Sunday, April 23, 2017

Into "The No Spin Zone" No More: Whatever Happened to the News?


Spin (noun/verb) 1. A description or the act of describing negative events in an overly favorable way; as in advertising copy or political hyperbole, especially when intentionally misleading.           --Onlineslangdictionary.com

The No Spin Zone.

That was the catch phrase for the number 1 rated show in cable news, year after year, with an average of 2.8 millions viewers per night in 2016. A corporate cash cow too: in its twenty one year run on the Fox News Network, this program generated upwards of $1 billion in profits for 21st Century Fox. It was the crown jewel in a media empire and TV network that revolutionized how Americans get their news.

And now it is gone, over, finis. Pull the plug. Roll the final credits. Write one last check for $25 million to the host, as he exits, stage right.

Until “The O’Reilly Factor” was abruptly cancelled last week, I’d never watched it and not because of some ideological bias. I’ve also never watched O’Reilly’s media twin, the super liberal Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Nor do I watch CNN or NewsMax or “The Daily Show” or most any other network or local “news” show anymore. I’d much rather read news online or in print, where I can quickly turn the page. Or listen to the news and switch to music if necessary. Anything but watch the news.  For TV “news” is now a misnomer.  “News” is instead the interpretation of facts; is spin, is analysis, not straight up reporting. “News” is entertainment delivered through an ideological filter.  Fox to the right. CNN to the left.  And so on….      

I still recall the evening thirty six years ago that Walter Cronkite signed off of the CBS Evening News, as 25 million folks watched, and he said one last time, “And that’s the way it is.” Maybe that was the moment the news died, news in a traditional sense. As in dog bites man and then reporter reports: “Dog bites man.”  When Cronkite told us “And that’s the way it is” most Americans actually believed him. The news he reported as “the most trusted man in America” wasn’t flashy or packaged or slanted left or right.  Wasn’t repackaged as comedy or satire. Wasn’t fawningly self referential. 

The news was…the news.   

You read it or watched it and then as an informed citizen, you actually were expected to then draw your own conclusions. Certainly didn’t need an overpaid talking head or self important anchor or well coiffed “expert” (likely a political lobbyist or pseudo academic or recently defeated office holder) telling you what to think.   

So I won’t miss “The Factor” nor the star who hosted it. 

Not just because his firing was the result of five women accusing him of sexual harassment, charges he denies.  Not just because $13 million in settlements were distributed to keep things secret and behind closed doors.  Not just because his former boss at Fox News, Roger Ailes, was also let go for sexual harassment accusations and given a $65 million golden parachute.

Call me a cranky old school journalist but if I had the chance, I’d cancel every single slickly packaged cult of personality “news” shows.  If the host imagines themselves more important than the actual news he or she reports, get rid of them. If the anchor regularly appears at glittering red carpet events, makes millions of dollars while acting as if they are on the side of “the little guy”, or kisses up to the powerful, unmask that hypocrisy. Name it for what it is.  If a news network is more concerned about profits than a workplace atmosphere where female employees are subject to cave man behavior, change the channel. Better yet, just turn it off.

Let the news be the news.  I don’t want or need anyone’s help in figuring out what to believe or what opinion I’m supposed to adopt.  That’s my job alone, as a citizen and a thinking human being. Just give me the news, okay? Please. 

Where have you gone, Walter?  I for one really miss you. I miss the news too. And that’s the way it is. No spin.



                  

  

Monday, April 17, 2017

Righteousness Sure Feels Good. But Is It Always Right?



Righteous (adjective) 1. free from guilt or sin 2.arising from an outraged sense of justice 
or morality                       
--Merriam-Webster Dictionary

BOYCOTT UNITED AIRLINES!  MAKE THE PRESIDENT RELEASE HIS TAX RETURNS! BOMB SYRIA! DON’T BOMB SYRIA!

We are living in a golden age of righteousness.  Righteousness: the conviction of moral superiority human beings sometimes feel and express, when we see what a person or entity does (or does not do) and so we judge them. Weigh in with an opinion. Even label the perpetrator as guilty, a sinner, a wrongdoer, just out of line.

It’s now the norm for social media and the press and politicians to be filled to overflowing with moral outrage and red hot righteous anger. Like about the recent treatment by United Airlines of a passenger who was violently removed from a flight. Or about a President who stubbornly refuses to release his tax returns. Or our nation’s decision to attack an air force base, after Syria used poison gas against its own citizens.

Google “United Airlines” and “doctor” and you get 37,400,000 results! Angry Twitter feeds and flaming Facebook news and skewering opinion pieces and wicked comedic satire.  The controversy about the President’s tax returns exploded in protests on tax day, April 15th, as hundreds of folks in U.S. cities took to the streets. And less than 24 hours after American bombs rained down on Syria, sides were sharply drawn in the debate about the rightness of the U.S. intervening in a civil war.

It’s a very human response to feel righteous: to get riled up in the face of injustice or cruelty or stupidity or stubbornness.  Heck I’m in the righteousness business, as a preacher and an opinion columnist.  If I had no strong idea or ideals one way or another, I’d be out of a job!  If we as citizens were just “Meh” when it comes to the most important issues and events of the day, we’d be guilty of civic apathy.

It is a shock to watch the video of that poor doctor from Chicago being dragged out of a plane. It is awful to see images of innocent civilians being attacked. It is frustrating that our Commander in Chief is unwilling to do what all other Presidents have done in the modern era.

Yet still there is also something about the tone, the swiftness of judgment and the lack of nuance or thoughtfulness, which so often marks our collective righteousness. Part of it comes from how we now witness and express outrage: instantly, live, as it happens; raw and unfiltered. Often with no context, nothing about “before” or “after”.

United should absolutely pay the price for its ineptitude. But there was something troubling, weird, kind of creepy, that so many passengers on the plane just whipped out their phones and filmed the event and then shared it instantaneously with the world. Am I in the minority in being bothered by this?  In the seeming passivity of the witnesses? In the fact we got to see it right away but…is this really always good?  Or right?  Do we absolutely have all the facts, every last one, to make informed, thoughtful judgments? 

I’m not so sure.

Or the bombing in Syria and our quick response as a nation. “Yea!” for quickly striking back, right? They deserved it! And yet: does this mean we will now become a part of the conflict in Syria, another complicated and convoluted war thousands of miles away?  Do we send in planes next? How about ground troops? Is this a “just war” that cries out for a righteous response?  The strike back was instant and bold, but the choice to go to war is morally complicated, difficult to parse, fraught with so many possibilities.  Would we be so righteous if our son or daughter was in the military? 

I’m not so sure.

Even the whole tax release issue is interesting to consider.  Protestors: did you all pay your fair share of taxes, every last dime? Are we taxpayers without “sin” when it comes to all of our deductions and income reported and charitable contributions?  Would we be willing to share that information with our neighbors? I do think we should see the President’s returns. It’s only fair and right. But I always look with a somewhat jaded view when fingers point towards the other and not towards one’s self as well. 

To be so darn righteous when it comes to the actions of others.  It feels good.  Sounds good.  Seems good and yet…is righteousness always the best response, the right response, the thoughtful response?

I’m not so sure.   




    

  


Monday, April 10, 2017

When Religious Intolerance Strikes, God Help Us All


“I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.”     --Thomas Jefferson

So…a Jew, a Catholic and a Muslim all walk into a church together and then….

Sorry. No punch line here because, well: it’s no joke. Not at all. Actually it was pretty darn serious, even holy, a sacred meeting held on a recent Sunday evening before a group of nine restless eighth grade boys and girls, youth who attend class at the church I serve in suburban Boston. Most weeks we learn about our own unique God story, as these young adults prepare to become members of our faith community.

But this class was very, very different. Other people of faith would teach us about their unique God story. And so a soft spoken white haired Roman Catholic woman fingered her string of well worn black rosary beads, talked about her visits to patients in a nursing home every week. A middle aged conservative Jewish man carefully draped a blue and white prayer shawl over his shoulders, prayed for us in the language of his faith: Hebrew. A quiet and humble Muslim man gently unrolled a multi-colored hand woven prayer rug, taught the kids about his practice of praying five times daily.

And these days? Well, such a peaceful meeting is kind of a miracle. 

Because a week, even a day, cannot pass by without some story showing up in the news about one religious group targeting another religious group, and the reasons are always the same. Religious ignorance. Religious arrogance. Religious chauvinism.  Religious intolerance.

My “God” right. Your “God” wrong.

And so bombs planted by religious fanatics go off in churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday. Forty-four worshippers die; 100 are injured. And so last January a Massachusetts man physically attacks a Muslim employee of Delta Airline in London, kicks and grabs at her, shouts: “Trump is here now. He will get rid of all of you.” And so at Jewish cemeteries across the United States and right here in Massachusetts, the past months have seen hundreds of toppled gravestones and scrawled messages. “Kill Jews” declared one threat, spray painted on a headstone in Barnstable.

I claim no moral high ground for my faith tradition.  We of the Puritan stripe have a checkered history when it comes to religious tolerance. One of the first things the Puritans did after arriving in Plymouth, in search of religious freedom, was, ironically, to make sure theirs’ would be the only religion tolerated. And so it goes….

As a person of faith it angers and embarrasses me to witness other folks of faith who use their belief in God like a bludgeon: to judge, to separate, to hate, even to hurt. It doesn’t have to be so. Those who employ God and religious faith as a weapon against other people of faith, or no faith: they are an increasing minority in this world. Most of the millions of Christians who will celebrate Holy Week this week; the millions of Jews who will mark Passover that begins this week; the millions of faithful Muslims who gather in mosques across the globe: they practice a faith of inward piety, not outward hatred.  They use faith as a way to make their own lives better and the lives of their neighbors better too.  It’s important to remember this reality.

At its best this is what religion does: it gives meaning and purpose to the human condition.  It offers mercy and love to self and others. It gives a Divine framework and story within which to understand this life and to find our place in the universe.  Everything else: the politics, the self-righteousness, the intolerance and yes, the hatred: at least to this person of faith, that’s no faith at all.     

So…a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim walk into this life as neighbors, and then, they all get along.

That’s no joke.




 

                

Monday, April 3, 2017

America's Field of Dreams: Idealism Still Matters


“The one constant through all the years…has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game…. reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”           --from the 1989 film “Field of Dreams”

Hard to believe but yes, I do still believe. In baseball.  In America too.

As I write this it is Opening Day 2017 for the Major League baseball season, my fiftieth as a fan. I first fell in love with the Boston Red Sox as a boy growing up just south of Boston.  Came to my fandom the year of “The Impossible Dream”, 1967, when a rookie named Yaz rescued the BoSox from decades of futility, brought them just one inning away from a world championship. They lost that game but won back the hearts of millions of fans.

And America? I first fell in love with the United States because of a name, my name, “John F.” as in “John Fitzgerald” as in Kennedy. I entered the world on Election Day 1960, so my folks, as proud Americans, gave me that moniker in part as a mark of their love for this nation. I idolized JFK growing up, especially his idealism: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” 

Remember such idealism?  It’s a certain way of looking at life and living life: to believe in and cherish and try to live out noble principles, purposes, values, and ideals.

In a sport like baseball, idealism blossoms when fans trust that the game is played fair and square, and always by the rules.  That the players give their best efforts, run out every hit, stretch to catch every hit ball, and then, when the competition is over, extend a hand of peace to the opponent. “Good game.”  Played well, such a game embodies so much that is good in our human experience: courage and sacrifice, grit and joy. 

Not so different from the idealism we hope for as citizens. In a country idealism blossoms when the citizenry trusts that institutions of government are created and exist by and for all the people. That when citizens are given the privilege of election by their neighbors to higher office, these leaders promise to serve with humility; fidelity to the rule of law; and commitment to defend the rights of every last person who claims America as home. Our shared rule book is the Constitution and the poetry of such idealism is found in the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”

Remember such idealism? 

It existed and thrived before and I actually trust and deeply believe that it will and must exist and thrive again. How about you dear citizen and fan? Are you still idealistic? As a fan of the game, as an American?  Do you still believe?

I hope so. 

We live in strange, unprecedented, and very, very unsettled times, when idealism is regularly mocked and made fun of or just rejected as old school, old fashioned, all washed up, a quaint relic of the past.  Times when patriotism is hijacked by self serving politicians who cowardly hide behind American flag lapel pins, having convinced themselves that they alone can make America good again.  When the media, like a voracious monster, feeds the public raw fear and cynicism, 24/7.  And yes when sports have become such big business that many of us fans have forgotten that finally, it is only a game, after all. A game. Played by overgrown children with bats and balls and leather gloves on a field of dreams. 

So this year on Opening Day, I really need Opening Day, perhaps now more than ever before.  I need to believe in the goodness of our national pastime and in the goodness of our nation. I need a good game of catch in the backyard on a warm summer night again and to listen to the Sox on the radio.  I need to believe in America, that in spite of all our flaws, we still aspire to embody the best in humanity. Decency. Justice. Mercy. Service. Sacrifice.  Freedom.

So go ahead: call me idealistic. I’m guilty as charged.  I still believe.  Do you?

Now let’s play ball!




Monday, March 27, 2017

The Cure for America's Eeyore Complex? Lighten Up a Little!


"It's snowing still," said Eeyore gloomily.
"So it is." [said Christopher Robin]
"And freezing."
"Is it?"
"Yes," said Eeyore. "However," he said, brightening up a little, "we haven't had an earthquake lately."      --The House at Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne

Is being grim now the new norm?

Grim: as in hard and gritty, scary and threatening, despairing and downhearted. Grim: defined as “forbidding and uninviting, lacking humor, and depressing”. It is a mighty, mighty grim world these days.  Right?  At least that’s what I’m being told. Being sold on too.

How about you? Feeling grim lately?

I mean aren’t we supposed to feel thus? Did you hear about the latest terrible development? Or about our perpetually gridlocked government? Have you seen the scowling countenance of our grim reaper in chief, forever staring back at us, like some ominous day-glow orange visage of doom? I have to ask. Does that guy ever smile? When he is golfing? Maybe he’s just eating too much roughage. (That’s a corny joke—don’t be so grim!)

Wow. Things must be very, very bad. Badder. Baddest.

The proof? Well I did see all this bad stuff on Fox News and MSNBC. I scrolled through my Facebook feed and fed on so much fear. I traveled through Twitter and tripped over terror galore.  If the state of our world as portrayed by the media were a weather pattern, it would be cold, rainy and cloudy, 24/7.  (OK: that’s just the month of March in New England.)  If the state of our nation were as bad as the dour and defeated Democrats would have us believe, as the righteous and rabid Republicans repeat ad nauseum, why even get out of bed? And if you do arise, you’ll either be overrun by illegal immigrants spilling over the border en masse or locked up by a new Supreme Court Justice who makes Snidely Whiplash look like Oprah.

When did America and Americans become so darn grim?  Humorless? Puritan?

No, I’m not denying that we have some major challenges facing us at home and abroad, in the neighborhood and the nation. Climate change.  Health care.  The Wall.  Big, big stuff. But when haven’t we faced difficulties? Does anyone else remember World War I, World War II, the Depression, the 1960’s, the slowdown seventies, the gas crisis, disco and bell bottom jeans? We’ve been through and weathered grim and hard times before and our parents and grandparents survived. I’m still standing.  You too.

But still, to be grim is so red hot right now: the more dour your outlook, the more popular you become. I’m trying to figure just what’s led to this outbreak of angst, this flood of phobia, this culture of perpetual lamentation.  I suppose if one is always grim, you imagine people take you much, much more seriously. LOOK AT ME.  I’M FROWNING NOW AND THAT MEANS I AM NOT JOKING. Is this the super secret strategy of the sad sack politicians whom we actually voted into office? Have you read any of the apocalyptic press releases from the Massachusetts Congressional delegation lately?    

I get the grimness of the reported news. Good news does not sell papers or drive internet surfers to visit your website. Never has, never will. It’s no wonder so many folks turn to the obituaries when they first open up the newspaper. (Better him than me!) I also suspect that one simple way of having power over people is to just regularly scare the bejesus out of folks. First: paint everything as absolutely grim and hopeless. Then remind the cowering masses: “They are all bad. But we are all good.  You need us to protect you from them.”   

How many Americans does it take to screw in a light bulb? Hey! THAT’S NOT FUNNY!

So America. Here’s my hope for us in these oh so grim times of 2017.  Can we lighten up just a little bit, pull back from our grim precipice. Please? No matter what the news is today, we can still bring more light into the world.  Smile. Tell a harmless joke. Do something kind for someone else without being asked. Have a civil conversation with a person you disagree with. Say your prayers.  Give thanks. Be a decent human being.  Laugh at yourself when you get all self-important. Turn off the computer and phone and TV and enjoy the spring, which is really here, in spite of all the grim evidence to the contrary.

I’m done with grimness.  And that’s no joke.








   
  

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Plea for More Civility and Less Rudeness. Please?


Rude (adjective) 1. offensively impolite or ill-mannered; discourteous --Dictionary.com

When the first American President George Washington was a boy of 12, he wrote out in longhand a list of 110 rules about how he hoped to act in his life, especially in public.  Washington titled it “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation”, and he carried a copy of it with him throughout his life. Though he likely copied most of those rules from other sources of his day, I’m still struck by how earnest this future commander in chief was, from a very early age; how careful he sought to be in all his relationships with others; and how he sought to carry himself in public.

Rule#1: Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those 
that are Present.

Rule#22: Show not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.

Rule#40: Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment 
to others with Modesty.

Rule#58: Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy

Rule#79: Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof.

It’s a fascinating list to review (I encourage you to Google it), for what’s most striking is how true its wisdom holds for today, 273 years later.  The basic ideals about how we human beings relate to one another in daily life and carry ourselves in community: these don’t change or go out of fashion. 

Respect others, especially those with whom we disagree and those who hold different ideas than us.  Don’t revel in the pain or defeat of anyone, friend or foe. Argue well but do so with humility. When you speak, be very careful about what you say and always avoid jealousy or put downs.  Don’t share news that you know to be untrue or are unsure as to its truthfulness.   

Shorthand for all these rules: don’t be rude.  Or a positive admonition: be kind.

But what happens when the culture throws out all the rules?  When a basic communal understanding of what it means to be civil with each other, especially in public, gets tossed out?  When rudeness becomes normalized?

In Presidential tweets that regularly bully and beat up and taunt anyone who gets in the way.  In governmental circles where meetings between opponents now inevitably devolve into frat house food fights. In the Dunkin Donuts line where folks are in such a hurry that “please” and “thank you” and “no, after you!” seems as rare as a low calorie donut.  In technology that brings us closer together but is so often lacking a face to face connection that demands basic civility.  Couples can now break up by text!

It’s tempting to dismiss this hope for basic politeness as mere social window dressing. All this etiquette stuff is superfluous, nice for a formal dinner, but not really needed for real life.  It’s now become the norm to even laud someone who is publicly rude: “I love her because she just speaks her mind. How refreshing!” I’m not sure if we are now ruder in 2017 than in times past, but we’ve absolutely become much more public about it and we are paying a price for this, a huge social price. 

Civility is the glue which holds a society together.  A neighborhood.  A faith community.  A nation.  Town meeting. A family.  Civility is the sum of the unspoken and spoken rules of behavior, how we get along with one another, especially in public, especially with those we view as a stranger or an opponent, different. When civility is present, it’s like a cold drink of water on a hot summer day, so refreshing, so good.  A door opened for one in need.  Respectful attention paid when in the company of another.  Graciously welcoming a stranger or guest to the table. Civility creates an atmosphere for negotiation and compromise. The one across the table is not the enemy, but the loyal opposition.  Civility at its most basic recognizes the humanity of the other person, treats that “other” as we want to be treated. 

Civility matters in all times. So here’s a bit of civil advice for all of us as we seek to be together, in public, in life, in these intense days.

Don’t be rude. Be kind. 



 


Monday, March 13, 2017

Health Care For All: It's Not About the Money. It's About Mercy.


“There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill….” --Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III

I’m sick of being sick.

Not to get too personal, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the last eight months, working with my doctors, to get well. You see, I’ve got a real pain in my neck—literally. Is it a pinched nerve? Arthritis? Lyme disease? Poor posture? Plain old aging? Take your pick. Finally, after so many tests and scans and x-rays and physical therapy and appointments, I think I’m on the road to recovery. I pray I will be back on my bicycle come spring, pain free, ready to ride.

Because being sick really stinks. 

No other way to name it. Illness deflates the spirit. Upsets the regular routines of life. Distracts the one who is ill, makes it hard to fully concentrate on other things. I’m not complaining. Through this journey I’ve been supported by caring family and friends, skilled healers, and one reassuring medicine that is perhaps more important to my peace of mind, than any other. It’s kind of a miracle cure actually, especially these days.

It’s my health insurance card. 

The 3 ¼ by 2 ¼ inch plastic rectangle I keep in my billfold. So powerful a drug for such a diminutive document, for when you possess this card, doors open, doctors respond, hospitals treat, practitioners practice, prescriptions are filled and most important, an insurance company (and sometimes the government too) helps pay for the cost of treatment. Treatment that almost always is very, very expensive.

You realize how central this card is to health the first time you walk into a doctor’s office or treatment facility for a visit. Often the initial question is not: “How are you feeling?” but, “Do you have insurance?” In 2017, for millions of Americans, the answer to this question may be about to take a turn for the worse, much worse, if some in power succeed and “reform” the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

The ACA is a 2010 law that has provided health insurance for upwards of 20 million Americans who previously lacked coverage, didn’t have that magic card in their wallets.  And yes, I do agree with the critics who note that the ACA is far from perfect. It is a work in progress. Yet the numbers don’t lie. Millions of our neighbors and the vulnerable and the invisible and the powerless and those living on the edge economically: they now have health care. The ACA has lowered the number of uninsured folks in the United States to less than ten percent of the population, the smallest figure ever.

So, yes, please, fix the ACA. Carefully. Thoughtfully. But don’t change it wholesale. Don’t gut it. Don’t make insurance more expensive for the financially struggling.  And please don’t, DON’T repeal it.

I’m not alone in being sick over the possibility of losing the ACA. Groups like the American Medical Association, the Catholic Health Association, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the American Hospital Association are all against the proposed bill. There’s basic economics at work too. We pay for the uninsured with or without the ACA. When folks who can’t afford health care, seek care, the cost of that care is added into the system’s bottom line. We have and will always pay for health care for the sick, one way or another. The United States is alone among almost all western developed nations, in not guaranteeing decent health care for all. America first? America dead last.  That is unless you have first class health insurance, like the President and the Congress do.  Any one else bothered by this whiff of hypocrisy? 

But as a person of faith, my argument lines up with Congressman Kennedy’s.  Providing affordable, decent health care for every last American citizen is the merciful and the right thing to do.  Period.  This is not an argument about money. This debate must be understood in moral terms.  When will we as a nation finally declare that it is our responsibility, together, to help the sick? To heal the wounded.  To reassure and comfort the poor and the powerless.  To see that anyone who ever gets sick (and that’s every one): they should have that miraculous health insurance card in their pockets too. Not just the “lucky” ones like me.

I’m still sick of being sick. But I’m really, really sick of having this debate about health insurance and health care, again and again and again and again.  Health care for all is finally about simple, decent, human mercy.  Not politics. Not partisanship.  Not posturing.  The real cure for what ails us our healthcare system?

Mercy.




                     

Monday, March 6, 2017

America's National Freak Out: When The News Never Stops




“The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous.”
--George Orwell

When I was new to the craft of professional writing, I fell in love with one particular word: “crucial”, meaning, “decisive or critical; of great importance.” I suppose I was smitten with that word because I imagined it brought gravitas to my writing.  It was crucial to use ‘crucial’ as a crucial descriptor, to heighten the crucial nature of my story and reach that crucial reader. 

Right?

It drove my editor absolutely crazy. “John: if everything is crucial then nothing is really crucial,” she warned me.  “Use ‘crucial’ only if something is really crucial. Spare the hyperbole.  Chill out.”   

A good lesson for writing. A good lesson for life too.

If we are always crying wolf—THIS IS SO CRUCIAL--eventually no one will believe us.  If we imagine every bump in the road is an emergency, we’ll scan for threats 24/7. If we perceive every twinge in our bodies as life threatening, we’ll obsessively check our various symptoms on webmd.com. (Not that I’d ever do that.) 

No system can run at full throttle all the time, on the constant fuels of fear and worry and anxiety. Eventually it will seize up. Fry its circuits. Shut down. In small doses, adrenaline is life saving. It helps us respond to real danger. But in large doses, adrenaline exhausts the body and threatens burnout. That’s true for human bodies and spirits and true for our collective body politic too, for us as a nation, in our shared lives as citizens and neighbors. 

That’s important to remember because right now, in this weird time in our history, everything, EVERYTHING, every news story, every news leak, every breaking issue, all the news, on the news: it seems to be so darn crucial. Right?

SO CRUCIAL!!!!!!!

There’s no minor news any more, only major developments.  There’s no slow news days, only full news days. The nation anxiously awaits the next terrible or tantrum-filled tweet from our Tweeter in Chief.  I’ve been a joyful and engaged consumer of the news since my time as a newspaper boy, but these days I’m instead often consumed by the news, as are so, so many of my fellow citizens.  What if I miss something? Did you hear the latest?! What did he say?!

And so what I need to tell myself more, what I have been telling the folks I serve as pastor, is this crucial spiritual advice. (No exaggeration.) What to do when life feels anxious. When all events seem so crucial, even if sometimes they are not.

Breathe. BREATHE.  Step back.  Take a break from the news, a fast, maybe a full day a week. It will still be there when you return.  Put more of your restless energy into doing something (organize, volunteer, protest, donate, act) and less of your energy into just passively watching or reading the news. Return to the places in your life that feel true and can be trusted, no matter what is happening in the world.  Start with your own house of worship or faith tradition. Pray. Give it up and over to God and the Universe. Take the nervous energy provoked by the news and then take it out: for a long walk, a vigorous run, a spirited swim, a fun bike ride, a hike in the hills and leave the phone off, or better yet, leave it at home.

Can everything really be so crucial? 

Strange days.  When our national life is so intense, like someone forgot to turn down the sound and the TV is always on. Strange days. When our media is both a very good friend of democracy and a warped lens through which life is shown in such a distorted way. Strange days: when those we trust to lead us are so much more devoted to self interest than the common good.

That’s the news today. Some of it crucial. Some not so much.  Some good. Some bad. So breathe, America.  Just breathe. 


 


Monday, February 27, 2017

The Key to the Best Life: Pursue Your God-Given Passion


Passion (noun) 1. a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything
--Random House Dictionary

The secret to life?  Read on….

If you are blessed enough or lucky enough to turn ninety years old, to get to that pinnacle in life and attain “nonagenarian” status, how do you imagine you might celebrate that special day? You could go typical: maybe enjoy a surprise party thrown by your family, cake and greeting cards and balloons and the like. You could go more over the top, like former United States President George H.W. Bush. On his 90th in 2014, he jumped out of a plane and went skydiving, just as he did on his 80th and 85th birthday too.  Or you could do something amazing, like what Swedish conductor and maestro Herbert Blomstedt is doing in 2017, to mark his ninth decade of life on earth.

In twelve months he will travel the globe and conduct more than 90 concerts, with the best symphony orchestras in the world. That’s taxing for any person but for a ninety-something artist? When asked for a recent New York Times article, what the key was to his continued energy and vigor, for still going so strong while most of his contemporaries were either long gone or long ago retired, Blomstedt gave a profound and unexpected answer.

“I love music. How could you deny being together with your loved one?”

He didn’t credit his longevity to a Seventh Day Adventist faith that’s kept him alcohol and tobacco free for life. Didn’t tout some magic exercise regime either, or his genes, or a miraculous diet. Instead Blomstedt attributed his continued engagement in daily life to one simple human trait. Passion. The love of, the love for, some thing, some one, some ideal, some pursuit, some vocation, that gets us out of bed each day and lights us up for daily life. 

And so even though his body no doubt creaks and cracks when he steps up to the podium to conduct, and even though he could just live a life of leisure, with a hot cup of tea and maybe time to listen to some Beethoven on the stereo in a retirement village, Blomstedt has discovered what may be the secret to the best life, to a truly good life, in the deepest sense. To find our one God-given thing in this life to love, really love, and then to give our one life over to it, with passion.  And commitment too. And joy. And fun!  

What’s your passion?

When we seek to live a spiritual life, a life beyond the mere satiation of our sensual desires or our basic instincts, a life that is truly our own, a gift from God, and not dictated by others, this is the question to ask ourselves on a regular basis. What is our passion? What makes our hearts beat faster, our souls soar, and our spirits come alive? Those may among be the most important questions we ask ourselves in our time on this earth, whether it ends up being, nine or nineteen or ninety years, even more.

Passion is always personal, unique, like a fingerprint.  My passion is to write, to put pencil to paper (or nowadays digits to keyboard) and create an idea or an argument or a story or a thought, for my own understanding and others’ too.  Though I get paid to write, I’d happily do it for free, and can’t imagine my life without writing. That’s one way to identify your passion.  What would you do for free, pursue with passion, regardless of the pay, or lack thereof?  Or, if given extra time, free time, how do you spend it, this precious gift?  Maybe you hike or bike or cook or paint or sing or do yoga. Maybe your work brings you passion; you feel called to your job and its never gets old. Maybe you book a flight so you can see your kids or grandkids and family is your passion. 

But trust this.  The One who creates us has placed within each of us a special love, a passion. It must be sought after, and then practiced and then embraced, with everything we’ve got.  You’ve got passion, we all do: thank God. 

So...what’s your passion?  Have fun finding out!







 




Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Drugs and Despair in America: Does Anyone Notice?


“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss - an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. - is sure to be noticed.”    --Søren Kierkegaard

Death by despair—can a person actually die from despair?  Brought so low by hurt and heartache, by economic struggles and mental illness, by addiction and unemployment that the cause of one’s death is finally despair. Believing no one cares for you, about you, that your one life does not matter anymore.  Convinced you are just not worth it. Spiraling down into alcoholism, drug abuse, and depression. “When I am gone, no one will notice.”

Death by despair--the term used by some social scientists to describe an alarming state and nationwide increase in the number of deaths by suicide, liver disease, alcohol poisoning and drug overdose among one specific group of Americans: white, non-Hispanic men, middle aged, with a high school education or less.

So, for example, last year in Massachusetts, almost 2,000 people died from opioid-related drug overdoses; 1,200 from the above described demographic. That 2,000 figure is up 26 percent from 2014, a six fold increase since 2000. The hot spots for drug deaths are ground zero for poverty and joblessness in the Bay State: 141 deaths in Boston, 56 in Lowell, 25 in Lawrence, 45 in Lynn, 48 in New Bedford, 41 in Quincy, 41 in Springfield, and 76 in Worcester.         

This trend is happening nationwide too. In a groundbreaking but largely under-reported 2015 study about life expectancy rates among Americans, Princeton University economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case made a startling discovery. Since 1999, while every other age, racial and ethnic group in the United States has seen a rise in life expectancy, white middle aged men, ages 45 to 54, are dying at increasing rates. Deaths by alcohol and drug poisoning in this group are up by nearly 30 percent; chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis, 20 percent; suicides, up by 24 percent.  In trying to find a historic precedent, Deaton said, “Only H.I.V./AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this.”

Deaton and Case name two trends that might explain the phenomena: financial distress and social isolation. Real wages for the group have dropped by 19 percent since 1999 and the number of manufacturing jobs, once a dependable bulwark for this demographic, has dropped precipitously since 2000. 

And so the notion that you’d work in the same factory your father and grandfather did, provide for your family with a decent union job and middle class wages: that hope slowly fades and then dies.  And so you get sick but have little or no health insurance; the bills mount, you lose your job and turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain.  And so cheap drugs like heroin are easily available, sometimes cheaper than booze, and you use that substance to escape, if only for a few hours on the couch. And so businesses in town begin to close one by one; the social groups which once tied neighbor to neighbor—churches, clubs, bowling leagues, the Rotary, the Lions Club—these close too.  And so you live in a city where the young and well educated are moving in and housing costs skyrocket and you can no longer afford the rent, not on a minimum wage job.

And so…you despair.

The worst part of despair? Invisibility, the fear that no one sees you anymore. You’ve slipped through the cracks, unmoored from community, forgotten.  I imagine such despair can lead to great anger directed outward, maybe even seeking a messiah like figure who can rescue you and the memory of who you once were.  I imagine enclaves of despair in city neighborhoods and once proud mill towns, now lost in the hustle and the bustle and the pace of this brave new world we now call home.

As a nation, in these perilous times, we’ve got a lot to do to repair our social fabric across all demographic groups. We’ve got lots of folks who feel left out and who therefore despair. Faith teaches this: one of our main jobs as children of God and neighbors is to seek out the lost and lonely, the overlooked and powerless, folks left behind.

The antidote to despair is always hope and hope happens when someone takes an interest in our well being, takes the time to reach out. In church basements where addicts help other addicts.  In houses of worship where the hungry are fed. In the halls of government where the brave and the compassionate actually speak up on behalf of people other than the well connected and the powerful.

The despairing are out there, waiting for some one, any one, for you, me, to care.  Will we notice those who despair? I hope our answer is, “Yes”


    

        

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Big Old Elm Dies But First: It Makes History


“So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are…”             --Herman Hesse

It was called the Big Old Elm, or just B.O.E., the affectionate nickname given it by the neighbors who so dearly loved that tree. For 135 years this stately seven story high elm tree claimed Boston’s Marlborough Street, in the Back Bay, as its home. Such American elm trees (ulmus Americana) have marked this part of the world for thousands of years. Known for their graceful umbrella like canopies and the heights to which they can soar, the trees are loved for their longevity too, some living to 200 years or more.

But last week, B.O.E. had to come down. She was the victim of Dutch elm disease, a beetle borne fungus that has killed most of the American elms in North America. A stump now sits where she once stood so proud. A neighborhood mourns and yet: what a long life she lived!

When the tree came into the world, and that diminutive sapling first reached up to heaven for life giving sunlight and down into the soil for life giving water, her new home was marked by the “clop, clop” of horse hooves, carriages traveling up and down Marlborough Street. Boston was America’s fifth largest city. The new American President Chester A. Arthur championed civil service reform. The Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress ended all immigration from China. Boston’s baseball team the Red Stockings, had great hopes for the coming season at the South End Grounds on Columbus Avenue. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was in its first year. Mayor Samuel Abbott Green established the Franklin Fund to purchase land for Franklin Park. The poem “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman, was banned as obscene, by the city council.

Many of the folks living then, who walked by the tree each day, on the way to work or school, no doubt imagined that their time in history, that time in history: it was an unprecedented epoch. Some celebrated it as a golden age: the city booming, electricity for every home, soon on the way. Others knew it as a time of great troubles: immigrants and refugees discriminated against by the blue bloods. “No Irish Need Apply” signs hanging in the windows. 

People were born. People lived amazing and anonymous lives. People died. Time passed. And the tree grew.

For almost five generations, the tree stretched limbs upward, its leaves providing shade, as folks moved in and moved out of the brick townhouse at number 284. Babies were birthed in the third floor bedroom of that home. Children watched the leaves turn and drop and marveled when the tree bloomed all green and new again, come the spring. Lovers stole secret kisses in the shadow of its trunk. A soldier leaned against the tree’s wide girth, smoking a cigarette, before rushing off to catch a train, to go and fight in a war that would end all wars.

And the tree grew, a silent witness to the thousands of souls who strode past it daily: through bone chilling winters, and resurrection Aprils, sweltering summers and bittersweet autumns.     

Snow piled up against the tree and then melted away.  The weight of rushing streetcars shook its base and later, the blue smoke of car exhaust wafted up through its branches. The strong roots of the tree pushed at the bricks that encircled it; red rectangles scattered by the power of that living God made creation. Friends used the tree as a meeting place: “Look for me under the big tree just around the corner from Fairfield Street!” The tree’s relatives, scores of American elms which once graced the street from end to end, began to die, one by one, until finally she was the last of her kind.

One last hold out. One final survivor.

And then on February 8th, 2017, folks with chain saws arrived in bright yellow bucket trucks and over the course of a chilly and rainy winter’s day, took down that tree, limb by limb, as a crowd of brokenhearted witnesses watched in mute sadness.

Oh, to be such a tree!  To stand up, true and tall, through so much time. To somehow possess the wisdom of the world within your one strong and scarred body.  Humbled but never broken by the march of history, with all its triumphs, its defeats, its weight.  Faithful in the time that God plants us on this earth. Trusting in the goodness of existence, right up until the day that we breathe our last, and then return to the soil which gave us birth. 

Rest in peace, Big Old Elm.  We will miss you.


   


 


Monday, February 6, 2017

The Words We Live By As a Nation: Words Matter


“Words--so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them."  --Nathaniel Hawthorne

Words matter.

We live and we die, we are known, through the words that we speak, the words we write, and in 2017, the words, that we also tweet, we text, we post, and we send out into cyberspace. In just a few words or paragraphs: a heart can be broken, a dream denied or a heart can be mended, a dream realized. Words can set people free. Words can inspire a nation, even a world. Words can also imprison or oppress a people, or close a door, even threaten to tear down a cherished national myth.

And all with a mere stroke of a pen, or the posting of 140 characters on Twitter.

Words matter. 

“I hereby proclaim that the immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens from countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12) [Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Yemen], would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and I hereby suspend entry into the United States, as immigrants and nonimmigrants, of such persons for 90 days from the date of this order.”

“The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days....I hereby proclaim that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States and thus suspend any such entry until such time as I have determined that sufficient changes have been made to the USRAP to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest.” 

(The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, January 27, 2017)

Words matter.   

"’Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. ‘Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she with silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’"

(“The New Colossus”, 1883, Emma Lazarus, the Statue of Liberty, New York harbor)

Words matter: in these times, in all times.

Words of great wisdom, like ancient words from ancient texts that continue to be read and believed and followed, because of the truths these words proclaim; truths that transcend any specific time or place. Truths that last, generation to generation.

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” --Leviticus 19:33-34

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” --Matthew 25:25-36

(The Holy Bible)

Words matter, whether expressed by the powerful or the powerless, for by our words, both written and embodied, we will all be judged. Of that I am absolutely sure. Words need no spin nor interpretation nor analysis. Words finally speak for themselves.  Words reveal character, conscience, and conviction. 

What words will we live by? What words will define us, in this time and in this place, and in this moment in our history?

Words matter.