Monday, February 25, 2013

What Clan Do You Call Home?

Clan (noun) 1. a group of families or households; people of common descent…a group united by some common trait, characteristic, or interest         --Random House Dictionary

We all need a clan to come home to sometimes.

And so my clan gathered again last week, this time for the sad and beautiful funeral of a cousin who died much too young at 49.  Some of us flew in from out of state.  Others drove in from the suburbs to Dorchester, the Boston neighborhood where a generation ago our clan once lived.  All of us are bound together in part by one lone Irish immigrant who alighted from a steamer on the docks of New York City in 1897, then traveled up to Massachusetts. 

So we came together on a bitterly cold February day for rituals familiar and comforting, especially in the face of so cruel a death. The wake and the calling hours at the funeral home we’d all visited so many times.  The service in the church, prayers wafting up to heaven in the bittersweet smell of incense. Sweet stories shared about the departed. Childhood anecdotes retold to laughter and tears. Then ice cold beers and warm comfort food.  We eat and we drink and we do what all clans do best. We re-member.  Re-form.  Re-unite.

Because that’s what clans do. That’s what clans are: sacred shelters in a world where finally we all need each other.  Need to remember what ties us all together as human beings and children of God. Clans remind us that God does not make us in this life for ourselves alone.  Clans, in their ancient echoes, harken us back to a time when folks never ventured very far from the village or small town or urban enclave where they were born.  Clans depended upon each other for safety in numbers, for shared history, for communal identification. In a clan you’re never just an “I”. You’re always a “we”. “Aren’t you Ed’s little boy, Louise’s son?” “Weren’t you born over on Bailey Street?”

Clans aren’t perfect. Some flee from them, rejecting familial bonds, feeling trapped by history or unfairly defined by memory. Clan family trees can sometimes pass on the best and the worst of human behavior.  But even for all their brokenness at times, clans recall our mortal need to be a part of something bigger and greater than ourselves.  This is true from the time of cave men and women to the street gangs, even, of today. 

We all need to belong to some clan.  To claim a shared connection by blood or faith or memory or address or race or ethnicity or pastime, a common truth which binds us one to another.  It may be you family.  Might be your church that you’ve called home for a score of Sundays.  Your team who’s competed together on the field for so many games. Your neighborhood where families watch out for each other, talk over the fence, exchange casseroles when someone is sick or in need.  Your platoon that went through the worst of the war by hanging on to one another for dear life.  Your choir that still sings week after week after week, reminding you that life is never a solo act.

So thank God for clans.  They make us who we are, for better, for worse, for sure.  They give us cover from the storms of life and places to celebrate when the victory is won.  They knit us in the intimacy of relationships.  They give us memory, from the courage of an immigrant fresh off the boat to a newborn who is next in the journey from generation to generation.

Yes indeed. We all need a clan to come home to sometimes.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

God Knows We All Need a Mentor

“In every art, beginners must start with models of those who have practiced the same art before them.”                 --Ruth Whitman

The first sermon I ever preached was so boring that an eight year old old kid in the front church pew curled up in his mother’s lap then fell fast asleep.  He even snored. Can’t blame him. I was pretty boring.  

The first piece of furniture I ever built was a gargantuan behemoth of an Adirondack chair. After I gave it to my little sister as a Christmas present, we wrestled it on to the back patio.  It hasn’t been moved for 15 years.
            My first choir solo, a Beatles song, came out sounding more like Miss Piggy than John Lennon. That happens when you begin a song on the absolute wrong note. But the band sounded great. 
            Then my sermons got better, my furniture functional and even my tunes tuneful, all because someone took the time to show me how to do those things and do them well.  Someone more experienced at life than me took my hand and patiently explained, “This is how to do it.”  Someone saw within in me raw potential and gently helped shape that into mature talent.
            We’re all made better by sage folks who taught and teach us. A skilled craftsperson. An inspiring artist. A faithful coach.  A wise boss.  A gentle teacher.  A patient parent. They mentor us and push us to grow into our God-given talents.  Sometimes they don’t even show us how. Instead they remind us that we already have a gift within.  All we need is the encouragement to believe that we can do it.     
            There is no substitute for being mentored.  Sure: we can acquire all the degrees we want.  Go on YouTube and view tens of thousands of “how to” videos on everything from car repairs to oil painting to counseling.  We can study from the ubiquitous “….For Dummies” book series: “Preaching for Dummies”, “Fishing for Dummies”, who knows, maybe even “Brain Surgery for Dummies”!?      
            Yet always, a rookie needs the help of a veteran and a greenhorn needs the guidance of a gray hair.  Doesn’t matter whether it’s learning to pray, learning to walk or learning to live.  This week my mentor, a wise and giving friend named Sue, passed away. 
            I already miss her alot, as do a score of other folks she skillfully taught.  But the thing about mentoring is that it always is shifting from generation to generation.  God gives us the gift of a mentor, and then God calls us to step up and become a mentor too.  The student becomes the teacher.  That’s the cycle of life, art, work, faith, parenting, craftsmanship, everything.        
            So…who in your life needs mentoring? A new hire struggling at work.  A young adult trying to find her place in the world.  A kid in the back of the classroom the other teachers always overlook.  An inner city child still on the waiting list at Big Brothers or Big Sisters.  The world is filled with folks who spill over with so much God-given potential and all they need is just one person to care. Just one. Maybe that’s you.
            God makes us all, so full of the unformed stuff of life. Then, if we are blessed or lucky or both, someone takes notice and helps us grow up into just whom we are meant by God to become.
            So here’s a thought.  Find a mentor.  Be a mentor. Thank you Sue.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Government As The Solution, Not The Problem

Govern (verb) 1. to rule over by right of authority     --Random House Dictionary

Everybody, it seems, loves to loathe the government these days, you know… Uncle Sam, Beacon Hill, Town Hall. Got a problem, a kvetch, a complaint, a lament? Blame the government.  Taxes too high? Must be those greedy politicians.  Angry at the world? Something a bureaucrat bungled, right?  Worried about a conspiracy to take away your precious guns?  That tyrant Uncle Sam must be getting ready to break down the front door. 
            That is until we really need the government to govern, to take charge, to defend us, to unite us, to rescue us, to care for us or a loved one, to just act.  Then maybe government really matters, is in fact central to what it means to live together in community and work together for the common good. 
            So there last Friday morning was Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick ordering a full travel ban on the roads of the Bay State, an unprecedented move, one not taken since the blizzard of 1978.  Storm Nemo was bearing down on our region and something had to be done to ensure that chaos would not rule the day when that superstorm hit.  For 24 hours everyone was ordered off of the roads, except for journalists, first responders, and plow operators. The Mass Pike was a ghost road, Route 93 an eerie landscape, town centers empty.  We hunkered in, hunkered down and watched Nemo blanket the land in snow, as no other storm had done for almost a generation.  
            A few angry citizens cried foul, that such a move was a threat to our civil liberties.  A poster on Facebook even referred to the governor as a dictator.  An angry college student complained in the Boston Globe, calling Patrick’s act “tyrannical”, protested that he didn’t need a tough order to stay inside.  Well…boo, hoo. 
            Turns out Patrick’s order and his strong and clear governance was a great judgment call. During the storm’s height only those folks who should have been traveling were: the National Guard, ambulances and fire trucks, cop cars, the media, and plow trucks.  Within just hours after the storm ended, most major roads were clear and wide open.
            Yes the 24 hour ban was inconvenient.  Yes some businesses were hurt by the order: bars and restaurants, shops and stores.  But these are the nightmare images we did not wake up to Saturday morning: hundreds of cars piled under drifting snow on 128 or Commonwealth Avenue in Boston or the Pike littered with stranded motorists. That was the scene in New York and Connecticut. Hundreds of cars buried on the Long Island Expressway, making snow removal impossible. Scores of accidents, 3,000 calls to the Connecticut State Police in one day. 
            Not here. Our Governor governed and government worked: calmly, clearly, wisely. So maybe the government isn’t so bad after all and doesn’t deserve to be a perpetual public punching bag for a far too often spoiled and self righteous citizenry. Maybe government works well sometimes, even much of the time.  When a storm hits.  When a Social Security check arrives at month’s end to buy groceries.  When tuition is affordable at the University of Massachusetts. When a town clerk, with grace and care, marries a couple.  When a soldier defends liberty. When a poor neighbor arrives at the doctor’s office and says, “I’ve got Mass Health insurance.” When a police officer responds to a dangerous situation. That’s our government. That is us.
            So thank you Governor Patrick. Great job. You governed and governed well. You reminded us, as did thousands of other government employees, from exhausted plow drivers to double shift firefighters, that government is about the common good.  That when the worst disaster hits, we are all in this together, as neighbors and fellow citizens and the governed. 


Monday, February 4, 2013

To Dare to Win, Most of the Time We Lose

Defeat (noun) 1. a setback; an overthrow or overturning; vanquishment; the act or event of being bested or losing  
 --Random House Dictionary


I listened for that chant after yesterday's Super Bowl defeat of the San Francisco 49’ers by the Baltimore Ravens but of course, it was not to be heard.  In our culture, losers are very quickly forgotten in the seconds after a competition ends and the winner is gloriously crowned for all the world to see and cheer. The winning team struts on national TV, dances in the confetti, hoists high in triumph the victory trophy. I’M GOING TO DISNEY WORLD!  The losing team sits forlorn and depressed on the bench, heads hung low, tears shed, mere spectators on the sidelines of life now.  We’re going back into the locker room.

Because they lost. They’re “losers”, right? That most cruel of monikers.  Sad sacks.  Also rans.  Failures.  No “W”, just a big capital “D”.

Doesn’t matter where the defeat happens, the narrative is the same on the field, at the ballot box, and in the marketplace. Losers are an afterthought in our winner takes all world, asterisks in the history books. “Who did Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeat in his four runs for President?” Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey.  Who?! What teams lost to the New York Yankees in a record five World Series from 1949 to 1953? The Philadelphia Phillies, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers--three times!  The bums! Who failed to patent the telephone and lost out to Alexander Graham Bell by just a few hours? Elisha Gray.  Wrong number.

Losers are easily dismissed and yet: is it always so bad to lose?  To be defeated?  To compete fairly and squarely and fully but still come up on the short end of the score?  Such questions are heretical when everything feels like a never ending competition, and not just in sports. 

Politics is now as much about strategy as policy. Who’s on top in the perpetual Washington tug of war, Obama or Boehner?  We watch them not so much for substance as to gleefully wait for our opponent to crash and burn.  TV drowns in tales of winners and losers: “Top Chef”, “Biggest Loser”,” American Idol”, “The Voice”. Too many children and youth grow up in a sports addicted culture, pushed to win from the moment they are old enough to walk and lace up and take to the playing fields. Ever watch the competition crazed parents on Saturday sidelines, who yell themselves hoarse, all so their tiny tots can be number one? 

This universal clamoring for victory denies one great human truth.  Much, even most of the time in life, we will lose and not win.  We will swing mightily for the fences and miss the ball more often than we connect.  We will strive and fall short before the finish line. That’s what it means to be alive and to have a heartbeat and to try. Sometimes, a majority of the time even, we will lose.  No way around this reality.

We apply for twenty jobs and get just one.  We romance a datebook full of possibilities but fall in love just once or twice. We dream of a hole in one but then whack that little ball into the water.  Even Adam and Eve, offered the ultimate prize by God in the Garden of Eden, make the wrong choice and lose, get booted out of paradise. The spiritual DNA to win may be in our bones but losing is right in our marrow too. 

So here’s a shout out to all the losers in this life, who don’t make the front page or win the gold.  The ones who compete and fall short, but do not cheat or cut corners in that endeavor.  They lose well. The folks in second place who congratulate their victorious opponents with grace and then walk off the field with heads held high. They know defeat but do not crumble. To the courageous folks who get out every day and live and try their best to raise a family, to work at a job, and to make the world a better place.  There is always tomorrow and the chance to begin again.

Some rare days we win. Many days we lose.  That’s a final score we cannot ignore.