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 clich├ęs 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.