Monday, September 28, 2015

Volkswagen: Please Say It Ain't So, Beetle!

BetrĂ¼gen (German, noun) 1. to cheat, deceive, defraud, cheat on, fool, or swindle

The very first automobile I remember riding in as a kid was a jet black 1963 squat and pug shaped Volkswagen Beetle. I was a toddler, maybe a little older. The Beetle was our sole family car and all five of us--Mom, Dad, big sister Lynne, big brother Ed and me--we'd pile into that vehicle to see the world. My place in that quirky car was a tiny crawl space behind the back seat, just above the engine.  I'd sit cross-legged back there, the hum of the motor underneath me, the blue sky above. 

I loved that car, our little VW. 

The Beetle then was an unusual transportation choice.  It was weird looking, foreign. Neighbors drove over sized gas guzzling American cars: sleek Chevrolets, muscled up Fords, lanky Lincolns. But we were VW acolytes. In college I graduated to my roommate Rich's canary yellow two door VW Rabbit: tinny and uncomfortable, but perfect for pizza runs and out of town keg parties. ROAD TRIP! Brother Ed drove a VW too, a bus, top heavy and clunky. One night while driving it, I took a corner too hard and flipped it on its side.  I was ok. The van was totaled.

Volkswagen.  Since first being introduced to the American car market in 1949, VW and its very original vehicles have found their way into the heart of many American drivers. I'll bet you've got a VW story.

So I felt kind of sad last week when I heard that Volkswagen was caught committing one of the largest acts of consumer fraud in the history of car manufacturing and sales. Since 2009, VW intentionally hacked its own engine software so 11 million of its diesel vehicles could fool anti-pollution emission tests and be certified as "clean" vehicles. 

Say it isn't so, VW.

Yes, I know in our oh so cynical world, we're not supposed to be surprised or hurt by such revelations of human deceit. VW is not the first car company to cheat and sell cars that are dangerous or bad for the environment. General Motors knowingly sold cars with faulty ignition switches that led to injuries and deaths. In the nineteen seventies, Ford infamously sold Pintos with gas tanks that exploded on impact, in rear collisions. 

There will always be a few companies who push the ethical envelope, all to make more money.  There will always be humans in positions of power and responsibility who choose to cheat.  Athletes who cross the line, push the rule book to its limit and then some. Politicians who shade the truth for a vote. Spouses and lovers who break the bonds of relational fidelity.     

The temptation to cheat is a part of who we are as flawed and fallen human beings, Adam and Eve's original sin continually circling back into our shared life as a species.  There will always be lots of "good" reasons to cheat. We gain an edge over our opponent.  We  fudge the figures on our tax returns and pay less. We deceive by omission or commission, fib out loud or just stay mum.  We cheat because every one else cheats, right?

But the good news is that honest government environmental protection agencies and tenacious private watchdog groups kept at VW for more than two years, until the company finally admitted the truth. The good news is that for all our world weariness in the face of institutions and people who lie to us, we are still outraged by VW's bald faced deception. We are still angry that a brand we trusted and even loved, let us down. The good news is that VW is paying the price for its cheating: its CEO is gone, its stock price has gone through the floor and its future as a company is far from certain.

So maybe, sometimes, the good guys, the honest guys, the ones who choose not to cheat and instead play by the rules: they do finally win in the end.   

And yes, I still love that Beetle.   


Monday, September 21, 2015

Hang Up and Drive and PLEASE PAY ATTENTION!

Attention (noun) 1. a concentration of the mind on a single object or thought…with a view to limiting or clarifying receptivity by narrowing the range of stimuli. 2. an act of courtesy      

Pay attention! Please.

That’s what I wanted to say to a fellow driver last week, whose lack of attention could have injured or killed her self, her middle school daughter, a delivery van driver, and me.  The story: I’m slowing my car, signaling to take a left into the church parking lot.  She is right behind me, crosses a double yellow line in her car to pass me on my left, placing herself squarely in the path of an oncoming delivery truck. She clips the front of the truck with a “BANG!”, swerves back in front of me, her car finally coming to rest by the side of the road. Truck and driver are ok, and me too.

I quickly pull over, run to her smoking and smashed car, its front end ripped apart and sticking out in jagged edges.  The windshield is smashed.  Her passenger wails in fear. And although the first thing I say is, “Are you both ok?”(they are), what I really want to ask is: “Were you actually paying attention to what you were doing?” 

We have an innocuous phrase now for this increasingly common form of vehicular attention deficit disorder: distracted driving.  Sounds so benign, like it’s just an annoyance, a harmless habit. Yet this dangerous, clueless, stupid driving is more and more the norm on our roads and byways. I especially noticed it this summer while out on my bicycle.  Tooling around on a twenty pound vehicle that can be crushed in a microsecond by a two ton behemoth, tends to focus one’s attention. So I’d roll up beside a minivan or a pick up truck, stop at an intersection across from a tractor trailer and then try to get the attention of those drivers so they’d actually see me on the road. 

Instead, with one hand casually gripping the wheel, so many drivers were looking down to send a text or read a text, or pushing a phone against their ears while blabbing away, or doing their make-up or eating a burger or slurping from an oversized coffee cup, anything but actually paying attention. This was the norm in half of the vehicles I came upon, sometimes more.  The only thing which seems to save me these days as I venture out on two wheels is a very loud voice as I shout: “I AM HERE!!!! Hey! HEY!!!”. Then I pray I am heard, that attention is paid.

Yes—I too am guilty of this vehicular lack of attention at times.  We are all are these days, as we drive.  Can’t let go of our phones in the car, not for a moment. We drive cars that are now more distracting than ever before too.  My little Honda can send and receive voice texts and phone calls, though most of the time all I do is yell at the dashboard, to no effect.  This would be comical if it weren’t so deadly. 

Distracted driving killed 3,154 people in the United States in 2013, and injured 424,000.  According to, the federal government site which tracks such sobering statistics, at any given moment 660,000 drivers are driving distracted.  Put your head down for just five seconds to read that text about your fantasy football league or the latest tweet from Kim Kardashian and at 55 miles per hour, you’ve traveled 100 yards, without ever paying attention.

I love my phone.  We all do. It connects us instantly.  It satiates our need for stimulation. It’s fun and convenient and most of us cannot imagine life without it anymore. Yet our addiction to screen time is literally killing our ability to pay attention and not just behind the wheel but in the rest of life too. A May 2015 study by Microsoft Corporation found that we wired humans now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish. Homo sapiens pay attention for just 8 seconds on average, while our finned friends clock in at 9 seconds.  Maybe they should be driving our cars.

So imagine this, before you pick up the phone to text a friend or play with your I-Tunes or answer a call, all while flying down the road.  Your split second addiction to staying connected could kill someone.  Maim for life your loved one.  Could kill you, all in a heartbeat.  Is it really worth it to take that risk? 

So please: when you get behind the wheel--just pay attention.

Monday, September 14, 2015

America's Response to Refugees Makes Lady Liberty Weep

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
*(Some restrictions may apply)
--Emma Lazurus, inscription, the Statue of Liberty, 1903

Look at the very small print beneath any offer that seems too good to be true and almost always it contains a familiar caveat: some restrictions may apply.  Take the myth embodied in Emma Lazurus’ iconic poem “Colossus”, which adorns the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.  It declares that America will always welcome the world’s huddled masses, her tempest tossed, yearning to breathe free. But what of this mythical ideal?  This comforting story we still tell ourselves as Americans in 2015? Is it now just false advertising, a faded romantic vision, replaced by America’s post 9/11 xenophobia and our national self absorption?

Maybe Lazarus’ poem should now feature an asterisk on the last line, warning refugees, the war torn, orphans, the “wretched refuse of teeming shores”: some restrictions may apply.  That’s certainly the message our nation has offered these past few weeks as the world community grapples with what to do about the Syrian refugee crisis.  Since Syria’s civil war began four years ago, nine millions Syrians have fled their homes. Six and half million remain in Syria. Three million have found refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.  The remainder, half under the age of 18, are on the move, desperately seeking sanctuary and mercy.

Many nations have been incredibly generous in embracing the Syrians. Germany: 500,000 refugees. Sweden: 64,700.  France: 24,000. Great Britain: 20,000. Denmark: 11,300. Hungary: 18,800. Bulgaria: 15,000.  Then there’s the United States: until last week we’d welcomed just 1,500 in four years.  That’s not a typo. That number works out to .016 of the Syrian refugees. In a land of 321 million people, a land of immigrants, among the richest and most powerful on earth, we can’t even find the room to welcome enough folks to populate a very, very small town. For comparison: if the United States were as magnanimous as Germany, we’d be ready to shelter 3.2 million refugees.

There are plenty of political and bureaucratic excuses for this lack of mercy.  It can take up to two years to vet refugees after they apply.  Blame that on 9/11. We need to take care of “our own” first, right? Presidential candidates squirm when asked about what to do.  All of this avoidance of responsibility makes me wonder how quickly many of us forget that millions of us are here because our forebears landed on these shores. They weren’t turned away. Lazarus’ poem did once ring true.

As a person of faith, the refugee crisis reminds me that in the practice of religion, the refugee always claims a special place in the heart of God.  Jewish: “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens [once].” Christian: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Muslim: “Do good: to orphans, those in need, the wayfarer.” We’ve talked about this crisis in political, practical, and national security terms.  But now our compassionate God asks us as a nation to talk about the refugee crisis in moral terms.

What is our moral responsibility as Americans to fellow human beings, who wander the earth with no place to call home?  What is the right thing to do in response to the worst refugee crisis of the last 25 years? If we were displaced and homeless, with nothing but the clothes on our backs, huddling in a bus station, beset by angry crowds, fleeing political chaos, would we not pray for just a little mercy?

So imagine this. There are more than 350,000 houses of worship in the U.S.  Imagine the larger ones stepping up and agreeing to host and settle just one refugee family. Imagine smaller ones banding together to do the same.  Imagine our political leaders talking about the refugees as a community to be embraced, not just a problem to be managed.  

I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.  That’s the bottom line, the call, and the need, right now. It is the good and decent and merciful thing to do. No asterisk.  No excuses.  Lady Liberty expects nothing less.



Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Vocation: The World Needs God's Love. Let's Get to Work!

“The place God calls you to, is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”                -- Frederick Buechner

Here’s something odd.

This past Monday was Labor Day, the one day every year as Americans we are asked to reflect upon the absolute centrality of work to our daily lives.  But here’s the weird thing. We didn’t work that day. Didn’t labor. Most of us did anything but toil on Monday. We grilled, we played, we drove, we rested, we bid adieu to summer, we biked, we hiked, and we chilled out, anything but work. Unless we were among the small minority of folks who had to clock in—cops and firefighters, clerks and lifeguards, nurses and doctors, essential workers—we gladly skipped work.

Work.  Yet this is still what we do more than almost anything else in life.  Work. Like all people, in my life I’ve been a worker many times over.  A janitor.  Warehouse clerk. Delivery van driver. Printer.  Newspaper editor.  Corporate communications specialist.  Minister. Writer.  From the day of my first job, when as a sixteen year old I was hired to clean toilets and swab floors at a Catholic retreat center, to this day, as I type away on a computer and write about life and God: I’ve worked.      

Work is the one non negotiable call in this life, something that almost all humans must do, need to do, have to do.  Work. We work for money, to support ourselves and our loved ones, to put food on the table and a roof over our heads.  We work because we live in a world which does not freely or easily come to us, or reward us, without some toil or effort on our part.  We work because labor at its best gives us a reason for being.  We spend much of our early life preparing for work, training for work, learning about work, and then when we are ready, we begin our life’s work. 

In a real way, life is work and work is life.

According to Business Insider magazine, the average American worker will spend 90,000 hours over the course of the average life working.  The only activity humans do more than work is sleep—220,000 hours in a life—and we need all that shut eye to rest from work or to get ready for work. Yet for something we spend so much time doing—more time than we have for leisure, more time than we have with our family and friends---our satisfaction with work is apparently lacking.  According to an August 28th New York Times article “Rethinking Work”, work is not really working out. “How satisfied are we with our jobs? Gallup regularly polls workers around the world to find out. Its survey last year found that almost 90 percent of workers were either ‘not engaged’ with or ‘actively disengaged’ from their jobs. Think about that: Nine out of 10 workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.”

Those are sobering statistics about the state of human work. It certainly explains why on the one national holiday dedicated to work, we choose enthusiastically to not work.  So here’s a radical idea: what if we redefined “work”.  What if we saw our life’s work not as the thing we do the most, but instead the job or pursuit we undertake which brings us the most joy? Work that makes us feel most alive? Work that we would do for free, maybe already do for free, and still love it nonetheless? What if in the words of the theologian Fredrick Buechner, we saw Godly work, divine work, real work, as the place where our one of a kind passion meets the world’s deep need?

Then our work might not just be what we labor at 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week.  Maybe our true work then is…coaching in youth sports, helping kids grow into their best selves.  Maybe our true work is parenting, being the very best Mom or Dad we can be. Maybe our true work is a hobby: shaping a piece of wood into a work of art, singing in a choir and hitting that perfect note, biking 100 miles and knowing the satisfaction of a soaring spirit and healthy body. Maybe our true work is volunteering on a town committee, working to make the community whole. Maybe our true work is being sober and helping other addicts to know serenity and the joy of a substance free life.  Maybe our work is digging into our faith in God: building a house for the poor, advocating for the powerless in our world, feeding hungry men and women at the Pine Street Inn in Boston.

Because there is work. Then there is work.  As a person of faith I have no doubt that God plants within every single human soul the gifts to do the good work which cries out to be done in our world.  Maybe our “job” then as humans is to discern what our true work really is, then pursue that labor with passion and purpose.

So happy Labor Day: not just one day a year, but every day.  Now let’s get to work.