Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Looking For America, Finding America: One Citizen's Road Trip

“A man went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere.”
--from the film “Easy Rider”, 1969

I looked for America this past spring and summer and I couldn’t find it anywhere. 

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Because of work and vacation plans, from April to August, I visited thirteen states and traveled more than 10,000 miles, by air and on the road. I flew in the skies over the United States and drove on its highways, from the west to the east coast, from the heartland to the heart of the northeast and I got to see a lot of America in the past five months. 

And so I decided to look for America. 

I tried to find it. Tried to figure out just what makes America, America.  What makes America, at least for me, a precious and even sacred place, unlike any other country on the earth. My home. Our home. No: not in a triumphal way, with over the top flag waving or in your face chants of “USA! USA!” Instead, with a joyful and curious and grateful spirit, I tried to find America. I made this cross country pilgrimage at a time when it can seem as if America is coming apart at the seams, socially imploding somehow. America. Trapped in the midst of an often ugly and interminable national election, where politicians and pundits certainly seem oh self righteous about the America they claim that they’ve found.    

So what better time to look for America?

Maybe America is in a specific place I visited. Like the wide and white sandy beaches of Santa Cruz, California, where wetsuit clad surfers frolicked in the waves among the seals and the sun, an endless summer.  Or at a rural camp in suburban Connecticut, where a young couple made lifelong God-blessed promises to each other on the hottest day of the summer—100 degrees at 12 noon---then danced away to Grateful Dead tunes with family and friends cheering them on. Or is America in Rochester, Minnesota at the Mayo Clinic, one of the best hospitals in the world, where compassionate doctors and nurses worked to make sure one of my best friends can beat cancer?  

I looked for Americans, too, on my trip. 

Maybe America is embodied in some specific person or peoples I met. The leather clad Harley riding biker, with a “Make America Great Again” bumper sticker on the back of his jacket, who passed me on I-80 in deep woods Pennsylvania, and gave me a hearty wave and smile.  The pink haired young women in a yellow Volkswagen Bug, dancing away in her car to a full volume song, a “Feel the Bern” bumper sticker on the back of her vehicle. She pulled up beside me on a sweltering stretch of highway near Akron, Ohio. Is America found in the faith of an earnest pastor in Cleveland, who drove me through the mean and hard streets of that inner city? He talked to me about how much he loved the folks he served, how determined he was that his church would make a difference for the better in his neighborhood.

Is America at the Starbucks in a trendy Minneapolis neighborhood, where a pony-tailed barista made me coffee? Or is it at a gritty truck stop in DuBois, Pennsylvania where the coffee was just ok but a tattoo covered clerk wished me a safe trip home. Her graceful benediction stayed with me for so many miles.  Is America a so called red state or blue state or purple state or battleground state?  I drove through them all.  Is it small town Cooperstown, New York with the old school Baseball Hall of Fame?  Or big city Oakland where I watched a ballgame on a muggy April Sunday afternoon with a fellow fan from Detroit. 

I looked for America and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Instead I found it everywhere.   

In tiny tucked away villages and broad shouldered urban enclaves; seemingly abandoned towns far off the interstate and brand new McMansion developments, springing up like sunflowers, by the side of the road. There was nowhere where America was not evident on my journey.

I found America in every one I encountered too. All of them Americans and America: blue and white collar, black and white, all colors; gay, straight, families of all shapes and sizes too.  Saw lots of faith. Houses of worship were every where. But I also saw lots of Sunday morning folks who “worshipped” at the Waffle House on the Sabbath.  And here’s the miraculous truth: every last person I met was an American.  No one left out. No one uncounted. No one unseen. 
I learned in my ultimate American road trip one lesson that America and Americans seem to forget and therefore need to relearn again and again and again. America is me. America is you. America is always all of us, together. That “E Pluribus Unum” thing. From many, one. Even if we don’t always get that right. We are America: a beautiful and broken land, so wonderful and so hurting at times too.  We have such great hopes for ourselves and our nation: that’s why our disappointments and frustrations are so great as well.

But America?  No worries. I looked for it. Then I found it. I just had to open my eyes and my heart.  How about you? Have you found America?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Advice for September Students: Make and Be a Friend...For Life

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
"Pooh!" he whispered.
"Yes, Piglet?"
"Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's paw. "I just wanted to be sure of you.”
    --A.A. Milne, "The House at Pooh Corner"

As the temperatures begin to get chilly at night and the days shorten and September’s siren song calls out; as moving vans clog the streets of the city, with harried parents and anxious students; I remember….

Thirty years ago and the beginning of my graduate studies, three years of books and lectures and tests and serious higher education, all for an advanced degree.  Grad school was “serious” for me because I did not take my undergraduate studies, well—very seriously. At college I hit the parties too hard and the books too soft, loved my extra curricular activities much more than my actual classes. 

By the time I got to Boston University School of Theology in the fall of 1986, I was ready to really learn. I can still hear the deep and wise voice of my favorite professor, Doctor Beck, who made the Old Testament come to life with gravitas and drama. Still fondly recall my walks down busy Commonwealth Avenue, Green Line subway cars rushing by with “clicks” and “clacks”. Still remember how excited I was just to be there and begin the rest of my life.

But three decades on I cherish one amazing God-given gift from that time in my life, more than any class or knowledge or training or smarts I found at school. It is this: the friends that I made then. Friends. Barb and Kathy and Barb and Mitch.  Friends for life. Friends in life. Friends who began their walk with me three decades ago and are still with me. Friends I cannot imagine living without.  Friends I trust I will grow old with too.

If I were asked for advice by an undergrad about to set off for college or a young adult about to plunge into graduate work, or any young person, I’d offer this. Seek out good friends. Make good friends. Surround yourself with friends, but only the ones who both want the best for you and see the best in you.  Be a good friend too. Loyal and kind. Dependable and compassionate. Slow to anger and quick to forgive. 

Because one of the most important tasks of growing up and into whomever the person is that God made you to be, is to undertake this work of friendship. Real friendship. The kind of friend you’d call at 2 a.m. if you were stuck at a party and really needed a ride home or were stuck on the side of the road with car trouble and really needed help.  Who always remembers your birthday.  Who would help you move from one apartment to another even if you didn’t provide pizza and beer.  Who you’d call first with the best of news or worst of news.

Friends. Friends for life.  Put that on your “to-do” list as you pack for school.

We live in an odd time for friendship in our world and the young know this better than anyone else. Facebook tells us we have hundreds, even thousands of “friends” in our cyber circles of virtual community. Technology makes it possible for us to connect instantly to almost any “friend”, any time, any where, with a text or Snapchat or Instagram or tweet.  Yet there is something unreal about such “friendships” that often exist on a screen and give fleeting, ethereal bursts of connection. A poke. A “like”.  A smile emoticon.

Yet the truth about true friends?

Most of us can count that number on one hand. These are the friends who somehow make us more than we would ever be alone. The friends we are called by God to seek out.  To cultivate with care.  To claim, and then maybe never let go.  Friendship then is not a transaction but is instead transformational.  It is a relationship that brings out our best selves. As Ronald Sharp, a professor of English at Vassar College, who teaches a course on the literature of friendship, said: “It’s not about what someone can do for you; it’s who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence.”


In the days ahead, many of us and our loved ones will prepare for school and prepare for life. My prayer and hope is simple: that all of us might find a true friend and be a true friend too. Life is good, that’s for sure.  But a life with friends, old friends, good friends, longtime friends? That is a miracle. 

Thank you God, for friends.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

One Last Chance for a Blessed Summer Getaway

"A life without a quiet center easily becomes destructive.”     --Henri  J. M. Nouwen

There is something about life on an island. 

The last sixteen summers I've been blessed to spend one week on an island off the New England coast.  And so every August I pack up my bike and my books and head out.  Boarding the ferry, I stand on the back of the rocking vessel as it slices through whitecaps and salt-tinged air, and watch as the mainland fades away.  It is always a bit startling as a flatlander to find myself in the middle of the ocean, as home fades into the distance. From horizon to horizon is now only water. 

Then slowly, after an hour or so, a diminutive spit of land emerges in the midst of a vast blue pool. The buzz on the boat builds as we get closer and closer to the dock.  We land lubbers then jockey to get off the ferry and finally feel our feet touch land again in the sweet knowledge that, at least for awhile, we’ve left, gone, departed, exited, vamoosed.  There are no quick jaunts over a bridge to get back.  No quick turnaround. 

It took awhile to get here. We’ll stay now. 

For the next seven days and nights my world is contained in a grey-shingled ranch, set back from the road, with Adirondack chairs scattered on a shady back porch and a bike path right out front. A special place where my cell phone doesn't always work, or better yet, I turn it off.  Where the newspaper gets delivered by boat, and by the time it arrives I may not care for the latest headlines--just save me the crossword. Where there is no TV (except for the Red Sox) and only one landline phone.  Where a sea breeze can cool down even the hottest of afternoons.  Where a lighthouse in the distance is the most beautiful nightlight I've ever seen.  Where a stack of books awaits me.

Days are filled with bike rides and beach walks and browsing bookstores. Evenings mean dinner off the grill or a fancy meal out. Later there’s time for raucous board games with friends and family around an ancient dining room table.  No set time to go to bed or awaken either.       

I am away.

That is what I love most about island life: being really, truly, fully, away.  All humans desperately need these "away" times: regular and consistent “white space” to sleep and to pray, to sit and to be silent, to listen and spend time with loved ones, to finally just rest and just be. My away escape is an island.  What is yours’?  A lonely cabin in lush green mountains, a tent by the seashore, a hotel room downtown, a hammock in the back yard, or centerfield seats at Fenway Park? 

Place matters less than space: whatever we do or where ever we go away, we just need to give our brains and bodies and spirits a break.  In summer, it is as if we breakneck paced northeasterners finally wake up to this spiritual truth. Remember we all just need to chill out, wind down and so we go away. We must go. 

And then when we gaze up into a jet black night sky with twinkling stars, or hug our kids on the blanket as the sun goes down, or do whatever it is we must do to relax, we  might actually encounter God and the stillness necessary to remember our connection to this big place called Creation.  

 “Be still,” the universe whispers. “Just for awhile.”   

There is something about life on an island.  In these closing days in the summer of 2016, may all of us find our islands, quiet centers in the midst of our far too often cacophonous and crazy lives.  Get away. You’ve still got time.

There, God may be waiting just for you.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Higher. Faster. Stronger....and on a Level Playing Field.

"In the name of all the competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams."                --The Olympic Oath

To watch the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro or not to watch?

For the next two weeks, for millions of folks around the world: that is the question.  I’ve got friends who are Olympic junkies. If able, they’d consume all 6,755 hours of TV coverage from the 5th to the 21st. They can’t get enough. Me? Not so much. I’ll graze the offerings. I’m an Olympics fan, not fanatic. 

Partly because there are some things about the TV coverage that drive me crazy.  Like….

1) Commercials, especially for items like Coca-Cola or McDonalds, food you’d never eat as a world class athlete. Big Macs and marathons just don’t mix.
2) “Inspirational” life story segments about the athletes. Enough with the tear jerking “and then she overcame….”  Just get to the game—PLEASE!
3) Hyper-national flag waving: for me the most important flag at the Olympics is the Olympic flag. It always flies above every other national flag.  
4) Commentators who talk over the competition.  SSSSSHHHH….I’m watching here!
5) The lack of full coverage for the odd, archaic and weird sports we only get to see at the Olympics. Maybe I want to watch the shot put, the javelin throw, and badminton!

But even with all those annoyances, there is still one overarching reason why I will still watch the Olympics with interest.  Why the Olympics, at their best, showcase the noblest aspects of the human spirit. Why the Olympics have been around for so, so long: the first games were held in ancient Greece in 776 B.C., nearly 2,800 years ago. Why in a time of global turmoil and upheaval, the Olympics represent a hope that maybe, just maybe, humanity can get along, live in peace.

I watch the Olympics because I want to believe, I need to believe, that they occur on a “level playing field”. This is the idea that between the lines on the field, it is always about fair play.  FAIR. Folks win medals, or lose out, because of their natural and trained athletic ability and why? Because they best their opponent, not by bending or breaking the rules, but by following the rules which equally apply to every one.  No exceptions.

A level playing field. No drugs. No doping. No cheating. No biased judges or home field advantage.  Just pure competition and pure athleticism.   

A level playing field.

            The best sports—amateur, professional, pick up--always involve a covenant of sorts, an agreement. We who watch the game trust in the truth of the sport. Those who play the game agree to do so by the rules. Without this integrity, the relationship between the fans and the players, the athletes in the stadium and the folks in the stands cheering away: it always breaks.

            These games have already been visited by the taint of cheating. The Russian contingent that marched into the stadium for the opening ceremony was down by more than 100 athletes, including the entire track and field team.  Their government conspired with athletes to make sure the Russians won in past international competitions, through tainted drug tests and other acts of subterfuge. To be fair, athletes from many other nations will miss Rio too, because they cheated as well.

But the overwhelming number of Olympic athletes in Rio? Professional athletes? Amateur athletes? I still believe that they play for the “the love of” the game, which is what amateur means. “For the the love of.” To play for the sheer joy of pushing your body to the limits.  To play and put one’s self up against the best.  To play—not for money or fame or power—but to play, just to play.  And always to do so with integrity and honor and honesty.  Because then in the Olympics, when some Davidic athlete from a tiny country defeats some Samsonite athlete from a superpower, we cheer even louder because we trust that this clash happened on a level playing field.

Higher. Faster. Stronger. The Olympic motto.  To this I’d add, “and always on a level playing field.” 

Monday, August 1, 2016

The PMC: Riding for a Cancer Cure and Riding With Angels

“The road is long, with many a winding turn, that leads us to who knows where, who knows where? But I'm strong, strong enough to carry him. He ain't heavy, he's my brother."           
 --"He Ain't Heavy"--by Russell, Hyman and Smith

Can we carry that weight?  Carry the hurt, carry the hopes, carry the sickness, and carry the prayers for and by, those who face cancer?  I know we can. 

Carry…this coming weekend I and 6,000 of my cycling friends will ride in the 37th Pan Mass Challenge (PMC) bike ride.  All day Saturday and Sunday, August 6th and 7th, we’ll be spinning circles regardless of what Mother Nature throws our way. A sultry and hot August morning. A muggy afternoon.  A rainy evening.  For you see we have to bike—we actually want to bike, even the nutty among us who will be spinning out something like 152,000 pedal strokes, all to propel ourselves from the hills of Sturbridge to the dunes of Provincetown, 190 miles, in just 48 hours. 

A bit crazy, sure, but this wacky road trip is all for one amazing, simple, darn good reason.  To help others in need: to carry others. Those with cancer.  Our neighbors and co-workers. Our children and spouses, Moms and Dads, friends and strangers.  Hundred of thousands. To carry them along with us on this very long journey and in doing so, raising a record $46 million for a world class cancer treatment and research center, Dana- Farber, right in our fair city of Boston. 

The PMC is the granddaddy of all athletic fundraising endeavors.  Begun in 1980, in thirty six years the PMC has raised $500 million dollars in direct support for Dana-Farber. That’s not a typo—more than a half $1 billion, dedicated to cancer treatment and research through the Jimmy Fund!  The PMC is the Dana-Farber’s single largest source of revenue.  That’s why we ride.

Not to punish ourselves, though by the end our legs and backsides will be hurting.  Not to overshadow the folks we ride for: this trip is about them, not us.  Not to blow our own horns but if blowing a horn can raise more money to find a cure for cancer I’ll blow and I’ll bike ‘til the cows come home.  Maybe you’ll see us next weekend if you are around the winding route from central and eastern Massachusetts to the Cape.  Watch for a sea of bikes whipping by at the stately pace of about 14 miles per hour.  We’ll be smiling (at least early in the day) because we know for each mile traveled that’s one more dollar for a cure. One more patient cared for; one more scientific mystery unlocked; one more strike against cancer.

We ride for different reasons but almost always we ride for special folks in our lives that have faced cancer, beat cancer, died from cancer, have cancer.  They are our angels, who ride on our shoulders, pushing us to go just a little farther.  I ride for Nora, a sweet and kind middle school kid.  For Dottie, a fellow church member and high school science teacher extraordinaire. For Kathy, my amazing and faithful cousin. Sue, my lifelong mentor. T-Michael, a colleague and brother in ministry. 

These folks have carried me for years, with their love and friendship and courage and care.  So now, on my bike, I try to carry them.  In memory and in commitment.  In hope and in grief.  Because when you get the big “C” you need every one in your corner.  You need to depend upon a healing place like the Dana Farber.  You need to know that you are not alone.  No one, no child of God, gets through this life solo.  We all need someone to cheer us on, to scoop us up when we tumble, to wipe away our tears when we weep, to make this incredible and fragile God-given life worth living, not just for ourselves alone but for others too. 

I ride because my faith in God compels me to.  Others ride for fun.  For the athletic challenge.  For the fellowship.  For the possibility of achieving the seemingly impossible. To just be a part of something good, very good, so much bigger than ourselves.  From where I stand (or sit on my bike seat!) this is what makes a really “good” life, great. To encourage generosity and then be generous: to give so others might live.  And in my case to lug along 189 pounds on a delicate metal frame, from the suburbs of Boston to the Cape Cod Canal.

In the end, who wants to pedal the ride of life alone?  I don’t.  I’ve gotten where I am, not just under my own power, but under the graceful power of God and through the love of family and friends.  As the old pop song declares, “It's a long, long road, from which there is no return. While we're on the way to there, why not share?....she ain't heavy, she's my sister.”

So that is the pitch and the plea and the challenge.  In just a few days we ride and now we need your help.  Has a family member or friend been gently pestering you to support their PMC ride?  Get out that checkbook, get online and give!  Need someone to sponsor?  Go to PMC.ORG and the rest is easy. Every penny you donate will go directly to the cause.

Sometimes others carry us. Thank God.  Sometimes we need to carry others who need help.  Thank God. Won’t you ride with us?

See you on the road.