Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Oh What Humans Do "In The Name of God"...

“I’d be a Christian if it weren’t for all the Christians.”  --Mahatma Gandhi

“In the name of God”…

Sometimes I wonder what God thinks when folks say they do something in God’s name, especially when such “God” inspired acts can make God look…well…pretty bad.  A story…

If I had children, Carla Hale is the kind of wonderful teacher I’d hope for them.  At the Christian school she taught at in Columbus, Ohio, Hale was widely respected and loved by her fellow teachers, administrators, parents and most important, the kids, whom she taught physical education.  For 18 years, Hale loyally and lovingly taught until an amazing and awful week last March.

As Frank Bruni wrote in a recent New York Times piece, “Rather suddenly, [Hale’s] mother died, and an hour afterward, she and her brother numbly went through the paces of a standard obituary, listing survivors. Her brother included his wife. So Carla included her partner, Julie, whom her mother had known well and loved. Leaving Julie out would have been unthinkable, though Carla didn’t really think it through at the time. Her grief was still raw.”

This is where the story becomes unbelievable.  The obituary ran.  A parent of one of the school’s students read it and wrote an anonymous letter to church officials who oversaw the school. She complained they could not let a woman like Carla Hale teach her kid or any kids.  Within days Hale was fired, the school’s principal stating in a termination letter that Hale’s, “spousal relationship violates the moral laws of the…Church.”

Two months later Hale is still heartbroken, devastated by her firing. “Every morning from the time you walked into the building, kids would be yelling down the hall, ‘Hey, Miss Hale, what are we going to do today?’ ‘Hey, Miss Hale, I remembered those shoes.’ It felt so comforting.”  But no more because hey, we’re Christians and we can’t let one of ‘those people’ influence our children, right?

So Hale is out and why? She was fired in God’s name, I suppose, because she broke God’s “laws”, because that’s what God called that school’s “religious” leaders to do, right? I wish I could say I’m shocked by the mean spiritedness of this “God” based act of intolerance--that it is rare, an exception, but the truth is, it is not.  As a Christian and clergyperson so often these days I cringe and weep at the behavior of my fellow believers. In whose name do they act?

A “God” who apparently is very exclusive in love. A "God" who condemns folks who love the wrong person. A “God” who gets angry if we worship the wrong “God” or go to the wrong house of worship or do not fit into a narrow and self-righteous definition of the Almighty. 

To be fair Christianity has no monopoly on this “name of God” stuff.  Every other major world religion seems all too ready to be petty as well, finger pointing, small minded and small hearted, even violent, in the name of “God”. 

So last week the Protestant TV evangelist Pat Robertson commented on the deadly Oklahoma tornadoes by declaring that if only the folks in Moore had prayed more, they would have been spared.  Two weeks ago in Israel a group of Jewish woman won the legal right to pray at the Western Wall of the Temple, Judaism’s holiest of holy sites.  They prayed but did so surrounded by hundreds of angry Orthodox Jews who spit on them, swore at them and threw chairs at them.  The Boston Marathon bombings? Carried out, apparently in the name of “God”, by Muslim brothers using the cloak of religion to justify killing and maiming the innocent.  

I can’t make this stuff up.

Now I know it is risky to presume to know the mind and heart of God but my faith tells me that God must cringe and weep too at all these things done in God’s name.  Makes me imagine if and when we all get to the pearly gates God won’t much be interested in how religiously zealous we were, or religiously pure we were, or even religiously devoted we were. To institutions. To doctrines. To laws. To human made buildings or traditions.

No perhaps, instead, God will ask each of us just one question: “When you acted in my name, did you love?” I think Carla Hale will certainly be able to answer that Divine inquiry pretty easily, with a humble and heartfelt “Yes”.  I think lots of so called religious believers and leaders will answer with a fumbling and bumbling “No”.

“In God’s name”:  pretty powerful stuff.  So here’s a suggestion: let’s just try love.  Let this be what we do in the name of God.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

When Your Taps Is Played, What Will You Be Remembered For?

Then goodnight, peaceful night;
Till the light of the dawn shineth bright.
God is near, do not fear,
Friend, goodnight.
--Horace Lorenzo Trim (words to the tune “Taps”)


The tune itself is only 24 notes long, a simple and mournful song, bare, sparse, with no flourishes or riffing. Played on a bugle or a trumpet, it is about a half a minute long. First composed in 1862 by Union General Daniel Butterfield as a song to be played at the end of the day in an army camp for “lights out”, “Taps” is one of those rare ballads we just know by heart.  We hear the first three notes: “Dah, Dah, Dah” (C major chord: G, G, C), and then recognize it immediately.

It’s a song of ending, of closure, and of completion in the armed forces.  The sun is set in the west.  The American flag has been taken down off of the pole, carefully folded and put away. The camp is quiet, soldiers bunked down, campfires reduced to glowing embers, the only soul in sight a lone sentry on guard duty.  Day is done.

It’s also a song that marks the death of a serviceman or woman, their life on this earth over.  The clergy person speaks final words over the deceased: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust...” Dirt and flowers are gently tossed into the grave. Loved ones touch the casket one final time. Ancient prayers echo over the cemetery…”The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…” Life is done.

At burials with full military honors for a deceased veteran, an honor guard of two soldiers carries out one final act of farewell. “Taps” is played and then an American flag, precisely and tightly packed into a folded triangle, is presented to the veteran’s next of kin: a grieving widow, a mourning son or daughter, a tearful husband, as these words of thanks are spoken…

“On behalf of the President of the United States and the people of a grateful nation, may I present this flag as a token of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service your loved one rendered this nation.”           

Even after presiding at more than a hundred such graveside services for veterans, I still get all choked up and weep when “Taps” is played and those words of gratitude are said.  What gets to me is one amazing truth. At the end of a person’s life so many differing conclusions and codas could be offered to sum up that one journey from cradle to grave.  Worldly accomplishments.  Academic degrees. Offices held. Power wielded. A family created.  Even wealth and things accumulated in the run up to death, I suppose.  

But here for a veteran, the final sentiments expressed about this child of God, both to them and about them, is one of thanksgiving for service. Service to others. Service to nation. Service to a cause greater than one’s self. That’s why I always become emotional at these rituals. 

For regardless of how I feel at any given moment about war or the foreign policy of my nation or the seemingly intractable human sin of lifting sword up against another, I cannot help but respect and admire those willing to put on our nation’s uniform and serve on our behalf. 

Veterans challenge all of us as citizens and humans to examine our lives and ask: what are we doing in the service of others? What words will be spoken on our behalf when we are buried?  What will we be remembered for? Have we made this beautiful and broken God created world a better place by being here?

So in the shadow of Memorial Day next Monday we should all thank our veterans and active duty soldiers for their sacrifice and example. I’m not so sure I’ve lived a life worthy enough to have “Taps” played at my funeral but I’m willing to try. 

How about you?




Monday, May 13, 2013

When Boston Strong Became Boston Ugly

Lay to Rest (phrase) 1. to inter a dead body; 
to bury             --Random House Dictionary

The first burial I ever presided at was for an eighty something year old farmer named Al, who actually died while sitting in his parked tractor, after an afternoon of plowing his fields.  A fitting end, in a way, to his one earthly life. That was nearly twenty four years ago and since then, as a clergyperson, I’ve stood graveside and said prayers for the dead and grieving families at something like 300 funerals. I’ve lost count.

Some of these ceremonies were true celebrations of life, like the service I conducted for a 106 year old Rhode Island Yankee, who was eulogized by her 65 year old grandson. Or the rites for the man who loved to crack open a beer after an afternoon of landscaping his spacious backyard.  To mark that father’s death, when his son got in the pulpit to remember his Dad, he opened a chilled "brewski" and then took a long sip.  Holy Heineken!

Some services were, well, odd.  The family who insisted upon playing a CD recording of Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “My Way”, as their patriarch’s casket was slowly rolled from the church.  The graveside burial where the funeral director I worked with, doing one his first interments, buried the deceased in the wrong grave. 

Some rituals were absolutely heartbreaking.  The service I did for a week old infant who was abandoned by her parents on the front steps of a homeless shelter, who died alone and from exposure to the cold.  The memory of that tiny little white casket still haunts me.  A young man who died from AIDs in 1991.  I was the third clergy person asked to eulogize him. Two other ministers had refused to bury that poor soul out of fear, ignorance and prejudice.

I’ve never said “No” when asked to bury the dead.  Not once, because there is something within me that just knows deep in my bones and heart that every single child of God deserves a good burial. Every one is entitled to have someone stand at the graveside, speak of a person’s life and then commit that eternal soul to God.  The proud and the poor.  The believer and the agnostic, folks of little faith or no faith.  People eulogized by thousands of mourners and folks remembered by just one or two or three family members.  As a person of faith, as a human, I just believe this is the right and decent and civilized thing to do.  No exceptions. None.

So for me it was so troubling to watch the ugliness and cowardice surrounding the protracted process to find a place and people to bury Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.  The protesters who camped outside of a Worcester funeral parlor and wrapped themselves in American flags, harassing and haranguing and condemning that home’s director Peter Stefan, who was just trying to do his job and act with compassion. 

Our United States’ senatorial candidates, Markey and Gomez, who cynically trolling for votes jumped right on the anti-burial bandwagon and weighed in with feigned self righteous anger. Governor Patrick who could have stepped into the controversy early on and quietly used the power of his office to settle things but who instead washed his hands of any responsibility.  Boston Globe reporters who pursued the body and the story up and down the east coast, showing little or no journalistic self censorship or judgment.   

I hate to say it but in this one instance Boston Strong seemed to morph into Boston Ugly.  This was a tawdry and sad chapter in what has otherwise been an amazing and beautiful example of human resilience, courage and goodness in the face of truly awful pain, destruction and terror.  And no, my opinion on this should not be construed as in any way affirming the evil of what was done. 

A truly civilized society is marked by many attributes.  A refusal to succumb to mob violence and vengeance.  A commitment to uphold the law, even, especially, for the most heinous.  The ideal that no matter what is done to us, we will not allow it to tempt us to descend into the depths of human cruelty in response. Add to this the faith based notion that no human being is beyond God’s love or God’s judgment and no matter what happens, a society, a community can endure almost anything and still hang together as one.

So now, finally, the body is buried.  The grave is filled in.  The soul has passed on. May God help us to lay to rest this story.






Monday, May 6, 2013

A Springtime Plea: Drivers and Cyclists Watch Out!

(Writer’s note: Every year about this time I get back on my bicycle and ride again.  The temps are warm.  The roads are clean of snow and sand. My aging body is young again as memories of boyhood bike rides call me to get back into the saddle.  But every year, news reports of accidents appear again too, huge cars and trucks versus little bikes, bicyclists arrogantly riding as if they own the whole road, motorists oblivious to two wheeled travelers in the lane right next to them.  So here’s my yearly column on bicycling safety.  PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE watch out! Thank you!)

Average weight of an American car: 4,000 pounds
Average weight of an American bicycle: 30 pounds  

From the start folks on two wheels and folks on four wheels have not had the best of relationships.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that the first recorded automobile accident in the United States happened in 1896 when a car collided with a bike in New York City.  No doubt each blamed the other for the mishap.  54,000 bicyclists have died on America’s roads since 1932, 618 in 2010, the last year such statistics were reported.      

As an avid bicyclist, a human, and a child of God, these numbers break my heart and scare the heck out of me, especially on these gorgeous May days as the roads fill up again with bikes and cars. Because every cyclists’ death represent a real person, a parent, a co-worker, a neighbor, a friend.  One day out spinning the pedals and soaking up the sun and then in just a micro-second, he or she is splayed out on the road, their bicycle a heap of twisted metal, their body bleeding and busted up, one life over, done, through. 

From “Alexander Motsenigos, the father of a 6-year-old son, was riding his bike on Weston Road [in Wellesley] near the intersection of Linden Street just before 2 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2012, when he was hit by an 18-wheel truck. The driver left the scene. Though Wellesley police sought to charge the truck driver with motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation, unsafe overtaking of a bicyclist, and failing to take precautions for the safety of other travelers, a grand jury declined to indict him.”

Now in this case police believed the driver was at full fault, the rider innocent.  But the story goes the other way too.  Just three springs ago in Boston, in the span of seven weeks, two cyclists died in accidents.  Neither was wearing a bike helmet. Both took crazy risks in traffic. One attempted to pass a bus on a very busy city street.  The other ran through a red light and collided with a car.

As one who is an enthusiastic, committed and experienced cyclist, I’m doubly sad for the fact that just by following basic rules of bicycle safety, these tragedies might have been avoided.  I’ve biked thousands of miles in fifteen years of long distance road biking.  I’ve biked over a wide variety of roads: narrow rural streets, packed city avenues, stretches by the sea, long mountain hills.  I’ve ridden in charity rides from Boston to New York, Raleigh to Washington, D.C. and San Francisco to Los Angeles. This summer I’ll ride in my fourth Pan-Mass Bike Challenge.

In all of those miles and all of those years I’ve never once gotten on a bike without first strapping on a helmet.  That’s a given for anyone who takes biking seriously.  A bike is not a car.  A bike weighs twenty or thirty or forty pounds. A car or truck, of course, weighs a ton or more.  A bike is nimble.  A car traveling along at the speed limit cannot maneuver so quickly. Whenever those two vehicles collide, the biker always loses.  Always. No contest. And when cyclists lack head protection, these accidents go from bad to worse to deadly terrible. 

                        So of those 610 cyclists who died nationwide in 2010, ninety-one percent of those killed were not wearing helmets. No doubt some of these collisions ups were the fault of rude, unthinking, texting, talking on the phone, not paying attention, in a rush drivers.  But bikers need to own up to our part of that equation too.  When we fail to wear a helmet.  Fail to keep a straight line on the road and stay within or on the road’s shoulder.  Fail to ride single file.  Fail to obey the rules of the road: stopping for traffic lights, using hand signals, acting responsibly as the vehicle on the road that we are. Fail to be safe and wise in sharing the road.    

So here is a simple plea to bikers and drivers as we both go out for rides in this the busiest biking time of the year.  Drivers: please watch out for us.  If the road is narrow give us some space.  Hang up the phone and watch the road.  If you see a biker coming down the street and are tempted to quickly pull out in front of us, please consider letting us pass by first. If you’re parked on a busy city street and are about to open your door, take a quick peek behind to see if a biker is coming.  Please take care as you share the road with us. Thank you.

Bikers—wear a helmet, always, everywhere, no questions asked. No excuses.  No whining about how much it messes up your hair or how hot it makes your head.  Nothing compares to a traumatic brain injury. Nothing.  Follow all the rules of the road.  All of them. It is our responsibility (and the law) to do so.  Give up riding double or triple file so you can chat with your buddy.  Talk when you get home. It is rude to drivers and rightfully frustrates folks behind the wheel.  If you ride in a group, police the other riders too. Bike etiquette is everyone’s responsibility.  Keep a straight line when you bike. No weaving. Drivers need to trust this.  How you bike, with consideration or thoughtlessness—this reflects on all the other bikers out here.  So often when I tell folks I’m a recreational biker they tell me how stupid or clueless or arrogant or entitled so many bikers act on the road these days. 

Parents? Don’t just tell your kids to wear their helmets. Wear your helmet too.  Insisting that your kid stay safe on her bike, while you go bareheaded, isn’t exactly the wisest of examples. Legislators? How about making the wearing of bicycle helmets mandatory for all ages, not just those 16 and younger, the present law in Massachusetts?

Police? Enforce all traffic laws fully, for both bicyclists and drivers.  Give a warning, write a ticket to the daydreaming driver blabbing away on his cell phone as he barrels along in his SUV.  Give a warning, write a ticket to the idiot biker hogging the rode, or blowing through a red light, or riding in a pack of Saturday morning bicycling buttheads.  As one bumper sticker proclaims, “Same road. Same rules. Same rights.” Same laws too!  

Every time before I go out for a ride I say a little prayer to God and ask for a safe ride.  That’s my spiritual insurance.  But so too, I also try my best to ride safe and to ride smart.  As the proverb might note: “Pray to God but bike with safety.”   

We all travel a common road.  So please watch out for us two-wheeled travelers and we’ll watch out for you. See you on the road!