Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Sacred Sounds of Summer...

Hear (verb) perceive by the ear; listen to; give or pay attention to                       --Random House Dictionary

"I could hear the great humming, pulsating sound that seemed to fill all the heavens, the sound of tremendous energies in motion."    --Norman Paulsen

How do you know that you are finally on vacation, really on vacation? That you are fully away, checked out, mellowed down, unplugged, chilled, relaxed, just gone? 

For some it is the liberation from a daily calendar and to-do lists which embodies downtime.  Days filled with whatever the spirit desires: drippy soft ice cream or a quiet canoe on a pond or a morning’s sail, no watch or clock in sight, just moments unfolding in grace.  Some need to be in a wholly different space and place, somewhere far, far away, a foreign land, an exotic destination. For them vacation bliss is about a passport or a plane ticket or a train stub, immersing themselves in a strange land, getting lost and going off the map. Sometimes vacation time is about food, tastes we connect to being away: a cold beer in a coozie on the beach, butter soaked lobsters on the deck, or a precious clam roll from a roadside shack you visit but once a year. 

This summer my vacation has been marked by the God-given sounds of the season, aural gifts that I only seem to pay attention to and really, really hear when I am away.  The cry of a loon as it takes off from a Minnesota lake in the early morning: I heard that haunting song and knew mystery. The crack of the bat at my 4 year-old Goddaughter’s very first T-ball game, and her laughter as she ran down the first base line: I heard that and knew joy.  The gentle lapping of water against an ancient wooden dock at dusk: I heard that and felt peace.  Cicadas buzzing away on a sultry afternoon: I heard that and knew that right now, it is the heart of summer and I better listen up! 

What are your summer sounds?  Have you heard them yet?

I’m not sure why sounds are so much sweeter to me in the weeks of July and August, so sacred, so different from what I am used to hearing the rest of the year.  Maybe it is because I actually spend time outdoors. I escape from the confines of house and office and car.  Sounds normally muffled and muted are offered for free and I hear them.  The sounds of busy modern life do not often leave enough space to hear God’s summer symphony: alarm clocks buzzing, email chirping, horns honking.  Even worse all of us can be so plugged into I-Pods and I-Pads and radio and TV and electronica that there may be no space for natural sound to get in. 

We’re deaf in a way, so saturated in manufactured sound that the hum and rhythm of creation and life is lost, muted by our machines. Throughout the Bible writers and prophets and priests harken to humanity with one basic plea: “Listen!” As the Proverbs teach, “Let the wise listen and add to their wisdom.”  If only I might heed this advice the next time I fall in love with the sound of my own voice.

The gift of faith us that it calls us to slow down just enough, quiet ourselves on vacation and in all of life, so we can be present to God’s communication, sound. Within the Hindu faith tradition is the concept of “Nada Brahma”, which literally means that God is in sound, all sound, even in the sound of silence. Sensual nirvana yes: but first we must open our ears and in that opening, open our hearts and souls too. 

This day, can you listen to God?  In the coo of an infant in her mother’s lap, in the chirp of a hungry bird on the backyard feeder, in the lilt of our loved one’s voice as we sit at the breakfast table, or even in the thump of our own heart beating as we lie in bed.  It is all there for the hearing, the amazing sounds of the universe.  Our Creator is speaking to us. 

Hear it?


Sunday, July 22, 2012

The National Sin of Legal Assault Weapons

Senseless (adjective) 
1. Happening or done for no purpose   
 --American Heritage Dictionary

A Google news search in the days after the mass movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado last week, that left 12 people dead and 58 injured, turned up one word more than any other, in comments by people trying to talk about the event: “senseless”.  Especially in the somber remarks by public leaders, “senseless” was the common descriptor.  President Obama: “Such violence, such evil is senseless.”  Governor Mitt Romney: “Ann and I are deeply saddened by the news of the senseless violence that took the lives of 15(sic) people in Colorado and injured dozens more.” House Speaker John Boehner: “Words cannot capture the horror, or make sense of something so senseless.”

That “senseless” is perpetually used in our human attempts to fathom such tragedies like the Aurora event makes “sense” in a way.  When we are confronted by random and cold blooded acts of violence; when it happens in as mundane a place as a mall Cineplex; when all of the folks who died or were hurt were truly innocent, there is a feeling of powerlessness that can take hold.  Things are just senseless, cannot be explained or fit into any world view. It makes us wonder, “Is there anything I can do?”

America as a community has done some things in response. Since Friday night last, millions of prayers have been offered, public and private, and that’s good.  Memorial services and funerals have begun and that’s right.  American flags fly at half-staff in an effort to make this event a communal event.  The media, for better and worse is doing a lot, burying us under all the facts of the story, the tender biographies of those who died, the tales of heroism, the investigation of this man who pulled the trigger.  Still it all feels senseless. 

And yet: what if beyond all of the individual and civic acts of compassion and mourning, we as a nation decided to do more than grieve and anxiously question?  What if our leaders moved beyond words of comfort to words of action? What if they said we as a country must do something right now about gun violence in America?  We must better control and license and oversee and regulate the ownership of guns in the United State.  We must respond and try, at least try, to make sure something like Aurora won’t happen again.

Aurora and the other all too similar mass shootings are not isolated events, rare, or unprecedented.  In fact these seem all too common here in America.  Just weeks ago a gunmen opened up in gunfire in a bar in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  Remember the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Tuscon, Arizona?  College shootings at Virginia Tech? School shootings in Paducah, Mississippi, and Columbine, Colorado?  It keeps happening and yet we seem as a nation unwilling or unable to take even small steps towards getting the guns out of the hands of those who would kill. Maybe that’s senseless too.

Take the shooter’s weapon of choice in Aurora: the AR-15 assault rifle. Why is such a murderous gun legal to purchase, own and operate in the United States?  From 1994 to 2004 it was actually outlawed under federal law but that statute was allowed to lapse. The AR-15 isn’t a hunting rifle. It isn’t the kind of weapon a homeowner would want to use to protect himself.  The gun was originally manufactured to be used by soldiers in wartime.
Why would anyone want to own one?  Need to possess such a killing machine? Why was it so easy for the Aurora shooter to walk into a local gun shop and buy one? Why was it so simple for him to order 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet?  Why aren’t these realities seen as “senseless” too, as also making absolutely no sense?

It’s almost as if we as Americans have gotten too used to random, awful, terrible happenings like the mass killings in Colorado.  The sad truth is that in another month or so, in another “normal” place like a quiet suburb or a college campus or a movie theater, someone else will again go crazy and cradle an assault rifle and then pull the trigger and it will happen all over again.  Or, maybe not.

Maybe our politicians might finally grow backbones and challenge the arrogant power of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which spent $3 million dollars in 2011 to lobby Washington for gun owner rights and so-called “Second Amendment freedoms”.  Do not doubt that if the NRA got behind a renewed assault weapons ban it would happen immediately.  Problem is they never met a gun control law they didn’t fight against with all the influence they could muster.  Maybe Obama and Romney might revisit their stances against assault weapons each took in the past: Obama as a candidate, and Romney as Massachusetts Governor.  I pray that’s not too much to ask in an election year.  

But this I do know.  Mass deaths by assault rifles will forever be senseless unless these national cataclysms move us to change the rules, to tighten up gun laws, and to have sane and sensible gun control legislation which both respects gun ownership rights while protecting the public from these weapons.  In the end an assault rifle is designed to do just one thing: to kill and to do so at 90 rounds per minute, or even more, or even faster.  That is truly senseless.

So absolutely: may we as a people of faith and fellow citizens, pray for all those killed, injured and traumatized in Aurora.  But then let’s act too, do something, anything, to attempt to ensure that it will not happen again. Now that makes sense.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Candidates Owe Us the Truth About Debt

Debt (noun) 1.something that is owed or that one is bound to pay; a liability or obligation; the condition of being under such an obligation                 --Random House Dictionary

“A billion here, a billion there, sooner or later it adds up to real money.”                            --Senator Everett Dirksen

I just don’t like being in debt, owing money to someone or some institution.  I know that’s not a very popular opinion, for after all indebtedness, having a house mortgage or a student loan or a business loan or a car loan, or in the case of the federal government, having a national debt: it is the “all American way”, right?  To be leveraged up, in hock, in the red, beholden, in arrears, maxed out, in the hole.

We Americans owe a lot of money these days. According to the New York Federal Reserve Bank we owe $11.5 trillion dollars in consumer debt: credit cards, auto loans, etc.  Student loan debt stands at $904 billion, up 275 percent since 2003.  Mortgage debt is $13.5 trillion.  Business debt is $11.9 trillion.  The national debt, the total sum of money Uncle Sam (that’s you and I) owes to its creditors is $15.8 trillion. 

I get that debt makes the economy move and without debt I never could have gone to grad school or bought that new car.  Debt allows consumers to purchase things like homes and vehicles they otherwise would not be able to. Businesses could and would not expand and grow if not for the ability to secure loans.  Local, state and federal governments could not keep the country functioning if not for debt and yet: am I in the minority in getting very worried about all this debt we are swimming in?  Our debt is not stabilizing or shrinking but is instead growing, especially when compared to our ability to pay it all back.

Debt, while a gift short term, always comes back home long term. There’s no way around this truism save bankruptcy or default. You borrow and you are obligated to pay it all back.  Just ask Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and the world’s king of debt, Iceland, which went belly up just a few years ago, a whole country wiped out financially.     

The figure “$1 trillion” kind of freaks me out too.  That’s a lot of cash and zeroes: $1,000,000,000,000.  If I spent a million dollars every day from the day Jesus was born until now I still wouldn’t get to a trillion. A trillion single dollar bills laid end to end could reach the sun 93 million miles away. A trillion dollars could pay the rent of every renter in the U.S. for three years.  A trillion dollars could pay for an additional eleven weeks vacation for every American worker—that one I like! A trillion dollars is a huge amount of cash. Now multiply it ten fold and more—that’s how much we owe personally and collectively.

Last week President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, one of whom will be our President next January 20th, both rolled out competing plans on how to deal with the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts which are due to end December 31st.  You’d hope and think that given our gargantuan national debt, at the highest level since World War II, both presidential candidates might have had the courage to at least discuss allowing these cuts to end and for taxes to rise. Or perhaps suggest the cuts be phased out over five years to avoid a jolt to the fragile economy.  We are still spending much more than we take in (try a deficit of more than $1 trillion this year) so the United States either needs more revenue, or more program cuts or some of both. 

But neither candidate did this, did not even come close and both, worried much more about votes than true leadership, advocated going even deeper and deeper into debt.  Obama wants to allow taxes to rise on those making more than $250,000, resulting in a $2 trillion hole in the budget in the next decade. Romney wants to keep all the tax cuts equaling a $2.8 trillion dollar shortfall. 

As a person of faith I’d say it is a civic sin for us as a nation to continue to go deeper and deeper into debt and for “leaders” like Romney and Obama to essentially ignore this truth for political gain.  A sin. As the Book of Proverbs notes, “The parents eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  We in this generation are living on borrowed money and our children and grandchildren will one day have to pay the price: $50,729.80 per citizen and counting.

No getting around that reality.  One day the Japanese and the Chinese, who hold most of our debt, are going to come calling or call in their chits and maybe even stop funding our national spending spree.  And what then?

Some liken our race to deeper levels of personal and communal indebtedness as a game of musical chairs. As long as the music plays and the money flows and the players move around, the game can continue.  But one day the music stops.  It just has to. 

President Obama and Governor Romney: are you listening?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Cycling, Compassion and Cancer: The PMC

Compassion (noun) 1. A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
                              --Random House Dictionary

I’ve never had cancer so I can’t ever really imagine what it is truly like.  To find a lump or feel a strange pain and then go to the doctor and ask, “Well, what do you think it is?” To get a biopsy and then anxiously wait for the results.  To finally get the call and hear this dreaded phrase from the doc: “You have cancer.”  To leave the office in a daze, spiritually and emotionally wrestling with the news.  “Am I going to die? What about the kids?” To be the loved one of someone with cancer, a heartbroken Mom, a fearful Dad, a devastated spouse, a bewildered friend: “How can I help them?”
            I’ve never had cancer but so, so many have and do, 1.6 million folks diagnosed with it in the United States in 2011; almost 600,000 deaths from cancer last year alone. All of them were and are friends and family and neighbors and fellow church members and co-workers.  The thing about cancer, or any potentially fatal disease, is you really can’t understand it unless it’s touched you directly, gotten too close for comfort.  So although I’ve never personally faced it, as a pastor I’ve met cancer, gotten to know it all too well. In chemotherapy waiting rooms, holding a person’s hand while the medicine drips away.  At the hospital bedside saying a prayer.  Delivering a eulogy for a child of God, a precious life I know ended much too soon.  The big “C” is big and frightening and just plain awful. 
            Yet as a person of faith I believe there is something even more powerful than cancer, even tougher than a cell which malignantly multiplies and threatens a human life.  It’s not the latest medicine or medical breakthrough, though such advances are important. It is instead compassion: the human virtue and often faith inspired impulse to courageously enter into the suffering of another person and then be so moved and so changed by that encounter that we then have to do something.
            Compassion is more than human pity which can be a kind of distant safe relationship with the hurting.  “Boy, that person is in pain.”  It is not sympathy which is a deeper feeling but still somehow keeps us separate from the other. “I feel so bad for them.” Compassion is not even empathy which can be among the deepest form of human caring: “I feel your pain.”
            Compassion is a wholly different emotion, a response to another’s pain so powerful, so convicting, and so clear that when we feel compassion we actually move towards and even into the pain of the other. We declare, “I will do something to help.”    
            It’s difficult to capture the visceral nature of compassion but the Bible offers two examples.  In ancient Hebrew the word racham connotes a Godly compassion which is womblike, tenderness as close as that of a mother to a child.  The Greek word for compassion, which describes Jesus response to the hurting is splagchnizomai and translates as the moving within of our innards, our guts, to another person’s hurt.  Ever experienced another’s pain as a “kick in the gut”? That’s human compassion. The key always is action.  We see. We hurt with. We respond.
            So in compassion we drive our friend, who’s got cancer, to the doctor’s office week after week after week.  We lift up their name in prayer Sabbath by Sabbath.  We deliver a casserole or fried chicken to their backdoor.  Or we ride a bike, compassion on two wheels, in the Pan Massachusetts Challenge (PMC), the big Daddy of all athletic fundraisers. In a little under a month, on August 4th and 5th, I and more than 5,000 folks, will ride 85 to 110 miles, from Wellesley to Bourne to Provincetown, to raise money for cancer care and research at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.    
            Each of us, along with the 3,000 people who support our ride, will do this for many reasons.  I ride for family and friends who face cancer and have died from it, especially this year for a sweet and kind and funny 14 year old girl from Sherborn named Nora.  I ride for her, in her memory and in honor of her courage and spirit. 
            Some ride for the sheer athletic challenge of spinning the pedals 152,000 times to get from the heart of the Bay State to the tip of the Cape. Some ride to see if an old body can actually still do this.  Three hundred folks who will ride are cancer survivors. How’s that for compassionate strength? Some ride for Moms who died of breast cancer, Dad’s who survived prostate cancer, or a co-worker who is in the midst of chemo.           
            But there is one truth which binds us all together in this crazy and committed cycling community: compassion. A shared hope that more than any other power in the world, it will be compassion which will one day finally and ultimately beat the disease of cancer.  A cure can and will come but first we must care. 
            You can help too.  Pray for us, for good weather and a swift tail wind and safety.  Pray for all the folks with cancer who will benefit from the $36 million we are trying to raise.  Or make a donation to the PMC at Just click on the “donate” button and you’ll get to ride along with us too. You won’t even have to risk a sore backside to be an honorary PMC’er.
            I’ve never had cancer but God willing, I can and I will have compassion. All of us can take this risk and be engaged in our sometimes hurting world with a brave spirit of seeing someone else’s suffering and then doing something about it. 
            The journey beckons.  The challenge is tough.  But my hopes and prayers are always staked on the power of compassion.  See you on the road.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Democracy Works When We All Do the Work

Homeland (noun) 1.  One’s native land.                --Random House Dictionary

“Welcome home.” 

That’s what the United States Customs officer at Logan Airport said after she returned my passport to me, when I recently came back home from a two week trip overseas.  Her words were startling because it’s rare for me, I think in fact for most Americans, to consider the implications of what it means to call the United States home, our home.  To claim the title “American”. This July 4th we’ll fire up the grill and watch the fireworks light up the sky on a hot summer evening. We’ll crack a beer and go for a swim and maybe even remember all the words to the “Star Spangled Banner” as we sing away, all good I suppose. 

Yet do we ever really consider just what each of us contributes as citizens, members all to this amazing and diverse and fragile experiment in democracy, born on a sultry and humid Philadelphia day 236 summers ago? Then the signers of our Declaration of Independence actually put their lives on the line for human freedom.  They risked it all: reputations, the safety of their families, their businesses and vocations, their land, everything, for the chance to govern themselves and to be free. By just signing that radical document all of them instantly became traitors. As Benjamin Franklin noted at the time, “We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately.”  

So here’s a 4th of July question.  What have you, what have I, what have we done lately for this our home in 2012, America? Because the thing about claiming a home like America, our country, this national community, any community, is that it finally only works and works well when all of its citizens, us, do our civic work, our duty even.  Democracy, more than any other form of government demands active participation: vigorous, committed, vital, and ongoing. 

We have no King or Queen to rule us from a throne, no dictator to threaten us at the end of a gun, no despot who can throw us in prison for speaking our minds or worshipping our God as we see fit.  That’s a miracle.  Ask folks in China or Russia or Syria or in so many other places around the globe if they’d like to be as radically free as Americans and no doubt we’d hear a resounding “Yes!”

We are free.  Not perfect. Democracy is always messy. I heard one commentator opine that America is now more split along ideological lines than at any time since the Civil War.  The gulf between the rich and the poor grows and is the widest it has been since the Great Depression.  Our per capita government debt is at record levels and the folks in Washington act more like toddlers in a sandbox than serious leaders.  Collectively we face huge challenges and yet: I do not want to call any place else on earth home.  How about you? But to quote the cliché, freedom is not free.  It always carries a price. Rights are forever accompanied by responsibilities.  Generations before us did their part.  Now what about us? 

My hope on this national anniversary is that as citizens we can recommit to citizenship, be good stewards of the gift of this our home.  To vote always and never ever miss the chance to cast a ballot.  To volunteer in our town or city for the work of government.  To be a good neighbor and care about the folks with whom we share our street or avenue.  To pay our fair share of taxes and do so not grudgingly but instead with a sense of responsibility towards the common good.  To care very well for our soldiers and veterans and their families, recognizing that they serve and make sacrifices on our behalf.  To be engaged in politics: stay attuned to current events, attend a protest, write a letter to the editor, sign a petition, do something to make sure there’s still a heartbeat within when it comes to living in a democracy.  To see government at all levels not as the enemy but as finally “us”: if we are unhappy about it then do something beyond complaining. To live life not for ourselves alone but for the other, especially, in the words of Emma Lazarus, carved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Democracy is not a spectator sport.  It needs you. It needs me.  Happy Birthday America!  This is our home: thank God.  Now let’s get to work.