Monday, May 23, 2016

They Deserve the Thanks of a Grateful Nation. Do We?

“Non nobis solum nati sumus." (Not for ourselves alone are we born.)
--Marcus Tullius Cicero

It gets me every time. 

No matter how often I preside as clergy at the funeral of a military veteran or active service person, the haunting ritual at the end of the graveside service always moves me.  It fills my eyes with tears. Gives me a lump in my throat, as I place my hand over my heart and watch…

“Taps” is played on a trumpet and its mournful notes wash over the assembled and the hushed cemetery. Two service people—an honor guard—approach the flag-draped casket, reverently lift up the stars and stripes, and neatly fold it into a fabric triangle.  Finally, one from that guard approaches a widow or widower, or the eldest surviving son or daughter, or a relative, and presents them with the flag.  What’s not often heard by those assembled, are the words always spoken by the soldier, as the flag is handed over.

“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army (or Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard), and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service.”
A grateful nation. 

Grateful, because that man or woman was called to serve or chose to serve, the United States of America.  His country. Her home. He was summoned through the draft, or inspired to join up, because of Pearl Harbor or 9/11.  She joined with others, in service to a cause greater than herself: to defend the nation she loved or to give back in gratitude for her homeland.  

But here’s the real civic miracle symbolized in that ritual. They served.  Served. Me and you.  Served fellow citizens, millions of people, most of whom were strangers to them.  They served, sacrificed a chunk of their lives and precious time with family and loved ones. They stepped out of careers or school. They left behind sweethearts or children. They served, sometimes in not so hard places, but often in the worst of places. On the beaches of Normandy or the jungles of Pacific islands or in Vietnam, or on the cold plains of Korea, or the sweltering sands of Iraq and Afghanistan. They served, in the prime of their lives, as a nation sent forth its sons and daughters.  

They served. 

And always their example makes me wonder, even worry: could I do that?  Serve, as they did, as so many millions still serve this day?  Could you? Would you, if asked, if needed by our nation, leave it all behind and serve? When I die, will the nation I call home, be grateful for the one life that I’ve lived, the causes I’ve served? 

To serve. 

In these cynical, sometimes nihilistic times, it is all too easy to forget our shared civic life and responsibilities. This call to serve. It is so tempting to just leave it up to somebody else to do our heavy lifting. To snarkily dismiss the notion of a citizen’s duty as quaint, old fashioned, the vestige of an earlier age. But when we do so, we forget that individual and communal service to others: this is what truly made and makes a nation great.  That when the call goes out for sacrifice, citizens respond. 

For America is not finally “great” because of the size of our GDP or the wealth of the few or the fame of our pseudo heroes or the allure of power. America was and is a “great” nation for the most noble of ideals. Like freedom and folks ready to defend it.  Community and a commitment to living a life not just for “me” but also for “thee”.  Patriotism: not the cheap kind, sporting a .99 cent flag lapel pin or knowing all the words to the national anthem.  That’s easy.  Real patriotism is stepping up and serving your neighbor and it happens in the military and many other settings too. Service: in faith communities and families, in suburban neighborhoods and on city streets, in running a business or volunteering to coach kids, or serving on a town board or feeding the hungry.

Service is life, in a way.  We all got to where we are in this life because some one else sacrificed on our behalf.  They served us.  Remember?

So my prayer for this Memorial Day weekend is simple. In between all the soccer tournaments and baseball games and barbeques and flag waving, may each of us as citizens and humans consider just what we are doing to serve others.  The smallest life is one devoted to self alone. The greatest life always seeks to serve others. In gratitude, let’s not forget that.

Happy Memorial Day.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Drivers and Cyclists: Can't We All Share the Road? PLEASE?!

"Boston cyclist killed Friday was a surgeon at Beth Israel", August 9, 2015

“You’d never catch me on a bicycle these days!”

That’s the emphatic answer I received recently when I suggested to a friend she take her road bike out of storage. Dust it off and join me for a ride.  Just a ride.  What’s the big deal?  Who doesn’t love riding a bike?

Remember? As kids, riding a slick new Schwinn ten speed or a Raleigh, the one with the banana handlebars: that was the way to get around town. Cycling as freedom: it was and is still for most kids, a first foray into independent transportation.  My bike got me to middle school football practice and Duke’s Corner Store for a cold Coke on a hot August day. My bike made me into a budding young entrepreneur as I delivered newspapers in the cool morning air.  When I hit my late forties and decided to do something about my growing mid section, it was a bike that got me back into shape. Even if you haven’t cycled for years, the cliché holds true. Riding a bike is just like riding a bike. Our bodies somehow never forget the sweet sensation of forward motion on two wheels and all under our own power. 

What makes me sad is that lots more folks like my friend would bike if it didn’t seem so darn dangerous.  In my fifty years of cycling, I’ve never been more concerned for my own safety, and for one simple reason: so many drivers now do anything but drive. I see it every single time I’m out for a ride.  Drivers don’t pay attention anymore.

Drivers text and talk, eat and drink and then turn around to yell at the kids.  Driver fiddle with increasingly complex screens and knobs and buttons that the newest cars boast. Drivers look down but not up and out at me.  Little me…a 190 pound person on a twenty pound bike gliding at 14 miles per hour.  I have little or no chance of surviving unscathed a collision with you, in your 2,000 pound mass of metal, flying along at 30 or 40 or 60 miles per hour.

Yes, I know that some of my biking peers are cowboys, even rude when they go out for a ride. You see them now, especially on weekends, packs of cyclists, sometimes clogging narrow roads and angering drivers. I’ve even seen some of my fellow bikers talking on their phones too! Some bikers neglect the basic rules of what it means to share the road.  They don’t ride single file when possible.  Don’t keep a straight line or stay as far to the right as practical. They weave like drunken sailors. Don’t follow traffic rules or use hand signals. 

So here’s my plea: don’t judge the majority of well mannered, respectful cyclists by a handful of outliers who make us all look bad.  Instead remember this: all most cyclists want to do is what drivers also want to do: get from here to there.

And bike…because we love the exercise and reveling in the gift of seeing the world at a slower pace.  We bike because we love saving the environment, one commute to work or the grocery store at a time. We bike to make us feel young again, to push our bodies and rest our minds and souls.  We bike for charity, for rides like next August’s Pan Mass Challenge which will raise more than $40 million for cancer care and research.  That’s why I’m out riding now.    

So please, PLEASE, PLEAAAASE!!! 

Watch out for us as we take to the roads this spring and summer.  I don’t want to become a sad statistic or a tragic story in the newspaper about the next cyclist seriously injured or killed by a car or truck.  When it comes to two wheeled vehicles versus four wheeled vehicles the statistics are sobering.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2013, 743 cyclists nationwide died on the road, and 48,000 were injured. 

Those aren’t just numbers.  They represent real people. A kid killed biking to CVS.  A doctor crushed under the wheels of a truck, as she made her way to work on the busy streets of Boston.  A Dad coming home from a long day at the office and being clipped by a speeding SUV. He now lives with a severe head injury. Maybe you know someone from your close circle of friends or your family, who wanted nothing more than to ride in peace and safety but then paid the price. For a bike ride.   

There is only one road. We all need to share it. All of us.  My prayer is that drivers and cyclists will do so, with attention, civility, respect and care. I’ll be looking for you on the road.  Won’t you look out for me too?  I promise you a friendly wave and a smile.    

Thank you.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Facebook For Fifty Minutes a Day: Is It Worth It?

Future Shock (noun) 1. a state of distress or disorientation due to rapid social or technological change. (Popularized by the author Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book of the same name)

Fifty minutes a day.

According to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, this is the average amount of time that Facebook’s 1.65 billion users worldwide now spend on the site in a given 24 hour period, along with its other social media, Instagram and Messenger. Fifty minutes. I confess up front that this figure works for me as an “average” Facebook consumer. Almost every day since I joined the site seven years ago, it’s a pretty safe bet I’ve spent upwards of nearly an hour daily, consuming and being consumed by Facebook and its addictive, compelling and infinite collection of content. Cat videos and graduation photos. Political screeds and baby pictures. Updates on where my “friends” are and what they are doing at any given moment in time. 

Fifty minutes daily.

This means that since January 2009, I’ve spent 2,662 hours, or 110 days of my life, glued to the Facebook scroll.  Clicking and surfing and reading and commenting and staring at a brightly lit screen, about a foot or so from my face.  Extrapolate Facebook’s numbers to the world and you get some mind bending figures.  Every day, Facebook users, who make up about one third of the world’s population (above 15 and below 80 years old): these folks spend 82.5 billion minutes on the site and similar social media platforms. That’s 1.375 billion hours. 

But that only fifty minutes, today, right?  Not that much time. 

Actually, fifty minutes, in the context of how an average American spends his or her time each day: it is a lot of time.  From a May 5th “New York Times” article: “The average time that users spend on Facebook is nearing an hour. That’s more than any other leisure activity surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the exception of watching television programs and movies (an average per day of 2.8 hours). It’s more time than people spend reading (19 minutes); participating in sports or exercise (17 minutes); or social events (four minutes). It’s almost as much time as people spend eating and drinking (1.07 hours).”

Makes me wonder what haven’t I done in the past seven years when I’ve chosen to surf Facebook and failed to do something else with my free time. I’ve probably skipped going to the gym several times. Neglected phone calls to friend. Procrastinated from getting back to work.  Prayed a little less. Forgotten to take a walk and get outside or ride my bike. It is sobering to think of all that time I’ve given over, given up, to the world’s most ubiquitous social media site. 

It is breathtaking, even shocking, to consider how fast (in less than ten years) Facebook and other social media has become seemingly irreplaceable in so, so many of our lives, especially the young. I use it to promote my work, spread the Gospel, keep up with friends, connect with parishioners, follow current events, connect with fellow writers and clergy and my choir, and to entertain myself.  Social media has absolutely taken center stage in our culture.  There is no turning back.      

But like any historic epoch, which the explosion of social media marks (for comparison consider the invention of written language, the printing press, or film), this life changing tool must be handled with great care. Like fire it can illuminate life for us or it can consume life for us. As in fifty minutes a day. 

Because for all I love Facebook and social media I also fear and loathe it too.  For the way it sucks me in to what I call the “Facebook fog”. One minute I’m reading and scrolling and the next minute I look up and it’s been an hour of surfing and I’ve gotten nothing done and wasted all that time. Facebook scares me for its propensity to take the most complex political and social issues and whittle these down to a simplistic opinion, creating space where folks mostly talk at each other, not to each other.  Facebook sells the idea of community and “friends” yet fails to satisfy the most basic human need: to physically be with others. 

Fifty minutes and Facebook. 

We’ve all got about 16 waking hours this day to use as we see fit. To work. To play. To connect to others. To make the world a better place. To love. To just be alive. Sixteen hours given to us by God. It is precious time which once consumed, will never, ever come back again and within this, is our Facebook fifty minutes. 

So here’s the question. Is it worth it?




Monday, May 2, 2016

Many Americans Are Mad As H**l. Can We Hear That?

“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  
--from the 1976 film “Network”

America is angry. Very angry. 

This narrative has dominated the media’s coverage of the election, since it kicked off a little more than a year ago.  Just read the news…about the many, many folks in our land today who are really p.o.’ed. Vexed. Frustrated. Riled up.  Spoiling for a fight. Convinced that things are going in the wrong direction for America and that someone, their candidate, is the one to speak up and out and give voice to this collective ire.

Anger from the left. Anger from the right.  Anger from all sides.

As one who thinks and writes a lot about being in community, I confess I’ve failed to take this civic anger very seriously.  I’ve dismissed it as somehow limited to a small group of hyper-partisan people, citizens on the fringes of national opinion. You know: the cliché livid lefties and rancorous rightists, who always show up at the drop of a hat for any protest.  Who scream until they are hoarse at political rallies and wear their political t-shirts as badges of honor. 

I haven’t always seen this anger as a real phenomenon. Thought it must be a candidate just manipulating his or her followers for votes. Or it’s the media, always pointing the cameras at the most red hot of situations and people, to drive up ratings and internet clicks. Or I reject anger because, honestly, it makes me uncomfortable, especially as a person of faith. I’m in the business of trying to bring folks together in community, not tear them apart.  I want to plead: “Can’t we all just get along?”

But what might happen, if, instead, more and more of us, especially we who are not that angry, took this collective anger seriously?  Saw our “angry” neighbors as sincere, authentic, and very real in their hurt. Looked beyond angry slogans (BUILD A WALL!  WALL STREET IS EVIL!) and got underneath this passion and energy.  Paid attention to the legitimate concerns and gripes and fears of our neighbors. We might realize that while things may be good, even great for “me”, things are not always that great right now for “thee”.

Anger turned inward is despair.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate in the United States is at its highest level in thirty years and has risen by 24 percent since 1999.  A 2015 study by two Princeton University economists found that the life expectancy for middle aged whites with a high school education or less has plummeted since 1999, while almost all other groups have seen an increase in life expectancy.  This group is dying, not just from traditional diseases like heart disease or diabetes, but instead, increasingly, from suicides, drug overdoses, and liver disease related to alcoholism.

When you have no hope; when the factory closes or the mine shuts down, when the company you’ve worked for shutters and then moves overseas, when you see your wages stagnate for a decade, you get angry. And sometimes when no one hears that anger or responds to your protests, you despair.  You escape into substances to numb your fears and concerns. You wonder if any one cares.

Anger turned outward is protest.  So you are a young person, a millennial (those born between the early 1980’s and 2000) and you and your generation goes into debt to the tune of $1.2 trillion, all to go to college. The American Dream is now damn expensive.  One out of four of you are close to, or in default, on those loans. You can’t buy a house or afford to get married or even drive a decent car because you are so deeply in debt.  You lose your health insurance.  You can’t get a job or work two jobs just to stay ahead of your financial black hole.

And then you wonder if anyone beyond your peer group really understands your struggles; if anyone is even listening to your generation, whose experience is so different than that of your parents and grandparents. They had dreams and made them come true. What about us? Will we ever get ahead? You wonder if anyone cares.

Lots of folks in 2016: they are mad as hell and they don’t want to take it anymore. They are angry.  I may not want to hear or face that reality. May not want to try and fathom this anger. After all, I am not so angry. But as a fellow citizen, a neighbor, a friend and a person of faith, I just can’t ignore the anger anymore. 

And you?