Monday, April 29, 2013

One Click Away from the Profound and the Profane

“When the Internet first emerged and you had to connect via a modem, I used to urge that modems sold in America come with a warning label from the surgeon general, like cigarettes. It would read: ‘Attention: Judgment not included.’”     
--Thomas L. Friedman

Google the phrase “Boston Marathon Bombings” and that search engine delivers 366,000,000 results in .27 seconds.  Information about the event is all there. Heartbreaking tributes and fast breaking news, gory firsthand photos and chilling on the spot videos, websites claiming the bombs were actually planted in a government conspiracy, fringe radical blogs that applaud this act of terrorism. 

Click. You can buy a “Boston Strong” t-shirt.  Click. You’re confronted with photos of the Tsarnaev brothers, their mundane visages staring out from the screen in chilling normalcy. Click. There are the achingly sad photos of the four dead: Martin, Lingzi, Sean, Krystle. 

There is something amazing and bizarre about all the ways this story played and is playing out in cyberspace, in an unsettling mash up of all that is good and all that is bad and all that just is in this age of the Internet.  Of seemingly unlimited and immediate access to information.  Of folks like me who no longer depend upon old school media institutions like print or local television to bring me the news.  As cyber citizens we can now readily, easily, seamlessly seek out the news and then choose it for ourselves from a dizzying collection of millions of websites.      

So from the 15th forward, the TV in my house never went on, not once. The radio played a little.  But overwhelmingly, like so many other folks, I followed the story online, toggling between sites to glean the latest news as I switched between real time Twitter feeds, Facebook, the Drudge Report,, and a score of other news sites.  The newspapers which landed in my driveway that week are still unread, now packed away for history’s sake along with my 9/11 Boston Globes and New York Times. 

The First Amendment is on steroids in the digital age.  No corner of the world, no trivial or minute fact, no breaking news, no video or still image, nothing, it seems, is out of our reach as digital consumers of “truth”.  But in this unfathomable freedom and access to information, lies a dark side too. 

So if I want to see the horrifically graphic images of the bombing victims in the seconds after the blast I can do so. Click.  If I want to view over and over real time video from that day, see white puffs of shrapnel blast upward, hear the actual screams, watch the panic I can do so.  Click.  I can read about the young man from Saudi Arabia who was accused by cyber stalkers of being the bomber in the hours after the blast, even though he was innocent, even though he was hurt on Boylston Street. Click.   

As New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently wrote, “…the Internet is a digital river that carries incredible sources of wisdom and hate along the same current. It’s all there much information that has never been touched by an editor, a censor or a libel lawyer.”  Pre-Internet, someone else prepared information for our eyes and minds.  Filtered it. Censored it. Analyzed it.  Framed it.  Held things back. Consider the fact that during World War II, images of American dead and wounded rarely if ever appeared in the newspaper or in newsreels.  It was not until 1944 that Life Magazine was finally given permission by Uncle Sam to actually show a photo of a dead soldier.   

But not today. There’s no one out here in cyberspace to set the boundaries.  No digital Mom or Dad, no big brother government, no internet filtering software powerful enough to sift it all out.  It all flows along now in that digital river: the profound and the profane, the obscene and the ordinary, the factual and the fantasy.  In freedom we can find out about almost everything, anything.

So in that same human freedom it is now up to each of one of us, as free and unfettered consumers of information, to draw the lines in the worldwide Wild West web.  Courageous parents who declare “Enough is enough” and shut down their kids’ computers and cell phones and video games.  Trustworthy “old school” media like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio that do the hard and dogged work of quality journalism.  Religious faith that has been helping humans to set ethical and moral boundaries in life for thousands of years.  The wisdom of the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments never go out of style. 

Here’s the good news. Our freedom to know is the most powerful it has ever been in human history.  Here’s the bad news: our freedom to know is the most powerful it has ever been in human history.       




Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Boston: Before and After in An Age of Terror

Terror (noun) 1.intense, sharp, overmastering fear; any period of frightful violence or bloodshed; violence or threats of violence used for intimidation or coercion.
--Random House Dictionary

Before. After.  Life before the bombings in Boston eight days ago. Life after the bombs.    

After the killing of one suspect and the capture of another.  After the four bombing victims who died have been buried and properly mourned. After the 264 injured have all been discharged from hospitals.  After the thousands traumatized begin their struggle to find a “new normal”, whatever that is. After 24/7 news coverage abates and we tear ourselves away from second by second updates. 

After five days in April, just 102 hours, from a perfect spring afternoon at the finish line on Boston’s Boylston Street at 2:49 pm on Monday, to 8:43 pm on a chilly Friday night on Watertown’s Franklin Street.

Before. After. What now? What’s next?

This choice is really up to each of us as citizens, as humans, as children of God: how to live in an age of terror in 2013.  An “age of terror”. Some will label this phrase as overly dramatic, hyperbolic, but the truth is that the greater Boston area is now one of “those places”, shattered by an act of terrorism.  Realities which once seemed so improbable, so impossible, came true.  That the bombs exploded in such a beautiful and seemingly safe setting, at a storied and beloved civic celebration, in a peaceful urban neighborhood, is exactly what makes it all so terrible, so terror inducing.

Some won’t get or understand this. Folks far enough away that the bombings are more about headlines and news flashes than real life.  Some folks will relativize the event, compare it in equal terms to all acts of terror around the world. On some intellectual level I get that argument. But still, as one who was only on the periphery of the bomb blasts and the frantic manhunt (no one I know died or was hurt): even at that far distance I’m still shaken up. Still on edge.  Still trying to work it all through. 

Before. After.  How to carry on?

After…I pray that this one act of terror will not make us so afraid that we become suspicious or malicious towards anyone who looks different than us, prays differently to God than us, comes from a different country than us, or speaks with a different accent than us.  Boston is a world class city because we’ve always tried to be a hub for immigrants, any and all who seek the same things that we strive for: human freedom, a generous welcome and the chance to prosper. 

Boston: don’t let terror close our doors or hearts.

After…I pray that in our rush to bring to justice the guilty and protect ourselves, we will not sacrifice the basic American civil liberties and legal rights which were born right here 238 years ago. If the Patriot’s Day bombing tempts us to embrace a promise of “security” at the cost of any of the human liberties our forebears in Concord and Lexington sacrificed to win with their blood, we will all lose.

Boston: don’t let terror shred the Constitution or any of the true patriotic ideals we so rightly and proudly claim as our own.

After…I pray that the amazing and miraculous sense of community we experienced--Boston Strong—may it somehow echo forward and not just fade away as a cherished but forgotten memory. Boston is far from a perfect place. Our drivers are crazy.  Our accents are inscrutable.  Our communal personality can be as cold and sharp and hard as our weather.  But for one shining week it all felt like we shared common hopes and common love and a common home. 

We were at our best: cops protecting us, first responders rushing into the melee, doctors and nurses and EMTs saving lives and limbs, neighbors checking in, houses of worship filling up.  That is truly Boston strong.

Boston: please don’t forget those five days in April.

Before. After.  Terror may have come here but it is now up to each of us to not let it claim the victory. 

Oh, oh, Boston you’re my home. You’re our home. Before and after.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

After the Marathon: We are OK. We are not OK. We will be OK.

“I’m okay.” 

That’s all I wanted to hear from loved ones and neighbors and friends yesterday afternoon and evening, in the minutes and hours after two explosions ripped through the finish line area of the Boston Marathon.

Just a simple and clear, “I’m okay.” 

With hundreds of thousands of folks jammed into downtown Boston for the Marathon and the Sox game, a collective fear hovered like a dreadful spirit over the Bay State: that someone we knew was hurt or killed. As frantic updates about the blasts spread like wildfire across Twitter and jumbled news reports spun around the web and TV and radio, so many of us waited to hear just something. To hear anything. To get a text message, or read a Facebook status update from a runner or spectator we worried about. We feared the worst. We needed to know, to find out what happened to them.

“I’m okay.”  For most of us that relief and answers did finally come. We let out a heavy sigh when the good news arrived and we did hear…“I’m okay….I finally made it home…they stopped us before the finish line so we weren’t anywhere near the explosions…we were in the subway when we heard a loud boom but made it back to Natick…we found sanctuary in a Copley Square Church and folks took good care of us and so don’t worry…I’m okay.”

Even those of us miles away from Boston, we heard from our circle of loved ones too. From all across the country, even the world, they texted, emailed, and called us. “Is everyone alright? What happened!?”  Those of us on the periphery of this tragedy: we let our folks know that we were okay too, that we are okay…right?      

Well…no, not really.  We are not okay. Not yet. Maybe not for a long time. Maybe not ever. This is true too. Not okay if we lost to death a loved one in what was an intentional and cruel act of violence against the innocent. Not okay if we’re one of the scores of injured who one moment cheered on the runners and the next moment laid on the ground surrounded by carnage and chaos.

Not okay if we are one of the cops or doctors or nurses or firefighters or Good Samaritan bystanders who courageously ran towards and into the blast to help, to comfort, and to rescue.  I can’t imagine what they saw, how they did what they did. Can you?     

We are not okay if we felt and heard the echo of 9/11 rippling across our region with a sickening familiarity, bringing back memories of a day that had mostly softened and faded in our hearts.  We are not okay, for it is not okay, that another world city, our city, now takes its place among the ranks of those locales shattered by bomb blasts and terror.  New York. London. Madrid. Mumbai. Boston.        

So thank God we are okay. And oh my God: we are not okay.  We must name this spiritual contradiction right now, this tension and churning within our broken hearts. How all our feelings are mixed up and mashed up: sadness and relief, grief and guilt, shock and anger, the question of “Why?” with no immediate answer.

We want to hurry up and put it all back together again: normalcy, a warm Patriots Day like so many others before, Boston as our special city, safe, and tucked away in sweet familiar April memories and marathons and everything which makes this place shine.  God knows we’d like to go back in time but we can’t.    

So…we are okay. We are not okay. We will be okay. But not yet.


Monday, April 8, 2013

The Lie That Winning Is Everything

Win (verb) 1. to finish first in a race, contest; to succeed by striving or effort; to gain the victory                  
 --Random House Dictionary

March Madness finally lets go this week after a month of water cooler talk and Internet chats and bracket blow outs and Facebook hurrahs. By this week’s end two national champions in college basketball, a men’s and a women’s team, will have been crowned the victors. THEY WON!  “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!”, right?  Just ask Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi, the one who coined that most oft quoted of sports clich├ęs. 

What most people don’t know is that years later, near the end of his life, when asked about that nugget of gridiron and life wisdom, Lombardi completely repudiated it.  "I wished I'd never said the thing...I meant the effort. I meant having a goal. I sure didn't mean for people to crush human values and morality." The untold story of Lombardi’s life is that more than anything else, his faith in God most shaped his view of winning and losing.  What most frustrated the coach was not a defeat. It was if his players did not play to their full God given gifts, did not play fair or play all out.  Lombardi knew the one truth of sports which so often gets lost in our “win at all costs” sports culture.  Winning is not everything. 

I know that’s heresy to many a fanatical fan but consider what happens when winning is that which we demand the most on the playing field. Take Rutgers University men’s basketball head Mike Rice. He was fired last week after being caught on videotape physically and verbally abusing his players. Grabbing them by the collar and whipping them around.  Throwing basketballs at their heads and bodies. Taunting them with homophobic slurs and why?  Well to win, and at any cost, right?

Then there’s Grinnell College men’s basketball player Jack Taylor. Last November he set a new NCAA scoring record with 138 points versus tiny and way overmatched Faith Baptist Bible College. True grace and class in sports once held that teams and individuals held back in game blow outs, not wanting to shame or embarrass an overmatched opponent. But not Taylor, nor his coach, who played the young man the entire game, a Grinnell victory, 179-105. GO PIONEERS! They won!   

No actually, they lost. And they lost big.  Coach Rice, Jack Taylor, and any one else on fields and courts of competition (players, coaches, fans, and media):  when we blindly worship winning at the cost of everything else, especially human character, we lose. We lose and not just a game but also as a culture. 

Like it or not sports is a huge force for good and the not so good in our world. Thirty five million children and youth from the ages of 5 to 18 play competitive sports in our nation. Hundreds of thousands of student athletes play in college. Thousands compete in professional sports.  Whereas sports was once a diversion in our country, best known for entertainment, physical fitness or just low key fun, in 2013 sports dominates all parts of life, from 24/7 ESPN, to tots playing soccer, weekends packed with games at every level, betting billions of dollars.  A generation ago the church or a clergy person or a teacher might have had the greatest influence on young hearts and minds. Today that shaper of moral life is just as likely to be a coach or a flashy professional sports star.  How we talk about winning and losing in sports matters.

To win at all costs?  Well Jesus was pretty clear about this when he said, “What does it prophet a man to [win] the world but lose his soul?”  Fast forward to a modern day sports prophet, UCLA Men’s Basketball Coach John Wooden, winner of ten NCAA championships, seven in a row.  He’d worship the sports god of winning at any cost, right? Nope. As he concluded, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.”

So congrats to the NCAA champs but I hope we will remember that winning is not everything. Winning is not the only thing either.  Winning, losing, playing: finally in sports and the game called life, the best win of all is character.


Monday, April 1, 2013

The College Said "NO" But God Always Says "YES!"

(Writer’s note: Last week high school seniors across the United States learned if they were accepted or rejected by the college of their choice.  This post is for them and their parents but all are invited to read along.)

“Ain't no man can avoid being born average, but there ain't no man got to be common.”  
          --baseball pitcher Satchel Paige

“Did I get in?”  That was and is the question. After months of anticipation, praying even, it all comes down to the mundane act of tearing open a thin white envelope or clicking on a blinking email link. “Welcome to the freshman Class of 2013 at ____ University!” or “We regret to inform you that after careful consideration…”

An admission before I weigh in on this college admissions dance of rejection and acceptance: I’m pretty far removed from it. I have no skin in the game, no children. When I received my college admission letters from two schools, it was the ancient days of Jimmy Carter and disco! Times have radically changed in higher education since then. In 1979, when I applied to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, if you were an average student with average grades and average SATs (bingo on all three for me) and were a state resident, you just got in.  No worries.  A “yes” was a given.

So it is with a mix of wonder and horror that I watch the yearly higher education scramble. According to The New York Times the average aspirant to the freshman class of 2013 submitted nine applications. Many schools experienced double digit increases in the number of applicants in just the past year: UCLA (11 percent), Saint Lawrence (15 percent), Boston University (19 percent), and Skidmore (42 percent). College admissions are more competitive than ever before.  Acceptance rates are lower than ever before. Just ask the 35,000 folks who got the big brush off from Harvard University, 94.2 percent of its applicant pool. 

But even more confounding to me than this collegiate competition is how so many young people (parents sometimes too) put so much weight upon and give so much power over to, whether or not this school or that school says “yes” or “no”.  How colleges and universities, with their oh so powerful selectivity, seem to possess such a say upon the “worth” and self view of all these young souls.  Does it really matter so much where one goes to college?  If I fail to get into Harvard or a “top” school and am forced to “settle” for a UMass or a Westfield State College, does this make me “less than”? Ruin my future? Dash my hopes?  Destroy my dreams?

And what about the “average” kid, the one who gets “Bs” and “Cs”, who is not in the upper percentile of his or her class rank, who does OK on the SATs but is not a scholar?  He works hard but he’s not in the “elite”.  She busts her tail on the sports field but is not on the first string, is a good kid but is not really “good enough”, or so it seems.  How does it feel to be average this time of year?  Any time of the year in our hyper-competitive world? What about the ones who don’t go to college, who join the military or pursue a trade or courageously follow some inner call?

So here’s a radical thought, just my opinion. Where a person goes to college, the address, the setting, the name recognition, the cache or lack thereof: it really doesn’t matter.  Not in the largest and most important sense.  Whether or not you get picked or overlooked by a college, or study in a lab or build a house or work in a factory: it doesn’t determine who is “in” and who is “out”, not spiritually.  Just because “USA University” thinks a person is “good enough” or “not quite good enough” will never, ever decide our ultimate goodness as human beings.

So high school seniors: who you bring to college is what really matters.  You, as a person, a soul, an amazing bundle of character and uniqueness. You are a one a kind miracle. No one else in all Creation is quite like you. You may be average, like me, but you are not common. Who you are is so much more meaningful than the specificity of your school choice, the level of your SAT scores or the pile of acceptance and rejection letters sitting on your desk.

Reminds me of the words of the Psalmist, who in a prayer written to God thousands of years ago, declared, “For it was you [God] who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” (Psalm 139)

Wonderful: made by God, shaped by God, loved by God, accepted by God: that’s an acceptance letter every last person should receive and re-read on a regular basis! So whether or not a young person finds themselves next September studying on the banks of the Charles River or hunkering down over a textbook at Framingham State University, she, he is already good, very good.  Not because of any outward “yes” or “no” but just because of God’s inward lifelong embrace. 

You see in God’s view, you already got in.  And those rejection letters?  Put ‘em in the recycling bin.  That’s where they belong.