March evening in southern Florida. The winds howled and the rains blew as a group of us Habitat for Humanity volunteers hunkered down in a flimsy cabin, hoping and praying that a tornado wouldn’t find us. It was one of the longest nights of my life, made all the more frightening by the reality a twister’s path is finally a mystery.  No one with any surety can pinpoint just where or when or how it will strike.

Unlike slower moving storms which can be tracked, allowing forecasters to warn folks with time to spare, a tornado is that most arbitrary of natural events. One moment we are on the couch watching TV with the kids, the next we’re hunkered down in the bathtub, covered by a mattress, waiting.  It reminds us that for all humans think we know about how the universe works, we finally do not.  For all us mortals suppose we can control life and people and events and maybe even the weather, or learn about anything with just a click of a mouse or a tap on a smartphone, there are times in life when life is finally unpredictable, unfathomable, unknowable.

We can’t know why. We don’t know why.  Sometimes it is tempting to think we may have the answer and even attribute “randomness” to God, or to some divine plan or a heavenly will or fate. Take the remarks of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback who spoke on the Sunday after the tornadoes hit his state.  “There was quite a bit of damage,” Brownback noted, “but God was merciful.”

Considering the Governor was in the midst of a crisis, I understand his need to make such a theological declaration. It is the most natural of human impulses to want to make sense of chaos by seeking some meaning in the random.  To want to see a pattern in the enigmatic, to realize some larger life blueprint, when something comes out of nowhere and rocks our world.  To know why. I get that impulse.

But what if humans instead faced into life trying to accept just one truth? Sometimes we do not know why life unfolds as it does, both in the awful storms and the awe filled moments. Can any of us finally fully parse tender love or awesome beauty or human cruelty or random tragedy?  Asking “Why?” in the face of mystery is not the problem. That’s the most human of responses. Sometimes the most faith filled folks are not the ones with the quick answers but instead are the folks who ask and then humbly admit they do not have an explanation.

On the best of days life ends with a period, a conclusion, and a clear outcome.  “I get it!” we declare. Thank God for those times.  Yet sometimes the day ends with a “Why?”, question marks and the story is still a mystery, no ending in sight.

We can live with the answers. Can we live with the questions too?

Monday, April 9, 2012

On Opening Day Anything Is Possible!

“Well, beat the drum and hold the phone--the sun came out today! We're born again, there's new grass on the field. A-roundin' third, and headed for home, it's a brown-eyed handsome man. Anyone can understand the way I feel. Oh, put me in, Coach! I'm ready to play today….Look at me, I can be centerfield."         --John Fogerty, “Centerfield”

So has anyone else noticed that the Boston Red Sox 2012 home opener is on Friday the 13th?  Or that the Sox celebration of Fenway Park’s 100th birthday the following Friday, April 20th , which commemorates the first game played at the park, is just five days removed from another infamous 100th anniversary, the sinking of the Titanic on April 15th, 1912?  Coincidence!? Destiny!? Is it already time to panic about our boys of summer? Are they headed towards an iceberg of sandlot disaster still so early in the regular season?

As I write this column on Monday the 9th, the Sox are winless, 0-3.  Their bullpen has been a train wreck thus far.  Injuries are mounting up.  Already the sports pages and talk radio shows are overflowing with naysayers. And Wakefield is gone. Varitek is gone.  Francona is gone. Papelbon is gone. 

It feels like it almost always used to feel in Red Sox Nation, pre-2004 and the breaking of “the curse” with a Word Series Championship. From 1918 to a sweet late October night almost eight years, Red Sox fans were perpetual doom and gloomers, forever fearing that the baseball gods would send another black cat or banana peel or broken mirror our way so the BoSox could then inevitably find another way to lose again.  Remember?

This kind of spiritual attitude recalls a king of pessimists, Eeyore the donkey, in A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” books.  He is always a glass half-empty kind of character, one who can find defeat in anything if given a chance.  "’It's snowing still,’ said Eeyore gloomily. ‘So it is,’ answered Pooh. ‘And freezing.’ ‘Is it?’ ‘Yes,’ said Eeyore. ‘However,’ he said, brightening up a little, ‘we haven't had an earthquake lately.’"

But not me.  Not this season. Instead I’m going to try my absolute best to not turn into Eeyore this year.  I won’t go there. Can’t go there. I refuse to cast my lot with the poor suffering souls who can see life, on and even off the playing field, not as an amazing daily gift from God to be savored, but instead as a cross to be endured, even a disaster just waiting to happen.  Why my dewy eyed hope, this Pollyannaish pugnaciousness, this happy hopefulness?

Because it is Opening Day at Fenway Park Friday—OPENING DAY! This is one truth and joy that cannot be denied or extinguished, no matter what the early season standings might report.  Opening Day: and so the grass at Fenway is green and lush and every blade that points skyward is a testament to hope, a poignant memory filled echo of all the other opening days we’ve known.  Opening Day: we get to taste again the first smoky snap of a Fenway frank, the first cold hops of a chilled beer clutched in our hands. We get to hear the first crunch of peanut shells as they artistically accumulate in a pile under our seat.  Opening Day: with spring sunshine not quite so hot yet, but warm enough to reassure us that summer will come again, no turning it back. 

Opening Day: a new day. Day one.  It all starts all over again: life, possibility, the anticipation of a long season when anything can happen.  The book has yet to be written.  The story is in chapter one, page one.  It’s all fresh and clean. 

Good way to be a Red Sox fan.  An even greater way to live this miracle called human life.  Because with God, every day is Opening Day if we choose to have that quality of faith.  Doesn’t mean we won’t lose sometimes: blow a lead in the ninth, or whiff at a third strike, or drop the ball.  If we are going to compete and live fully and with passion, errors are inevitable. 

Yet here’s the gift.  Each day it is a brand new game and the score is 0-0.  Each day we get to bat again, take a mighty swing and sometimes we’ll get a hit and sometimes we’ll even launch a game winning home run. 

It is all good. It is Opening Day. Let’s PLAY BALL!



Monday, April 2, 2012

The Hidden Tragedy of Concealed Weapons

Conceal (verb) 1. to hide; withdraw or remove from observation; cover or keep from sight 2. to keep secret             
--American Heritage Dictionary

For the past month, America’s been caught up in a most tragic story: the shooting death of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford Florida on February 26th, at the hand of and with a gun fired by George Zimmerman.  Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, fired his 9 millimeter handgun point blank at the unarmed Martin, who then died, lying on the rain soaked grass of The Retreat at Twin Lakes, a suburban gated housing complex.  

Was Martin gunned down simply because he was a stranger, a hoodie wearing black teenager returning home from the store after an errand to buy Skittles and ice tea?  Was Zimmerman really threatened by the young man, in imminent danger, and therefore justified in defending himself with a loaded firearm under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law?  Those questions may never be answered. But Martin is dead, a young life snuffed out long before its potential could be realized.  And Zimmerman is a free man, while a heartbroken and angry community cries for the truth and justice.

Lost in the debate is one fact I still don’t understand.  What is a civilian, a 28 year old auditor for a financial services company, a community college student, doing carrying a concealed weapon?  Packing heat, his gun tucked away, hidden in a holster, jammed in the waistband of his pants, concealed?  Zimmerman isn’t alone in the Sunshine State in carrying a concealed weapon.  According to a recent New York Times story, “There are 900,000 [Florida] residents licensed to carry [concealed weapons] in the state amid a population of 19 million people, with officials reporting 58,000 applications and renewals last month.” 

So nearly one out of every nineteen folks in the land of Mickey Mouse and orange trees feels a need, for some reason, to strap on a gun.  To carry a loaded handgun, a Glock or a 357 magnum or a pistol and then, I suppose, keep it at the ready just in case there’s a threat to one’s life or liberty.  Floridians aren’t alone in this proclivity to be armed.  Heck even here in Massachusetts, 257,000 of our fellow citizens have class A firearm licenses, which permit them to carry a concealed and loaded weapon.  Only one state, Illinois, and the District of Columbia, ban outright concealed weapon permits for civilians. But that may soon change. 

Again from The New York Times: “Under a bill sponsored by Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, you could take your Florida permit and your Florida loaded handgun and travel anyplace in the country, including the states where the police investigate every permit application, and say yes to relatively few. ‘If this law existed today, George Zimmerman could carry a loaded hidden handgun in Times Square,’ said Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.”

Or maybe carry a weapon on to the Boston Common too, right? Or pack a pistol at Target where you shop  with your kids.  Cumberland Farms, when you go out to pick up a quart of milk and loaf of bread: is the person behind you in line armed for bear? How about at the playground or beach?  And what about church?  As a pastor, under this proposed law, am I going to have to ask folks to leave their guns in the car so we can all worship in safety the Prince of Peace?   

Am I the only one who is made very nervous by the truth that millions of my fellow citizens already carry around hidden and loaded weapons in public? Who’s the next Trayvon Martin to die at the hands of a “threatened” citizen with an itchy trigger finger?  I admit it.  I’m not a gun guy, not even close.  Fired one only once and that was in the woods at a target and its power kind of freaked me out. I don’t hunt but I respect the rights of those who do use their guns for sport and game.  I'd never do it myself but I understand and support the right of folks to keep a gun in the house for protection. And of course it makes sense to have police carry guns: that’s their job. They’re trained in when to use, and not use, a weapon.

But civilian cowboys and cowgirls wearing a firearm in public?  Nope.  I just do not think I want my CPA neighbor or a PTA Mom or my gas station attendant sitting on top of concealed firepower that, with one split second pull of a trigger, and can blow a hole in a person’s chest and kill another human being in an instant. 

Go ahead. Call me a latte drinking, Volvo driving, socialist loving, NRA baiting, peacenik, a “LIBERAL”, if you want.  I’m guilty. For in the final determination, guns, especially concealed guns, scare me even more than the crimes and criminals they supposedly deter.  In my view the right to bear arms is trumped by the right to life. No contest.   

What would have happened on the night of February 26th if George Zimmerman had not had a gun, had instead listened to the local police who in a 911 call specifically directed him not to pursue Trayvon Martin? Martin most likely would still be alive, have another day to call his girlfriend or play a video game or baby sit for his young cousins.

But Trayvon is gone now, forever.  That can’t be ever concealed or hidden, no matter how hard we might try to wish this awful truth away.