Monday, April 25, 2016

Want to Change the World? Be Important in the Life of a Child.

“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different, because I was important in the life of a [child].”          --Forest Witcraft (Boy Scout leader)

Who helped make you, into you? Who are you today, because yesterday someone helped you grow up into the person God made you to be?

Because I know someone taught me how to swing a bat and hit a baseball, a coach many years ago, whose name I can no longer remember. I imagine on a warm spring day he threw pitch after pitch, while I nervously stood at home plate, so many “whiffs”, before I finally made contact with a triumphant “CRACK”! Someone was patient enough to read my pretty bad writing when I was a budding teen author in high school. I can’t recall his name either, but he was my junior year science fiction class teacher, the first person to inspire me to want to be a writer. He sat with me after class, patiently showing me the power of words to tell a story. I do remember a wonderful church youth group advisor named Becky who introduced me to God, not so much by what she said but instead by how I saw her treat other people, all people, with kindness, care and respect.  She was a walking lesson in what it means to be a person of faith.

I wonder if they realized then what a huge difference they made in this one kid’s life by being an adult who took the time to care about me. Someone, other than my parents or blood relatives, who went out of their way to shape the heart and the soul and the hopes of a boy, then a teen, then a young adult. Someone to be my guide. A mentor.  A role model. A friend. 

Makes me wish I could meet them today and thank them for making such a huge difference in my one life. Makes me remember too, that how I live as an adult, in the lives of the kids I am blessed to teach and pastor to and love—I’m now that older guide. One person who can make a difference in this world and actually make it a better place.

Not by making tons of money or crawling up the corporate ladder. Not by penning some hoped for best selling book. Not by having the biggest house on the block or the most self important title in a company or institution.  Not by staring at a screen all day and waiting for the next tweet or update to inflate my ego. No. Instead, as an adult, perhaps the most lasting gift I can leave in this world, to this world, is to help a kid grow up into the young woman or man God wants them to become.   

It’s always tempting, easy to think, that “I” alone made myself into the person I am as an adult. That it was my hard work, or intelligence, or luck, or talent, that got me to the place I now inhabit as a grown up. The myth of being a “self-made” man or woman looms large in our culture.  “I did it my way!” Right? But the truth is that all of us are born as bundles of raw potential. We are not made whole or finished by our God and Creator.  Always we begin life as green horns, rookies and stumblers on the road called growing up. 

That’s why every single kid in this world needs an adult and adults in their lives to care.  Youth in comfy suburbs and the kids in the city too.  We don’t lack for places to have that impact.  Sports teams. The Boys and Girls Clubs. Big Brothers and Big Sisters.  Our local houses of worship. Charter schools in Boston. That list is long. Thousands of kids, right now, need someone like you and me to care about them.  The question is: will we be the one to walk with them?

One day you needed a patient teacher to help you figure out how to understand the quadratic equation.  Remember? You needed a Scout leader to show you how to tie a knot or serve a meal at a homeless shelter.  You needed a music teacher to show you how to play the notes.  You needed a spiritual leader to open up your faith life and nurture your soul. 

Someone—you might not even remember their name—he or she helped you when you were young. By caring, they made you, into you.  And now it is your turn.  Generation to generation the world actually gets better and is filled with hope, when we reach back and take the hand of a young person. 

Let that be our life gift to our kids and all kids.  Let that be our legacy.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

We Can't Stop Life's Waves. We Can Learn to Surf.

"You can't stop the waves, but you can learn 
to surf."            --John Kabat-Zinn

I’ve got waves on the brain. Not the cerebral kind, but real waves: rolling, roiling, unrelenting, “crashing upon the beach” kind of waves.  My wave wonder happened last weekend, when a wedding brought me to the heart of California’s surf country, Santa Cruz, 60 miles south of San Francisco. Santa Cruz a.k.a. “Surf City”. Rated the number 1 surfing spot in the United States by “Surfer” magazine.  A place of  “gnarly” and “dude”. and the Beach Boys and an endless summer. Think wetsuit clad women and men clutching freshly waxed surfboards, a fiery orange sun rising in the distance, seals frolicking in the surf, and white breakers rising up in a big blue ocean.  For a kid from Boston, who grew up on the beach watching diminutive waves roll in and then roll out, those west coast waves were a revelation. 

They are big. VERY BIG. Just up the coast in Half Moon Bay there is a set of swells called “The Mavericks” that can rise up to sixty feet high. Imagine surfing at the height of a six story building.  Waves are curious natural phenomena, a creation of the tides, the gravitational pull of the moon, underwater geologic features and the weather. Waves can travel thousands of miles across the ocean before landing upon our local shore. Waves can seem elegant, even gentle, but then try and stand fast against a wave and feel its weight smack against your body and you know you’ve faced a power greater than yourself.

And waves…well, they just keep on coming.  They are relentless.  Can’t stop them.  Can’t prevent the natural erosion these cause on beaches and bluffs.  Waves are forward momentum writ large. The author Geoffrey Chaucer was right when he wrote, “Time and tide waits for no man.”

Ask any surfer and they’ll tell you that the key then is to learn just how to surf the wave.  Ride upon it. Catch its energy.  Make peace with the force that creates it and then learn how to just go with the flow.  That’s great wisdom for real life surfers and great wisdom for us humans too, as we stand upon the shores of daily life and watch as the waves roll in. 

Life waves. 

Life can feel like a series of waves, always coming towards us, so powerful, non-negotiable, sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful, but perpetually in motion, and impossible to hold back.  My life wave lately has been facing into the truth of getting older.  Aging.  Time and tide goes in. Time and tide goes out. Repeat. Inside I still feel like a little boy standing on a sun dappled beach with my big brother, both of us skipping rocks, forever young.  But now when I throw that stone too hard, my bum shoulder hurts.  Or I stand upon the shore and wonder just where my life has gone.  Or I regret the things I haven’t done, or won’t ever do.  And the waves keep coming.

Waves.  Our first kid leaves the house for kindergarten or our last kid leaves the house for college.  Waves.  The doctor calls and tells us that the test results are good or the test results are bad.  Waves. The world we inhabit is changing so fast and nothing can hold back the breakneck pace of technological and social change. Waves. 

Waves remind us that while we may hope (even presume) that we have a tight grip upon our lives and can somehow command how our personal waves wash up on the shoreline, the truth is that life is most often governed by great forces far beyond human control. Fate. God. The universe. Luck. Chaos. Timing. Karma. Not that we don’t try to stand up to the wave, or beg it to stop, or even try to run away from it. 


You can learn a lot about life by watching the surfers as they make their way out to the offshore swells.  A few are in over their heads and flounder, but the smart surfer?  She carefully surveys the sea, and looks for the next big wave. Tenaciously paddles, catches a wave, stands up, rides down the tube, even as right above her, the wave threatens to break. She is on, but not over, the edge.  She is in charge by letting go.  And then the wave breaks and the surfer turns back around and she begins all over again. Now that’s a ride.

In life the waves are always coming in too. Nothing--no person, no human effort--can  hold them back.  So my advice? Surf’s up! Grab a board. Get surfing.



Tuesday, April 12, 2016

When the Mob Rules, Everyone Loses

Mob (noun) 1. a large group or crowd of people who are angry or violent or difficult to control     --Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Have you ever been a part of a crowd that morphs into a mob?  Get swept up into the fervor, passion and “group think”, when a collection of individuals is suddenly transformed into one powerful organism? 

It can be a scary thing.

On Halloween night in my freshman year at college, I and several thousand costumed revelers (many very inebriated) were packed into the student union building, jammed tight into a space designed for far fewer folks. There were raucous yelps and whoops and screams. I got separated from my friends and at one point was crushed against a wall.  Furniture was overturned. Finally I was able to squeeze out a side door and escape.  That experience made me never, ever want to be a part of any such mob again, or any big crowd that takes on a life of its own.    

What strikes me most about that mob, all mobs, many crowds, is how fast a collection of “I’s” can turn into one big frightening “we”.  How in the collective, folks often lose or forget about the ability to think for themselves.  How people behave in ways they’d never normally do so, if not for the rabble, and the cover that a crowd can gives folks to act up and act out. 

That’s why at sports games I’ll sometimes slip out before the end, to avoid having to jostle along with so many overly boisterous fans. That’s why when I’m in a big crowd, I always scope out the nearest exit, just in case. And that’s why you’ll rarely if ever see me at any political rally, for any cause or any candidate.  

We are in the year of the crowd and the mob in our elections and politics in America, more so than at any other time I can remember. On the news and on the net, the story always plays out the same.  The anointed political king or queen prepares to stand triumphant before his or her subjects in some cavernous space. The backdrop is a sea of red, white and blue to ensure the secular congregation that their candidate is all wrapped up in the flag. A cliché rock ballad plays as the “messiah” enters.  On cue, colorful signs pop up and are waved back and forth by frenzied acolytes.  Then a canned opening, almost always the same, with a few tweaks for the locals. “Thank you _________! (Fill in applicable location) It’s great to be here!”    

And then inevitably, the red meat that everyone has been waiting for: naming just who is really to blame for all of our nation’s ills.  The enemy.  “Them”. Make a list. Mexicans, folks with New York values, immigrants, Wall Street, wide eyed liberals, heard hearted conservatives, the rich, big banks, etc., etc., etc. Then the crowd answers back, feverishly chants the candidate’s name or “USA! USA!” like some war cry. Then the cliché endings. “And may God Bless the United States of America!” and/or “And now on to ______!”  Cue inspiring exit music. The worst part is we have seven more months of these overblown spectacles to look forward to. Yuck. Count me out.

All of the candidates—every single last one—plays thus to the crowd and sometimes to a mob too, in a dance of contrived political theater.  The overwhelming collective emotion expressed at these rallies is anger. Red hot anger, even rage.  No one gets a pass this election cycle. We are in the year of p____ed off politics, when so much of the time, self righteous civic energy sets the tone. 

Worst of all, there seems to be little or no talk of the common good from the candidates or the voters.  No discussions about working or coming together, or seeking common ground, or reaching across the aisle. Instead some days it feels like every thing and every one is “fair” game: race, class, sexual orientation, region, and gender.  Red state/blue state.  North/south. Religious/secular. 

Far too often, the revved up crowd or worse, the mob, rules.

But the truth is that mobs can’t rule, ever, not unless we seek perpetual social chaos. It doesn’t matter if it’s a religion, a nation, a corporation, an institution or any social movement.  At some point, for us to live up to the best in ourselves, we need to leave the mob, the crowd. We need join together to form true community. One in which we respectfully listen to “the other”, especially when their ideas differ from our own.  A community where compromise is the goal, not just confrontation.  A community where we think for ourselves and then seek what is best for “we” and not just “me”.  A community where leaders actually lead, with humility, and not just hubris. 

Here’s my hope. The mob doesn’t have to rule.  In the days leading up to next November 8th, I pray that we can remember this ideal together.  “No” to the mob.  “Yes” to community.


Monday, April 4, 2016

PLAY BALL! The Miracle of Spring, God's Opening Day.

“People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” --Rogers Hornsby (American baseball player and manager)

As I write this column it is Opening Day for the Boston Red Sox, the 116th year that our hometown team—the BoSox—begin another season, begin in a way, another spring and then very soon, another blessed New England summer.  Granted, Mother Nature certainly didn’t seem to get the memo. Game time forecast in Cleveland is for clear skies and thirty five degrees, hardly baseball weather, the crack of the bat mixed with the crack of icy puddles on the infield. The daffodils outside my front door that so courageously blossomed for Easter are buried under heavy wet snow, their delicate yellow blossoms bowed over, as if in prayer.  The snow shovel I barely used all winter seems to taunt me from its corner in the garage, daring me to put it away.    

And yet…spring comes. Spring arrives. Spring is here. The calendar cannot be stopped.  The movement of the Sun closer to the earth cannot be held back any longer.  It is finally spring, God’s Opening Day, when anything, everything is possible. 

And so the Red Sox just might win another World Series. Yes. Really!! Even though three of the last four seasons they’ve ended up as one of the worst teams in baseball by chilly October.  On Opening Day nothing is beyond our fevered spring imaginations.  The Sox begin this day with a perfect record, tied for first place, and in contention on a lush green playing field.  First hot dog of the season. First “PLAY BALL!”  First faint sounds of radio announcers calling the game, the soundtrack of spring returning back home. It all makes me look forward to a warm summer night, sitting on a hard back seat in some far away baseball stadium, swapping jokes and stories with my old friend, as we crack open peanuts and watch the sun go down behind the old scoreboard in left field. 

A dream.  A dream only spring can bring forth.

Yet I confess: my lifelong passion for all things baseball and Red Sox has been challenged in the past few years. Maybe it’s because the quality of play they’ve put on the field has been so darn terrible. Yes, there was the miracle of a world championship in 2013, when somehow the rising up of Boston from the marathon bombings so beautifully dovetailed with the triumph of the Sox.  But since then?  It’s hard to rush to read the sports page every day, when the team is essentially out of contention by mid-July.  And all professional sports are now so…well…professional. Overblown in cultural importance and oh so neatly packaged. Covered wall to wall in an orgy of media outlets and fantasy leagues and gambling and gargantuan contracts, like the $217 million the Sox will pay their new pitcher David Price.

That all feels so far away from the baseball I fell in love with long ago. The game of spring.  The itchy wool uniforms we squeezed into as Little Leaguers.  The sweet ritual of sitting in the bleachers at Fenway, cheap seats that were actually cheap, watching the game with my grandfather and brother and cousins.  Playing wiffleball in the backyard, smacking fantasy home runs over the rusted chain link fence that was our imagined Green Monster. Wanting that game to go on and on, but then finally being called home by the distant calls of our Moms, their shouts of “DINNER!” floating out and over the neighborhood backyard.

Maybe that is what spring is finally all about.  An admittedly romantic, nostalgic, even corny, yet ever new vision of what might be in this life.  What can be, as winter recedes and gives way once again to one more year, one more season, one more game and one more spring.  Opening Day makes me want to have faith again, in everything, even though to have such hope always risks a broken heart. That’s the bittersweet nature of spring. The truth that fall will eventually roll back around and the last pitch of the season will be thrown. But not yet.

Not today. Not now.  On Opening Day it is always spring. A season when faith somehow is fully alive again.  Faith in a Creator, the One who so artistically shapes Creation that can still take our breath away: buds blooming and birds chirping and snow melting and wooden bats smacking a brand new baseball.  Faith that on Opening Day, life just might get better, and so we pray for a home run on the field of dreams and on the field of life.  Faith.  That today, this one day, we all start again. 

Welcome back spring.  We missed you.