Monday, December 23, 2013

Tradition: A Place to Stand In The World

Tradition (noun) 1. the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, and customs from generation to generation; a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting; a continuing pattern of culture, beliefs or practices.

It is Christmas Eve, 11:15 pm or so. 

I’m done with church and work and am home. I officiated at three services this night and also shook something like 600 hands! I love it but am now finally ready to mark my own personal tradition for the night of the 24th.  I dig deep into the stocking I’ve hung by the mantle piece, and retrieve from the very bottom, an inch long plastic figure of baby Jesus. Then, I gently place him in the manger of my nativity set. 

Now…Christmas is really here for me.  Like all the years before, my holy day and holiday doesn’t start until the infant makes it into the crèche. Like all the years ahead, God willing too, I’ll re-enact this same tradition again and again and again.  It’s a tradition I received my family.  It’s one I’ll pass on too.   

Because for me if there is no tradition, well…there is really no Christmas. If there is no tradition, there is really no life either, at least not a life I want to live. There are lots of great reasons to love the holidays—Christmas, Hanukkah, family celebrations, special food and music, all the trappings of the season.  For the past month our world has been immersed in twelfth month revels, some sacred, some secular. 

And though we probably don’t think about it much, or name it as such, this is a season of tradition unlike any other time of the year. Tradition is December.  Our familiar rituals are religious. Christians look forward to yearly candles and a silent night in a hushed sanctuary. Jews light one candle each night, the menorah pushing back winter darkness. The Dutch set out clogs and shoes on December 5th in the hope that Sinterklass (Saint Nicholas) will fill them up with gifts. No matter the faith or ethnicity, the season is marked by amazingly diverse traditions.

Other rituals are secular but still so important.  Putting the same star on the top of the tree year after year, the star your grandparents put on their tree. Taking young nieces or nephews shopping or out to “The Enchanted Village” just like a loved one did for you when you were young. Watching the same cheesy TV Christmas special or weepy Christmas movie year after year after year, even though you know all the dialogue and how it turns out.  Why? You need tradition! We all need tradition.

As Tevye, the patriarchal Russian Jew sings in the musical “Fiddler On The Roof”, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” Tradition gives us a place to stand in this world, to find our bearings. Tradition reminds us we are a part of a story that is so much bigger than ourselves, one begun long ago, written by God, or initiated by family now long gone. Tradition connects us to those who came before.  Tradition binds us together in community. Tradition survives while so much of modern life fades away.  Tradition was, is, and will be, if we take it seriously. 

So here’s to tradition: Godly tradition, human tradition, ancient tradition, familial tradition. In a world where so much can be fleeting, where information flies by at the speed of light, where the digital is disposable, tradition at last, lasts. Tradition remains because at a deep spiritual and emotional level, all humans need to be reminded on a regular basis what is most important in this life: what is true and right, from generation to generation.

So whatever your holiday traditions, I pray and hope you’ve carried them out again this year. You’ve returned to a holy place.  You made the food your grandmother made for you so long ago. You sung a song that made you weep in memory and then taught it to your son or daughter. 

Tradition. I’ve got a place to stand in the world and a story to live by this December.  That’s the best holiday gift of all.

Monday, December 16, 2013

That Mysterious Holiday Spirit...When Will It Finally Arrive?

“Christmas, children, is not a date. It is a state of mind.” – Mary Ellen Chase

I’m looking for my holiday spirit—have you seen it?

I know that question might seem kind of odd coming from someone whose job it is to  “do” the holidays and holy days for a living. Pretty much from the first Sunday in December, right up until 11:30 pm on Christmas Eve, I’m in full tilt holiday mode.  Yet each year I can never quite tell on what day this month my holiday mojo, my holiday “hello!”, my holiday switch will flick to “on” and I’ll get into that December groove.  I’ll remember again the “spirit” of the season.

How about you? Has your holiday spirit arrived yet?

I tried shopping, what our culture says is the best way to get into the “reason for the season”.  Since before Thanksgiving we’ve all been buried under an avalanche of holiday commercials on the TV and radio and the Internet, telling us that the way to be really festive is to buy things for the folks on our gift lists.  Statistics suggest the average American will spend $800 in that effort. And yes there can be kind of a rush to barreling into the mall and tracking down a parking spot and weaving through the displays of merchandise to find the “perfect” gift.  There is a certain challenging energy to surfing on Amazon and clicking, then waiting for those ubiquitous cardboard boxes to show up on the front porch.  

But shopping, well, finally—it just doesn’t do it for me. Fun? Sometimes, sure. But spirit? Not so much.

I tried being busy—who isn’t this time of year?  It is so easy to fill up our calendars to overflowing in December, with parties and cookie swaps and Yankee swaps and family gatherings and abundant feasts, out every night, on the weekends too.  And so often the tempo of these efforts is kind of hyper, all of us so aware of the calendar and the clock which ticks on down to the “big day”. If we are not careful we might not squeeze every last activity in, right? I’m not sure why we seem to ramp it up so much in the 12th month. Maybe we are trying to push back the diminishing light. To get every last drop of the holidays before January descends and things get quiet again. 

But busyness? That’s not working for me either.  Gives me something to do, that’s for sure.  But spirit? Not really, not yet.

And then I remembered years past and the amazing, unpredictable moments when the holiday spirit did finally arrive. The time parishioners showed up at my apartment with a Christmas tree for me, knowing that my first holiday far away from my family was a hard one. The December a youth group I led decided to create a special care package for a tug boat captain in the church, who would be missing his loved ones on Christmas Eve.  The 24th when a generous parishioner had me give an anonymous gift of money to someone who was unemployed and had no way to buy his kids gifts. The night one Christmas Eve at church I had to stop singing a carol and instead help two recovering alcoholics who were desperate to find an AA meeting. 

Then Christmas did come, the holiday spirit arrived. But not in things or in stuff. Not in gifts or ribbons or bows or sales receipts. Not in frantic activities, or days and nights filled to the brim with running from one place to the next.  Christmas came, and Christmas will come again but when? 

Maybe when we give.  Give our hearts in unexpected and generous ways to others in our lives. Forgive an old grudge.  Track down someone we’ve lost touch with.  Give. Take some of our holiday cash and gift it to the poor, the hungry, the hurting, the ones who wonder if and when they’ll ever feel a holiday spirit. Give our time to folks who are left behind in the holiday madness: a nursing home patient or a child in a shelter or a widow or widower.  Give our hearts to the Creator, the one who gives to us the greatest gift of all, today. Life. 24 hours. Every single morning.

Giving. Maybe, just maybe that is what the holiday spirit is all about.  I’m on the look out for it.  Just a few days left to Christmas but I trust in those hours I’ll have a chance to give and give again and when I do, it will be Christmas. It will come.

Here’s hoping and praying you will find your holiday spirit too.


Monday, December 9, 2013

Want to Live to Be 100? Here's the "Secret"...

Connect (verb) 1. to join, link, or fasten together; to unite or bind            
 --Random House Dictionary

 “Just how did you get to be 100 years old?” 

That was the question my centenarian grandfather, Armand Bolduc, was asked over and over again in the weeks leading up to his 100th birthday, which my family celebrated last Saturday. To get to place 100 candles on your cake is very, very rare, even in these days of amazing medical technology and increasing life spans.  Of those who were born in the first decades of the last century, 99 percent of them are now gone. Only one percent made it all the way to triple digits. By getting to ten decades, Grandpa has beaten the odds and then some.

So what is his secret, the secret to a long life? A quick search on turned up 4,844 titles on longevity, touting everything from drinking red wine daily (bottoms up!) to special diets, even caloric restriction (think rice cakes). You could move to Okinawa, an island off the coast of Japan, where more 100 year olds live than in any other place else on earth. Closer to home, there’s Loma Linda, California, the United States’ capital of longevity.  Maybe living long is all about what zip code you call home.   

There’s genetics, the pre-configured construct of our genes but we have no control over this. That’s out our hands and yes, I’m hoping I’ve got Grandpa’s DNA, but who knows? Taking good care of your body—a no brainer. Eating well. Exercising. Not smoking. Drinking (if at all) in moderation. Having access to good health care. Some studies have shown that having faith in God or a higher power helps us to live longer.

But in witnessing my Grandfather’s life now for 53 years and seeing the longevity of so many folks I’ve served as pastor (I once did a funeral for a 106 year old woman!) I think I finally found the fountain of youth, the key to living a good, long life.  The “secret”.

It came to me as I watched a slide show my brother assembled with images of Grandpa’s life, from 1913 to 2013.  Save for a few formal photos where Grandpa stood alone, in every single other image, he is always with other people.  Always connected in relationships, loved and loving others too. 

In a sepia toned photo from his Canadian boyhood, the family out for a canoe ride, Grandpa squeezed into the boat with his Dad and siblings. Crouching down with my grandmother next to my toddler Mom squeezed into a high chair, new parents smiling proudly. Standing on a windswept Florida beach with his brother, spitting images of each other.  Grandpa as groom at his second wedding after losing his first wife to early death. He found love again at 72.  Beaming as an 82 year old great-grandfather holding his first great grandchild in his arms, generation to generation. So many photos of him: with friends, and cousins and neighbors and people and loved ones.

Connected. Connecting. 

In the book, “Younger Next Year” by Doctor Henry Lodge and his 79 year old patient Chris Crowley, they argue that long life depends on three truths humans can control.  Nutrition, exercise and most important, in my view, connection.  As Crowley writes, “We are hard wired to be deeply connected to – and caring about – one another. We get isolated at our peril....We are built to work and live in close connection….to care deeply about one another. Get isolated and you will literally get sick….A guy who has a heart attack and goes home to an empty house is four times as likely to have a second heart attack and die, as a man who goes home to a family….We are not built for being alone.”

So want to live to be 100? Stay connected. Be connected to others in a multiplicity of relationships. Family. Volunteering. Faith communities. Sports teams. Book clubs. Sewing circles. High school friends. A choir.  Your neighbors.  Anywhere with anyone who gets you outside of yourself and reminds you that you are made by God in this life not to be solo but instead to be together.

Such advice might seem obvious yet the truth is that much in modern life does its best to disconnect us from giving connections.  We’re more connected than ever before in human history—500 million Facebook users can’t be wrong, right?  Yet status updates and newsfeeds are no substitute for a face to face cup of coffee and conversation with an old friend. In person. Not on a screen.  We’re more economically prosperous than ever before yet: if all this endless work to accumulate all this stuff takes away precious time to be connected with others—is all that frantic striving really worth it?

So happy birthday Grandpa, and to all whose longevity and “joie de vivre” inspires us “youngsters” to keep on keeping on. You’ve made it this far in lives filled to overflowing with relationships and with simple human love. 

Connected. Connecting. That’s a life lesson we all need to learn.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Holiday Question: When Is Enough, Enough?

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

When is enough, enough? As in having enough stuff? You know, things: baubles, bling, gadgets, toys, possessions.

Depends on who asks and who answers that question. Most Americans will be answering it, by spending $602 billion dollars in holiday purchases during the next twenty days, right up until the 25th.

Is that enough? 

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), which calls itself “the voice of retail worldwide” that average holiday shopper will spend “$737.95 on gifts, décor, greeting cards and more.” The NRF even breaks this figure down: $129.62 on self-gifting (when you buy a holiday gift for yourself), $415.50 on family gifts, $72.14 on friends, $23.59 on co-workers, and $25.63 on others (like pets). Then there’s food and candy at $100.35, greeting cards at $28.03, flowers at $21.12 and finally decorations at $51.60. 

Wow. Who knew?  Makes me wonder if I’ll be able to meet my personal consumption quota in the next three weeks.  If I do end up spending that much in total, will that then finally be enough?

All that stuff to buy and give and get is also on top of how much we Americans already have, all of our accumulated material possessions.  We do have a lot.  Ninety one percent of us own a cellphone.  The average American household has more TVs on average (2.86) than people living within it: 2.5 folks. Then there’s our cars: 800 for every 1,000 of us.  Our computers and tablets too: about 60 percent of us own at least one. 

And we don’t even have to worry about where to store all that abundance. We’re well covered in terms of having the space to cram all this stuff into. The average size of a new American home is now 2,306 feet. In 1950 that number was 938 square feet, so in a little more than a half a century we’ve upsized home sweet home by 140 percent. 

Is that enough?

A confession.  I’m right up there with the best of consumers. I have one TV, three computers, a smart phone, a car, and a big house so I’m as convicted as anyone else of not yet saying “enough is enough”.  All of these communal stuff statistics also leave out the 16 percent of Americans who live at or below the poverty line. For many of them enough is not enough. Their shortage is not about things, but about a lack of the basic needs of human life: food, shelter, transportation, clothes, health care. Me? I do have more than enough and then some. They have barely enough, if at all. 

Makes the question of “when is enough, enough?” that much more pressing, and maybe not so hard to answer.  Do I finally enough?  Yes.  Since I already have enough, maybe I could take some of that holiday budget money and instead of buying, I could give that cash away to someone else who does not have enough. Hmmm. Just a thought.

The ironic truth is that all of this buying and consuming in the 12th month of the year has its roots in a once simple religious holiday which marked the birth of an infant boy in a backwater ancient Middle Eastern town, 2,000 years ago.  His entry into the world that evening was marked by a singular hope, sung out by the angels. 

“Peace on earth and goodwill to all people.”

Even if we don’t claim that specific faith tradition or any tradition, this vision is a beautiful one for the world, especially in these days and times. An end to war and conflict.  Enough food for the hungry. Enough shelter for the homeless. Enough love for the lonely.  Enough hope for the despairing.

Kind of puts all this talk of “enough” in perspective. The question still lingers.  When is enough, enough?  We need to ask. We need to answer.

So enough already. I’m done.  How about you?




Monday, November 18, 2013

Who Wants To Shop On Thanksgiving? Not This Puritan.

Blue Law (noun) 1. Any puritanical law that forbids certain practices, especially drinking or working on Sunday, dancing, etc. …the use of the word blue came from a connotation that suggested a rigidly moral position, akin to the term ‘bluenose’ that refers to a prudish, moralistic person.      

Thank you, Puritans. 

You see, because of you, next Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, we here in the Bay State can’t shop, can’t consume or purchase or start our yearly holiday gift buying frenzy. Bummer, huh?

In 47 other states, those folks will be able to rush through their Turkey Day meals, salute their families with a quick “I’M OUTTA HERE!” and then run out to the malls and shops and stores, credit cards in hand.  They’ll get to line up like cattle before the locked doors of Wal-Mart and Target and Best Buy, and then count down like a consumer choir to the breathtaking moment when the glass partitions will whoosh open. Then in mobs of jostling people they’ll sprint into these cathedrals of commerce, and trample underfoot the employees who gave up their holiday meals to stock the shelves with flat screen TV’s and Barbie Doll Playsets and George Foreman Grills and Chia Pets.  O joy! 

But then there are those sad sacks like us, and our neighbors in Rhode Island and Maine, who aren’t thus blessed to live in a Puritan free zone.  Poor us.  We’ve got the blue laws, legal prohibitions against store openings on Thanksgiving (Christmas too).  Blue laws: remnants of religiously created legal strictures against activity on the Sabbath and other holidays.  Just a few generations ago these laws, which were first passed in the 1620’s, rigidly enforced the Puritan beliefs of the first folks to settle the Bay State.  Back then there was not much a person could do on a Sunday but go to church, and often for two hours or more, both on Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon. 

On that Sabbath or holy day (which later morphed into the modern term “holiday”), there was no dancing, no drinking, no commerce, no playing, no music, basically no fun.  There’s a good reason the newspaper columnist H.L. Menken once defined Puritanism as, “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”

Puritans were a dour lot.  They were intolerant of any and all who were not of their self-perceived “pure” faith, infamously hanging Mary Dwyer and three other Quakers on the Boston Common in 1660 for heresy.  There’s also that pesky little chapter in Massachusetts history about the Salem witch trials too. Puritans hated the Catholics too, whom they called “Papists” and basically were an intolerant bunch. (I get to say this because as a Congregational minister I and the church I serve are descended from this band of believers.  We’re a lot nicer now. Really.)

Back to our leftover blue laws.  If we can strip away the excesses of those now mostly repealed puritanical laws, we might see that the Puritans’ motives in passing such prohibitions were in a way good, even noble. 

Puritans recognized the very human need to rest one day a week.  To rest as a spiritual discipline. To put down the plow, the hammer, the anvil, the sewing needle, and instead worship God and be with loved ones and the community.  Though the Puritans’ reasoning for a Sabbath came from the Bible, all humans, regardless of faith or no faith: we know we need consistent days set aside for renewal, sleep, play, life, love, and prayer.  At our best we remember that a life which is all about work, consumption, and frenetic forward motion: that’s not a very good life.

So here’s an eggnog toast to our fellow citizens across the United States who next Thursday will get to shop in the shadow of Thanksgiving Day.  Good luck with that.  We in Massachusetts will be home all day and all night. Sleeping on the couch.  Watching a football game. Playing Scrabble with cousins and nieces and nephews and friends.  Munching on a turkey sandwich late that evening.

Wish we could join you at the mall but we’ll be busy not being busy.

Thank you, Puritans.



Monday, November 11, 2013

In the NFL or On the Playground: Bullying is ALWAYS Wrong

Bully (noun) 1. a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.

It was the talk of the professional sports world last week: not a game or a win or a great catch but a story about a bully. Two players on the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins were caught in a bullying battle. One was suspended by the team. One quit the team. 

Bullying. That’s when one person with more power attacks another person with less power.  Uses hurtful words. Does hurtful things.  Intimidates.  Embarrasses. Humiliates. Physically assaults a weaker person.

That the bullying happened in an NFL locker room has some scratching their heads, asking “Really?”  This is a sport filled with big, tough, grown up men whose job it is to hit other big, tough grown up men with their bodies.  Both the bully and the bullied each weigh more than 300 pounds.  “Get over it,” some argued, especially most of the fellow NFL players who weighed in with their opinions.  “That’s just what we do,” they protested. “It’s our way. You don't understand.” 

But then read the transcript of the voicemail that the football bully left for his victim and the ugliness of it becomes clearer. Here’s the gist of it, heavily edited. 

"Hey, wassup, you half [racial slur] piece of ----. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks….I'm going to slap your ----ing mouth. I'm going to slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. ---- you, you're still a rookie. I'll kill you."

Sounds like your basic bully to me, regardless of the supposed acceptability of that threat, rationalized because it happened within the testosterone filled private fraternity of professional sports.  I don’t buy that flimsy excuse. 

Bullying is just bullying. Period.  In a locker room. In a classroom. In a workplace.  Yes, even in a church sometimes. Bullying. A boss against an underling. The oversized middle school kid against her smaller classmate.  An abusive husband against his wife. 

I don’t know what makes me most angry about this story. There's the bullying itself, which feels so engrained in our world, especially among kids. Straights against gays. Jocks against unpopular kids.  I was bullied through middle school.  I remember how lonely and utterly dispiriting it was to be excluded, targeted, and pushed around. Bullying is never harmless or “just a joke” or innocent.  There is always a devastating and often lasting emotional toll on the victim.

Then there’s the multitude of ways folks can bully each other now. Long gone are the days when the only place a person might fear a bully was face to face: on the playground or at the bus stop or in a workplace. Now bullies work in cyberspace. Read some of the nasty, rude, stupid, awful, hateful comments on Facebook.  There’s bullying by texting too. In cyber society anything goes, a perfect setting for bullying, anonymous and almost wholly unmonitored.

Bullying can even be deadly. Twelve year old Rebecca Sedwick of Lakeland, Florida committed suicide last month after being cyber-bullied by two classmates for two years. Rebecca left school, tried her best to start new. Her parents tried their best to protect her.  But her attackers were unrelenting and pursued her, and yes they were middle school girls too, who now may end up being charged with a crime. Or ask any gay or lesbian teen, prime targets for bullies. They go through social hell regardless of how “enlightened” we like to imagine the world has become. 

I just don’t get bullying. Never have. Never will. My faith in God and common human decency tells me that to bully another human being is in some ways the worst sin of all, because it is inherently unfair, mismatched, and cruel. How hard is it for the big to hurt the little, or the underdog to be pushed aside by a big man on campus?   

I wish I had the answer as to why bullying is still so common. Is it just human nature for the powerful to always target the powerless? Is it the violent spirit which marks the United States, a nation with almost as many guns (270 million) as people (314 million)?  Is it our no holds barred mass media? One mouse click and a kid can see the most abhorrent, obscene, and violent of images, words, ideas.  Is it our mega-competitive society with so many kids and adults playing and watching sports, all the time, with just one goal--to always win, right?

There is hope. Parents, teachers, students and administrators are much more enlightened about bullying than when I was young. Most schools have anti-bullying programs in place.  More and more kids are learning how to constructively confront bullying and stick up for their classmates. 

So maybe this tale of NFL bullying will have a good ending.  Maybe by being discussed and disseminated so widely, this story will help us finally see bullying for what it always has been. Unequivocally, undoubtedly, and absolutely wrong in all circumstances. Doesn’t make a difference if it’s between two pro athletes or two kids. 

Bullying. No excuse for it. None. End of discussion.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Final Thoughts on Boston Strong...

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don't play together, the club won't be worth a dime.”                     --Babe Ruth

2,000,000 people. 

All together, cheering in one voice for one cause, celebrating one ideal, laying aside all that which so easily separates humans one from another…kind of amazing if you think about it.

2,000,000 people.

That’s how many Boston Red Sox fans showed up for the rolling rally last Saturday to mark the team’s 2013 World Series championship. As if to affirm the magic of that autumnal morning, the Universe provided a perfect New England Indian summer day, warm and sunny, a last gasp of spring before winter arrives.

Folks came from all over: giddy little girls from Gardner and grizzled long time fanatics from Framingham, captivated college kids from B.C. and Northeastern and UMass Boston and wide eyed Little League baseball players from Littleton, Lexington and Lancaster. Maybe even a few secret New York Yankees fans too, their blue and white caps stowed away for just one day.

And for that one day all of them were one. Unified in purpose and joy.

If you were able to peak into the lives and hearts of all those folks you could have named obvious differences, chances for disunity, discord in the crowd. Rock red Republicans rubbing elbows with dyed in the wool blue Democrats. South End gays and suburban straights standing side by side. Recently arrived Dominican immigrants cheering next to Wellesley Yankee blue bloods, all hoping for a peek at Big Papi.

But for one special morning they all got along. Two million citizens, with nary a dissenting, disagreeable, or downer voice in the bunch. A visitor to the city last weekend might have thought he’d arrived in the wrong place with all those easy smiles and civic civility running rampant.  Isn’t this Boston? The land of rude drivers and cranky Yankees and snooty academics?   

I recall only one other day in recent Boston history when a similar spirit prevailed, albeit one marked by sadness and fear, not joy: the awful afternoon last April when the bombs went off at the marathon finish line. Then the city and the region was one as well.  Like opposite sides of a coin, the Sox amazing run up to a trophy and the city’s strength in the face of terror both powerfully demonstrate a deep yearning within the human heart.  The need, the hope, the dream that we can be together as human beings: live together, work together, mourn together, love together, cheer together, hang together, support each other: and do it all TOGETHER. 

I’m not suggesting that the Sox “redeemed” the city from the events of last spring somehow, you know, “Boston Strong”. To equate that kind of spiritual power to twenty five men who play a game with nothing at stake but a “win”, gets too close for me to exploiting, even insulting the memory of the dead and the injured, the brave who put lives on the line to save a stranger, the broken still trying to recover.

Yet I do see a link between April 15th and November 2nd. Both days remind us that God makes us, not for self alone, but for each other.  Humankind is supposed to be a team, not a collection of self-interested folks. So here’s real “Boston Strong”: to be given life by our Creator then to watch out for and care for the people we share planet earth with, in our neighborhoods, towns, cities, our state, and nation. Lately, as we’ve witnessed in politics our civic compact fraying at the edges, leaders acting like lug heads, that’s a very valuable lesson to learn. 

Together.  It is sad that it takes a tragedy or a triumph to remind us of how much we really, really, really need each other but maybe this is one hope we can take away from the last seven months of our common life in greater Boston.    

We do need each other.  We do need to be together.  We are called to be one.

Monday, October 28, 2013

"Over the Hill" and Liking It! How's Your Hike Going?

Over the Hill (American idiom) 1.A reference to a journey over a hill; to reach the top and begin your journey down; past the midpoint

I’ve got another birthday coming up soon, year 53, which I’ll mark in early November.  It would be easy to comfort myself in the reassurance that I’m now just “middle aged” but I’ve never been a fan of that ambiguous, squishy phrase which claims that the “middle” of  life is between 40 and 60.  To me “middle” means just that middle: mid-point, half-way, the exact time between that which was and that which will be.

So if I really were “middle aged” that means I’ll be on this earth ‘til I’m 106!  Who knows? That might happen. None of us knows when life will end.  I do have a 99 year old grandfather who is still going strong, lives on his own, watches “Jeopardy” on TV every night and even knows most of the answers.  I hope I have his genes. 

But “middle” aged? Not so much.  That train’s left the station. If I go by the average life expectancy of an American male, as reported by the Social Security Administration, statistically speaking I’ve got 29 and a half years left, after having lived 52 years, 51 weeks and one day of life as of today. I’m 64 percent done, 36 percent to go.  If were a baseball player I’d be batting in the top of the sixth inning with one out. A golfer I’d be strolling up to 12th hole. A day on the calendar, I’m August 23rd, warm days still hanging on, but nights now cooling down with autumn just around the corner.

The real truth? At 53 I’m now “over the hill”: the point at which I’ve scaled the summit and am now in the final third of my life story. The journey is still so beautiful, the hike is still pretty challenging but the majority of life is behind me and so the question is: how do I deal with this reality?  Accept or not accept just where I find myself on the hill called human life?

Human age and aging is a funny thing. When young our days seem to unfold so slowly.  Then it takes so darn long to get to the next birthday, or to Christmas morning, to be big enough, old enough to take off the training wheels, to stay up or out late, to drive a car, to drink, to finally be on our own.  Then we look up at that big hill and wonder if we’ll ever make it to the top. Remember?

And then we do reach the summit and before we know it, the journey downward commences and then life kind of flies by.  I look in the mirror now and see a beard that’s now gone all white—when did Santa Claus show up in my bathroom?  The music on the radio is no longer familiar, the “hip” jeans no longer fit, not by a long shot, and the years seem to pile up so quickly. Wasn’t I just 30? 40?  That kid I dropped off at college? I can still feel their tiny hand in mine on the day I walked them into their pre-school classroom for the first time.  Remember?

This tension of aging always comes to us in one God given truth. We are created by God with infinite spirits yet finite bodies. Spirits which soar anchored within containers which have an absolute expiration date. Souls inside of us which never seem to change but shells outside which weather and wrinkle and wear down.  “Over the hill”….

Last week I reunited with a group of longtime clergy friends. Each year for the past twenty years, three times every year, we reunite for twenty four hour retreats.  In two decades we’ve climbed some very big hills together. Three marriages, one divorce, one adoption, ten births, and eighteen job changes. Caring for aging parents. Saying goodbye to Mom or Dad one last time.  Health scares. Churches: dying or growing or both, often very fast. We’ve morphed from young firebrands seeking radical change to seasoned veterans sometimes fearing change. 

Would I go back and change that climb up the hill? Not one bit. I’m where I’m at, now over the hill, and I’m liking it, some days actually loving it. 

How about you? Where are you at on the hill called human life? A quarter of the way along on the trail, boots laced up tight, sailing upwards? Half way up, taking a short rest perhaps?  On the peak and taking in an amazing vista? Or starting down on the other side, over that hill?

The hill is non-negotiable.  But how we hike it—that’s up to each of us.  As the songwriter James Taylor wrote, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. Any fool can do it. There ain't nothing to it. Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill. But since we're on our way down we might as well enjoy the ride.”

See you on the trail.


Monday, October 21, 2013

SURPRISE! Life Is Unpredictable and That Is Great!

Surprise (verb) strike with a sudden feeling of wonder or astonishment, as through unexpectedness; to come upon or discover suddenly and unexpectedly                                   --Random House Dictionary


It's been a very surprising two weeks in this part of the world if, like me, you are a Red Sox fan.  The Sox, who this week will start play in the 2013 World Series, are not supposed to be there, playing for a world championship.  Not after just one year ago finishing with their worst record in 47 years, dead last. Not after firing their manager after one truly terrible, awful season. Last March when spring training began, the Sox were 35-1 odds to make it to the October classic and now here they are, after winning more games this year than almost every other team in baseball.  Did I also mention that the team hit not one but two game tying or winning grand slam home runs in just eight days last week?  What are the odds on that? Ask bleary eyed fans around New England who stayed up past midnight to watch those blasts and they'll tell you it's off the charts, unbelievable. 

But that's sports. That's life. SURPRISE!

Because for all we humans think we know about what is coming next in life, about what lies just around the corner, about the next thing, the truth is that surprise is life. That at anytime we can prep and prepare and presume and predict but then there is a surprise, and we are caught totally off guard.

Things do not always turn out according to "the plan".  Randomness, not regularity, marks daily life. So those grand slamming Sox batters could have swung and whiffed and we'd be left to roll out the winter tarps at Fenway Park.  As "Freakonomics" author Stephen J. Dubner writes, "Random is as random does. Which is why predicting the future is such a fool’s errand." Or as Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia concluded, "We’re going to the World Series and nobody saw this coming.”


Yes, surprises can be disheartening.  I think that's why so many of us really don't like surprises. It is only human to remember most vividly the times we have been floored by life zigging when we expected it to zag. Getting tough health news from a doc when we thought it was a routine check up.  Being unceremoniously dumped by a girlfriend or boyfriend without warning or getting fired from a job. The moment your kid handed you a report card filled with "D's" and "F's" and all that time you thought they were doing just great. 

SURPRISE!  Then surprises are like a punch in the gut. They rock our world, cause us to reel, even rethink our place in the universe which has just shifted in a second.  Surprises can shock. 

But surprises can be so sweet too, graceful unexpected gifts given to us by the Universe. Like wondering why your birthday has been so quiet then walking into a house full of folks, all of them there for you, all that love assembled in one place. SURPRISE! Or worrying, "Will I ever get pregnant!?" and then one day the test strip turns blue. A new life--wow! Hoping, praying for the best and then actually having that dream come true.    

In the midst of the Sox oh so surprising playoff run, I went to a karaoke party thrown by a local choir I sing in. Normal Friday night. Friends. Beers. Laughs. Nothing out of the ordinary. My friend Jeff got up to sing a song and invited his longtime love Charlene to do a duet. Predictable. And then Jeff nervously retrieved a box with a ring in it out of his pocket, got down on one knee, and said, "Will you marry me?"

SURPRISE! (And yes, she said "Yes!") 

A good life lesson there: to accept, even expect surprise as an amazing part of what it means to be human.  Surprise reminds us that life is finally uncontrollable. So the question is: will we see this truth as a God-given opportunity to embrace the adventure of existence?  Life is an unfolding story.  We never, ever know what's next, not really and that's what makes it so great, so precious, so surprising.

SURPRISE!  Gotta love it. Go Sox!


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Fan Asks: Is Football Finally Just Too Violent?

"After all, is football a game or a religion?"               --Howard Cosell

Come Sunday in America in 2013, there's always God.  But for a truly secular autumnal nationwide Sabbath, there's nothing like football and the National Football League (NFL). The NFL is America's game, America's true national past time. Sorry baseball.

The NFL is the most popular TV sport in the United States. Super Bowls are the top  twenty one most watched TV shows of all time: 167 million people saw the New England Patriots play in Super Bowl XLVI. The NFL is a cash machine, generating $8 billion dollars in yearly profits. Millions "play" in fantasy football leagues, turn to the sports page first thing, talk football around the water cooler. We fill up secular cathedrals on Sunday, from the last hot days of summer to the bone chilling days of February.

So what's not to love about the NFL and football?

I've absolutely loved football since I was a kid.  Attended my first Patriots game when I was ten, went to the Pats-Saints game last Sunday, cheered until I was hoarse. Played for five years too, relished the crunch of a hard hit, the elegance of a caught ball.  Even got my head hit so hard once, my "bell rung", that I saw the world in shades of lime green for a few minutes!  May have been a concussion, who knows?  Coach told me to just shake it off and go right back in and I did.

So how could there be anything wrong with football: as sport, entertainment, youth activity, national obsession?  Start with the most vulnerable part of the human body, the brain. When we watch a game, the most exciting moment, the one so many love, is when players run full speed into each another, often head first, violence writ large. SMACK.  CRASH.  BOOM.

How hard is that hit?  Researchers report these collisions generate force equivalent to crashing a car into a stonewall at 35 miles per hour.  The average NFL player experiences this jolt up to 1,500 times per season. Scientists are now discovering that such long term repeated head trauma takes its toll on the brain, for pros, college players and even for youth. "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), is a progressive degenerative disease found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma...[and can lead to]memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia." (The Sports Legacy Institute).

The players know this truth. Sunday at the Pats game wide receiver Danny Amendola took a vicious hit to the head, lay face down and motionless on the turf for thirty seconds and when he finally got up you could see in his foggy eyes and wobbly legs just how hard he'd been smacked.  Take Junior Seau, the Pats all pro linebacker. Soon after retiring, Seau's life spiraled out of control into a morass of crazy behavior. Seau eventually committed suicide. When his brain was examined it was found to contain CTE.  A group of brain researchers at Boston University (a program funded by the NFL) found CTE in the brains of 45 out of 46 retired NFL players after their deaths too.  Last August the NFL settled a class action concussion related lawsuit with retired players for $765 million.

And now as a fan I know this truth too--the potential danger of football to its players.  Not always. Not every time or every hit. But CTE seems to be true for too many gridiron players.  Where's that leave football in America, the big deal and big business that is the "beloved" NFL?  The secular religion which is football in the United States.   

One of the gifts of faith is that it forces me to remember that life has consequences, good, bad, but always definite.  Faith asks, "Are the consequences worth the enjoyment I receive from any given past time or activity?"

When comes to football and my fandom: is the fun I get out of watching the NFL worth the consequences? Can I be a fan knowing that the men who entertain me, potentially, put their lives on the line, and then just for a sport? A game. An event that outside the lines means little or nothing in the largest sense. A three hour Sunday afternoon diversion, as I munch on my hot wings and cheer away.

And what about the 70,000 college players, the 1 million high school youth who play football, the 285,000 kids ages 5 to 15 who play in Pop Warner leagues?

Is football, as it is played today, worth it?  As the most sports obsessed culture in the world, are the risks that players take for us too much to ask to satisfy the appetite we have for a really, really great hit?

As a lifelong NFL fan, a former youth player and one who still loves the game, that's what I'm asking.  How about you?

(Writer's note: much of the information for this article appeared in the PBS TV Frontline documentary "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis", which aired last week.)          

Monday, October 7, 2013

Can You Imagine Life Without Health Insurance?

"Compassion is...the...capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin..the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too."          --Frederick Buechner

It's the most valuable identification card I carry in my wallet, worth its weight in gold and then so much more. With it securely tucked away in my pocket, I sleep very, very well at night.  I move through my life, most of the time, in fact, oblivious to what might happen to me if I did not possess this little 3 inch by 2 inch laminated plastic card.  And no, it's not my driver's license or a credit card.

It's my health insurance card. The one I've taken out at the doctor's office so many times, the one I've handed to a nurse in the Emergency Room when I needed help and had no where else to turn, the one card in my wallet that really is a matter of life and death.

I cannot imagine living a good life, any kind of secure life, without that id card.  Can you imagine that, life without health insurance?  

It's not the best life, not by a long shot.  Putting off getting a pain checked out because you just can't afford it so you grin and bear it and pray for the best. Working a low wage job at Wal-Mart or Target, barely making enough to feed your kids or keep them in day care. Who can pay for a check up? Getting so sick you go to the Emergency Room and there you are treated but in the most expensive way of all, acute care.  Last year such ER visits cost the American health care system $49 billion. Worst, you get very ill and treated but then the bills come and you are wiped out economically, one of 2 million Americans who each year file for bankruptcy because of medical expenses.  

All because you lack just one thing: health care coverage and the precious little card that goes along with it.  Imagine that.  Can you?

But still, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which seeks to give heath care security to 47 million of our neighbors and friends...well let's just say the ACA is a bit controversial.  So seemingly unpopular that 30 or so members of Congress are willing to hold the entire federal budget hostage, in the hope that they can de-fund the program. Zero it out. Kill it before it is born.  Put it too death. 

Their vitriol against the ACA is certainly strong medicine. As Representative John Fleming of Louisiana recently said, "Obamacare is the most dangerous piece of legislation ever passed in Congress. It is the most existential threat to our economy ... since the Great Depression.”  

While I don't quite get such hysterical hyperbole against health care for all, I do understand why the ACA is not winning the public relations wars.  A slim majority of Americans are opposed to the ACA.  The law is very complicated.  It is the most comprehensive overhaul of America's health care since Medicare and Medicaid were passed a generation ago, a huge step into the unknown.  Its roll out has not been without mistakes, starts and stops, struggles. 

Yet for me, I want the ACA to succeed for one simple reason.  I cannot imagine lacking health insurance and therefore I cannot imagine denying the same security to so many of my fellow Americans.  I've got it. They should too. 

So what may be finally lacking in this national debate is not the money, not the political will, and not the government competence to make the ACA work.  What is missing, perhaps, is one simple human virtue: compassion.  That's the ability of a human being to enter into the life experience of another, walk in their shoes, and then envision what life is like for them.  Call it imagination of the heart. Mercy. 

We see another person in trouble or hurting or threatened or down and out and then switch places with them, ask: "What if that were me?"  What if my kid were sick and I could not pay for their care? What if my cancer treatment had caused me to lose not just my health but my house too?  What if the next time I visited the doctor's office the question I dreaded the most was just one seemingly innocuous inquiry: do you have insurance?

Health care for all.  Health security for all.  Health and hope for every last child of God and American citizen. With just a little compassion maybe, finally, we will one day imagine that. 

I can.  Can you?


Monday, September 30, 2013

When It Comes to Governing, Will The Crazies Win?

Filibuster (noun) 1.the use of irregular or obstructive tactics by a member of a legislative assembly to prevent the adoption of a measure generally favored; to force a decision against the will of the majority.           --Random House Dictionary

Just in case you missed it, last week United States Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) secured his place in American history by speaking on the floor of that august legislative body for 21 hours and 19 minutes straight, the fourth longest filibuster ever. No stops. No breaks. No interruptions, though it makes me wonder just how and if he went to the bathroom. But that’s another column.

Why Cruz’s tireless tirade? He wants to defund, stop, halt, do all he can, anything he can, to derail “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (PPACA), passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Obama in 2010.  You know, the healthcare law, the most significant overhaul of our country’s healthcare system since Medicare and Medicaid passed in 1965. 

PPACA’s goals are pretty simple and good: to ensure access to affordable health insurance and health care for the 48.6 million Americans who lack coverage. Minimum wage workers, young adults, day laborers, independent contractors, the unemployed, folks who work for companies that either cannot or do not provide insurance, eight million children.

The law seeks to bring a measure of security and peace of mind to every last American citizen, anyone who gets sick, anyone who worries about whether a trip to the doctor or hospital spells doom, and not just for the body but also for the wallet. But apparently, in Cruz’s opinion “ObamaCare” (as he calls it) will instead lead to the downfall of the republic, the bankruptcy of the federal government, and the apocalypse.    

As Cruz said in his filibuster, “I rise today in opposition to ObamaCare…to speak for 26 million Texans and for 300 million Americans. All across this country Americans are suffering because of ObamaCare….By any measure ObamaCare is a far less intimidating foe than those I have discussed (Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, etc.), with the possible exception of the Moon.  The Moon might be as intimidating.”  Hmmm. The moon?

He continued, in no particular order: “Duck Dynasty is one of the most popular shows on TV. It is about a God-fearing family of successful entrepreneurs who love guns, who love to hunt and believe in the American dream.” And, “I am a big fan of eating White Castle burgers.” Cruz also read "Green Eggs and Ham".  Guess when you have 1,279 minutes to fill, you wing it.

Did I mention he also held up some other rather important government business? Funding the government so it won’t shut down. Raising the debt limit so Uncle Sam won’t default on trillions of dollars in debt, which could rock the markets and even destabilize the entire world economy.

Cruz’s filibuster did fail.  The Senate finally voted to get back to business.   But the sideshow plays on and Cruz and his apostles—who just as rabidly also want to trash health care for all—they are still in the game.  Even though the health care law is the law already. Even though a government shut down won’t derail the PPACA—it is exempt from defunding. Even though the President has made it clear he will veto any bill killing or altering the law. Most ironic of all is that Cruz represents the state with the absolute worst record of caring for the uninsured, Texas, where 24 percent of his constituents lack any coverage, including almost 1.4 million kids.  (Massachusetts’ coverage rate is 96 percent.)

So here’s my unadulterated take on the honorable Senator from the Lone Star state and his historic histrionics. Cruz is crazy. Crazy, as in willing to crash down an entire government and the largest economy in the world all to make a point—or perhaps more important for him, to win an election, to get on the TV news shows, to light up Twitter, and to be the darling of his equally rabid disciples.

The most ominous thing of all is that there is crazy funny and then there’s crazy scary.  Cruz may have finally stopped talking but his act, his shtick, his performance, he and his ilk? They are still standing, spoiling for a fight.  For there is much more at stake in the health care debate than just whether or not we as a society can care for the least among us: the vulnerable, the young, the economically exposed, the sick. Call me crazy but as a person of faith I want to see every last American cared for. 

The craziest thing of all is that Cruz and those of his political stripe do not seem to care one bit about the fundamental question of whether or not we as a nation can even govern ourselves anymore.  The answer to that challenge, more than any one law, is what really needs to be debated. 

Will the crazies win? God help us all.

The Reverend 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 (