Monday, December 28, 2015

A Resolution for 2016: Be Not Afraid

“There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.”  --Andre Gide

If I had to sum up the year 2015 in our world, with just one word, it is “fear”. 

Fear: the most powerful of human emotions, even more immediate and visceral than love.  Fear: of the kind that tightens our chests, upsets our stomachs, makes our hearts race and most of all, tempts us to obsessively imagine worst case scenarios: for ourselves, our loved ones, and the whole world. 

What are we afraid of as the year draws to a close? Take your pick. The list is a long one.

 There’s terror and terrorism, home grown and far away, inspired by warped religious views or downright mental illness. Paris, San Bernardino, Colorado Springs. Where’s next? Disease is always a dependable boogey man. Remember Ebola?  A year ago we were much panicked about that threat. Some fears circle back around, over and over: like the human fear of other humans who are “different” than us, foreign, suspect, who speak a different language or claim a different heritage or worship a different God or have a different skin color. Muslims, immigrants, angry protesters, refugees seeking sanctuary.  We need to be very afraid of “them”. Right?

At its best, our fear response protects us.  When a real threat arises, the oldest part of our brain, the amygdala, kicks in. Adrenaline floods our system.  Our heart rate picks up and our breathing too. Vision becomes hyper focused and hearing acute. Our body steps up and gives us the physical strength needed to confront an adversary or flee from a threat.  To save ourselves from a real enemy.  Real. The problem arises when a fear response kicks in but the threat is not really “real”.  Not in any probable or immediate sense.  

Take terrorism.  Since 2001, 3,400 American have died as a result of terrorist attacks.  In just the past five weeks, 3,400 Americans have died from gun violence and yet which “threat” do we fear more?  The chances of you or I or a loved one dying at the hands of a terrorist are astronomical: 1 in 9.3 million.  What’s really scary? Dying from heart disease: 1 in 5.  Dying in a car accident: 1 in 18,885.  Even dying from a fall in the bathtub: 1 in 685,000.

Yet still, we are so afraid these days.  According to a December 15th New York Times/CBS News poll, 60 percent of Americans are “very worried about terrorists coming from abroad or domestic attackers inspired by foreign extremists.”  And just in case we are not afraid enough, we have ever eager politicians and leaders who gleefully exploit our fears in the hope of gaining personal power.  So too we can thank our “if it bleeds, it leads” attention deficit disordered media, for making sure a microphone and camera are poised to report whatever the next big threat is today. 

And fear not. Tomorrow we’ll find something else or someone else to fear.  

Me? I’m exhausted by all our human fears.  Tired of the fear mongers.  Fear: that shuts us down and closes our hearts and minds as citizens and fellow children of God.  Fear: that pushes us to circle the wagons and demonize “the other” and do all we can to keep the stranger out.  Fear: that makes plenty of money for the press and garners plenty of votes for candidates but which is a paper tiger, a mythical nightmare, a cultural warped fantasy we seem forever addicted to.  Fear: that in the wise words of 12 step spirituality is so often in fact: False Evidence Appearing Real. 

In my faith tradition we are in the midst of celebrating twelve days of Christmas, the story of God come down to earth in a little baby.  The divine message weaved throughout the story can work for all of us, regardless of our faith: “Do not be afraid.”  Fear not.  A young teenage mother and anxious father are told a baby is coming, by an angel, who lovingly reminds them: “DO NOT BE AFRAID!”  Quaking shepherds witness a gaggle of celebratory angels in a night sky and are told by that celestial choir: “DO NOT BE AFRAID!” 

So here’s a collective resolution and hope for the coming year: to not be so afraid and filled with so much fear.  This prayer doesn’t mean that events in this beautiful and broken world won’t sometimes scare the heck out of us. We are only human, after all.  It does mean that in face of our fears, we are called to have courage.  To put threats into perspective. To trust in the essential goodness of 99.999 percent of our fellow human beings.  To even have faith in a power greater than all of us, who made all things and weaved throughout the fabric of existence, love, which is forever seeking to be born.

Goodbye 2015. Hello 2016.  God help us to be not afraid. Be courageous. Trust more. Love more. Hope more. And always have faith  See you next year.      

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Best Christmas Gift of All Is RIGHT NOW!

“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time, Any fool can do it, There ain't nothing to it, Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill, But since we're on our way down we might as well enjoy the ride…”     
 --James Taylor

Is it Christmas yet!? I CAN’T WAIT!! 

Is it almost Christmas?! ARE YOU SERIOUS!!

In our holiday culture, most folks basically break into one of two camps when it comes to the 25th day, of the 12th month of the year. We are either excited that the day and time is almost here, or we are anxious that the day and time is almost here.  Even if Christmas is not a part of our faith tradition, still we all get caught up in the clock at the holidays.  So we bemoan the fact we just do not have enough time to get it all done: buy the gifts, wrap the presents, mail the cards, bake the food, make the beds, get to the big day without collapsing.  Or we gleefully anticipate the arrival of the 25th, especially if you are a kid or just love all things “holiday”. We cannot get there soon enough and want time to pass quickly. We want our holiday NOW.

You might call this affliction a time warp of sorts.  Time slows down at Christmas. Time speeds up at Christmas. What were the longest two hours of my life as a kid? The time on Christmas morning that I and my brother and sisters got up at 4:30 a.m. and then waited for my folks to wake up, all so we could finally rush the tree and open our gifts.  What are the fastest two weeks of my life as an adult?  The fourteen days before the 25th when, along with “doing” Christmas for a living (which I love), I also need to clean the house for holiday gatherings and shop and figure out just how to celebrate the holy day for myself.

Sound familiar? Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock.

Yet the truth is that the 25th has just 24 hours in it, like all the other 364 days of the year. It will arrive right on schedule and then depart on time, beginning at midnight on the 24th then concluding 1,440 minutes later.  Though as humans we may experience the passage of time in different ways, as much too fast or too slow, time itself is always non-negotiable.  Time’s sure and dependable passage is woven into the fabric of the universe. Time neither waxes nor wanes, expands nor contracts.  Time just is.

Our stewardship of time though: how we appreciate it or how we take it for granted, how we fear it or how we accept it: that’s another story. So here’s my simple wish and prayer for all of us, as we approach the end of another year and 2015 draws to a close and we anticipate the 25th.  Since time is a holy and precious gift from God, finite, can we just enjoy the passage of time? Can we be fully alive to the one moment we find ourselves in, at any given time, and not just during the holidays but all year round too?    

I confess I have a personal stake in this spiritual question. Six weeks ago I turned 55 and ever since then I find myself in a struggle of sorts against time. Time for me now feels as if it is just flying by.  Wasn’t it just yesterday I was sneaking down the stairs and looking in wonder at the brightly lit tree in my childhood home?  Wasn’t it just yesterday that my Dad and Uncle Frannie were at the Christmas dinner table?  Have they been gone from this life for that long?  So too I am blessed with young people in my life, some of whom cannot seem to let go of a desire to have their lives speed up. For them time is in the way, an opponent.  They want to get out of high school and go to college.  Get on to the next job which will absolutely be the one.  Move on from this time, the faster the better.

But here’s a Christmas truth about Christmas time, and all time, that will never change.  The only time that is real, is right now.  We can miss the past, pine for the past, rue the past, try to live in the past, but finally the past is past. We can anticipate the future, fear tomorrow, struggle to bring it on more quickly, dream of it, even demand it now, but finally the future is not yet.        

As the truism goes, time is a gift from God; that’s why it is called the present. So this year, may we all pay more attention to God’s gift of time and embrace a “noel now”. Be in the moment on Christmas Eve when you light a candle and pray for peace.  Be in the minute on the morning of the 25th when you share a quiet cup of coffee with the spouse who has been with you for decades.  Be alive with good humor and grace when Christmas goes south: when the tree falls over or the roast burns or Uncle Jim has one too many egg nogs. 

Time is all good because time is all now. We’ll get to the 25th.  But for now? Life is right here.  Right now.  Happy holy days.


Monday, December 14, 2015

What The World Needs Now Is Love. Corny? Yes. True? Absolutely!

Corny (adjective) 1. old-fashioned, trite, or lacking in subtlety  2. mawkishly sentimental
--Random House Dictionary

When someone is about to say or write something corny, they usually begin: “I know this sounds corny, but….” So as a warning to readers this week: I know this sounds corny, but…here’s what I think we all need to remember in these days of terror and fear, demagoguery and cultural conflict.

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. No, not just for some, but for everyone.” I didn’t coin that familiar phrase. The songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David actually penned that sentiment fifty years ago and their song, “What the World Needs Now Is Love”, sung by Jackie DeShannon, made it to number 7 on the Billboard Top 40.  These days about the only place you can hear it is on elevators or as background music at Wal-Mart.   

The song’s oh so obvious message was corny then, is corny now. I actually rediscovered the tune a few weeks back when I purchased a three CD collection of Bacharach’s greatest hits at my local church fair for $3. Such a deal! It features even more corny music: “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” by B.J. Thomas, and what may be the corniest love song of all time, “Close to You”, by the Carpenters.  And yes those songs might just be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Sorry.

Back to “What the Word Needs Now Is Love”. In the days after Paris, I just couldn’t stop playing the song in my car, singing along to it while stuck in traffic. Then when San Bernardino happened I played it even more. Finally after one Presidential candidate declared last week that all Muslims should be barred from entering the United States, a whole class of people condemned, compassion be damned: well, I just had to cue up the song again. 

Yes, it is so corny, this obvious and clichéd ideal: that what the world really needs now, more than anything else, is love, sweet love.  For everyone. Yes, it’s cheesy, simplistic in its declaration about the lack of human love on our planet. DeShannon sang it against a backdrop of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and on the cusp of what was a violent time for America. John F. Kennedy had been gunned down just two years earlier. Three years later Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy would be also murdered by gunmen. Cities would erupt in riots and flame. It felt as if the whole world was imploding in a morass of hatred and fear. 

Strange days then. Strange days now. So maybe what the world needs still needs now, is love, sweet love.  Maybe love is the only thing that there’s just too little of.

I don’t think we need more guns. On the Friday a week after Paris, Americans applied for 185,345 background checks, all so they could purchase a gun.  That’s a one day record.  What the world needs now…is even more guns? I don’t think we really need any more suspicion and fear against Muslims or folks who even look like Muslims.  There’s plenty of that to go around.  Ask the worshippers at two California mosques that were firebombed last week.  What the world needs now is…bigotry and bias?

Call me corny, but as a person of faith I still actually believe that what the world needs now is love. Sweet love. More love. God’s love. Courageous love. Generous love.  Peaceful love. Welcoming love. Neighborly love. Heck, even love for the stranger, the one who wanders the earth looking for a safe place to call home. 

I know that sentiment won’t be tough enough for some folks in our world who are instead sure that what we really need to do now is lock and load and take aim at the enemy. I know my clichéd hope for peace on earth and goodwill to all people is old fashioned, the stuff of idealistic dreams, not very realistic I suppose, in a world of wars and rumors of war, of calls for retaliation by our fearful leaders and citizens.

But I’m not yet ready to give up on the world.  And I’m not yet ready to give up on love.  So cue up the CD.  Turn up the volume. And just keep on singing. “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. No, not just for some, but for everyone.”

Corny? Yes. True? Absolutely.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Want to Confront Terrorism and Violence? Start in Your Own Backyard.

“In the end, poverty, putridity and pestilence; work, wealth and worry; health, happiness and hell, all simmer down into village problems.”             
--Martin H. Fischer

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives and Cambridge favorite son Tip O’Neil once observed that all politics is local. He named one basic human truth. Although we are citizens of our nation and world, finally life really happens every single day in the neighborhoods we call home. With our neighbors: the ones we share daily encounters and intimate exchanges with: standing in line next to each other at Dunkin Donuts, sharing the latest gossip at our kids’ bus stop in the early morning light. 

All life, finally, is local. Local.  Life always unfolds at the street level. 

So when I hear about the trauma of violence and terror in Paris (3,440 miles away) or San Bernardino (a 2,543 miles trip) and wonder just what I can do as one person, it brings me back to my neighborhood.  The one place in this sometimes broken and challenged world where I can absolutely make a difference for the better and the good and do so immediately. Yet it is so easy to forget or neglect this truth, to instead feel as if the world is spinning out of control and that we are powerless to do anything. 

We think thus because of life in our digitally interconnected world in 2015.  Now more than ever, we can learn in real time what is happening immediately: anywhere, anytime, anyplace. No waiting for tomorrow’s newspaper. No lag time for updates.  As events unfolded in California and France, we could follow it all live, almost in person.  Stare at our screens. Watch in horror and then in fear and despair, lament that we are impotent to confront such human cruelty.

Or even worse, some respond by flooding social media with often uninformed, knee jerk, self righteous opinions and accusations. Facebook and Twitter overflow with so, so many arguments, debates, finger pointing, and holier than thou pontificating. I've been guilty of this. So gun owners attack “soft hearted liberals”. Angry progressives malign “gun toting crazies”.  People of faith smear one another with stereotypes and rumors. It’s a free speech free for all: so many words, so many ideas flying about, yet ultimately so little being accomplished for the common good or for the peace.

So here’s a radical idea. Let’s get local.

Do you really want to do something in response to terrorism and violence?  Do you want to be a part of the solution and not the problem?  Do you want to make a difference for the better? First: turn off your TV, computer and phone and get out into your local neighborhood or town or city and do the real work of community.

Introduce yourself to the neighbors in your neighborhood that you’ve yet to meet. The ones who worship God in a different way than you do.  The folks whose family does not look like your family.  The person you wave a quick “hello” to, whose politics differ from your own.  Then make a plate of fresh baked cookies, walk down the street, knock on their front door and welcome them to the neighborhood. Get to know them as people, as friends, and as fellow children of God.

Get involved or reengaged with your faith tradition. Pray and sing and worship and then go into Boston with your fellow believers and do something: serve a meal at the Pine Street Inn or Rosie’s Place. Write a check to support a young person at a city charter school.  Attend a performance of “The Black Nativity” at the Paramount Theater in the Hub and hear the old, old story told in a new, new way.  Instead of being tempted to close down your heart and mind in fear of the world, open up to the world, and do so with holy curiosity and wonder. 

You know that relative at the holidays who always rankles you with her strong opinions about the President, or guns, or immigration?  Dare to sit down right next to her at your celebration and ask her to talk about why she believes what she believes and then…listen.  Really listen. Try your best to understand what moves and motivates her.  Share your story and ideas too.  Have a dialogue, not a monologue.

All life is local.  We are shaped and formed in our daily relationships. If the world is to change, transformation has to begin on the street. Over the fence.  At the sidelines of a youth soccer game.  In a local tavern, over a beer.  Across the pews at church.

I’m willing to give it a try. I must try, and do so, not way out there, but instead right here. Right now.  Local. 




Monday, November 30, 2015

Maybe Holidays Don't Come From a Store. When It Comes to Gifts, There Just May Be More

“He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. Maybe Christmas, he thought... doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps... means a little bit more!”      
  --“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, 
Dr. Seuss


That’s the amount of money you and I, as average American consumers, are each forecast to spend on gifts this holiday season. Collectively, if that number holds up, we’ll pay cash or credit totaling some $630 billion, all to celebrate the winter holidays. That’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of gifts. Toys. Clothes. Christmas baubles and trees and lights.  Electronics. Food. Name a consumer item and someone, somewhere will no doubt either purchase it as a gift to give, or covet it as a gift to receive.

Because aren’t gifts what the holidays are really all about?       

Now that I’m well north of fifty years old, I’ve probably received upwards of 1,000 Christmas gifts through those five plus decades: a boatload of books, a sleigh full of sweaters, stockings stuffed with so much stuff.  But I must confess. For the life of me, I can’t remember 99 percent of all the things I’ve ever gotten, all those gifts. Even the things I so anticipated receiving as a kid: those too are mostly lost in the mists of memory. I know there was a bike one year and definitely, a Big Hoss action figure from the TV show “Bonanza”. Yet looking back, most of those presents seem buried now, under piles of wrapping paper and bows.

Not that I haven’t been blessed by some pretty amazing Christmas gifts through the years. It’s just that those presents most often were not things or gadgets or the hottest new toy, but instead the gifts were about people and relationships. And those gifts are unforgettable.

Like the year a snowstorm was forecast for Christmas afternoon and so my perfectly planned Christmas dinner was hastily transformed into Christmas breakfast, with waffles and roast beef and lots of laughter. The Christmas, when in a fit of nostalgia, my big brother gave me a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot Set and in return I gave him a Chia Pet.  Good times! The Christmas when me and members of my church youth group gave a sweater to Norm, a tug boat captain, who had to work at sea for the holidays. He said it was the best gift he ever received. The Christmas each year I shop for a little boy or girl whom I “adopt” through a local social service agency.  That day I always love going to the mall.

Because there are holiday gifts. And then there are holy day gifts. The hard part about our annual year end consumer spending frenzy is to be able to tell the difference between the two.  So this month, before we rush out to buy even more gifts, perhaps we can also commit to giving gifts that are priceless, gifts that the world really, really needs. Gifts that last a lifetime. Gifts that won’t break or be lost or end up being returned on the 26th. 

Maybe it’s the gift of time that calls out to be given. Who in our lives needs, not another present under the tree, but instead just our love and attention? So visit a nursing home. Spend the day with an aging parent or an elderly neighbor, your son or daughter home from college. Call an old friend. Track down someone you’ve been in conflict with and then be reconciled. Pray for the refugee, the orphan, and for peace on earth and goodwill to all people.   

Maybe the gift we need to give is service to a neighbor in need.  Buy a bag of groceries for the local food pantry. Serve a meal at a homeless shelter.  Send an extra check at years’ end to a favorite charity, and even better, make it anonymous. Imagine what might happen if only a fraction of our $600 billion dollar holiday shopping bill was instead given over to the poor, the hungry, and the forgotten ones.  That’s a Christmas gift this world would not soon forget.

Maybe the gift we need to give ourselves is to return home to our faith tradition or find a new spiritual path. After all, the original human impulse to give in December was found in faith stories.  The story of ancient travelers, who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to a poor little infant boy, born to an unwed mother and nervous father, 2,000 years ago.  The story of believers thousands of years ago, who trusted in God to not let the oil in their lamps run out, a God who was ever faithful. I think we forget this sometimes.

So even though there are only 21 shopping days left to buy all those gifts on your list, fear not. Because the true gifts of the season, like peace, love, joy and hope? We can give those gifts away all year long.



Monday, November 16, 2015

After Paris: If We Hate, We Lose

Hate (noun) 1. intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury                
 --Merriam Webster Dictionary

Beirut, November 12th, suicide bombings: 43 dead, more than 200 injured

Paris, November 13th, suicide bombings, direct assaults: 129 dead, more than 300 injured

In just two days last week, that’s the carnage from the Islamic State’s (Daesh’s) war on anyone (including moderate Muslims) who does not give complete fealty to their insane brand of radical Islam. It was the bloodiest 48 hours of terror and terrorism in recent memory. 

We felt deep sadness.  We were outraged.  We are now very angry and so we want to do something, anything in response. 

Yet before we do, consider this. Daesh’s attacks are all designed to get “us” to hate “them” and split the world into two warring camps, in the warped and barbaric hope of igniting World War III. The end of this world as we know it. That’s the ultimate goal of Daesh. A world aflame. They seek nothing less. That’s why what western governments and peoples choose to do in the days ahead is so fraught with danger. How will we respond?

Will we hate in response to the hatred and barbarity of Daesh?

Daesh is too small a movement to wage a conventional war.  They have no military infrastructure or heavy weaponry in the traditional sense, no western like government institutions. They control territory in the Middle East but their most powerful weapons are fear and an insane willingness to die for their beliefs, all in one hope: to start a global war.  As Daesh wrote in its English language magazine “Dabiq” in February 2015, "There is no grayzone in this crusade against the Islamic state....the world has split into two encampments: one for the people of faith, the other for the people of kufr (disbelief), all in preparation for the final malhamah (great war).”

But their “great war” can only happen if we hate. If we imagine, for example, just shutting down mosques in the cause of “security”.  If we lash out in anger at all Muslims, allowing a handful of radical extremists to determine what we believe about the 1.6 billion followers of Islam worldwide. If we indiscriminately round up those whom we now fear as potential enemies. If we shut down national borders, and view with suspicion and terror any folks who are not like “us”.

If we hate.

Of course we are frightened right now.  On edge. Wondering, worrying, if, when, Daesh might strike again, even here in the United States.  Of course we must protect ourselves.  We must work in partnership with allies like France to take out Daesh: its training camps, its terror cells, its oil fields which finance terrorism.  We must act strongly and directly to support and defend liberal democracy and freedom here at home and everywhere.

But hate?

I pray to God that we will not allow ourselves to be seduced and tricked by Daesh and play directly into their apocalyptic and chilling fantasy about their war to end all wars.  That is precisely what Daesh wants us to do.  They want us to hate them. They dare us to hate them and add more fuel to the fire of an already red hot war on terrorism.  They want us to ignore the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the globe who reject Daesh and all it stands for.  As Faraz Sattar of San Ramon, California tweeted in the #notinmyname campaign last week, “As a Muslim, I condemn such acts of terrorism and killing of innocent people. No religion teaches violence and killing of people. These barbaric people are not Muslims and they will be defeated. Together we will succeed in eradicating terrorist and make it a safe place for all our children.”

As a person of faith, it frustrates and angers me that folks like Daesh and its followers use the false cloak of God and religion to justify their evil actions.  I’ve no doubt that God in heaven weeps at their heinous cruelty.  But I’ve also no doubt that God finally and fully rejects hatred in all its forms.  As the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King once wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

So may we all pray for Paris. May we all pray for Beirut.  May we all pray for the broken places in our world torn asunder by extremism and violence.  And may we all pray for the courage and the commitment to reject hate, now and always.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Christmas Creep: It's BAAAAAAACK!

Christmas creep (noun) 1. the phenomenon whereby the beginning of the Christmas shopping "season" begins earlier each consecutive year; i.e. in 2015 Kmart ran its first Christmas TV commercial on September 1, 116 days before December 25th.

Call it anything you want but please don’t call it Christmas. Not now. Not yet. Not until the eve of December 24th, which by my calendar is 43 days away. 

Until then it’s not Christmas, not really.

I’m still loving mid-November. The yard is buried under a ton of leaves.  There’s still a chance we may get one last taste of Indian summer, balmy temps before the first snow falls. I’ve barely made Thanksgiving plans. Haven’t worn a sweater yet. Just put down my storm windows and put away the air conditioner. I haven’t even finished eating the last of the Halloween candy. 

Yet a full six weeks out from Christmas and our wacky culture is already kicking into Christmas high gear.  TV commercials in September. The Lifetime cable channel aired its first cheesy Christmas movie weeks ago. It was a three hanky a tale about a single mother/father, beaten down by losing a job/getting a divorce/facing terminal illness, who miraculously remembers the true spirit of the season when the neighbors/long lost relatives, arrive on the 24th to save the day. A radio station in Richmond, Virginia began airing Christmas music October 7th .  Said radio host Jack Lauterback, “Some people aren't too pleased. One woman even said that she hated us. But that's okay. The Christmas spirit isn't for everyone, sadly.”  

And it wouldn’t pre-mature Christmas without the first salvo fired in the culture’s supposed “War on Christmas”, the conspiracy by secular folks and businesses to kill any talk of Jesus’ birthday. Starbucks unveiled its new holiday cup last week, a deep red design devoid of any snowflakes, reindeers or Christmas trees. In response one eggnog overdosing Christian, Jacob Feuerstein, launched a protest, saying the coffee chain, “wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups. That’s why they’re just plain red.”

I can’t make this stuff up. 

This would all be very funny if it weren’t so sad, this transformation, conflagration, mash up and take down of Christmas, more and more each year. Christmas. One religious holy day, one day. To remember the birth of a child 2,000 years ago.  As a man, he would later teach us about God’s dream of peace, joy, hope and love for the entire world. In response and thanks for this gift, some folks who believe in this story, give to others in gratitude to God for this birth. They feed the hungry.  Comfort the lonely.  Work for an end to war. Seek out the lost.

And that’s it. That’s Christmas. Nothing more, at least from a faith perspective.     

The other stuff?  Overblown consumption, a financial hangover on the 26th. Too much food and drink and activities stuffed into too few days to get it all done. Too much pressure to have a “perfect” holiday, whatever that means. Too many hard memories for lots of folks whose losses are magnified in December.  Too many arguments about which schools do or do not sing Christmas songs.

It’s enough to give us all holiday indigestion.

I do love Christmas in its right time.  Love seeing family and friends. Love the twinkling lights that push back the darkness and warm my heart. Love the time after the 25th when the world stops and it is finally quiet. Love the moral and ethical truths embodied in that little baby boy, who is the center of my faith tradition. 

The rest of it all, that other stuff which also labels itself as “Christmas”? For me it is mostly noise, a strictly secular affair.  It is fun for so many and so I say “Go for it!” and have fun.  Deck the halls. Wear that Santa Claus sweater. Make the party rounds.  Give away gifts galore.  Dive right in, right now, in November, if you like. If you enjoy making the season last all year long, that’s your right and your privilege. I won’t stand in the way.

Nor will I call it Christmas.  That’s on December 24th and 25th and the days after, some 1,042 hours in the future. Until then, I still have some leaves to rake.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Casinos In Massachusetts: There's a Reason It's Called Craps

Snake Eyes (noun) 1) A throw of two ones with a pair of dice, the lowest possible score;  also refers to bad luck; from the apparent resemblance of a throw to a snake's eyes, or from the association of snakes with treachery.

Maybe it’s called “craps” for a good reason. 

Craps is a game of wagering money. Folks roll two six sided dice and then bet on the outcome of number combinations. The worst possible roll is snake eyes, a pair of ones. Toss that result, the odds of which are one in 35, and your chances of winning plummet. That’s why Snake Eyes is considered one of the worst wagers on a craps table. 

Snake Eyes.

Massachusetts rolled the dice on legalized commercial casino gambling in 2011. Remember? Back then the politicians on Beacon Hill were positively giddy in their predictions. Gambling revenues would just pour into state coffers, save the budget!  Unions loved casinos because of the jobs they promised, thousands of good paying gigs, right? Desperate urbanites in Springfield and Everett envisioned gleaming high rise hotel towers, luring gamblers and tax receipts into their blighted downtowns.

What could go wrong?

Four years later, just about everything. Only the one slots parlor is open, in Plainville. After the rush of the first few months, revenue has fallen and continues to miss hoped for projections.  MGM has backed away from its initial vision for downtown Springfield, shrinking its plans. The casino in Everett is caught up in lawsuits and litigation.  And now there’s a chance that not one, but two casinos might spring up in Brockton and Taunton, the latter being built by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which recently received tribal recognition by the federal government. There’s more bad news.  In New England, casinos are springing up like weeds, threatening to over saturate the market for folks willing to roll the dice and lose their money.

Snake Eyes. 

I’m no gambling Puritan. I’ll buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot soars, just for fun.  Lotteries actually paid for the construction of many churches in Massachusetts in the 19th century.  It’s not that Bay Staters don’t already like to roll the dice: per capita sales for lottery tickets here are among the highest in the nation: more than $700 per person.  Only Rhode Island beats us out at more than $800 for every citizen of the Ocean State. 

Yet to me, as a person of faith and proud Bay Stater, there is still something tawdry, creepy, and very sad about a people or a place depending so much upon the financial losses and misery of its citizens, to fund the government. In gambling the house always wins. That’s a sure bet. So we fund our schools when a senior loses their Social Security check in Plainville.  When a low income Mom spends hundreds of dollars on a false dream and a handful scratch tickets.  When a suburban Dad spends the mortgage money on a trip to the race track.

Think about it.  Is that right? Is that good? Or is gambling instead the moral equivalent of Snake Eyes, ethical craps?

There is something shameful about the fact that in America’s 43 states where the lottery is legal, we already shell out $70 billion a year on this losing proposition.  That’s more than we spend on any other leisure activity: movies, music, sports, or books.  There’s something weird about the fact that America’s newest betting obsession—fantasy sports gambling on sites like the locally based Draft Kings--these are bankrolled in part by the very same people who own the sports teams, like the Kraft family who control the New England Patriots.

In the end, here’s a sure bet.  Gambling is always built on an illusion, the lie that if we spend enough, have good enough luck, others may lose, but we will win. We will beat the odds. We will roll the dice and avoid snake eyes.  Gambling promises financial gain for little or no work. Gambling preys upon our deepest economic insecurities.  Gambling is the laziest form of economic development.  

So now that Massachusetts is “all in” when it comes to casinos, the results are starting to become clear, and so far it’s a losing proposition. Snake Eyes.

Why am I not surprised?

Monday, October 26, 2015

What Is The Meaning of Life? Read On...

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
--Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III, 
by William Shakespeare

What is true? What is beautiful? What finally lasts in this world?

The year is 1600 or so.  A thirty five year old playwright named William Shakespeare sits down at his desk in London, and pens a new play called, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark”.  Its first public performance was likely in 1602 at the Globe Theater in that very same city.

The year is 2015.  Thirty high school youth, led by an adult director, stage “Hamlet” at a local eastern Massachusetts high school, on a chilly October weekend, in three performances for appreciative audiences.  In attendance were enthusiastic family members, excited friends and grateful neighbors.

I was blessed to be at that play last Saturday afternoon, to hear Shakespeare’s ancient words spoken so eloquently again, by humans born more than four centuries after the drama was first created.  That’s a head spinner, if you really think about it.  That a piece of literature has survived for that long; that the human ideals “Hamlet” embodies, like “To thine own self be true”, still ring so true, somehow, thirty generations later. That young women and men, born at the turn of the second millennium when the Internet was about to make all Creation a village: they can still perform a work of art first brought to life when the world was only as connected as the distance a ship could sail upon the seas.

Something about “Hamlet” is still so true and beautiful, maybe even eternal, and thus a fifteen year old teenager can today embody the angst and struggle of a sixteenth century prince. Maybe there are still some truths, ideas, beliefs, beauty, and wisdom in the human condition that live and stand above time, beyond time. A play like “Hamlet” reminds us of this hope. That even as we slog through the details and detritus of daily life, even as we struggle like our forebears to figure out the true meaning of human life, we can find glimpses of truth and beauty and that which lasts.

What is true? What is beautiful? What finally lasts in this world? For me? Love. Freedom. Justice. Art. Dignity. Faith. Mercy. Truth. Service. What ideals might you put on your list?

As humans we need to ask ourselves those questions consistently, daily even. At its best this is what faith in God brings out in us: a quest to figure out what finally and really matters. What lasts.  What is good and right and noble and true. The problem in this human epoch is not our access to such ideas: we are buried under more information than ever before.  More interconnected than ever before.

The challenge is separating the wheat from the chaff, the disposable from the permanent, the lies from the truth, and the beautiful from the tawdry. As Macbeth warns in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, “Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more: it is a tale, Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”  Spend a few hours surfing the Internet or scrolling through text messages or on Instagram or Pinterest or flipping through reality TV or watching a Presidential debate.  Then it is easy to see just how very hard it is to figure out what lasts. Yet ask this, we must.

So what is true? What is beautiful? What finally lasts in this world?

Thanks for asking the questions, Hamlet.  Finding the answers? That’s up to us.  


Monday, October 19, 2015

The Trip From Travel Hassles to Travel Heaven

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." 
--Saint Augustine

Last Friday I prayed to God for a transporter machine. 

Geek science fiction fans will recognize this transporter device from the nineteen-sixties space opera television program, "Star Trek".  Imagine a gadget that allows you to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles, in a split second. Boston one moment, Bombay the next.  Step on a circular metal plate in the floor. A spandex clad technician pushes a button. Your molecules are disassembled then almost instantly reassembled, whizzing you to the place you want to go.  If only travel were thus. Travel heaven. No rushing in a panic to catch a plane. No inching along in wall to wall traffic on the Mass Pike. No wondering if or when the commuter train will finally show up. 

Back to last Friday and that desperate hope for a personal transporter. In a fit of calendar chaos and an epic brain cramp, I double booked a funeral and a wedding for the same 24 hour period. YIKES! One was in northern New England. The other was in southern Illinois. Could I actually make it to both commitments?

At 5 am on that epic travel day, I arose, wrote a eulogy, drove 156 miles north to Woodstock, Vermont; prayed some prayers, zoomed back down to Logan Airport to catch the last flight out to Saint Louis, 1,194 miles; landed, picked up a rental car, then journeyed a final 106 miles to Carbondale, all in time to make an early Saturday morning wedding rehearsal. Ten cups of coffee, 20 hours and 1,597 miles later, I made it. WHEW!

Travel hell. 

I get an upset stomach just remembering those travel travails. Yet that trip also reminded me of what a miracle, in a way, human travel still is in this 21st century. How travel still is wondrous to me: to sit in a long metal tube that sports ungainly oversized wings and then speed along at 511 miles per hour at 30,000 feet, and arrive, without a scratch, in a new place, just hours later. To gas up our car (at two bucks a gallon in some places) and hit the open road and go where our hearts and imaginations take us. To board a bullet train and watch in awe as the scenery flies by at 130 miles per hour. To begin my morning in a sleepy Boston suburb, then stand among the Technicolor leaves of northern New England and finally end that very same day in a small town, at the southern tip of place called the land of Abraham Lincoln. 

It's fashionable these days to kvetch and complain about what a hassle it is to get from point "A" to point "B", to travel.  Interminable security lines at the airport!  Road work on the highways which slow us down! Public transportation which seems to break down just when we need it the most! But for all its hassles, travel is still among the greatest of gifts in modern life. 

Travel reminds us that not every one is just like us nor is every place just like our home.  Travel makes the world a village, God's diverse Creation beckoning to us: explore, experience, embrace! Travel makes this world a more peaceful community.  It's hard to judge or condemn "the other" if we've spent time in their home. The desire to travel is God-given, a restless spirit within us as humans. It moves us to want to check out far corners of existence and then be open to what these locales and peoples might teach us. 

So for this week I've got just two travel suggestions. One: always, ALWAYS double check your travel calendar! Two: the next chance you get, grab a map, snag a GPS, book a flight, buy a ticket, and then travel to some part of the globe you've yet to see, you want to see.  We may not yet have a transporter machine to get us there, but the journey is half the fun, maybe even more. 

See you at the airport. Just look for me. I’m the guy running for the plane.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Saying Goodbye and Thank You To An Old Friend

“The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.”
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

His name was Win and he was my very good friend.  My friend.

For fifteen years, he was a spiritual mentor in our shared faith, someone I could always count upon for support and advice. Though eight years ago I moved away from the town we both called home, I always just somehow trusted that I could return there and return to him, for a cup of coffee, and catching up, and then some wise advice on how to live this life. We all need our “Wins”, dependable people, wise people, gentle guides who walk with us and remind us, as only a true friend can, that we are better than we might think we are, at any given moment. That ‘this too shall pass”. That things will work out, by the grace of God and with the passage of time. Whenever I spent time with Win, I always felt better afterwards, about myself and my life.  That’s what friends do. What friends give each other. Confidence. Hope.  

Every human being needs at least one “Win” in this life to lean upon, a “go to” person we always return to for guidance and care, for friendship. A sibling whom we call faithfully each and every week, who’s grown up with us from the start, marked the march of days with us. A college friend, who’s always stayed in touch, knows us better than we know ourselves, makes us laugh and puts things in perspective. A former teacher or coach who is always reminding us that we can do it.  A childhood chum who’s stayed by our side from that day on the playground so long ago when we first met.

A friend.

Bound to us not by blood or obligation or duty or history or vows, but instead by one simple shared desire: to be known and accepted by another person, unconditionally. A friend: who stays with us not because they have to but because they want to. A friend: who embraces us just as we are, warts and all, never grudgingly but instead joyfully.  A friend: who really listens to us and hears us. To have a friend and to be a friend: day by day, year by year, life by life. 

There is something so spiritually serendipitous about these rare friendships, these precious gifts from God. We can’t plan them: who becomes, or does not become, our friend, is wholly unpredictable. Friendships just happen. They are organic. On paper, Win and I certainly weren’t well matched to become friends. He was thirty years my senior.  He was a talented and well known high tech executive who easily moved through circles of power and influence. He was a father and grandfather many times over. And yet for all our differences, we always found common ground for connection and conversation.    That’s what it means to be a friend and have a friend: to somehow be bound to another not by the external but by the internal. To be kindred spirits, perhaps.

Late last month I found out that Win had suddenly passed away.  As sometimes happens in friendships, we hadn’t spoken for a year, not out of neglect, but out of busyness on both of our parts.  I knew he’d had health struggles and I had planned, soon, to reach out and reconnect.  I so wish I had. But I trust that Win’s already forgiven me for this. That’s another gift an old friend offers. Forgiveness.  Allowance for our shared humanity

So here’s my simple charge for all of us on this mid October autumnal day, as the colorful leaves begin to tumble from the trees.  The season turns and we are reminded that all of life, all of our friendships, all things: these are mortal and eventually come to an end, at least on this side of the grass. Just today: be a good friend. Reach out to a friend. Pray for your friends, for those friends are truly a gift from our God.

And Win? Thank you for being my friend.



Monday, October 5, 2015

After the Oregon Shootings: The Sin of Doing Nothing

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
--Edmund Burke

What’s worse? 

Fact: nine people died in a mass shooting on October 1st at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.  Fact: in the past 1,000 days in the United States, there have been 994 mass shootings, with 1,260 deaths and 3,606 injuries.  (“Mass shooting” defined as four or more people shot at one event:  Fact: Americans are 4.4 percent of the world’s population and possess more than half of the 644 million civilian owned guns in the world. Fact: every single time a tragedy like Umpqua happens, America’s leaders and citizens are unable to do anything beyond well intentioned promises to hold the victims and their loved ones in “our thoughts and prayers”.

I vote for this last fact as the biggest tragedy of all.

When it comes to guns and gun violence, America, it seems, is impotent to change laws, change hearts, or stop the carnage. A story breaks about another mass shooting: Sandy Hook, Charleston, Oregon. It dominates the news cycle for a few days or weeks.  Politicians stake out their ideological turf, pontificate, and then move on. And us citizens, in what in any other country would be judged a public health epidemic at best, a national emergency at worst: we are left with nothing but our fears, frustrations and sadness and more obituaries in the newspaper.

I don’t care if you are right wing or left wing, liberal or conservative, a gun owner or a gun opponent: I believe most Americans--we know that something is very, very wrong. That collectively we must act.  That to do otherwise, to accept as a given, or “normal”, all the deaths and all the brokenhearted families and shattered communities: this feels evil somehow, a national sin.

So if we are to name the facts, we also need to name some of the myths in the gun debate, the tropes and clichés we tell ourselves to justify our inaction.  

Myth: Gun owners oppose any new gun control measures.  The truth? A majority of gun owners favor strengthened national background checks. The truth? The overwhelming majority of gun owners are safe, sane and responsible women and men who are wise and prudent in their care taking of firearms.     

Myth: Non gun owners (like me) want the government to take away the guns from law abiding citizens. The truth? Folks like me just want to balance the second amendment right to bear arms, with a citizen’s right (my right) to public safety. I want to know that some trustworthy entity is in control of just who can own a firearm. Is that really so unreasonable?  

Myth: Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. The truth: people with guns actually do kill people. These killers may be mentally deranged or criminals, but they are also domestic abusers who shoot their spouses; kids in homes who play with a gun and injure or kill a playmate; folks struggling with suicidal thoughts who kill themselves. The truth? All people who want a gun should not automatically or easily be able to obtain a gun. Period.  Why is this goal so hard to agree and then act upon?

Myth: Gun ownership makes us all safer.  The truth?  America is number one, worldwide, in total number of guns owned, so you’d think we’d be last in gun violence. According to an October 2012 Washington Post article, which cites statistics from the United Nations and the Small Arms Survey, the United States has the highest rate of firearm related murders of all developed countries.  

Myth: when it comes to gun violence we can’t do anything.  This is the worst myth of all.  Uncle Sam may be unwilling to pass new gun control measures, but the states are stepping up through new laws and ballot initiatives.  Especially since the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, many states have passed and implemented new, reasonable, widely embraced gun control laws.             

Here’s the truth. We can do something. We must do something. Umpqua could easily have been Boston or Framingham or Marlborough or Millis.  Gun owners, gun control advocates: the truth is that we must all work together to change things.  Otherwise it’s only a matter of time before the next Oregon. 

My thoughts and prayers? That God may help us all, to do something, anything, NOW.