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.