Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Resolved for 2017: To Be Kind

Resolution (noun) 1. the act of resolving or determining upon an action, course of action;
a decision or determination; firmness of purpose.

This year I’m going to try to carry out just one New Year’s resolution. Only one. That’s a big change from my usual tradition of penning a long list of resolutions in a frenzy of self improvement on January 1st , followed by a crash and burn on January 2nd.  Or maybe I make it to the third, if I’m lucky. Lose weight? Pass the Cheetos, please. Go to the gym? Too cold outside. Read more—only when my Netflix show is over. Save more money? Have you seen those January sales?!

I’m like most of the rest of humanity. My resolutions usually fail. Good intentions but bad follow through. Sound familiar? So this year my single resolution is radically different. It will cost nothing. Require no expensive gym membership, nor some high concept/low taste diet. No rice cakes or kale or coconut water. Instead of prohibiting a well worn behavior, this resolution is positive. Nor will I need to search on Amazon for the right self help book to get me started. It’s a resolution that offers instant payback too: goodwill, hope, and joy even.

Be it resolved: to be more kind in the year ahead. Kindness. That’s it. What do you think? Can I do it? Can you do it? Can we do it?  Be more kind in all our daily interactions with the rest of humanity? Or as my wise faith teacher taught: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I warned you it was radical!

To hold our tongue when we are tempted to judge, critique, put down or accuse.  Open the door for someone who needs help. Offer your seat to any one who needs to take a load off their feet.  Assume the best about others and their intentions. Never miss a chance to praise or give thanks. Go high when an opponent goes low. Be curious, not suspicious, about one who is different. Listen to a person when they are talking to you. Eyes off the phone. Ears open too. Let others go first while you take the last place in line. Smile more, frown less. Buy lemonade from the neighborhood kids and cookies from the Girl Scouts. Always. Give to charity generously, and then give even more. Be gracious in defeat, humble in victory. Volunteer. Do something nice when no one is looking. Pray for an enemy. Forgive quickly. Defend the vulnerable and weak. Guide the lost. Be a kindness role model for the young.   

I’m inspired to try this kindness resolution for one simple reason: 2016 was a year filled with so much unkindness.  Like the absolute worst, nastiest election I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.  In tenor, tone and temperament, from the candidates, to the media, to the voters, the campaign was awful. Every nasty word that could be uttered; every mean spirited thought that could be expressed; every cruel epithet that could be hurled, it was all said. Nothing held back. Kindness does seem in very short supply: hate crimes go up and simple civility goes down.  Terrorism scares us into suspecting anyone whom we deem as “foreign”.  Social media feeds us a daily diet of self-righteous rants and trolls, who like nothing better than to anonymously slam a fellow cyber space inhabitant.

I confess that our current political and social landscape tempts me to just roll over, throw up my hands in despair, or worse, become cynical, apathetic. Maybe even unkind.  Hence this singular resolution.  I cannot control the behavior of our leaders or anyone else for that matter. But I can choose, we can all choose, decide, to be kind.     

Like a good friend of mine: every day since the election, when she gets in the drive thru line at Dunkin’ Donuts, she pays for the coffee of the person in the car behind her. Someone surprised her with this single act of kindness and now she is committed to  paying it forward. She has no idea if the beneficiary of her gift is cranky or angelic, a Democrat or a Republican, shares her faith or has no faith.  But still she is kind. KIND. With a cup of coffee.

Will her one act of kindness end the war in Syria or defeat the bullies or save the world? Not right away and yet: she is doing what she can. She trusts and believes that kindness shared always grows.  Kindness is infectious and begets more kindness in an amazing ripple effect. Kindness is fun.  Kindness expands the heart and the soul. Kindness creates hope, for the giver and the recipient. Kindness is what her God teaches her to do.  Kindness is her radical act of resistance.

Resolved: in 2017, may we all be more kind to each other. I know I must try. Are you up for a little kindness? If we struggle to fulfill this resolution, just remember the advice of the author Henry James. “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

To a Happy (and Kinder) New Year!


Monday, December 19, 2016

I Have Loved the Stars Too Fondly To Be Fearful of the Night

“Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” 
--Sarah Williams, “The Old Astronomer”

Dark days in our world right now, for those of us who call the northern hemisphere home.  The darkest day of the whole year returns, the 21st of December, the longest night.  On winter solstice, the sun doesn’t rise until 7:10 am and before we know it, at 4:15 pm, it is already on its way back down. Just nine hours and fifteen minutes of daylight.  For contrast recall last June 21st, summer solstice. That day the sun rose at 5:14 am and set at 8:29 pm, 2015’s longest day: 15 hours, 15 minutes and 16 seconds, to be exact. That’s a head spinning six hour swing.

From day to night.

Late December is all about the night, more than at any other time. Dusky days diminish in natural light. Even at high noon on a clear December day the sunlight is subdued, slanted and diffuse. We arise in the shadows and come home in the dark. In these short days and long nights we face a choice: to push back the night, deny it, fight it, fear the night, even. Or do we dare to love the night and all that it brings?

That’s not so easy. The night and the dark always get a bad rap.  It was in a darkened room as children that we first learned to fear the night with monsters under the bed and shadows on the wall.  Dark is the absence of light, a negative definition.  Read a novel and when do bad things always happen? At night. That’s when horror movies perpetually go south too. We fear nightmares, not “daymares”.  When asked in a recent poll to name the very worst month of the year, 1,000 Americans ranked as the bottom three, the darkest months of the year: January, February and March.

But consider the gifts of the dark and the night. It was in the dark God formed us in our mother’s wombs, and for nine months we claimed those dark and warm waters as home. It is on the very darkest of nights, no moon in sight, no clouds above, when we see our place in the vast and amazing universe, as we look up, stars blazing away in an indigo sky. We see the work of the Creator and remember that all of life is made of the same star stuff.  The dark and night reminds us that we need each other: a hand to hold on to as we traverse an icy driveway; loved ones to snuggle with in front of a warming fire on an ice cold night.   

The night is fully democratic. The star I view from the safety of my suburban front porch is the exact same star a homeless man on Boston Common sees. The night reminds me that he needs me and I need him too. Together we each live in one miraculous and interdependent world, forever marked by the light and the dark, the day and the night. He is no stranger lurking in the shadows, to me. No: he’s a neighbor: on a cold winter’s night and like me, he needs what we all need: love, warmth, shelter, food, and care.  The night teaches me this lesson. If we are going to wade into the night, let’s do it in community. 

There is finally no escaping the dark and the night.  It holds us for half of life.  It returns every 24 hours, guaranteed.  In the last days of the 12th month, the night and the dark are non-negotiable.  Unless we plan to be on a plane, jetting to the southern hemisphere soon, we might as well lean right into the night. It is going to be here for awhile, so why not enjoy it? With a blinking Rudolph the Red Nosed reindeer balanced on a rooftop. A Hanukkah menorah alight with candles. Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus camped out in a lonely ancient barn, lit up by the light of a bright star in the sky.

It is night. It is a good night. Come, December dark. Come.



Monday, December 12, 2016

Do You See What I See? Look Again. Look With God.

“Said the night wind to the little lamb, do you see what I see? Way up in the sky, little lamb, do you see what I see? A star, a star, dancing in the night, with a tail as big as a kite…”  
 --“Do You Hear What I Hear?”, 
Regeny and Baker, 1962

Do you see what I see?

Well, there’s shelter. I see I can check that off my list. 

I’ve got a warm and safe place to sleep tonight.  No broken windows to let in frigid air, no newspaper stuffed into the walls for insulation. No burrowing into a sleeping bag under a bridge. Unlike 1.5 billion of my fellow human beings, I’ve got adequate housing.  Nor am I a refugee, who wanders the earth without a home, an unwed teenage mother, a worried father.  In 2016, 65.3 million of my fellow children of God face this reality, the highest number since World War II.

Food? No problem for me there either.

My supplies are more than adequate: stocked cabinets, leftovers in the refrigerator, plenty to eat this time of year, almost too much: cookies and eggnog and delicious dinners.  That’s not the case for ten percent of my fellow citizens in the Bay State.  They experience “food insecurity”, a term describing chronic worry about whether or not you have the money to feed yourself and your loved ones. 

In fact, if I take the time to stop and look at, really see, the life I get to live each day, I’m convicted by one undeniable truth. My life is not just OK or adequate.  It’s actually amazing, stuffed to overflowing with so much privilege and comfort and security, especially when I consider how much of the rest of the world lives. Wow. I do have so much. Access to world class health care.  A job I really love, most days. A circle of family and friends who love me.  A car that runs.  Hot coffee. A night sky filled with stars, with tails as big as kites.   

But oh how easily I can lose site of this reality, living in my little town, my tiny state, my sheltered nation. I even sometimes imagine that I’ve got such “big” problems, because…well, I don’t have enough time to do all my Christmas shopping this year.  Or my plane ticket for that post Christmas trip to Florida was so darn expensive.  Or I can’t get the snow blower to start so I might actually have to break out the shovel and start digging myself.  I’m embarrassed to confess those are some of the problems I’ve complained about lately.  A good friend of mine calls these “first world problems” or “broken shoelace problems”: problems lots of other folks would do anything to have. 

Problems that, relatively speaking, seeing, aren’t really problems at all.    

The problem isn’t my so called problems. The real problem is my perspective.  How I see my one life. Appreciate my one life. Give (or not give) thanks to God, for this one life I have been given today. Doesn’t mean that at times we all don’t all have real problems to face into this December.  Some of us are sick.  Some of us are missing a loved one and so this time of year is hard.  Some of us are jobless.  Some of us are very anxious about the days ahead for our country.  We can’t control many of these truths. 

But our perspective? What we see and how we see it? 

That’s up to each and every one of us, a holy day gift from the Creator, who invites us to see life in a wholly different way, especially this time of year. If I could wrap up just one big gift to give to myself, to give to others for the holidays, circa 2016: it would be this single present. A holy new perspective on life: the spiritual vision to see, really SEE, our lives in comparison to the lives of most others; to be grateful for all we have, and then, to be so humbled and filled with mercy, that we can do nothing but give.  Give.

Life. Love. Support. Shelter. Food. Justice. Comfort. Courage. Compassion. Welcome. Peace on earth, goodwill to all.

From where I stand in this beautiful and broken world, that’s what I need to see on this snowy December day. Perspective. It is all relative.  When you consider your one life, what do you see?

Do you see what I see?

Monday, December 5, 2016

We All Have to Wait in Line: And Maybe That's A Good Thing.

Ordinary (adjective) 1. of no special quality or interest; commonplace; unexceptional; plain or undistinguished       

Everybody it seems has the chance to be a VIP these days, you know, a “VERY Important Person”.  Extraordinary.  Able to go right to the front of the line.

Even at my local movie theater. Recently while waiting in a long line at Cinema One to Infinity, to buy snacks to accompany my watching the latest superhero flick, I looked over and saw a brand new VIP line for the concession stand.  That’s right. Golden hued line markers demarcated a very select corridor, where members of the “Premiere” club (which of course you have to pay an extra fee to join) can now whisk right to the front of the line, thus bypassing ordinary ticket buyers like me, who have to patiently wait to purchase an absurdly large cherry Coke, a tub of butter soaked popcorn and an overpriced box of Junior Mints.

No thanks. I think I’ll just wait here in line with everybody else.

Yes, I’m sometimes tempted to want to be a VIP, a celebrity, famous, above it all somehow, one of a kind, anything but ordinary. Who doesn’t? That desire is certainly encouraged by the culture we live in now, that pushes us at seemingly every turn, to either worship fame and fortune or covet being extraordinary, or wish to be set apart somehow, and always, from every one else. 

We’re preparing to usher in our very first celebrity in chief as the new commander in chief, having survived an election that was more like a reality TV show than a substantive and thoughtful exchange of ideas. We spend countless hours on social media, posting, tweeting, snap chatting, all in the hopes that someone, anyone, might “like” us, re-tweet us, give us a thumbs up, or a smiley emojji, all to confirm our extraordinary status in cyberspace. If we don't like the long lines almost anywhere--at the doctor’s office or Disney World or at the airport--for a price we can find a way now to avoid the wait. And our TV screens are filled to overflowing with shows about getting famous or being famous or fawning before a celebrity or pining to be a celebrity ourselves. 

Strange days.  If everyone is a VIP, is anyone a VIP?

Kind of makes me pine for the days of waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Remember?  There once was a time—pre-electronic renewal--- when just about everybody, every one, from the extraordinary to the ordinary, had to spend time in line at the DMV, at least once a year.  No line cutting either. Just sitting on a hard back bench or cracked plastic chair, staring up at a “Now Serving Number…” display, as muzak softly played in the background.

Now that was a humbling experience: being reminded that at the DMV, the line did not discriminate. Ever. If you wanted to get a new license or register a car or procure plates, you had to take your place among the masses, both the VIP and the very unimportant folks too. Not to overly romanticize that experience but there is a gift to just getting in line. To just standing in line. To just taking our place in the “unexclusive” group called humankind and then to be ordinary, just like every one else. 

There are still a few select places in this world where VIP lines or seating isn’t available, or needed.  Like at church or any house of worship. There you just pick up the hymnal and sing along with the whole congregation. All God’s children have a place in that choir.  In the voting booth too: regardless of how we feel about last November 8th, there was a real joy and excitement that day, about having each of our votes count, no ballot less important or more important, than any other.  There’s still a long line at the local grocery store, the corner gas station, and in the crowded malls this December: “NEXT IN LINE PLEASE!”

Most days, every day really, the truth is that us humans are just ordinary, like every one else.  We are in line, with everyone else. We are not better, nor worse, than anyone else. On average, we are average.  Trying our best to do our best and looking for a little grace and a little kindness and a little humility, as we stand in the line called life. 

I’m OK with being a VOP: a very ordinary person.  And if you ask nicely, I’ll even save you a place in line.





Monday, November 28, 2016

I Read It In The News So It MUST BE TRUE! Right?!

“Quid est veritas?” (What is truth?)—John 18:38

Did you hear? Did you read? Did you know?

That…millions of people voted illegally in the November 8th presidential election.  No, really. I’m not kidding. I read it in a tweet from our new President elect. Well, I didn’t really read it on Twitter. I actually clicked a link on Facebook and that brought me to a story in an online newspaper about that tweet and that claim, and so since it is in print, it must be true. True!


Did you hear? Did you read? Did you know?

That…members of the Electoral College are getting ready to revolt. Huge numbers of them are going to change their votes and totally upset the results of the election, because, after all, the losing electoral candidate won more popular votes and so she’ll end up being president under this “hush hush” conspiracy. Yup. I read about it on a website. Well, actually I googled “Electoral College Revolt” and that brought me to the story.  It’s on my computer screen right now. Features a sharp headline and a crisp photo too, all looks very “official” so the story must be correct.


I also read that childhood vaccines absolutely cause autism.  That President Obama is actually a secret Muslim.  That CNN recently aired thirty minutes of pornography during a prime time news program.  That the actor Clint Eastwood was offered the Presidential Medal of Freedom and refused it. I read all those things on the Internet so they all must be true, right?

What is true? 

These days the answer to that question is getting harder and harder to figure out, at least for me. The gift of the web and our 24/7 wired world is that in 2016 we as news consumers have greater access to more “news” in more places through more devices than ever before in the history of news gathering and news reporting.  The quaint days of Walter Cronkite saying “And that’s the way it is” on TV, and America actually believing him, are long gone.  The notion that one or two national daily newspapers are “the papers of record” has been lost as well. 

Now we have more news than we could ever hope to read or watch, let alone understand. Print news. TV news. Comedy news.  Fox News on the right, CNBC News on the left, and all of these sources online too. Google reports there are about 1 billion unique web sites worldwide at present, so if even one percent of those are news oriented, that equals 10,000,000 places to get “the news”.

Which is good, I suppose.  More news, more stories, more reporters, more news outlets, more news sources should lead to more truth, correct? A better informed citizenry.  A stronger democracy.  The media as a more powerful watchdog over the institutions that run the world: government, business, education, etc. 

True and yet…the conundrum in the midst of this news glut is this: how do we determine what news is really true? Factual? Real?  And how do we figure what news is slanted? What news is not really news, but is instead opinion or speculation or rumor? What news is totally fake, completely made up? Consider this fact, as reported on the most read “news” stories on Facebook in the three months leading up to the election were false, so-called “click bait” stories. Like one “story” that reported Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump. When you or I clicked that link (admit it—you did!), the creator of that tall tale made money on our sincere desire to just get the news. The truth.

What is true? 

To answer that question, we as citizens and news consumers will just have to work much harder now to get to “the truth”.  Read sources that challenge our bias, not merely confirm our views.  As a devoted reader I need to also read the “Wall Street Journal” more often. We’ll have to adjust to having a new commander in chief who is addicted to tweeting, saying, and declaring as “true” whatever is on his mind at anytime of the day or the night.  Reality TV: meet the news cycle. We’ll have to just be much more skeptical and much more curious when it comes to the news. 

Quid est veritas? What is true?  That is the question. God help us all as we seek to find an answer. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Gift of Thanksgiving, The Gift of Tradition: Pass the Eggnog!

“Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!”
-- Tevye, from the musical “Fiddler On The Roof

No eggnog. No Thanksgiving.  At least not for me. 

Because eggnog and the copious consuming thereof, is one of a handful of cherished traditions that I always, always follow, come the fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving Day.  Yes, I know that at 223 calories per eight ounce serving and with 35 percent of my daily recommended saturated fat intake, eggnog is the ultimate belly buster. I shouldn’t drink it.  But it’s Thanksgiving and eggnog is what I do, what I’ve done, what my loved ones expect me to do, on Turkey Day, every year. 

Because it’s tradition.  And no tradition? No thanksgiving. At least not for me.

Maybe for you too.  Other than Christmas there may be no more tradition laden holiday than Thanksgiving.  So we use the same recipe for the gravy that our Mom and her Mom and her Mom’s Mom passed down to us from generation to generation. We cook the turkey a very certain way in the battered and chipped roasting pan Dad always used.  We pass around the squash and apple casserole that Aunt Lynne makes every single year, even though the truth is we’ll all only take a small spoonful, to be polite. 

It’s our tradition. 

It’s ritual.  It’s the practice of dependable customs, some sacred, some secular, that we return to year after year after year. Tradition, whether at the dining room table or practiced in our faith or found in the world: it matters. Tradition gives us a way to find our way back home to a place where life feels familiar, comforting, and dependable. Tradition gives us a solid place to stand in world. Tradition invites us to wade into a spiritual river of memory and time that began flowing long before we were born.  We remember, and in remembering, we sit at the table with our ancestors.

Some tradition are odd or quirky or seemingly not all that profound. In my house we always play Scrabble the night before Thanksgiving. At our table my best friend Barb always makes her homemade rolls.  Brother Ed always offers advice (often unsolicited) on how to carve up the bird.  I need at least one of the cranberry sauce offerings to be of the canned variety: gelatinous, bright purple and deeeelicious! And we always find a cozy place on the couch, to curl up and watch football, as the day draws to a satiated close.

Some traditions are holy somehow, spiritual, and these get right into our hearts.  This year, as always, we’ll go around the table and share with each other, one thing that we are thankful to God for.  By the time we get to my Mom, she’ll be teary and then we’ll all be teary and then throats will be cleared and then steaming plates of food will be passed around and in that sacred God blessed moment, our grace will be filled with so much… grace. 

Because it’s tradition. 

It is important to recognize that while good traditions are timeless, when it is time, some traditions need to be dropped. So thank God it’s no longer a tradition that only the women cook and bake and set the table and clean up.  Everyone chips in now, no excuses.  New traditions need to be started too. Some of us now take a brisk after dinner walk, instead of passing out comatose in the family room.  Traditions come, traditions go but always we need some traditions to carry us through, to reassure us, ground us, even as time passes by so quickly.

So what are your sacred or silly family traditions?  Whatever these might be, here’s my advice. Take them seriously. Nurture them. Teach them to your children and to their children too.  For the best traditions remind us that we are a part of a story so much bigger than ourselves, one begun long ago, written by God, initiated by family. Tradition binds us together in faithful community. Tradition survives while so much of modern life fades away. 

Tradition was, is, and will be, if we practice it, remember it.  No tradition? Then life can feel as shaky as a fiddler on the roof. 

So this is all I really want for Thanksgiving 2016: my family, good food, old friends, God-inspired gratitude, a big glass or two of eggnog and yes, tradition. 

Now please pass the cranberry sauce!

Monday, November 14, 2016

An Election Day Lesson: Those Who Show Up Run The World

“Get involved. The world is run by those who show up.”      --Bumper sticker

It’s official. “Did Not Vote” won the election last week.   

Sweeping to a landslide victory in 44 out of 50 states, the candidate “Did Not Vote” received a clear and overwhelming mandate from voters, who one week ago last Tuesday, chose to not show up and not to cast their ballots. Though “Did Not Vote” was narrowly defeated in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and the District of Columbia, in the rest of the United States they dominated the contests.  It was no contest. 

Attempts by this reporter to reach “Did Not Vote” for a response to this shocking victory went unanswered. I guess they were just busy doing something else.

If only this was a joke, a satirical broadside, or a really bad April Fool’s Day prank gone viral. But it isn’t. In what many rightly deemed one of the most important elections in recent United States history, a plurality of eligible voters just stayed home and stayed in and stayed away on Election Day. Here are some of the raw election numbers from November 8th, according the United States Election Project, a non-partisan group that collects and analyzes voter data.  

As a percentage of all eligible American voters, Hillary Clinton received the votes of 26.27% (60,839,922) and Donald Trump, 26.02% (60,265,858); ‘Did Not Vote’s’ total was 43.1% (110,450,842). Those are votes which could have, but were not, cast. Neither major candidate won a majority of actual votes: Clinton, 47.8%; Trump, 47.3%.  Even more sobering is this fact: if you add the folks who could have voted (but did not) to those who did vote, that’s about 231,500,000 voters. Which means that our new President was just swept into the highest and most important political office in our land and our world, with barely 26% of the eligible vote.  Consider that number again: just one in four of us—neighbors, friends, family, fellow citizens---cast a ballot for the new commander in chief. 

Now I wish I could report that those numbers are an anomaly, but they are not.  We Americans regularly fall short, far short, in fulfilling our civic responsibility to vote in Presidential elections, any elections. To just show up.  In 2016, 56.9% of us showed up to vote; in 2012, 58.6% and 2008, 61.6%.   You have to go back pretty far in American history to find any numbers which reflect well on the participation rate of American voters. Try 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes versus Samuel Tilden), when 81.8% of eligible voters actually voted. It’s been mostly all downhill since then, hovering in the low to mid-fifties from 1972 to now.

There are so many story lines coming out of the election.  The seismic social shock of an unexpected win and a heartbreaking loss. The election of one who has never served in pubic office or the military, for the very first time.  The defeat of the first woman as a candidate for a major party. The changeover in power from one political party to the other, for the first time in eight years.  The red hot anger so many feel; the sky high elation so many feel.

But what strikes me as the most important and under-reported story is how sad and frustrating it is that so, so darn many of my fellow Americans completely failed to fulfill that most basic task of citizenship: to vote. To let our voices be heard. To stand in line with the rich and the poor, the immigrant and the blue blood, the first time voter and the old pro voter.

To show up.  To vote.

I know there are a small percentage of people who had legitimate excuses for not voting on the 8th: ill health or long work hours or pressing family responsibilities. I get that.  But what about the rest of those stay at home folks?  The ones who stayed on the couch. Who stayed away in the millions.  Who when asked to step up just fell down. 

My message to them is this: by not voting you may have determined the outcome of this election as much, maybe even more, than the people who did vote. If just a handful of cities in the Rust Belt had seen approximately 15,000 more folks vote this time around, the ones who showed up and voted four years ago: there would be a different President-elect preparing for January 20th. 

That’s not sour grapes. That’s just a “come to Jesus” truth. 

Life is always better when the many, and not just the few, do the hard and world-changing work of community. That’s true for an election, a church, a neighborhood, a family, a team, or a business; any group where two or more are gathered together. 

Post election there is still a lot of work to do.  Healing.  Activism.  Governing. Engaging in community at all levels. So my prayer and plea for all of us as Americans in the days ahead is simple. 

Please, PLEASE! Show up! Now, perhaps more than ever, we need every one of us to do the work of democracy and just show up.    



Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Day After.

(A note: this piece also appears on another blog I write for: The Collegeville Institute and its "Bearings" magazine online.  My humble hope is that it may help us to think about our task as humans, citizens and people of faith in the days, weeks and months ahead. Pray for our nation. Pray for our world.)
"Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemies is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies." 
--The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

Anxious. Worried. Afraid, even. On this “day after”.

That’s how I feel about the 2016 Presidential election, the outcome of which is finally, finally clear. The votes are in after a never ending campaign of more than 600 days, a race more closely examined, critiqued, and handicapped than ever before in American history, courtesy of our voracious 24/7 news cycle and our social media addiction.  

The ballots are counted. One candidate won. The other candidate went down in defeat.

I thank God that it’s the day after.

Though I wish I could feel more relieved somehow, able to breathe more deeply somehow, now that the days, weeks and months of being on edge about the election are over. Never before in my life as a voter, citizen and person of faith have I witnessed or experienced higher levels of angst and fear in myself and my neighbors, than in this campaign. Never before have I seen America so sharply divided, one from another: by race, class, religion, education, political party, family status, and geography.  The quaint notion of “the loyal opposition”, whereby folks on opposite sides of a political fight agree to honor basic levels of civility and respect: that ideal was destroyed in this election.

Instead, in 2016, a clear majority of both Democrats and Republicans: each sees the other as “the enemy”. There’s no other way to put it, or sugarcoat this reality. A June 2016 Pew Research Center study, based upon a poll of 4,385 adults, reports that “majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party. …70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party. Seventy percent of Democrats say that Republicans are more closed-minded than other Americans. [Republicans] say Democrats are more immoral (47%), lazier (46%) and more dishonest (45%).”        

So if we thought the days before November 8th were hard, think again. Now the real civic and communal work begins: the challenge of somehow beginning to put our country back together again, on November 9th, and in the days ahead. The art of campaigning and the art of governing are polar opposites.  We’ve had our partisan “fun” at tearing down the people on the other side of the political divide. On this day after, amidst piles of red, white and blue confetti and deflated balloons, collated ballots and discarded lawn signs: the question which vexes me the most as a Christian, as a citizen is…now what?  

A secular cynic might answer that nothing has changed; that the body politic of the U.S. has been so irreparably damaged, shattered by the ugly rhetorical violence and language of the campaign, that any hope for reconciliation is doomed.  Hunker down and expect the worst.  A political partisan might respond by re-arming, preparing for the coming cultural and political wars which lie ahead for our divided nation: over health care reform, immigration, and trade, to name but a few of those future flash points.  Reassemble the troops and pass the ammunition.

But for people of faith, clergy and laity alike: what is our job on the day after? Beyond advocacy and protest? Beyond the temptation to just pound a partisan pulpit, or merely regroup into cliché religious camps: progressive/liberal, conservative/family values? I am tired of the stale confines of such ideological and religious categories when it comes to politics. I resent being expected by my more politically passionate Christian brothers and sisters on the left and the right, to get on board for their narrow political agendas, within which they seem ever ready to name the “enemy”.

There must be a third way, a different path to bringing our faith to bear upon the divisions which haunt both our congregations and our country. The British poet Byron Percy Shelley wrote, “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of many others...the great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”  In this way, moral good stems from moral imagination: the ability to imagine what life is really like for a neighbor, a stranger, an adversary, and yes, even “the enemy”. 

So on this day after, as a person of privilege, my faith compels me to imagine what life is like for the poor, those who struggle each day for the basics of life: food, shelter, work. Male, my faith pushes me to imagine what life is like for women in the world. White collar and educated, my faith challenges me to imagine the life of a coal miner in West Virginia, or an unemployed factory worker in Ohio, or a high school educated single Mom in Wisconsin.  Christian, my faith inspires me to ask: what’s life really like in the United States for a Muslim, a Jew, an atheist, a Buddhist? Liberal, my faith dares me to imagine what life is like for my conservative parishioner.

Moral imagination: that’s what I am praying for in these post election times, on this day after. For more “thee” and “we” and less “me” and mine”. I pray that God would soften our hearts and opinions, make us more curious and compassionate towards those on the other side of the political divide. I pray that God would give me the courage to just share a cup of coffee with a supporter of the “other” candidate and then listen, really listen to them, close my mouth and open my mind. 

The day after: it is here.  Now the real work of faith begins.     

Monday, October 31, 2016

Voting in the Election. Private. Public. Priceless.

“Interdependence is a fact. Not an opinion.”                         --Peter Coyote

What’s the big deal if I want to sit in the privacy of my own house, light up a marijuana cigarette, and just get stoned?  Who is it really hurting?  What difference does my one personal choice really make for the rest of the world?

Those are some of the questions asking for an answer, on ballot Question 4, come next Tuesday, when Massachusetts voters will decide whether or not to legalize recreational marijuana. Now before you conclude that I’m a “No” vote or a “Yes” vote, think again. My vote is my private choice, your private choice too, on this and many other important issues and races. 

Who will be our President for the next four years?  Will kids have access to more charter schools or will public schools retain their level of funding? Is it time to build more gambling facilities in Massachusetts or is enough, enough? Do farm animals need better living conditions or is this instead government regulatory overreach? 

I decide. Choose. Yes. No. Hillary. Donald.

There is something so powerful about the fact that when we as citizens cast a ballot, we do so alone, on our own. No one looking over our shoulders to make sure we vote the “right” way.  No one forcing us to vote for just one political party, as in so many other not so free nations in the world.  Many years ago I was in Guatemala on their national election day and when I returned to my hotel, a voting location, I had to walk by a tank parked by the main entrance. It was the government’s way of intimidating its own citizens.  On November 8th, other than having to run a gauntlet of folks holding signs for their candidate or issue, I will walk into my polling place free and unfettered, confident in the legitimacy of my one vote.   

My vote is my vote.

Yet there is a community aspect to my vote too and I think voters can easily forget this truth. We decide that voting is just about “me”: my rights, my life, my freedom alone. That’s wrong.  How I vote, if I vote, is also about “we”.  I vote in independence but my vote is also about interdependence, the fact that we are all in this construct called democracy together. Who is the best leader for all of America, not just for some of our nation? Is it Clinton or Trump? Or what will it mean for our schools, the safety of our roads, the quality of our life in the Bay State, if pot becomes legal? Will that make Massachusetts a better place to live?  Contribute to building up the common good?

It might seem obvious to state but how we vote matters. It matters. How we vote will change my life, your life and just as important, change our life in community. On November 9th the nation and state will be a very different place for all of us, because of how we collectively vote. 

So my vote is also our vote.

A vote is not just personal. A vote is communal. The best vote balances private rights with public responsibilities to our neighbors.  The best vote decides not just for this generation but the next generation as well.  We vote on behalf of the young, our children, and the world we will one day hand over to them. The best vote always remembers that freedom is not just about doing whatever I want. Freedom also entails thoughtful, compassionate consideration about how my individual actions ripple outward into the wider world, for the good, for the bad, for sure. 

That’s what my faith teaches me. Interdependence. I need you and you need me and we all need each other. The body politic is like a human body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you” nor can the heart say to the brain, “I’m going to go it alone”.  Voting is one of the few nationwide experiences we still share with each other.  It’s exciting. It’s important. Voting makes a difference, for me in my self contained little home, and for all of us in the neighborhood called the United States of America.

So here is my official endorsement for November 8th.  Vote as if your one individual life depends upon it.  Vote as if our interdependent life depends upon it too.

Now get out and vote!




Tuesday, October 25, 2016

In Praise of, In Hope For, The Underdog: GO CUBS!

“I'm a poor underdog
But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.”
--Robert Frost, "Canis Major", 1928

Hard to believe that it was it really twelve years ago this week, when a perennial also ran, a team that perpetually broke the hearts of its fans for decades: our Boston Red Sox: they finally, finally, won it all.  It was October 27th, 2004, a Wednesday, at exactly 11:39 pm Eastern Standard Time; a chilly autumn evening, featuring a lunar eclipse, with an oversized bright yellow full moon hanging over the skies of New England. 

Millions of us remember exactly where were, what we were doing, who we were with, as we waited for redemption, after almost nine decades of futility. As Joe Castiglione called it on the radio: “Swing and a ground ball stabbed by Foulke! He has it, he underhands to first – and the Boston Red Sox are the World Champions! For the first time in 86 years, the Red Sox have won baseball's world championship! Can you believe it?!”

From underdog to top dog, with one swing of the bat. Believe it. 

The Sox have gone on to win two more championships, in 2007 and ‘13, and those were great too, but I’ll confess. A nostalgic part of me misses those days and nights before ‘04, of cheering for our loveable losers. So many summers of hope followed by inevitable September swoons, when the underdog Sox couldn’t quite make it. A ball trickled through the legs. A hitter swung and missed.  It always hurt to watch them lose yet there was a romantic dependability to their underdog struggles, their epic failures somehow binding us all together here in New England.  They were masters at finding ways to lose but they were our underdogs. 

Now the title of America’s underdog goes to the Chicago Cubs who this week begin their quest to finally overcome their October demons.  Think 86 years is a long time? Try waiting 108 years for a championship.  The last time the Cubs captured a World Series, Teddy Roosevelt was President, Henry Ford unveiled the Model T, and for the first time ever, women were elected as delegates to a national political convention, the Democrats’ gathering in Denver. 

Cub’s fans: we get your pain.  We’ve been there. 

But…what if the Cubs actually win? Who will then be our next underdog? Because there is something about an underdog that so appeals to us as humans. Makes us want to root for the team or the person or a cause that is supposed to lose, but then somehow triumphs. Slays the giant.  Overcomes impossible odds and the pull of history.   

David versus Goliath. Harry Truman beating Thomas Dewey for the Presidency in 1948, the biggest political upset of the twentieth century. Two twenty something computer geeks working in a suburban garage in 1970’s southern California, who took on IBM, the biggest technology company in the world, and eventually won.  A scrappy and cranky socialist Senator from Vermont who almost took down a political family dynasty. 

Underdogs somehow manage to capture our hearts and break our hearts simultaneously, with stories that are beautiful and bittersweet. Underdogs are just more fun to cheer for, more exciting, as they dance on the edge between ignominy and victory

According to the Oxford English Dictionary “underdog” was first used in the unsavory world of dog fighting in the nineteenth century. At fight’s end, the losing dog inevitably ended up underneath the winning top dog. The origin of the word may be crude but our response to the mismatch is clear. 


We love underdogs. They embody the myth and hope that if they can do the impossible, then maybe we can too. If they can come from behind and streak by the favorite, maybe every dog (and every human) just might have its day, some day. Anything can happen in the competition called life.

That’s what we want to believe. In a way, that’s what we need to believe. About ourselves. About the world. That good eventually triumphs over evil.  That the downtrodden will rise up and overcome their oppressors.  That in a just world, if we work hard and long enough, our day in the sun will come.    

So this week I’ll be rooting for the Cubbies, as they play against the Cleveland Indians. And to my long suffering friends who are Cubs’ fans, who knows? Maybe, just maybe, this year, is the year, your year. 

You gotta love the underdog. GO CUBS!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What's More Creepy Than a Clown? A Pseudo News Story.

“And where are the clowns? Send in the clowns. Don't bother, they're here.”
   --Stephen Sondheim, “A Little Night Music”

Clowns are just clowns. Right?

Like Bozo the Clown, the one with the flaming swirl of bright red hair. Or Emmett Kelly, America’s most famous clown. His “Weary Willie” character headlined circuses for years. My favorite clown is “Willie Whistle”, a sailor hat wearing clown who hosted a kid’s cartoon show on Boston TV in the nineteen sixties. Willie never spoke but whistled and squeaked to an at home audience of kids like me who adored him.  

He was funny. He was harmless.  He was nice. He was a clown. 

That’s what clowns are supposed to be: symbols of human foolishness, clowns as the fools who make us laugh.  Clowns have been around a very long time in various guises, throughout history: the court jester, the trickster, the buffoon, the comic relief. Nothing out of the ordinary.

That is unless we encounter a “Creepy Clown”.  Have you heard? So called “Creepy Clown” sightings and scares and rumors are currently all a’twitter on Twitter and Facebook, even the lead on mainstream news sites. This “story” is causing lots of cultural chatter and energy. Consider an October 10th NBC “news” story: “America Under Siege: Creepy Clown’ Reports and Hoaxes Keep Coming”.

How’s that for a creepy headline?

Correspondent Alex Johnson breathlessly reports about: “a spate of clown scares across the country….sightings of [creepy clowns] have spread to two dozen states.” So a Connecticut school district bans clown masks. A creepy parent in Auburn, Massachusetts is charged with disorderly conduct for wearing a clown mask while following a school bus in his car. A false clown scare locked down a New Hampshire college dorm.  Google “Creepy Clown” and you’ll discover almost 7,000,000 results. My unscientific poll of several parents confirmed that fears about creepy clowns are now scaring lots of kids in schools and on playgrounds and at bedtime.  

But dig deeper and you’ll find most of this “news” is not really news, not in a traditional sense. Not based on fact, but instead mostly fear.  Much more heat than light, more rumor than reality. The overwhelming number of police reports about malevolent clowns are hoaxes, really bad practical jokes. Yet the reports continue and so a fake story becomes a fear story that just won’t quit, like a dog chasing its own tail.

Until the media finds something else to scare us with, or scare us about.  Reminds me of the cliché about TV news: “If it bleeds, it leads.”  If you want higher ratings, more views on your website, more hits on your digital headline, just frighten folks. Makes me wonder if maybe I am the rube in falling for this kind of tale. I’m not afraid of clowns, not yet, but maybe I should be!

We are living in strange days in America and yes, there are some realities to be feared.  An out of control and bruising election season that seems to never end or just shut up.  Gun ownership at historic highs, so many folks, so afraid. Hurricanes churning up the coast.  If we really want to be scared all we need to do is turn on the TV or turn on the computer or scroll through our phones’ news feed. Then we’ll easily find lots of reports about everything that is supposed to frighten the heck out of us.

But as a person of faith (the polar opposite of fear) I’ve learned that if I seek and expect to see the bad in the world, I will absolutely find some bad news. The scary. The awful.  The threatening.  But so too: if I choose to seek some good news, I can find that as well.  Acts of kindness.  Glimmers of hope. The reality that most people are good at heart.  Even clowns! As the blogger Seth Godin writes, “The real question is: what's our goal? Every time we hook ourselves up to a device that shocks us into a fear-based posture on a regular basis, we're making a choice about the world and how we experience it.”

So while the media may continue to send in the clowns, I, for one, refuse to take the bait.  Better yet I think I’ll silence my phone, click off the news and instead take a nice long walk under a canopy of technicolor leaves. Say a prayer of thanks for all the good in this world, in my world. The good is always there to enjoy and appreciate. 

I’d be a fool not to look for it. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Democracy Says: Do Your Job. Will We Step Up?

“There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.”           --Ralph Nader

April 26th, 1968.

Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy spoke before a group of medical students at Indiana University Medical Center, and laid out his plan to increase federal funding and programs to care for the most vulnerable in the nation: the poor, the elderly, and the sick.  The crowd was scornful of his vision and their skepticism was summed up in a question asked by one of those young students.

“Where are we going to get the money to pay for all these new programs you’re proposing?” Without hesitation, Kennedy replied, “From you…you are the privileged ones here. It’s easy for you to sit back and say it’s the fault of the Federal Government. But it’s our responsibility too. It’s our society too….”

Can any of us imagine a present day candidate for office having the courage to push back so strongly against a group of voters? Having the idealism and the fire to actually call citizens out? Challenge folks to step up and to do their part for democracy, in such stark and clear rhetoric? I’m hard pressed to find such leaders in our current political climate. 

Instead, so much of the time in our frantic run up to the election on November 8th, what I mostly hear from candidates at every level of government is this: “I promise that I will do this and this and this for you!”  Voters eat it up because their questions often seem to be: “What are you going to do for me? For my tribe?  For my special interest group? For my tax bracket? For my one life?”

Lost in this rush of civic narcissism and political pandering, is one forgotten democratic ideal: we, collectively, are the society, the government, the community, and the neighborhood.  We.  We are responsible, one to another, in building up the nation and creating institutions that reflect the will of the people. We. Us. All the people.  Therefore it is each of our responsibilities to do the work of democracy, to step up and ask not, “What’s in it for me?” but instead, “What can I do as a citizen to contribute to the common good?”

Yes, I know I’m going all idealistic here. I know to suggest that democracy can and still and must work somehow, is swimming upstream against a tide of wearied cynicism and ugly public language that marks our current political dialogue. Guilty as charged.  I’m a wide eyed cheerleader for democracy. I still believe that the best society always balances individual rights with communal responsibilities.  That like it or not, we are all common passengers on the ship of state called the United States of America and so, somehow, we need to figure out, together, how to journey as one.  And for me, that work begins when every single citizen does their part, their job, in our democracy. 

I’ve learned these citizenship lessons in many settings: from my faith that teaches me the best life is one always devoted, in part, to being a good neighbor, making this world a better place.  I learned it from parents and grandparents who sacrificed their individual good for a greater good. I learn it from neighbors who volunteer as a regular part of life: in a soup kitchen, on a Habitat for Humanity site, on a town board, tutoring kids, teaching prisoners.  I’ll relearn it on November 8th when I take my place in line and cast my vote. 

The key learning in all of this is one simple transformation: getting from “me” to “we”.

So here’s a charge. It is less than four weeks until Democracy Day.  If you’ve not yet done so, register to vote and encourage others to do so too.  The deadline in Massachusetts is October 19th.  Study the issues, especially the four ballot questions that have been largely overshadowed by the Presidential election.  Attend a public forum like the one I am helping to organize in my home town on October 20th, about legalizing marijuana.  For it? Against it? Do the research. Become informed.  Remember that all politics is local.  Town and city citizen-led boards are always in need of members.  Volunteer.  Campaign for your candidate. Make phone calls, ring doorbells, and help get out the vote.

Democracy says to us: “Do your job.”  Democracy works if we work it; of this I am fully convinced and convicted.  Democracy works, but it needs us, workers, to make it work.       

See you at the polls.