Monday, February 29, 2016

Angry? Worried? Vote. Get Involved. Do the Work of Democracy!

"We have met the enemy and he is us"  --Pogo (comic strip character)

In the end, maybe we just finally get the government that we deserve. The candidates we deserve.  The media coverage we deserve.  The country we deserve.

I write this the day before Massachusetts voters go to the polls to choose their nominees for President of the United States.  For the first time in a long time, what the Bay State decides this week on Super Tuesday actually matters, makes a difference, in very tight races on both sides. You’d think with the Presidency being on the line for the first time in eight years, voters would swamp the polling places in long lines, inspire us as citizens to exercise that most basic responsibility of democracy.

To vote. 

To let one’s voice be heard.  To do our civic duty.  To thank, in a way, fellow Americans who sacrificed to defend freedom, in the 240 years since the United States was born as “we the people”.  Yes, I’m one of those insufferable red, white and blue cheerleaders with idealism about citizenship and responsibility.  I can’t help it. I’m a democracy geek, a nerd about civics and American history and politics.

Maybe it’s because I was born on Election Day 1960. Must be in my blood.  Save for one election in 1984 that I’m ashamed to admit I skipped out of apathy, I’ve not missed the chance to vote in 37 years of having the franchise.  Local, statewide or national elections: I just love to vote.  To do just about the one thing, the only thing, my country asks of me and all of its citizens. To cast a ballot. In March or September or November I’m an election worker too, one of those cheery folks who checks you in and hands you your ballot then gives you an “I VOTED” sticker, as you walk out the door.

Reality check.  The majority of Americans do not vote. Ever. They stay at home.  They stay on the sidelines. Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin predicts that 2 million Bay Staters will vote this week.  That’s out of 4.26 million registered voters, which translates to a 46 percent voter turnout, which is actually much higher than most other elections.  When I work local or statewide elections, the turnout is most often dismal and depressing, often as low as 15 percent, even less sometimes.

So here’s the deal.  If you don’t vote, don’t complain. 

Don’t whine about how high your taxes are or how crazy one candidate is or how great or how awful you think the current President is. Don’t kvetch about the state of our nation, or cynically talk about how you’ll just go to Canada if a particular person is elected commander in chief next November.  If Americans are actually so “angry” this election cycle, as the media so continually tells us, then let’s take that energy and actually get our backsides off of the couch and our faces out of our smart phones and get involved in the shaping of our nation.

Vote. Donate to a candidate. Volunteer for a local municipal board or committee. Spend time researching the issues and the candidates. Attend a debate.  Encourage your family members and friends to vote. Be an active citizen and not just a passive spectator.

As a person of faith I truly believe one of the greatest gifts God bestows upon human beings is freedom: the ability to shape our lives, individually and in community. But gifts always involve responsibility.  Rights always demand participation in life.  It’s wonderful, I suppose, that so many citizens these days are so worked up about the state of our nation. Millions of us are more p***ed off than ever before.  Fine.  What are we going to actually do about it?  Beyond giving a “like” to a Facebook post or making a snarky remark at a cocktail party or uttering a “harrumph” as you read the morning newspaper?

Democracies live and die because of how well and how much, or how badly and how little, citizens are civically engaged.  The current state of affairs in the United States did not just happen because a band of politicians, lobbyists and backroom deal makers somehow hijacked the nation in the dead of the night.  America: our democracy, our government, the state of our nation is a direct reflection of we the people.  “They” did not get us to this point.  “We” did.  That conviction holds true whatever our particular political leanings.  The enemy is an apathetic citizenry.

So get out and vote. Get out and become truly involved in your neighborhood, town, city, state, nation and all Creation.  Volunteer.  Use your God-given freedom in service to others. Make a difference.  Be democracy embodied.  Because if we don’t, we will absolutely, always get the country and the world we finally deserve.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Lights! Camera! Action! Five 2015 Movies That Stand Out

“We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other seeing the world as another person sees it.”       
--American film critic Roger Ebert

The film was “Tora! Tora! Tora!” 

In 1970, as a ten year old budding cinephile, it’s the first movie I ever saw in a real theater, our local neighborhood movie house, right across from the Rexall drugstore on Hancock Street.  The picture was forgettable, a two and half hour war flick about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But the experience?  Unforgettable. 

Purchasing my ticket from a woman within a glass booth, she interrogated me for an extra moment, worried I was too young to see the film.  Eyeing all the treats at the concession stand, buying a box of Canada Mints, a bag of popcorn with extra butter and a small Coke. Finding a seat in that dark, hushed, church like space, waiting with anticipation for the lights to dim and then finally, being transported to another time and place, to see the world in a different way.  To watch a movie.  The flicker of light through celluloid, at 24 frames per second.

Do you remember your first movie?

Movies are unlike any other art form. Immersive, they surround us in sound and image within a full sensual experience. And though in 2016, many of us now watch our movies on the small screen at home, or even the smaller screens of computers and smart phones, still there is nothing like a film to tell a story.  To weave a tale.  To invite us into the experience of a character and take us along for the journey.  To expose us to places in Creation, real and imagined, we could never envision ourselves.  Some rare movies even offer a spiritual experience of sorts. Transcendent, these films take us away from the every day, and teach us ideas, truths and stories to enlighten us, if only for a few hours.    

So with the 88th Academy Awards coming up this Sunday night, as a wannabee film critic, I humbly offer a short list of five movies from last year I think deserve to be seen, or seen again.  Take these recommendations in the spirit that art is always in the eye of the beholder and that everyone’s a critic! The envelope please…

“Brooklyn” (rated PG-13): this beautiful film tells the story of a young Irish immigrant who comes to New York City in the mid 1950’s and finds herself torn between family at home and her hopes for a new life and love in a new land.  It is a “small” film in the best sense: sweet and kind and thoughtful and tender.

“Inside Out” (rated PG): this Pixar cartoon introduces us to the inner emotional life of an eleven year old girl, as she faces the struggles of moving from her childhood home in Minnesota to the big city, San Francisco.  Much more adult in nature than you might think, the film deftly creates and envisions what happens within our minds and hearts, as we grow up into young adulthood.  It is funny, smart and a great movie for families to watch together, though it may be a bit too intense for kids younger than 7 or 8. Nominated as a best animated feature, it should have gotten a best picture nod.

“Creed” (rated PG-13): remember the joy of watching the first “Rocky” movie, the rush of that classic fight story, the underdog taking on the champ?  This story imagines the aging boxer Rocky, now widowed and retired in Philadelphia, mentoring a young fighter, Creed. He’s the son of Rocky’s first opponent.  The film could easily be cheesy or cliché but instead it reboots the “Rocky” franchise with grace and fun.  In a year when Hollywood again overlooked African-Americans and other minorities in the awards season, it is a must see.

“Spotlight” (rated R): a real Boston movie in the deepest sense, the movie tells the true story of “The Boston Globe” and its courageous efforts to track down the full account of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, which first broke in 2001. No one gets off scot-free in the film: the Church, defense lawyers, the courts, even the newspaper is shown as complicit in the crimes. The movie powerfully portrays the dogged work by reporters who use old school methods to get the story.  It shows why great journalism still matters in the 21st century.

“The Big Short” (rated R): a full eight years after the worst financial meltdown in the United States since the Great Depression, most of us as average citizens still don’t fully understand why that collapse happened and why it was so big, preventable and even criminal. This movie dares to try and explain the arcane financial ideas (think “credit default swaps”) which led to the disaster and it succeeds. Funny, acerbic and cheeky, it creates a whole new film genre for telling a story.           

So lights! Camera! Action!  And maybe I’ll see you at the movies.





Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Debate Winner Announced: To The Smug Goes the Victory

Smug (adjective) 1. contentedly confident of one's ability, superiority, or correctness                    

A heads up, before you take the time to read the following opinion piece today. I’m right. The ideas expressed by me in the aforementioned essay are correct, spot on, exact, true and even guaranteed.  You may think you have a legitimate rebuttal or alternative to the rhetorical argument I will weave in the next 750 words or so but…think again.  You see, I alone have the answer, the solution and the remedy, to whatever we might be discussing. Trust me. I got this.  Don’t even bother telling me what you think.

I’M JUST KIDDING!  REALLY!! Please keep reading.

I hope I’m never that smug, in my writing or preaching or living. I pray that if I ever got that way a loved one would give me a swift kick, to bring me back down to earth. Not that smugness isn’t sometimes tempting.  To be convinced you are the smartest guy or gal in the room.  Feeling superior to others.  Offering an opinion about any issue with the surety that only the convicted muster.  Smug: ultimately being so self satisfied as to zoom right past confidence and veer into downright arrogance.

Smug. I’ve got smug on the brain lately, because I made the mistake of actually watching “highlights” from a Presidential candidates’ debate the other night.  I’ve tried my best to avoid these red hot rhetorical wrestling matches, not wanting to witness oversized egos battle mano e mano, egged on by raucous acolytes who want so much red meat and the media who covets a perfect sound bite, with which to later bury a candidate.  It may be democracy in action but at times the debates feel vapid, empty of any real substance or humility, instead filled with enough self righteousness to inflate a supersized hot air balloon. 

I’m the only candidate with all the answers, no one else. This is THE solution to the problem. My way is the only way. My party is the true American one, no others need apply. I wonder: if any one wants to be President that much and is convinced so fully of their abilities…should they really be considered for the Presidency in the first place? President Smug?

It’s not just on the political stage we get to witness smugness. Spend any time on social media and you quickly discover that Facebook and Twitter and the Internet are filled with a blizzard of opinions, an unrelenting torrent of partisanship that cuts across all political and social lines.  No one party or movement has a lock on smugness.  So many citizens are nowadays sure that their opinion is the tops.  Conservatives crow. Progressives pontificate.  Liberals are in love with themselves. Libertarians lament that not everyone sees things their way.

Smugness is getting lots of play in the wider culture too. Watch a professional sports event and see the athletes preen and dance, even before one play actually happens.  Last week I watched video of a former drug company executive testifying before Congress about his decision to raise the price of a lifesaving drug by 5,000 percent to $750 a pill, all in the cause of profits. His demeanor throughout the hearing?  A smirk and a smile and smugness for all to see.  Then he tweeted that the Congress men and women were “imbeciles”.

Even religion can fall into the trap of being so smug.  All faiths must confess that a lock on the truth too often underlies their selling points.  Only we get into heaven.  God loves us best.  Judgment for the many but salvation for the select few.  As one infamous bumper sticker proclaims: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

The problem with smugness is that no one person, no one party, no one religion, and no one philosophy finally has a lock on “the truth”. (OK, God may, but something tells me God is never so quick or trusting as to actually hand deliver that truth to a mere mortal.)  Instead the world is a very complicated place. Always has been. Always will be. The challenges we face are huge, with the best solutions most often coming after compromise, thoughtfulness and dialogue. That’s where I actually listen to what you have to say.  The person I perceive as an opponent? He might actually have something to teach me. She might know something I do not.  But to actually believe this?  I’ve got to let go of smugness.  Got to open my ears and shut my mouth.

So is my opinion about smugness “right”?  “True”? Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s sit down over a cup of coffee and really talk about it. 




Monday, February 8, 2016

Freedom of Religion: For the Many, the Few, For EVERYONE!

“Religious freedom opens a door for Americans that is closed to too many others around the world. But whether we walk through that door, and what we do with our lives after we do, is up to us.”      --Mitt Romney, 
2012 candidate for President, Mormon

This past Sunday the folks in the church I serve gathered for our yearly Annual Meeting, where we met in prayer, adopted a budget, elected officers and discussed hopes for the next twelve months. Folks in our church have been doing this since 1685, for 331 years! Since 1789, protected by the Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of religious expression, we’ve practiced our faith in full freedom. No government can tell us how to worship or who to worship. No secular authority decides whom we pick for leaders or the doctrine we teach or the faith we preach.

We are free. Free. As Americans. Like all Americans. To embrace our idea of God.          

When we chose to have the same pastor lead us for sixty seven years (!), from 1838 to 1905, that was our business alone. When in the 1920’s we called a female pastor, at a time when such a choice was radical, that was our right as well. We do have to follow some basic laws.  The health inspector makes sure our kitchen is safe and clean.  Our elevator is licensed for operation. But these are exceptions. Overwhelmingly, we alone run our own affairs, raise our own funds, pick our own leaders and worship our God, as we see fit.  It’s that way for us.  It’s supposed to be that way for every American citizen too.

So as a person of faith I get very nervous when my fellow folks of faith or candidates for office, suggest that perhaps freedom of religion is for some groups but not all groups, some faiths but not all faiths, some religions but not every religion.  In a December 2015 poll, the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research asked a group of Americans about religious liberty. As one newspaper article reported, “Eighty-two percent said religious liberty protections were important for Christians, compared with 61 percent who said the same for Muslims…seven in 10 said preserving Jews’ religious freedom was important, while 67 percent said so of Mormons.”  The sobering take away? “Americans strongly back protecting religious freedoms – but more so for Christians than for Muslims” and I’d also add Jews and Mormons too.

What?! So protect the Christians but neglect the legal rights of those who follow Islam, or worship at a Jewish temple or call themselves Mormon. Hurray for Jesus but not so much for Mohammed or Moses or Joseph Smith.  Religious liberty for some, not for all?!  I don’t think that’s how the Constitution works.  My freedom of religion is inexorably tied to your religious freedom, regardless of whether or not we share the same faith.  A threat to the liberty of the minority is always a threat to the liberty of the majority.  In the words of President Barack Obama, who recently became only the second United States President to visit a mosque, “…as Americans, we have to stay true to our core values, and that includes freedom of religion for all faiths.”    

But then just hours later, one current Presidential candidate said of Obama’s visit: it “hurt our country badly…pitting people against each other.” Someone should remind him that the first President to visit a mosque was President George Bush, on September 17th, 2001, six days after the worst terrorist attack in our history.  Then Bush courageously said, “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America; they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior. This is a great country….because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth.” You preach it George! 

My prayer as a citizen and person of faith is for just one hope, one truth, one ideal. That no matter what the constitutionally guaranteed right or freedom, be it religion, speech, assembly or the vote: either we all enjoy it or no one is finally free. Rights are universal not particular. Rights protect the minority from the oppression and tyranny of the majority. Rights hold fast and stand strong even as the fickle winds of popular opinion blow, like so much hot air. Rights are both individual and communal, founded in the rule of law, for the one and for the many.  Rights are non-negotiable for the citizenry. 

So today I thank God that I still live in a country where people of faith, all faiths, no faith, are free. Free. Free to choose, if they so desire, to pray and worship and practice faith and embrace their God and their tradition, and to live in true freedom.


Monday, February 1, 2016

In Life, The Days Are Long But the Years Are Short

“The days are long but the years are short.”  --Gretchen Rubin, “The Happiness Project”

Sundays are always my longest work day. My longest day of the week.

Up at 5 am or earlier, especially if the sermon still needs lots of work.  Then off to church and standing at the front door to greet people, then worship and preaching and prayers, then lots of handshakes and hellos in line and at coffee hour, then home to craft my lesson plan for that evening, then back to church to work more, teach twenty two curious and chatty and funny eighth graders, and then, then, finally, finally, home by 8:30 pm.

Long day. Long days.

Like most folks. Like you and your long days.  Up at dawn to nurse the baby and then make the lunches. Out to the train in the early morning chill, as the sky turns red and then yellow and the sun comes up. In line at Dunkin Donuts waiting for coffee, thinking about all you have to do in the next ten hours. Chauffeuring the kids from school to practice to homework to bed.  Answering emails and writing texts and going to meetings, then rushing home and cooking dinner and loading the dishwasher and finally, finally, that day is done.  Another long day.

“Glad that day’s finally over!” we declare with a sigh. 

But then one day before we know it, there’s no more sermons to preach or kids to teach or parishioners to reach.  One day the infant who nursed at our breast is off to college, not tugging at our elbow for a Popsicle or a hug.  We don’t have to rush to catch the “T” anymore either, or sit in traffic, and the email inbox isn’t so full. We downsize from a minivan to a sensible sedan, make dinner for just two or one, watch a movie, catch the news and as we finally get ready for bed, there’s another long day gone too, another day finally over, finally done.

“Where did that day go?” we ask with a sigh.

The days are long.  The years are short.

It’s not that time itself is going by any faster or slower.  The tick tock of time is inexorable, a given. What finally matters for us as humans residing within time, is how we experience God’s gift of time; how well, or not so well, we use and embrace whatever time in life we have.  This day. Today.  The danger and temptation is to wish for nothing more than to make it to the end of the day. I know I can fall into this trap of asking, pleading, “Is this day over yet?”

But here’s the hard truth.  This day will never happen again. Never.  Once it is done, it is gone, forever.  It may be a good day or a bad day or something in between.  It may be a long day or a short day or a sweet day or a sour day but God gives us just this one day. That’s it. When the clock hits midnight, the day is now but a memory, the stuff of “remember when…”

This is the spiritual tension we all face as finite beings, mere mortals. We may complain that some days seem to go on and on. We may decide when life is full or busy or feels overwhelming with so much to do, that we just have to just push through, rush through, get through, the day. We may even perceive that with so many days, it all just seems to run together. As one world weary writer in the Bible said, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)  Sounds like he or she had a long day.

Yet there is another way to understand the day, a more grateful way, a more hopeful vision, to face into every God given day, especially the very, very long ones. Listen to this wisdom and prayer: “[God] teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12)  Count the days.  Wake up and wise up to this one “never happened before” and “never will happen again” day.   

So, how was your day?  Was it a long one? An exhausting one?  A never ending one?  A great one? Guess what? One day you won’t have to shovel the snow anymore or watch another of your kids’ games anymore or pick up the laundry off the floor anymore or sit through a boring meeting anymore or flop into bed, exhausted, from another day, anymore. And on that one day you’ll pray for just one more, just one more, long day. I know I will. 

The days are long but the years are short.