Monday, July 29, 2013

Why I Ride the Pan Mass Challenge: To Remember....

(In two days I will ride in my fourth Pan Mass Challenge, a statewide bike ride to raise funds for cancer care and research.  Here are some thoughts on why I ride, shared in the hope that you might one day ride, or donate or pray for us or just take a moment to remember the 577,910 Americans who died last year from cancer.  It is the second leading cause of death in the United States.)

“Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly, you hardly catch it going.”                 --Tennessee Williams

Dottie, Sue, Kathy and Nora: these are the four women I will ride on my bicycle for and “with” next weekend, in the 34th Pan Mass Challenge (PMC).

The details of the PMC are kind of cool.  The fact that folks who ride the full 188 mile route from the hills of Sturbridge to the dunes of Provincetown will circle their pedals 152,000 times in 48 hours.  The fact that 3,000 volunteers will support those of us on the bikes, doing everything from passing out cold water to fixing a flat tire, bringing to 8,000 people the number of people who make the PMC happen.  The fact that 230,000 folks will make a financial contribution to the PMC, the largest athletic fundraiser in the country, all in the mission to find a cure for cancer. The fact that by next Monday morning, the PMC will be well on its way to collecting $38 million in gifts for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, one-hundred percent of all donations going directly to the cause. The fact that 5,550 riders from 36 states and eight countries will participate in this amazing event which since its inception has raised $375 million dollars. 

That’s part of why we ride, why I ride, along with a host of other reasons. To get in shape.  To get away with wearing skin tight alien looking bike wear, Lycra as a fashion statement!  To keep at bay my middle age paunch, get up off the couch and do something.  To see beautiful New England scenery at the wonderful speed of 15 miles per hour. To use human energy alone to go so far. 

Some ride because they had cancer and so they want to show that their bodies still work and can beat the “big C”.  Some ride because their sister has breast cancer, their father colon cancer, their child brain cancer and they need, they want, they must do something good in the face of so much bad.  Some ride because their faith in God compels them or their faith in humanity or they have a deep desire to use their one life to bring a little mercy and kindness into a sometimes hard and even cruel world. 

And so I’ll plant my butt on a hard seat for upwards of eight, nine, even ten hours next Saturday. I’ll take a chance that my ride day might be sopping wet or humidly hot, depending on what wacky Bay State weather might pop up in the next two days. 

Most important I will ride in memory of Dottie, Sue, Kathy and Nora. That’s why I ride. 

In years past I rode for all four of them, as they faced into their disease: ovarian cancer, bladder cancer, cancer of the appendix, soft tissue cancer.  This year they are all gone, and so this PMC is a memory ride for me. In memory of them.

In celebration of who they were. In grief at what will never happen for them because they died too soon. In faith that as angels they are now in the heart of God but will somehow, absolutely, also be with me every single mile. In determination to carry their memory and their still living spirits on my bike, so that one day, a future generation won’t have to face cancer, won’t have to ride to beat cancer either. 

In memory.  Of a science teacher who for years inspired hundreds of students in the classroom and was a great Mom and tender companion and wife.  Of a mentor who taught me almost everything I know about being a good person and a good Christian and a good minister. Of a cousin who raised four beautiful children and loved her husband so much, who in less than five decades made God’s world a much better place. Of a middle school girl who was a fierce Red Sox fan and a loving daughter and big sister, who touched and changed the heart of the church I serve, the heart of the Universe too, in her one precious life.

That’s why I ride the PMC. That’s why we ride the PMC.  In hope. In service. In memory.  See you on the road this weekend!


Monday, July 22, 2013

Can You Imagine Being Racially Profiled? Good.

Imagination (noun) 1. the faculty of imagining, or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses.                
 --Random House Dictionary

Imagine this.

It is evening. You are walking through a neighborhood in a part of town you are somewhat familiar with but do not live in. You are on the way home from the local 7-11.  It’s late and you are in a hurry and it’s a bit chilly, so you pull the hooded jacket you are wearing up and over your head.  You are on a street where you look very different from most of the residents so you are a stranger. This area has experienced crime as of late, so folks started a neighborhood watch, with armed civilians who patrol the streets on foot and by car, but you don’t know that.  You are unarmed. A man approaches you. He points at you. He starts asking you sharp questions about who you are and why you are there and what you are doing. 

Imagine this. How would you respond? Would you run away from him? Or maybe run towards him because it feels like he’s threatening you and you have to protect yourself? Or would you match his raised voice with shouts of your own?  Should you call the police or knock on a door for help? Perhaps just start walking away a bit faster, praying that you’ll be home soon? Imagine you’ve experienced situations like this a lot.  Folks who look at you—look at the color of your skin and your dress and your age and then judge you, draw conclusions about you, even though they don’t know you at all. 

Imagine this. Five minutes later you are dead from a gunshot wound to the chest.  Imagine you are 17 years old.  Imagine what it will be like when your parents get a phone call from the police telling them that you have been killed.  Imagine everything you could have done in your life, all you could have been, that now it won’t ever come true. Imagine it is gone now. Over. Done. Forever.

Can you imagine this happening to you? To your son or daughter?  To the kid you coach on the baseball team, the young man who cuts your grass, the teen in the back row of the choir at church on Sundays, or the promising young musician you teach at the high school? Can you imagine growing up in a culture which constantly profiles you, stereotypes you, suspects you, pigeonholes you, and why? Because the pigment of your skin is not the same shade as the majority of the folks who live in the country that you call home. 

Imagine that.

President Barack Obama—he doesn’t have to imagine it. Millions of our fellow Americans—they don’t have to imagine a life like this either.  They live it daily. Our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers, our families, the soldiers and cops who protect and serve us, teachers who shape our children’s minds, artists who entertain us, athletes who thrill us, clergy who move us, politicians who govern us. 

As the President said last Friday, “There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and [there’s] a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she has a chance to get off.”

Imagine that.

In my faith traditions, and most others, the highest moral and ethical value is love. This God given and God inspired love is never theoretical, never impersonal, never just a word or an ideal or idea, but is always given flesh and bone through compassion.  This is the ability to love and honor another, especially someone “different”, by imagining life in their shoes. In their skin. In their experience. In their neighborhood. In their life.

Real love finally takes compassionate imagination.  Then, instead of concluding, “I could never be like ‘them’!” we take a risk, we imagine and we wonder, “What is life like for them?”  White, we imagine life as a person of color.  Privileged, we imagine life as a person of few means.  Male, we imagine what it is like for a woman to make her way in an often patriarchal world.  Christian, we imagine what life is like for a Muslim or a Jew or a Baha’i.

Will we in the United States finally get serious about confessing to our racial divisions, talking about race relations and maybe even beginning to transform the ways we live with each another?  If so it must begin with you, with me, and with all of us: in love and compassion and most important, with imagination.

Imagine that.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dear God: Can't We All Just Get Along?

Coptic Christian Priest Shot by Islamic Insurgents In Egypt
Malala Yousafzai, Girl Shot by Taliban, Makes Appeal at UN
Palestinian Women to be Tried for Non-Violent Demonstration
Pro-Marriage Equality Church Vandalized For Third Time
Buddhist Holy Site Bombed in India     
--worldwide news headlines from the past month

Dear God,

I’ll ask my one big question right up front. I figure you’ve already got a lot going on, what with being the Creator of the Universe, the Alpha and the Omega, the One who lit the fuse on the Big Bang. I imagine your responsibilities are infinite in overseeing life on earth, life everywhere, so I’ll get right to it.

When it comes to your love, is everybody in, every last soul on earth? Or is your love exceptional, exclusive, that is to say: do you limit your love and your full acceptance to just a select few? You know to a certain “chosen” people, a certain religious faith, a certain country, certain and specific spiritual beliefs?

Because down here on earth God, well, we are pretty confused about that question and have been for a long time, forever it seems. Since the first time a human being lifted her eyes to the heavens and acknowledged something beyond her was in charge of the universe, we’ve been arguing about you.  The truth is we actually hurt each other, a lot, in conflicts over belief in you. We discriminate against each other in your name, hate one another and yes, sometimes we kill each other.  It’s all there in the news, in black and white.

It’s kind of ugly.  Being omnipresent, I know you already know this and I hope it’s not presumptuous to ask but…could you straighten it all out for us, once and for all time?

Who’s in? Who’s out?  Is your love available to every last one of your children regardless of our man made labels or faiths?  Or is your acceptance of us dependent upon taking an exclusive or narrow path, adhering to some fundamental dogma?

Lack of human religious belief isn’t the problem, God. Your world is a very religious place, with 59 percent of the world’s population claiming some kind of belief in you. That’s more than 4,000,000,000 of us. We have an amazingly diverse collection of religions. By one count there are twenty major distinct traditions down here: the biggest, my own, Christianity (2 billion followers), Islam(1.5 billion), Hinduism (950 million), and many others too: from Judaism to Zoroastrianism.    

Most religious people claim to know your name: God, Yahweh, Allah, Elohim, Jehovah, Baha.  Say they’ve come to know you through their sacred texts: the Bible, the Koran, the Tanakh, the Book of Mormon, the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  We worship you too in amazing numbers.  In my country alone there are more than 300,000 Christian churches! 

But then there’s seem to be a perpetual disconnect, too much of the time, between what we say we believe about you and how we act upon this. So we argue…about who can speak on your behalf. In some religions, women, who make up half your world, are barred from leadership, even education.  Is that really your way? We bicker about who’s getting into heaven, convinced our spiritual truth is the only road to salvation.  Folks even take up arms against each other, presuming that you bless their actions.  They say your name out loud as they pull the trigger, blow the bomb.

This isn’t how you imagined it all working out God, when you made us, is it?  When you finished your creation, you declared it was all “very good”, all of it, every last creature.  I don’t see any exceptions there, no “he’s in, but she’s out” declarations.  I imagine when you look down upon the world you see just one planet: no boundaries, no borders, no divisions. 

The sad thing is, God, that all this arguing amongst ourselves about you, can overshadow just how much good is done in your name. Religion gives hope to the hopeless, inspires the rich to help the poor, the well fed to feed the hungry, the powerful to lift up the powerless, and moves folks to put their lives on the line for peace and justice.  Every single day billions of people of faith love one another, as you love them, and they do good, lots of good, because they really, really, really believe in you. I’d say these unsung, unheralded saints make up a majority of your followers in fact. 

So here’s my prayer request God.  Can you be in touch with the leaders of all our world religions and just set things straight, once and for all? Enlighten some minds? Open some hearts? Remind them and all of us that you made us all, each of us, for each other.  For love. After all it is your world and right now we could use a little guidance.

Your world, our world, is a beautiful place.  But as always, we need your help.   Thanks for listening.

Peace, John



Sunday, July 7, 2013


Heat wave (noun) 1. A period of abnormally and uncomfortably hot and unusually humid weather. Typically a heat wave lasts two or more days. 
--The National Weather Service

“Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”     
 --Mark Twain

Is it really hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk during this, the first big heat wave of the summer of 2013? As I write these words on the 7th , we are at five days and counting of 90 plus degrees since the 3rd.  This isn’t our first heat wave. That mini blast furnace began on June 24th when the temperature hit 95 degrees, tying a record set in 1976, but the wave only lasted three days. 

Steamy enough to cook an egg?  Well…not even close.  For that you need a temperature of 158 degree Fahrenheit and according to The Library of Congress website, concrete sidewalks can’t get much hotter than 145 degrees.  But that didn’t stop the folks of Oatman, Arizona from sponsoring their annual Solar Egg Frying Contest this past July 4th.  In that land of “But it’s a dry heat!” even there it is still not hot enough to sauté “l’ouef”, but…it’s pretty darn toasty. 106 in the shade today, according to the weatherman. 

But I digress from this, our current heat wave.  Funny thing about the weather: it always gives us something to talk about. Something in which there is really nothing at all at stake, no argument to be won, no political view to be bested, no point to be emphasized other than…it’s hot. So if you’re tired of talking about the latest from the Bulger trial (he’s a thug—case closed), the tragedy that is the Aaron Hernandez murder mess (never saw that coming) or the revolution in Egypt (military coup or overthrow of a theocracy?), you can always just bring up the heat.  

Try to avoid the obvious inane question, as in, “Hot enough for you?” Don’t even go there. Also watch out for other weather clichés like “hotter than hell”. posits “hell” as perhaps being located at the earth’s core which tops out at 11,000 degrees so we are not quite that hot yet.  Or even “hotter than a firecracker on the 4th of July”. Gunpowder burns at 801 degrees so we’re still about 710 degrees short.  And just for the sake of decency avoid all mention of heat stroke, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and especially heat rash.  Some things are best left unsaid.

On second thought let’s not even talk about the heat.  It just makes me hotter, hot and bothered, all hot under the collar.  Let’s be cool as we converse.  Recall just how cold it was in Boston about six months ago. On February 11th, the temperature bottomed out at 15 degrees and three days before, the blizzard of ’13 dumped 24.9 inches of the white stuff on the Hub. Can’t win for losing. Can’t do much about the weather but talk about it or better yet, just accept it. 

Accept the joy and the misery and atmospheric adventure of living in a place like New England. Think of all our poor friends in San Diego, California, the most temperate climate in the U.S., a place which on average never dips below 49 degrees or above 78, where it almost never snows and no hurricanes nor nor’easters threaten, where a really hot day is above 80.  What do they talk about?  The Padres baseball team who were just swept in three games by the red hot Red Sox?  Certainly not the weather. Not like us.

So…just crack a cold one. Crank up the AC. Put the fan on full blast if you got it.  Get a Dell’s Slushy Lemonade when you’re down in Rhode Island or a sloppy vanilla ice cream cone at C&L Frosty’s in Sherborn, right on Main Street.  Turn up the ballgame on the radio.  Jump in the ocean on Wollaston Beach.  Dive off the dock on Lake Winnipesauke and revel in the heat.  Then store that memory away for next January when you get all chilly about the weather.

It’s July in these parts.  It’s a heat wave.  Hot enough for you? Couldn’t resist.