Thursday, May 25, 2017

Remembering the Story of One Unknown Soldier



The Unknown Soldier stands for us as symbol of this blind and far-reaching fury of modern conflict.      --Heywoud Broun

His name was Leroy Johnston and unless you are a scholar of World War I or African-American history, chances are very good that you’ve never heard his remarkable, sad and largely forgotten story.  Like most soldiers, he is unknown. Take a walk through a veterans’ cemetery this Memorial Day weekend, pass by row after row of white granite markers that stand erect, as if still on duty, and then read all the names. The countless names. Almost all of them are now forgotten, save to their loved ones, if they are still alive to remember.

Whole wars even fade from collective memory, like World War I, Johnston’s war, “the war to save democracy”, as the recruiting posters then proclaimed.  Though this worldwide conflagration that America officially entered on April 6th, 1917 took more than 38 million lives, birthed modern warfare and shaped the world we know today, 100 years later it has become, in a way, our unknown war. 

And so here is one unknown soldier’s story from an unknown war. 

1917. Like many African-Americans in the early part of the 20th century, Johnston wanted to find a way up and out of the hard life he lived, as the son of poor sharecroppers, in the brutal and violent Jim Crow south. With the outbreak of the war Johnston, like many of his peers, saw signing up to fight as a way to prove to white America that blacks were just as patriotic and willing to serve their country.  The hope was that if black soldiers fought valiantly over there, when they returned “over here”, the United States could not help but take notice and finally grant equal rights and racial justice for all.  As W.E. DuBois noted in advocating for black participation in the war, “Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy." By war’s end, 375,000 African-Americans served.

In November 1917 Johnston traveled from the Mississippi delta to New York City and signed up as a recruit for the Harlem Hellfighters, the 115th National Guard Regiment of New York City, an all black unit. Though President Woodrow Wilson and Supreme Expeditionary General John Pershing were reluctant to empower African-American soldiers, finally in early 1918, the Hellfighters were assigned to France’s Command and went overseas. The 115th were the very first Americans to fight in the war. For the next two years they were among the most decorated of American units, recognized as fierce, tough and tenacious.  Of the original 2,000 soldiers who fought, 1,300 were killed or wounded, one of the highest casualty rates of the war. Johnston saw the worst of battle at the Meuse-Argonne, sustaining such serious wounds that he spent nine months in French hospitals. 

In October 1919, just a few weeks before the final Armistice and end of the war, Johnston was traveling by train to his home in Philips County, Arkansas. He’d returned in July, ready to resume his life.  Unbeknownst to him, the county that day was ablaze with race riots, that were breaking out across the South, as returning black soldiers rightfully expected and demanded to be treated with dignity and respect as veterans.  And so as Johnston sat on that train with three of his brothers, a mob of whites rushed aboard and dragged out the Johnstons.

As the Public Broadcasting System WWI documentary “The Great War” reports: “The mob accused [Johnston] of distributing ammunition to the insurrectionists, then shoved the four brothers into the back of a car with an armed guard. By most accounts one grabbed the guard’s gun and managed to kill him. In the next instant the mob shot the Johnston brothers to pieces. Leroy Johnston had survived some of the hardest fighting of the Great War. He hadn’t survived his homecoming.”

So this weekend may we remember the unknown soldiers like Leroy Johnston.  Remember: the millions of American men and women who respond to the call of their nation to take up arms and defend freedom. Remember: that on the battlefield, the blood that is shed is always red and the cost of war does not discriminate. Remember: that sometimes wars to save democracy are fought overseas and sometimes struggles for liberty happen right in our own backyard.  Still happen to this day.

Remember. God help us remember and to never forget. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

When a Public Library Dies, Is Democracy Next?


“A public library is the most democratic thing in the world.”            --Doris Lessing

According to the American Library Association, there are 17,566 public libraries in the United States. That’s more locations than Starbucks.  Public libraries receive about 4 million in person visits per day, 1.5 billion per year, or 2,554 per minute, so by the time I finish writing this sentence another 5,000 of my fellow Americans just went to the library.  These days going to the library isn’t just about the books, though that’s the majority of what folks read or peruse or borrow or research in the stacks and shelves of our local bibliotheques.  (That’s French for “library”, which I learned at the library.)

Library patrons also surf the net. If you lack access to high speed internet or just need help with the computer, the library’s often the place to go.  The homeless seek warmth and shelter within those walls too. Curious kids carry oversized piles of colorful books and plop down in a sunny corner room for a quiet afternoon.  Local authors plug their latest books.  Frequent road trippers like me check out books on CD for long car rides.  Seniors read the newspaper.  Public forums on everything from frogs to fascism to fashion happen within that space too. 

The public library may be the most democratic of civic institutions left in the United States.  At a time when distrust of anything “public” or supported by government funds is at an all time high, it is right and good to remember the miracle of that little brick building tucked away on Main Street or that soaring edifice in the city center or a simple one room edifice on a quiet rural back road. 

The public’s library. 

The “public” means that everybody is welcome, EVERYBODY: no exceptions. As common repositories of knowledge and information, art and literature, new magazines and dusty old manuscripts, libraries are secular cathedrals of wisdom, open for all and free for all. Doesn’t matter if you are a high powered genius M.I.T. researcher hunched over mathematical tomes or a squirmy toddler clutching his very first book. 

That is unless you live in Roseburg, Oregon, a city of 21,903 folks in southwest Oregon, the biggest city in Douglas County.  Voters there last fall rejected a measure to add $6 a month on to their tax bills, to keep open the county’s eleven public libraries, including the one in Roseburg.  The sign at the front desk of that library says it all. As of June 1st, “All services will cease.” According to a May 13th New York Times article about the demise of that public library, the shuttering is due to fervent anti-tax, anti-government sentiment among county citizens. Twenty four hour law enforcement coverage has ceased in Roseburg too. Jails are severely under funded and non-violent offenders are routinely set free. Elections are at risk too: no one to pay the clerk. The irony is that the county property tax rate is actually sixty percent lower than the statewide average.  

Yes, the citizens there have the absolute right to de-fund practically everything “public” I suppose.  That’s democracy too.  Makes me wonder what’s next to go? How about street lights, road repair, ambulance service, firefighting, maybe even public schools? 

But a place without a public library?  I just cannot fathom this truth, and all to save just $96 per year, per citizen. When the “public” is no longer “public”, when cynicism and anger against all things government reaches this kind of fever pitch, we are in very, very big trouble as a people. Not just in Oregon. Every where across the United States.  Democracy is only as vibrant and alive as the commitment of the folks who are “the public” in “the public” to be “the public”. 

That’s you. That’s me.  That’s all of us.    

So instead give me the sign that graces the front desk in the new addition at one of the crown jewels of American public libraries, the Boston Public Library’s central branch downtown.  Walk through the Boylston Street doors at the BPL and there, emblazoned for every one to see, is this simple welcome: “Free to All”.  Okay, not really “free”.  Citizen taxes pay for the library, and companies and corporations too, along with private donations. But finally the public library is free to all, because the public supports the public and then all of us pay our fair share.  Together. All in for all,  the public.  That’s the way it is supposed to work. 

So maybe I’ll see you at the public library.  I’m the one reading the French to English dictionary.  Dieu merci pour la bibliothèque publique!
 

 
 
 


    







Monday, May 8, 2017

The Red Sox and Racism: Say It Ain't So....


“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."  --James Baldwin

Say it ain’t so Sox fans.

Last week while the Red Sox were battling the Baltimore Orioles baseball team on the field, things got really ugly off the field, in the stands, on a blustery and chilly Monday night.  Orioles’ center fielder Adam Jones was the target of racial slurs hurled from the bleachers by lughead Boston fans. To the Sox credit, the team responded quickly and forcefully, decrying the incident and instituting a new fan behavior policy. Future similar racist incidents will now result in immediate ejection and a lifetime ban from the park.  Fans even stepped up the next day by giving Jones a standing ovation on his first at bat.

End of story? Afraid not. 

Because that would mean the end of the ancient and stubborn human sins of racism and bias.  Now I believe that most humans in society and the world do hope and pray for that great day, when, in the words of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., all will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the contents of their character.  That’s the good news. That’s the dream of the majority of humankind. Of God, absolutely.

But the truth? We’ve got a long, long way to go yet.

Especially when we are still unwilling, as a society and individually, to confess to and to own our inherent bias and prejudice, as human beings.  The truth that all, ALL OF US, carry within, the seeds of prejudice. Of looking at another and seeing a “them” or “those people” and not a flesh and blood child of God, just like us.  Our species seems hard wired for racism, for “–isms” of all kinds. I know I am. My clergy collar does not exempt me from primordial feelings of fear or threat or anger or judgment towards those I perceive to be different than me.  Race. Gender. Religion. Sexual orientation. Culture. Class. Politics. 

What I have come to learn is this: until I face into that truth for me, own that reality, nothing will change in terms of how I live in this world. 

Let’s be clear. To face this truth is really, really hard.  As a lifelong Sox fan, I don’t want to face into the often ugly racial history of our beloved hometown team.  The fact the Sox were the absolute last team in major league baseball to integrate, thirteen years after Jackie Robinson broke into the big leagues in 1946 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The fact that beloved African-American players in Boston through the years, like Jim Rice; they were subject to racism, and not just on the field or from the stands, but in the community too, the local places they chose to live and to raise a family. 

I get that no one wants to be labeled prejudice.  Not me.  Not any of us. I get the reluctance and fear to look at ourselves so clearly, so without bias, when it comes to our bias. But here’s my truth: until I can admit to having a problem, the problem itself can’t and won’t change.  Until I can confess that I, in fact, at times, actually benefit in this world: because of my skin color and how I choose to worship and who I choose to love; until I lean into this, things won’t change. I won’t change. The world won’t change.

I have to face the truth. Hear the truth too.

“Want to come to a Red Sox game with me?” Thirty years ago I was a first year divinity student at Boston University, a five minute walk down Commonwealth Avenue to Fenway Park.  I offered this innocent invite to an African-American classmate of mine who’d told me she’d never seen a game. 

“John: have you ever really looked around at the crowd at a game?  Do you see a lot of folks who look like me?”

 I thought about it for a moment. “No.” I confessed, confused and sad at this truth. 

She said, “I just don’t feel safe or welcomed there, or in a lot of other parts of Boston either. But thanks for the invitation.”

When it comes to bias, we as a people, a city, a nation and a world: we’ve come a long, long way.  But…we’ve still got a long, long way to go.  That’s the truth.  Just ask Adam Jones.







     

      

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

In Praise of REAL Blue Jeans, REAL Life and Just Being Real


“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”       --Margery Williams
"The Velveteen Rabbit"

Levi’s blue jeans. 505’s. Mine are thirty four inch waist, thirty two inch length, unwashed, $34 a pair at a local store. Deep indigo blue, the color of a dark winter night’s sky, with multiple wearings and washings, my Levi’s eventually fade as they get broken in.  The older, the more worn, the more ragged, the more “real”, all the better.       

In the American wardrobe there may be nothing quite as “real” as a trusty pair of Levi’s blue jeans. Unlike other clothes that can fade in popularity as they age, get shoved to the back of the closet or dumped into the Goodwill bin, jeans improve with the wear and tear of real life. Get more “real” somehow, even as they break down.

Created as work pants in the late 19th century for western workmen by two immigrants-- Latvian tailor Jacob Davis and German fabric supplier Levi Strauss--overalls (they weren’t called jeans until the 1950’s) were and are still made for real life. Copper rivets secure fabric that’s practically indestructible. There’s a handy watch pocket too. Well worn and dusty blue, there may be no more comfortable or utilitarian or real pair of pants on the planet, at least to this Levi’s acolyte. Except for a traumatic middle school episode when, in a fit of household expense cutting, my Mom tried to make me wear Sears Toughskin jeans (HERESY!), I’ve been a Levi’s guy all my life. 

So it was with a mix of humor and horror I read recently that the Nordstrom’s Department store chain now sells a pair of $425 “jeans” with a “heavily distressed” look and “real” mud stains too! Thus quoth Nordstrom’s: the pants “embody rugged, Americana workwear that's seen some hard-working action with a crackled, caked-on muddy coating that shows you're not afraid to get down and dirty.”

Except that if you have to buy fake jeans with fake mud and dirt falsely caked on, you probably haven’t seen “hard-working action” beyond taking an I-Phone out of those pants to pay for a Unicorn Frappucinno at the local Starbucks. To be fair: I’m not a steelworker riveting together a skyscraper or a cow hand riding a bucking horse in my jeans either. The most action my Levi’s see these days is getting mud stained in the garden or worn out from wrangling an ornery office chair.

What strikes me most about this weird idea of work jeans, is that it seeks to convey to the world that you are someone, who in fact you are not. How all too human that behavior is. How common.  How normative.  And at its worst, how sad. To try and be someone we are not: like a pseudo mud stained worker. To imagine, even, that we are not good enough or worthy enough just as we are: real, as God made us, and so instead we don absurdly expensive fake work jeans.  We try to become someone else.

We get a nip here or a tuck there or a stealth injection to stave off the wrinkles. “My looks are who I am.” Or a woman sees powerful cultural cues that declare only thin is good, extra fat is bad, and so she frantically diets, or worse, secretly binges and purges.  “If I’m really ‘real’, folks won’t like me. I won’t like me.” And so a teen decides that because he did not get into his first choice school, there must be something really wrong with him and so he hurts himself, falls into depression. “I’m dumb.  Every one else is smarter than me.” And so a fifty-something unemployed man drinks too much to take the edge off his feelings of worthlessness.  “If I was young I’d get that job.”

To be real, to be really real: it is very hard work in this life. To get real. To be the actual person our Creator made us to be.  To remember and accept that we are all like a beloved pair of old jeans.  We’ve got our rips and tears, our frayed edges and our imperfect seams, our holes and our patches. But that’s what it means to be human.  To be authentic.  To be loved.  And we worked hard for every one of those imperfections too! No counterfeit dirt for us. 

So when it comes to real life, just give me my funky and fading 505’s every single time.  It’s who I am. In a way it’s who we all are too: beautiful, God-made, broken in, and really and truly real. 

REAL.  






 

     



Sunday, April 23, 2017

Whatever Happened to News As the Facts and Not Spin?


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 much watch CNN or NewsMax or “The Daily Show” or most any other network or local “news” show anymore. I’d rather read news online or in print, where I can quickly turn the page. Or listen to the news, switch to music if necessary. Anything but watch the news.  For TV “news” is now a misnomer.  “News” is now instead interpretation of facts; is spin or analysis, rarely straight up reporting. “News” is entertainment offered through an ideological filter.  Fox right. CNN 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 TV 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 retro 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.