Monday, December 29, 2014

Back to the Future: How Would You Re-Do 2014?

"Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that you built a time machine... out of a DeLorean?"          
 --Marty McFly, from "Back to the Future"

So here's my New Year's 2015 fantasy: I want to travel back in time to exactly one year ago, to the close of 2014, and talk to my past self. Give "me" some advice. I want to pull a Marty McFly and jump back into time. If God or the universe or fate gave me a 2014 "do-over" I readily confess I'd do things differently. I think most of us would too. In reviewing the last 365 days, we all remember moments when we wish we'd made another choice. Taken an alternate route on life's journey, a left rather than a right. Answered "no" rather than "yes" or "yes" when "no" was the right response.  Had the chance again to say "I love you" because we didn't have the guts or the smarts or the courage to do so.   

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

The season of New Year's is a rare time in life when humans can intentionally look back and look ahead. Resolve to change our lives going forward. Face how we lived the past 52 weeks. So if you had the gift of being strapped into a time traveling Delorean, and visiting your past self for a spiritual pep talk, what might you say? How would you re-do 2014?

Me? I'd absolutely tell myself to worry a less. A LOT LESS! To instead trust that God and life so much of the time works out, that most human anxiety is a complete waste of time, an empty exercise in creating overwhelmingly negative outcomes that rarely if ever come true. That so often when we worry, it is about people and situations over which we have little or no control. I so regret how much precious time I wasted in 2014, mired in my worry. Fearing what others were thinking. Brooding about this possible scenario, that doomsday event! Sleepless nights. Distracted days. And guess what?  Almost always, whatever I was angsting about did not happen.  And all those hours I spent in worry: all gone, never to return. 

Memo to self: next year, worry less and trust God more.

I'd also tell my past self to spend less time online in the cyber world, and more time off line, in the real world.  In 2014, too often I was guilty of mindlessly looking at my phone or surfing the net or watching YouTube videos or scrolling through Facebook or waiting for a text. When I was bored, or waiting or unable to just "be", I inevitably reached for my techno-addiction.  Found myself in a crowd or at a gathering or in a public space surrounded by like minded cyber zombies. Heads tilted down. Fingers swiping across a screen. Eyes intently focused upon the "latest" on Twitter or Snapchat or Instagram. Meanwhile, real life connections-- face to face and heart to heart and voice to voice--seem rarer and rarer. How many thousands of minutes did I lose last year to life in the virtual world? Days, weeks perhaps.

Memo to self: next year, live more in the real world, live less in the cyber world.

Lastly, I'd tell my past self to talk less and listen more. To pontificate and judge others less, and instead be more curious in life, especially about folks and ideas and lifestyles I may see as "different" than me.  It's been a tumultuous 2014, filled with so many conflicts, fears and anger, grounded in a "them" versus "us" narrative.  Humanity split wide open. Wars in the Ukraine and Israel/Palestine and throughout the Middle East. Cruel, so-called "religious" people using their ideas of God to condemn, to oppress, to kill, even the innocent. Racial divisions and mistrust. 

Too often I've waded into these complicated affairs with my opinion which I also insist on sharing with anyone who will listen. My prayer for me and the rest of humankind in the year to come is that we'd open our mouths less and open our ears more. That we'd have the wisdom to think before we speak. That not every single opinion needs to be posted or blogged or proffered. That God-inspired humility, not hubris, is what our world really needs.

Memo to self: talk less and listen more.  Practice curiosity and humility.

We may not be able to time travel and give our past selves advice about how to live a better life, repeat 2014. But this week we've been given the gift of 365 new days, a whole new year, another God given chance to try again. 

Memo to self: how will you live in 2015? What did 2014 teach you? You don't need a Delorean to answer those questions.

Happy New Year.      

Thursday, December 25, 2014

December Quiet: May We All Find Some At Years' End

 "But after the tempest. . . .There came a day as still as heaven"   --Alfred Lord Tennyson

Have you found your “December quiet” yet?

From the 25th on it is amazing just how much of our world and the folks therein completely shut down during the days in between the 25th and the 1st.  It is so quiet, so still, so slow.  Stores are finally closed, or at least back to sane hours. No more sales. No more stuff.  The roads are empty. God willing we’ve all gotten to where we need to be.  Most of us have precious time off from work and school.  If we are wise the cell phone is set aside, silenced.  Maybe even the computer screen is blank, reminding us of life outside of the cyber world. Normal day to day schedules are suspended. This week is for family visits and faith and present giving and holiday celebrating, sleeping in, eating a lot, chilling out.  The quality and the nature of this time are different, even sacred.


Can you “hear” it, just for a little while, even one day? The hush of a house of worship after the final hymn has been sung and all is illuminated in candlelight.  The world after a snowfall, with the muffled crunch of footfalls on the snow, the muted cracks of branches bowing down under the weight of all that white stuff.  The snap and pop of a log in the fire.  The sound of a page being turned in that new book you received as a gift.  The silence of children finally falling asleep after a crazy day of holiday over stimulation.

Silent night.

We always need this glimpse of heaven on earth, no matter what the time of year, or what has come before, what lies ahead.  Our annual societal pause could not come at a better time. So many of us rush through the 12th month of the year, from stores to parties to work to celebrations to concerts to games and then finally, blessedly, to the end of another 365 days.  I know I need a rest.  To just stop moving.  To sit. Think. Laugh. Breathe.  Visit. Love.  Pause.


The earth knows this. On the 21st in our northern hemisphere the light waned to its dimmest of the year. It is dark and cold.  Makes me just want to shut it all off for a time, to turn it down, to tone it down, to just be quiet and still.  At its best this what faith in God offers.  Holy days, Sabbath, set aside time to just be, to open our hearts to the safe place and sanctuary that the gentle creator of the universe offers.  Our ancient ancestors certainly understood this truth.  In his book, “To Dance with God”, Gertrud Mueller Nelson writes of these final days of the year: “….[ancient] peoples who lived far north and who suffered the archetypal loss of life and light with the disappearance of the sun had a way of wooing back life and hope….as the days grew shorter and colder and the sun threatened to abandon the earth….Their solution was to bring all ordinary action and daily routine to a halt. They gave in to the nature of winter, came away from their fields and put away their tools. They removed the wheels from their carts and wagons, festooned them with greens and lights and brought them indoors to hang in their halls…. a sign of a different time, a time to stop and turn inward.”

Can we learn from our ancestral example?  Put our work away.  Switch off our brains. Leave the briefcase in the car. Stash the schoolbooks in the backpack.  Tear up the "to-do" lists.  Forget housework and homework.  Nature has stopped.  We should too.


These final days of 2014 are ours’ for the taking if and when we realize that this week is the time to be still and to be silent. For much too soon we will crank it all up again.  But for now, may God grant all of us a little space to just be at peace. As the poet Max Erhman wrote in his poem “Desiderata”, "Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence....And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul."

That’s my prayer for all of us as this year finally draws to a close.      

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Torture: Never, EVER Justified and Not Who We Are as a Nation

Torture (noun) 1. the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.                --Random House Dictionary

Last week the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released to the press, the public and the world, a report describing our nation’s use of torture in the war on terror.  The 6,000 page tome describes in excruciating, often stomach turning detail, how American citizens, working on behalf of and with the blessing of the American government, used torture in an effort to gain intelligence from terror suspects. 

The methods were gruesome: water boarding (detainees subjected to near drowning), sleep deprivation, ice water baths, threatening the lives of prisoners and their families, forced feeding, mock executions, and the shackling of prisoners in subhuman conditions. The torture happened in so-called “black prisons”, top secret Central Intelligence Agency run facilities in places like Poland, Lithuania, Romania and Afghanistan.  One hundred and nineteen detainees were held under the program.  Twenty-six of those detainees were later found to be wrongly accused.

The reports’ release set off a firestorm of response. Current and former CIA employees and many in Congress claim these so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” saved Americans lives, even though the report denies that assertion. Some who supported the release of the report (including President Obama) hedged their bets to cover themselves politically, saying that although the torture was wrong, those who undertook it did so with patriotic motives.

As an American, I’m not sure who disappoints and angers me more: those who tortured and must have done so knowing that what they did was just wrong, immoral, and inhuman. Or those who excuse torture as “understandable” in the extraordinary time called post 9/11.  They argue that because America was fighting an enemy unlike any other foe before, because America was attacked on its own soil, because the safety of Americans took precedent over any other ideal, well…things were just done that were “necessary”. 

Thank God that in the midst of this nationwide debate, one person stood up and spoke the truth with courage and moral conviction: Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.  Himself the victim of torture as a prisoner of war for six year in Vietnam, it is McCain, more than any self serving politician or blowhard pundit, who has the right to speak about torture. Why in the final analysis torture almost never elicits good intelligence, nor does it make for a safer world. And most important, why torture is not what America does.  Torture is not who America is.

On the floor of the Senate, McCain declared: “I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.  We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily."

It amazes and frightens me what America has been willing to do to “defend” itself since the dark days right after the September 11th attacks. The suspension of many basic civil liberties. Eavesdropping by the government on billions of phone calls and emails and all manner of communication.  Secret courts.  And torture.

Though I was not personally touched by 9/11, I vividly remember how scared all of us were then; how we wondered when the next attack was coming; how just for a little while it felt like we came together as a nation and community. But the problem with fear is that it often makes folks and countries do things that they could never imagine. Act in ways that contradict the most idealistic and basic of political principles. 

Like that America just does not torture those it fights against.  That instead America treats even its enemies, with dignity and humanity, and always under the rule of international and domestic law, and in the sunlight of public knowledge and authority.

I still believe, like McCain, that this American commitment to being humane, to practicing higher ideals than much of the rest of the world: this is what sets the United States apart as a nation. We may not always live up to our self professed and historic values, but try we must. And when we fall short, how wonderful it is that some among us insist that we admit our mistakes to the citizenry and the whole world. 

Torture. Never justifiable. Not what we do. Not who we are. America has to be better than that. So Senator McCain: thanks for reminding us of this truth.

Monday, December 8, 2014

In Praise of Protest and Patriots: Then and Now

Protest (noun) 1. an expression or declaration of objection, disapproval, or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid      
 ---Random House Dictionary

He was the United States’ first famous protester, the very first dissenter in a still to be born nation. Hailing from Framingham, Massachusetts, he joined a group of protesters on a cold and slushy winter day 244 years ago, in downtown Boston, to confront unjust governmental power.  Troops on one side. Dissenters on the other.  Accounts of what happened that March day are sketchy at best.  Icy snowballs may have been thrown.  Those trying to keep the peace certainly felt threatened.  Guns were raised.  Guns were fired.  Five men fell. One man among those martyrs is considered the first casualty of the Revolutionary War and the fight for independence.

If you were paying attention in your grade school history class maybe you can still recall his name: Crispus Attucks.  Victim number one in what came to be remembered as the Boston Massacre.  That Attucks was a person of color, a freeman, a former slave, makes this tale all the more amazing.  If you want to see his grave, make your way to the Granary Burying Ground in downtown Boston, over by the Common.  He is interred beside other notable U.S. protestors: John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Samuel Adams. 

I couldn’t help but think about Attucks last week when thousands of protesters descended on the streets of Boston, to peacefully protest the recent deaths of two unarmed men of color, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Those dissenters were among hundreds of thousands of Americans who also took to the streets around the country.  They blocked traffic.  Got arrested.  Prayed.  Sang. Chanted.  Organized for action.  Worked for change.

I’m the first to admit that I’m no protester, not one to hold a sign or march or risk arrest in the cause of dissension.  I’d rather use words on a page: that’s my style.  But I have to say how grateful I am to those protesters. For their courage. For their energy. For their conviction. For their willingness to put their bodies on the line in a cause greater than themselves.  For their unwillingness to accept the status quo, and to instead embody the anger and sadness so many Americans are feeling these days.

I’m grateful too for the hundreds of police officers who oversaw, in a way, the protests; who overwhelmingly, with calm and grace and professionalism, protected those protesters’ first amendment rights, who did their best to keep every one safe.  Yes there were shouting matches.  There was disruption to cars on the road, to life as usual.  But for the most part Boston did well in protest, some of which took place not very far from Attucks’ headstone.

There’s something very powerful about that convergence, of history then, history now.  It’s easy to forget that the United States was created out of protest.  Protest is a part of our civic DNA.  Every single major social reformation in our nation was first born in the hearts of those who dared to dissent: to say those in power: “NO!”  Protesters who had and have the determination to speak truth to power and push back against the government, any authority which tyrannizes and threatens individual freedom, the right of every single citizen to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

So I just hope and pray we can all remember this history, in the days and weeks ahead, as our nation wrestles with the most profound of questions: how can the United States get to a place where all of its citizens, regardless of race, enjoy equal treatment under the law?  It’s that basic. It’s that clear.  It’s why so many peacefully protest.

Yes: there will always be the cynics among us who decry protest, who insist upon focusing on the very few who turn violent, who see protest as a nuisance, or acting out, or a threat.  Even “un-American”!

Not me. Instead I’m ever thankful that I live in a land where the people can freely and fully confront the powers that be and then work to make a difference. Protest on behalf of fellow Americans who experience powerlessness and fear.  Give voice to the hope that since all people are created equal in the eyes of God, they therefore deserve all the benefits and protections which accompany this truth.

So…thank you protesters. And thank you Crispus Attucks.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Nothing Will Change Until More Americans Dare to Imagine What Life Is Really Like in Ferguson

“I’m dismayed by how quickly – especially in the Internet age – we all dig trenches…throw ourselves in…and start throwing grenades at the other side.” --Leon H. Wolf,

One second, maybe less. 

That’s how long it took for the very first person to post an unfiltered unequivocal opinion on the Internet about social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in the moments after a grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.  Then a real “riot” began last Wednesday night, not just one of property destruction, but a riot of words too. Judgment.  Finger pointing.  Condemnation. On social media. On the TV.  In the papers.  Everywhere.

So much righteous anger directed at “those” people.  “Them”: the ones who took to the streets to rail against what they saw as a miscarriage of justice, who experienced another outcome which confirmed their worst fears about the American legal system, embodied in cops on the street and a prosecutor at a late night press conference.

In the blink of an eye, lines were drawn in our nation. Sides taken.  Positions hardened.  “Us” versus “them”.  I’m right. “They” are wrong. I’m good. “They” are bad.  Law and order works for me so what’s “their” problem?  The cop was justified in killing that kid, that thug, that “animal”. “We” didn’t riot when O.J. was acquitted.  The jury decided so the system works.  Just send in the National Guard.    

Grab verbal grenade. Remove pin. Toss. Wait for explosion.

After Ferguson this is what we get in terms of a national dialogue on race, the legal system and life in America for so many people of color.  Too much heat and too little light.  Too much red hot rhetoric and too little thoughtful reflection. Too many images in the press and on the Internet of a tiny minority of looters who selfishly chose to use the verdict as a cover for lawlessness. Too few images of the tens of thousands who marched peacefully in cities across the United States that night and in the days since.

Who wants to see a bunch of clergy led protesters praying in a church?  Who wants to see peaceful neighborhood Moms and Dads or college students non-violently exercising their first amendment rights? Instead let’s get riled up, all hot and bothered about one lone looter running out of Walgreens with a carton of cigarettes.

No: I’m not somehow justifying the violence that tore up Ferguson last Wednesday night. It was and is wrong: no question.  And after reading all I could from the grand jury transcripts it’s not any clearer to me what happened that fateful August day when Michael Brown and Officer Wilson confronted each other on a suburban street. But what’s been lost in all the media coverage and ensuing outrage this week is that Brown’s death, Wilson’s exoneration and the protests are a small part of a much, much bigger story.

For me, here’s the real Ferguson page one story. Until people like me, a person with no reason to mistrust “the system”; a person who has always freely moved through the world with not a worry about discrimination or bias of any kind…until I can truly imagine what life is like in 2014 for so many people of color, what it is like to live in their world: I won’t get it.  I can’t get it.

What’s missing from our national shouting match about Ferguson (there’s been little or no listening) is empathy: the spiritual and rare ability to imagine what another person faces in this life.  To see the world through the eyes of another. To better understand their experience.  Their existence day to day. Their pain. 

Not mere sympathy which feels bad but often stops short.  No: full throated broken hearted empathy: to feel another’s brokenness, anger, frustration, and fear. To put ourselves in the shoes of those who right now are hurting, and feeling so powerless that the only power they see as available to them is to protest.

Can you or I imagine just what it is like to send your 18 year old kid out the door and then the next time you see him is in a morgue, laid out on a slab, shot dead? What does that feel like, regardless of what that young man did or did not do? What’s it like to live in a neighborhood and be afraid to call the police? What’s it like to be a person of color and be stared at or tailed when you walk in a store or drive down a street or stand on the corner with your friends? What’s it like to have to warn your kids to be always extra careful around the police, extra polite, extra anxious, because one wrong or suspicious move and you’ll end up in handcuffs?  What’s it like to live in a down and out neighborhood, with 50 percent unemployment and terrible schools and a dread that there is no way out for you or your loved ones, ever? 

I can’t ever truly imagine what life is like for so many Americans when it comes to race.  But I must try. I must listen more and opine less. Close my mouth and open my ears to hear about what it is like to be “the other”. Because until those of us on this side of the protest barriers imagine what its like to be on the other side of the street, nothing will change. Nothing. Until we can walk in the shoes of fellow Americans who feel like the deck is always stacked against them, Fergusons will just keep happening. The United States will continue to be split along racial and economic lines. The nightmare of racism will not end. 

And what of that long ago dream of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s Jr.? “That my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It will never, ever come true unless people of power and privilege like me, empathize with the people without power, without privilege and, in these post Ferguson days, without hope.

I can’t imagine life in Ferguson today. Can you?  For the sake of our nation I pray somehow, someway, with empathy, we can and we must: imagine that.



Monday, November 24, 2014

In Praise of Eggnog and Our Sacred and Secular and Oh So Important Holiday Rituals

Ritual is necessary for us to know anything. –Ken Kesey


For me it’s not really Thanksgiving Day until I take that first sip of eggnog.  On Turkey Day I’ll down at least one tall glass of this yellowish thick concoction, maybe more.  I’ll use it to sweeten my coffee too. That’s one of my rituals. One thing I’ve done every single Thanksgiving Day since I can remember. I’ve no idea exactly when this personal ritual began.  After fifty three Thanksgiving Days, all that eggnog and turkey and mashed potatoes and pie blurs together in memory. 

But a Thanksgiving without eggnog, this belly busting, artery clogging drink that weighs in at 225 calories per eight ounce serving? Perish the thought.  I need Thanksgiving. Even more, I need the rituals of that day. Traditions.  Familiar comfort foods. Family I’ve missed and am so happy to see again. The Macy’s Parade on TV in the morning, then watching football, after the table is cleared and we all go comatose on the couch. The ritual of old friends who come and stay for a couple of days. Grace before we eat, when each of us names one thing we are truly grateful to our God for.

Ritual. I can’t imagine life without cherished rituals: at the Thanksgiving table, in faith, in all things. Can you?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines ritual as, “a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed…according to set sequence.”  Translation: a ritual is something that we do again and again and again, which somehow anchors us in this ever changing life.  Grounds us. An action repeated. Familiar prayers prayed.  A meal shared. Ancient rites revisited. In ritual, we return to the familiar, feel at home, safe.  Like we’ve arrived back at a place that we must revisit: to remind us who we are, what matters, what lasts.

I’m a bit embarrassed to name all the various rituals I practice. I love ritual whether sacred or secular, profound or playful.  Faith based rituals give me meaning.  Worshipping on the Sabbath almost every week. Ending Christmas Eve every single year with “Silent Night” and a flickering candle in hand.  Reciting Psalm 23 at a funeral and finding comfort in these 2,000 year old words: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil….”

Self-made rituals too. I always give the book “Curious George” to new babies in my extended circle of family and friends.  Always pop a deviled egg in my mouth first thing at a church reception.  Always drink diet Dr. Pepper and munch cheddar cheese Combos at the airport.  Always read the New York Times newspaper every Sunday afternoon.

Rituals can be easy to take for granted. Reject as old school, old fashioned, stuffy. There is always a danger in practicing unexamined ritual: mumbling through dusty prayers at church or carrying on some family ritual which no longer fits. The best rituals are always examined and renewed, passed down from generation to generation, owned by those in the present day. 

Don’t like a ritual? Bored with it? Start a new one.  Invent a new tradition with your clan.  Rituals are “do it yourself”. Or step back into a ritual you’ve lost or need to find again. Go back to your faith.  Remember again a childhood prayer and then teach it to your kid. Only you can figure out what rituals work best, carry the most meaning.

But the point is clear: to be human is to live by ritual, in ritual, and through ritual.  No ritual? No life. Not really.  

So what Thanksgiving Day rituals are you most anticipating?  An old family recipe passed down from Mom to son, grandfather to granddaughter.  Touch football on the lawn.  Delivering a bag full of groceries to the local food pantry.  Inviting someone to the table who may have no where else to go.  Jumping for joy when your child returns home from being away.  The yearly board game after the meal.  Trekking out to the mall in the dawn’s early light to find a bargain.

All good. All precious rituals for the living of this day.  So Happy Thanksgiving, and can you please pass the eggnog?!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Just Say "No" to Christmas in November: PLEASE!

“No" is a complete sentence.”                --Anne Lamott

Here’s a thought. How about we all just say “No” to the Christmas rush now cranking up to full speed?  Have you noticed?  Barely halfway through November and the push has begun: for holiday shopping, holiday music, holiday sales, and holiday hype.  Yuck.

Christmas? Now? Already? 

No. Not yet. Please?! It’s just too soon. It’s way too early.  It feels forced, rushed, fake.      

NO! I don’t know about you but I just can’t face the looming visage of Santa Claus while there are still leaves on the trees.  I can’t think about holiday shopping a full week before Thanksgiving. Wasn’t it just Halloween? I can’t stand hearing “White Christmas” on the radio for the next 35 days. I still miss summer! I haven’t put away the patio furniture yet. I can’t watch the barrage of cheery holiday themed commercials already running wall to wall on TV and the Internet, in the newspaper too. 

I know this is probably a losing battle. “Christmas creep” is the norm now in our culture.  That’s where 12/25 keeps sliding further back and back on the calendar. The shadow this secular holiday casts over all of December, even much of November, gets longer and longer every year. I don’t mean to sound like a Christmas crank.  I love Christmas: in its right time, at the right time. I love all the kitsch and the music and lights and traditions.  Heck I “do” Christmas for a living. I work to make this holiday a holy day too, for those in my faith tradition. 

I just want Christmas to be…well, Christmas, and nothing more. Christmas: limited to days, not months.  Christmas: about family and time off and faith. Christmas: with clear boundaries around it: a time of the year with a sane beginning, middle and end.    

Some folks seem to be pushing back. In response to retailers like Wal Mart, Target, Macy’s and Michael’s, opening their doors on Thanksgiving Day as early as 4 pm, other stores proudly declare that they will be closed, until midnight. Nice of them to let their underpaid workers stay with loved ones until 11:45 pm, Thanksgiving Eve.  Then the hordes will descend and the fights over big screen TVs and video games can begin.

Is that really Christmas?

Long ago my New England Puritan forebears actually outlawed Christmas as a holiday and a holy day here in Massachusetts. Up until 1870, when Christmas became a federal holiday, most folks in the Bay State worked on the 25th.  It was just another day. Puritans and other faith purists saw Christmas as a pagan holiday, more about debauchery and drinking, than anything sacred.  Not that I want to return to this extreme prohibition.

All I’d like to see is more sanity in how we as a culture and individuals mark what is supposed to be just one very special day at the close of the year. One day. A few weeks beforehand where anticipation and excitement lift up our spirits and soothe our weary winter souls at the darkest time of the year. A special season, made that much more sacred by its limited nature.  A very short time when regardless of whether or not we practice faith, humans hope to be more generous, giving, kind and loving, especially to those who are hurting or poor or lonely.

Christmas is Christmas because it has boundaries, from midnight on the 24th to 12:01 am on the 26th.  No sooner. No later.  Right? 

The best kind of life is one in which us humans know how to set and honor such clear boundaries.  Know when to say “yes” and know when to say “no”.  Remember when it is time to celebrate and when it's time to just wait for the celebration.  Not easy. We live in a world now largely without boundaries.  We can work 24/7. Shop 24/7.  Go to McDonalds at 2 am and eat dinner, watch a movie on Netflix whenever we want. Text a friend or answer a text before we even get out of bed.  There is no culturally agreed upon idea of Sabbath, or stopping, or resting.    

No boundaries.  None anymore. Unless we set them. For ourselves. Our families.  Life.

So I will get to Christmas, when I get to Christmas, and not a day earlier. I’m still looking forward to Thanksgiving.  Remember that holiday? So pass the turkey please, and put on the football game.  Make space on the couch for a long nap.

Then, and only then, after that wonderful holiday, just maybe I’ll be ready to meet December. Not a day sooner.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Life: More Than a Selfie (And Why It's Not Smart to Take a Selfie with a Bear)

Selfie (noun, informal) 1. A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media

You can’t live in our world these days without being aware of the social phenomenon of “the selfie”, a digital image in which the one who snaps the photo is always the center of attention.  The focus.  The number one subject.  There may be other elements in the picture, other people or landmarks, but pretty much most of the time a selfie is, by its nature, all about “me”.   “Me” at the Grand Canyon.  “Me” at a Patriots football game.  “Me” at a wedding on the Cape.  Me. The selfie formula is then completed by uploading that self portrait to cyberspace where other “me’s” can see their fellow “me’s” too.  Me looking at me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.

I tried a few times to take a selfie.  Epic fails.  I couldn’t figure out how to get my phone to make the shot. It felt kind of weird to indulge in such self focused portraiture.  And when I did finally snap a picture, it was at such an odd angle, that it came out as a warped view up my nose. Probably wouldn’t garner many “likes” on Facebook so I deleted that photo. I’m a selfie sad sack. 

The taking of selfies has even become risky business, as some scramble to get the absolute best and most dramatic photos. At last summer’s Tour De France bicycle race, several riders were thrown off their bikes and injured when enthusiastic selfie takers stepped right out onto the course.  “CHEESE!” and then a selfie snapper got run over by a cyclist zooming at 25 miles per hour.  Or there’s the selfie folks at Lake Tahoe in California who take “bear selfies”, posing right in front of live grizzlies. I’m not making this up.  Park Rangers are, of course, trying to ban this dangerous practice but I’m waiting for the selfie photo of the split second just before a bear acts like a bear!  Then I suppose the next selfie will be from a hospital bed.

I’m not anti-selfie. There’s joy and fun in capturing a moment in time when we are really happy or excited, or visiting somewhere we’ve never been before. There’s a loveable goofiness to snapping a selfie and then sharing it with others, a kid like declaration of “Hey! Look at me!”  I get that.

But when I look at all the most important photos in my life, the pictures I’ve saved and framed and display in my house and office, almost every one of them is with other people. There’s not many selfies in the bunch, very few solo shots.  Instead there I am with family at my brother’s wedding twenty nine years ago, all of us smiling and happy, together. There I am embraced by my father on one side and my grandfather on the other, three generations standing tall on a summer day long ago.  A snapshot of me baptizing a little baby girl, pouring water over her forehead, as I cradle her in my arms, the blues skies of an October Nantucket day as a backdrop. There I am with my six year old Goddaughter in a booth at a pancake restaurant, our special breakfast together, her smile a mile wide, ringed by chocolate.

I do have a few selfies I guess I could matte and frame and then hang on the wall.  There’s the stiff formal portrait I had taken for the church photo directory. But no. It’ll stay in the drawer, for the picture makes me look like Mr. Potato Head.  There’s one of me on my bike in a recent charity ride, but that photo is missing my teammates, who gave me the courage to finish all 88 miles. If not for them I might not have kept riding. 

So…I think I’ll stick with group photos, when I am in a crowd, a community, a relationship. These remind me that in almost all of the times in life when I am happiest, at peace, connected to God, making a difference, giving love and feeling love: it’s not a “me” moment. It’s a “we” moment. Photographic memories teach me that with other people: this is how I find my true place in the world.

I’ll leave the selfie taking to other folks. Especially the ones featuring a grizzly bear.




Monday, November 3, 2014

Mayor Menino: One of the Last True Public Servants

“The only reason to be in politics is public service. There's no other reason.”
--Malcolm Turnbull

Was Mayor Thomas Menino the last true public servant we’ll see in our lifetimes? I wonder about this, as Boston and Massachusetts mourn the man. I worry that Menino was the last of a dying breed, politicians who embrace the noble call of public service. Men and women who actually believe that when elected to serve the public, their job is to serve the public. Promote the common good.  Protect the interests, not just of the moneyed, powerful or well connected but also the anonymous, the powerless, the every day folks who make up the heart of any community.

A public servant.

Menino: Mayor of Boston for a record twenty years. He did so much.  Shephered the renaissance of Boston as a world class city. Brought new jobs and businesses into the city.  On watch when gang violence dropped to record lows. He wasn’t perfect. He ruled with fear at times: you didn’t want to get on his bad side. His record on the schools was mixed. He was called “Mayor Mumbles” for his less than soaring oratorical skills. 

But what I loved about the guy—and I was blessed to have met him and his wife—was that from the start of his mayoral career, he was in it for the work.  For the job. To do something, anything, every day, to make his city a better place.  He never saw being mayor as a stepping stone to some greater office. His administration was amazingly corruption free.  By one estimate Menino personally met as mayor, more than half the residents of Boston. He lived in the same modest Hyde Park home for years, championed racial reconciliation and embraced the LGBT community long before it was popular to do so. And when things went wrong in his city he showed up. In Dorchester after a shooting. On the day of the Marathon bombings, checking himself out of the hospital.  He was everywhere.   

He was mayor to be the mayor: from his first day in office to his last day at City Hall.

What makes Menino’s departure from the world all the sadder is that public service as a vocation and calling is in crisis in our country.  Who serves the public anymore? The overly obtrusive media makes many reluctant to serve. Cynicism among the electorate is at record highs. The ability of government to get anything done, at least in Washington, is in question. Office holders are afraid to take a stand for fear of being voted out.  Perpetual re-election mode is the norm.  Big money skews elections, democracy for sale. And when pols leave office, so many cash in unashamedly, with high priced jobs as lobbyists, consultants, corporate board members, think tank prognosticators, and media loud mouths: for hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars.

Let Menino’s legacy and death, then, remind us all that public service matters.  That the best elected officials always see their job as a public trust. That the real public servants make a true difference in people’s live, in folks being heard and served: in everything from potholes repaired to a nation summoned to greatness. 

To serve the public is not supposed to be about ego or financial gain or power or celebrity. It’s not about hitting the jackpot with a TV reality show or some cushy gig upon retirement. Public service is about seeing what is wrong in our world and then trying one’s best to make it right. Public service is about entering into the rough and tumble world of politics and doing something, beyond issuing a press release, posing for a photo op or showing up an opponent. 

Doesn’t matter if you are a selectman, a mayor or the President. 

So God bless you, Mayor Menino.  You did well, very well. We will miss you.  Whether or not you were our mayor, you showed us that there is still a need for women and men to hear the call to public service. To roll up one’s sleeves, stand for election, and then work for the public, the greater good for all the people.   

Thank you for being a true public servant.  Rest in peace.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

To Vote or Not to Vote November 4th? What's Your Excuse?

“By far the most dangerous foe we have to fight is apathy - indifference to whatever cause, not from a lack of knowledge, but from carelessness, from absorption in other pursuits, from a contempt bred of self satisfaction.”--William Osler

            The dog ate my homework.  No. Really!

            That’s the classic excuse in the rationalization hall of fame. Excuses: reasons we give for not doing something that we know we should have done. A promise. A duty.  A commitment.  At work: we miss a meeting. At home: we blow off a chore.  In sports: we drop the ball.  In love: we forget a birthday. Being human, afraid to fess up, we fudge the truth and offer an excuse.

            Not ever having a dog, I can’t use that excuse.  No problem. Excuses for not getting the job done abound. Technology excuses: I never saw the email.  My computer crashed.  My phone’s been acting weird.  Memory excuses: I forgot. Didn’t write it down.  Been busy. If all else fails try misdirection. Gee you look nice today. And how ‘bout those Patriots?!  We can obfuscate all we want but finally, maybe the best policy is to just tell the truth. 

            So…what’s your excuse going to be for not voting vote in the election November 4th? 

            You see chances are very good that a majority of Americans won’t bother to cast a ballot next week and not just because it is a mid-term election.  Americans like to imagine themselves as worldwide leaders in democracy but the fact is we are mediocre in the civic responsibility department. Also rans.  Compared to other democracies we kind of stink.  No other way to put it. Less than 40 percent of eligible U.S. voters will vote the first Tuesday of November and that places us far behind many of the world’s democratic peoples: Germany, Japan, Belgium, Australia, Canada, etc.  If democracy were a class America would get a solid C-.  

            What’s your excuse? 

            Cynicism is popular.  It’s chic to trash our government. Complain that politicians are all the same. Money has corrupted the process. One vote doesn’t make a difference. I’m staying home.  Sorry—that’s lame. It’s a cover for civic laziness.  How about this?  No vote. No voice. No right to whine about our country.  Democracy belongs to those who show up and participate. Consider Hong Kong, where thousand of protesters are putting their lives on the line to secure the right to one person, one vote.  Angry about your government? Then vote.

            “I’m too busy!” many will say.  Too busy to register. Too busy to know the issues and candidates. Too busy to get to the polls. Bologna.  If we can plop down on our backsides to watch “The Good Wife” or “The Walking Dead”, update Facebook, text endlessly, and play Farmville online, we can find 30 minutes to vote.  Too busy?  Nope.

            The one excuse which does not cut it in 2014 is that there is not much at stake in the election.  Try these issues.  Control of the United States Senate.  Casinos in Massachusetts. Sick leave for workers. You want more? Global warming. Student debt. Health care.  War and peace.  Your kid’s future.  Your future.  Elections matter.  Elections determine what we will do as a nation, a state, a region, and a town. To think otherwise is foolhardy and shortsighted.  Your vote counts.

            So VOTE!

Because by not voting, not being an active and engaged citizen, not caring about the freedoms secured by the sacrifice of others, an apathetic citizenry gets the government it deserves. Absolutely. In the words of the American philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins, "The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment".

Still I still hope for something better, something more from my fellow citizens.  As  Boston patriot Samuel Adams declared in 1781, “Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote he is…executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.”

To vote. To not vote.

What’s your excuse?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hope I Die Before I Get Old: NOT!!!!

“I hope I die before I get old.”          
  --Pete Townsend, “My Generation”

William Shakespeare called it “the undiscovered country”.  Jesus warned his followers that no one knows when it will come, neither the time nor the place, and to believe otherwise was folly.  “The Who” defiantly sang about it, as twenty something rockers, daring it to just take them before they all got too old.


There, I said it. Got the word and the concept right out there.  Death. I hope you’ll keep reading. The cliché is that it is impolite socially to talk about politics, sex and religion. I’d add death to this taboo trinity. The end of life. The great equalizer, along with birth.  The moment every last human being experiences at some point. No denying it. No negotiating it away. Mortals all are we who face mortality. 

I get why death is not the stuff of every day conversation.  It’s sad, the thought of us, others, no longer living on this side of the grass.  It’s scary.  What comes next?  Folks of faith trust the comfort of an afterlife—I know I do—but still we resist talking about death. We push away talk of death because it is morbid. Because it makes us feel uncomfortable. Because in our youth obsessed world we work so hard to push it away.

Not everyone is so reluctant to talk about death. In this month’s issue of The Atlantic magazine, one writer declares exactly just when he wants to die: at 75 years of age. Not before. Not after.  The writer, 57 year old Ezekiel J. Emanuel, is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. 

In “Why I Hope to Die at 75”, Emanuel writes, “I am sure of my position. Doubtless, death is a loss….But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining…robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute…It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”

If Emanuel was trying to provoke a response about the end of human life, he certainly did so. Some critics worried he advocates suicide—he does not. Some were offended by his unsympathetic stereotyped description of people in their mid seventies and beyond. I think of all the vital and amazing post 75 year old folks I know—including my own 100 year old grandfather---and I blanch at Emanuel’s generalizations. Some were upset because he dared to even talk about his own death in such a stark and honest way.

First: read the article and draw your own conclusions. And if Emanuel’s essay moves us to just think more about the end of life, he does a good thing. Not so much in his provocative opinions but in his prodding us as a culture to be much more intentional in planning for, being thoughtful about, and most important, talking directly to our loved ones, about our deaths, before our deaths. 

I speak as one who has been in the death and dying business for twenty five years, as a clergyman.  I am the one who is invited to be bed side when a family member is in their last days or hours.  The one who gathers folks in a circle to pray. The one who sits in uncomfortable waiting rooms…waiting.  For death.

Such moments are often profound, poignant, even beautiful.  Yet such moments can also be marked by confusion, questions and anguish. “What would Mom want us to do?”  “What were Grandpa’s last wishes?”  “How did he want to die?”  We ask because no one ever talked about death.  No health care proxy was designated. Who makes the decisions?  No orders were given by the family to “do not resuscitate” and so the patient is given heroic measures which result in gut wrenching, sometimes unnecessary medical procedures. Then a good life can lead to a not so good death.

Doesn’t have to be so.  Not at all.  Instead, we can talk about death with courage and clarity.  Talk about death while we still have life.  Talk about death and see these intimate conversations as a gift to those we love, wise preparation, and a compassionate legacy.  Talk about death before circumstances beyond our power take hold. Talk about death so when that time comes—and it will—we’ll do the best we can with God and our loved ones, to live well and to die well.

Unlike “The Who” and Emanuel, I don’t hope I die before I get old.  But I do want to talk about it.



Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Information Overload: Can't It All Just Stop!?

Bandwidth (noun) 1.a person's capacity to handle or think about more than one thing at the same time.      
                    --Random House Dictionary

My niece Caroline was three or four years old. It was Christmas morning, the first year she fully experienced what that holiday meant for her as the sole grandchild in a clan full of adults, who all wanted to shower her with gifts galore. She was up at dawn, bouncing off the walls, munching on coffee cake, and then ripping into something like forty presents, all for her! But then mid-unwrapping, without warning, Caroline swooned back into the pile of discarded paper and bows, curled up and lay very still. 

Overload.  She’d exceeded her bandwidth limit.

It was all too much for her little mind to fathom.  Too many gifts.  Too much attention, stuff, colors, people, music. My brother Ed gently scooped her up and then into her bed for a nap and later she was fine.  But on that long ago December day, I saw what happens when we humans reach a limit in life, when we can no longer digest it all.  Face it all. Consider it all. 

When life is too full our bandwidth runs out.

Happens to toddlers, to adults, to all of us when the world throws too much at us and too fast. I’ve noticed this feeling of communal overload lately in the culture; like the world is spinning much too furiously and we can’t get off. 

We’ve got ISIS, with its gruesome beheadings plastered all over the Internet and the war its actions have triggered, a brand new war for the United States to lead and fight. Didn’t we just get out of two wars? And who’s on our side this time?  Turkey? Maybe. Syria? No, but we’re helping them. The rest of the world?  Who knows?

We’ve got the Ebola virus which has killed thousands in Africa and now seems to be knocking on the door of our shores. Or consider that poor man from Dallas who died from the virus, who also, inextricably, was sent away from the emergency room on his first visit. I trust the reassuring words the government agencies offer, that it will be ok, that there’s no threat but still—it’s scary stuff.

We’ve got the stock market which within twenty four hours last week registered its biggest one day loss of the year at 344 points, right after it shot up by 313 points, one of its biggest gains of the year.  Last week’s Dow Jones graph looks like a wild roller coaster ride, all peaks and valleys. Is one of the longest bull markets in history (five years and counting) coming to end?  Are housing prices and stock values too red hot, bubbles waiting to burst—AGAIN!?

Overload. Bandwidth exceeded. 

In 2014 we live in the most plugged in, over hyped, over informed, and overheated time in human history. We know too much for our own good and if we attempt to keep up with all the daily news, it can be like trying to drink from a fire hose. Doesn’t work.  We’re choking on information.  We plug ourselves into machines and streams which never stop: TV blaring, email sharing, cell phones ringing, texts pinging, Facebook updating, Twitter tweeting.  We’re techno addicts who don’t know how to cease checking in, looking at the screen, waiting for the next cyber rush.  And so of course, at some point, our spirits go on the fritz.  Sputter.  Overflow.

Can we just stop? STOP!

Maybe that’s the spiritual answer to our overloaded, bandwidth crammed days and nights.  To stop.  To breathe. To rest. To play. To turn off the phone and have dinner with the family with no interruptions. To turn off the TV and take a walk under a technicolor canopy of leaves. To turn off the laptop and ride a bike. Pick some apples. Jump in a pile of leaves. Find the best pumpkin you can and then carve it up.

ISIS? Ebola? The markets? They can wait. Taking a break doesn’t mean we don’t care or that we don’t want to do something. But the human heart and mind and soul can only absorb so much.  Too much stimulation and information and we will eventually crash. 

Stop.  That we can do.  The world’s daily crises, real and imagined, harrowing and hyped—they’ll all go on. Me? I’m going to let God carry it all, for just awhile.   

I heard the foliage is spectacular this year and I want to view firsthand and up close that miraculous God given show, to feed my soul and get off the merry go round but first: I have to stop. STOP. Give my bandwidth a well deserved break. 

May you do the same too.