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.