Monday, November 13, 2017

One Is The Loneliest Number: Smartphones And Our Lost Generation of Kids

Disrupt (verb) 1. to cause disorder or turmoil; to radically change; to destroy

When did the world shift? When did the world turn on its axis, never, ever to be the same again?  When did life, as we know it, change forever?

When you are standing in the middle of history in the making, it's almost impossible to make such judgments. No one would have predicted on October 31st, 1517, that the act of the German monk Martin Luther would so disrupt his world.  He nailed a list of 95 complaints to the door of a local house of worship. Within a generation, a 1,500 year old way of life collapsed. Kingdoms fell, revolutions rose, wars raged and the cry for soul freedom was given voice.

All because of one event.

Who could have have predicted that the failed political coup of an unemployed house painter named Adolf Hitler on November 8, 1923 would one day lead to the most deadly conflagration of the twentieth century? That the defiant act of a tired housekeeper named Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus on December 1, 1955, would give birth to the civil rights movement?  Who could have predicted that June 29th, 2007 was another such disruptive day in human history?   

That's the first day the very first Apple I-Phone was sold.  Hard to fathom it was only a little more than ten years ago, barely a blip from a history perspective, that the first true consumer friendly smartphone was available for purchase.  Just one decade later, in 2017, 1,000,000,000 I-Phones are in the hands of users from the Antarctic to Zimbabwe.  More than 2,200,000,000 folks worldwide have and use smartphones for just about anything and everything: buying and selling, talking and texting, surfing the net and going to school, dating and mating, starting revolutions and starting businesses, and all with a device small enough to fit in your pocket or your purse. 

Utopia, right?  June 29, 2007 was a great day! Thank God for disruption!

At least that's what the four horsemen of the tech revolution want us to believe, need us to believe: Google and Apple and Facebook and Amazon.  They make billions of dollars on such disruption: changing so radically and so fast how we human beings relate to one another, everywhere, all the time.  In our families.  In our communities. At work.  In government.  At church.  As consumers. There is nowhere left on earth that our handheld devices do not disrupt.

But as the comedian and blogger Baratunde Thurston recently said, "Just because you are a good software engineer does not mean you are a good social engineer."  So even as we revel in the disruption and benefits of technology, we also need to try and understand just what this all means for life with one another.  For the quality and the fabric and the depth of all our social relationships: around the dining room table and at temple, and in the voting booth and in the neighborhood, and perhaps most important for our kids, our children, they, who, in the words of author and San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Jean M. Twenge, are "IGen".  As in "Generation IPhone", the young adults and teens and tweens and children of today.  They were born with smartphones in hand.

In a sobering September 2017 Atlantic magazine article, "Have Smartphones Destroyed A Generation?" Twenge's research on kids born between 1995 and 2012, is heartbreaking.  How have smartphones and social media changed our kids' lives? Lenge's research shows that from 2007 on, these young people report spending less time hanging out with friends, are less likely to seek a driver's license, are dating less, are much more likely to report feeling more lonely and more left out, and are less likely to get enough sleep. 

But here's the line from her story that just slayed me.  IGen kids actually have more leisure time than past generations, in part because they do not work jobs as much. "So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed."  That's why reports of depression and anxiety are soaring among high school and college students.  And suicide attempts.  And anxiety.  Imagine looking into a mirror/screen all alone for so many hours and seeing all of these supposedly "great" lives going on and wondering and worrying, "Why can't that be me?"  Imagine being so tethered to a machine that you sleep with it, look at it first thing when you wake up, last thing before you go to bed.

When did the world change?  In years to come, folks in the future just may say June 29th, 2007.  What disrupted everything?  You are holding it in your hand or it is very nearby: chirping, chiming, and always calling: to us and to our children too. 

How will we answer the call of history? May God grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these disruptive days.

(Illustration by Jasu Hu)

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Best Thing About a Really Bad Day? There's Always Tomorrow!

“You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don't help.”
--Bill Watterson, "Calvin and Hobbes" comic

Think you had a bad day? Maybe it started with a lukewarm cup of pumpkin spice coffee from Dunkin' Donuts you failed to discover the clerk had mistakenly given to you in the drive-thru. Stomach churning traffic on the Pike heading into the city for work.  Did you burn the family dinner, go from gourmet cook to culinary disaster in sixty seconds?  Or you forgot to hit "save" on the big project just before your computer crashed.

There's bad days.  And then there's really bad days.

Like those endured by Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish, who in the recently completed epic 2017 Major League Baseball World Series lost not one, but two games, to the eventual champion Houston Astros. Darvish's earned run average (the number of runs he'd have given up if he pitched a full nine innings) was 21.6, more akin to football than the sandlot. In the seventh and deciding game, he and his team fell behind so quickly, 5-0, that most folks in the stands hadn't even bitten into their second hot dog.  And he went down to defeat in front of 54,124 heartbroken hometown fans.

No place to hide. A very public and a very, very, very bad day (night actually).

But give Darvish credit. He didn't have to, wasn't expected to, yet post game Darvish faced a scrum of reporters and reflected on his performance.  Speaking through an interpreter, Darvish, whose first language is Japanese, said, "I had bad days and that means somebody else had a great day." With that bit of eastern wisdom, Darvish packed up his stuff and went back home for an offseason of wondering "why?" 

Why do we have such bad days?  Why on one grey morning when we awaken, do we step into a tidy "package" the new puppy left bedside because we were tardy in letting him out? Why does the toast blacken and the train arrive late? Why are the kids surly and the new boss fuming as we rush into the office at 9:15?  Why is the printer out of toner only when we need to print out the movie tickets? Why does the toilet overflow just as guests arrive for the big dinner party? Why, when the catcher clearly called for a slider, low and outside, did you instead throw a big fastball, a meatball, right down the fat part of the plate?  That one is outta here and still in orbit!

You had a bad day.  We all have bad days.

Filled with bad impulses as we speak, when clearly we should just keep our mouths shut. Bad breaks when it seems like the universe conspires against us.  Bad streaks when we can't catch just a little luck. And so in the midst of this day. How goes it? Good? Bad? Middling? Are you pitching a no-hitter or watching the baseballs just fly out of the park?

Here's the good news about bad days. 

They end.  Eventually you pull your car into the driveway.  You walk in the front door. You remove the bullseye from your back and you sit down and you take a deep breath and you thank God that this one bad day is finally, almost over. Because the truth is that with this one amazing life, beautiful and broken, ugly and gorgeous, miraculous and mundane: every single new morning we get to start it all over again. Our creator mercifully and faithfully, gives to each of us a brand new day to begin again. Every twenty four hours. Guaranteed. A reset. A do over. A reshuffle. 

And so even while those bad days are truly bad, these bumps along the way can make our good days that much sweeter. That much more graceful.  That much more surprising and wonderful.  So the person in front of you at Dunkin' Donuts pays for your coffee in an act of unexpected kindness. And the traffic into Boston is light and you find a parking spot on the first try.  And dinner is a hit with the kids and they actually ask for seconds.  And you finish that work project early enough to watch the game on TV.

Good days. Bad days. had a bad day.  At least you didn't lose the seventh game of the World Series.  And guess what? There's always next year and yes, there's always tomorrow too.  Who knows? It just might be a good day!

Here's hoping....



Monday, October 30, 2017

Learning to Fall: The Grace of Autumn

Fall (verb) 1. to drop or descend under the force of gravity; (noun) the season of the year that comes after summer and before winter        --Random House Dictionary

First there’s the realization that you are no longer fully upright and standing, that gravity has somehow conspired to hurtle you bodily towards the ground.  Then there’s the surprise and split second preparation. Now that I am tumbling downward, what can I do?  Then the response: a hand thrust out, a shoulder prepared for impact on the earth. Then the thud as our body makes impact.  All when we fall.  Go from upright to down low.  From vertical to horizontal.  One moment looking out at life and the next looking down at the ground.

How did that happen? How did we fall?

Well...we miss a step while racing up the stairs with a basket full of laundry and then tumble forward, landing on hands and knees.  We run out on to a slick leaf covered driveway much too fast and go horizontal. We get so caught up in a conversation and the beautiful scenery of an autumnal walk in the woods that we fail to see a branch on the ground just waiting to trip us up. Most of the time when this happens, beyond a skinned knee or bruised dignity, we end up o.k., a bit shaken up perhaps, but once again able to stand back up and yet...aware, that to fall is the most human of realities. 

We all fall at some point.  Fall, stumble, brought back down to earth, laid low, humbled: by our bodies, by our circumstances, by our pride, by our lives, by life, by events beyond our control. 

To live is just to fall.

Toddlers do it as they learn to walk.  Teens do it when they rush too fast.  Adults do it when they forget they aren’t quite as lithe as they used to be. Seniors dread a fall: it can mean an injury and the end of independence.  In the end we humans all fall.  That verb “fall” first appears in language around the 1200s and means to fail, decay or die.  At about the same time the noun “fall”, connoting the season between summer and winter appears, shortened from “fall as a leaf”.

To fall is universal.  No one escapes it.  Not the most well balanced of ballerinas nor the least steady of elders. The question isn’t “if” but “when”.  Then the more important question might be: “So how do we fall?” Fall the right way and we avoid injury. Fall the wrong way and “ouch!”, and not just in our bodies but in our souls too, in our daily journey. 

How to fall?   

That’s the physical and spiritual struggle a man named Philip Simmons faced, when as a 34 year old, he was diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, an affliction marked by deteriorating muscle function. Simmons learned early on that ALS inevitably leads to many falls but he also discovered if he fell the “right” way he didn’t get hurt.  For Simmons this act of falling was about so much more than a little tumble: to fall was actually a powerful metaphor for all the struggles we humans go through as we bang up against our mortality, our frailty as human beings, the finitude of life. 

As he wrote in his beautiful 2000 memoir, “Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life”, “We have all suffered, and will suffer, our own falls. The fall from youthful ideals, the waning of physical strength, the failure of a cherished hope, the loss of our near and dear, the fall into injury or sickness, and late or soon, the fall to our certain ends. We have no choice but to fall, and little say as to the time or the means. We are all—all of us—falling. We are all, now, this moment, in the midst of that descent, fallen from heights that may now seem only a dimly remembered dream, falling toward a depth we can only imagine, glimpsed beneath the water’s surface shimmer. And so let us pray that if we are falling from grace, dear God let us also fall with grace, to grace. If we are falling toward pain and weakness, let us also fall toward sweetness and strength. If we are falling toward death, let us also fall toward life.”

Fall as a season is a perfect time to think about this question of whether or not to fall with courage and acceptance or to fall with fear and struggle. All around us nature is now falling: from abundance to scarcity, from green to brown, and from full to fallow fields.  Animals hunker down and prepare for chilly times.  The Sun wanes and temperatures fall. Earth falls.  The gift of faith reminds us that although we are all made by God as “good” we are also made imperfect and so falls are just a given. That’s the rhythm of life.

Yes fall is right here and right now. This Halloween week is about the halfway point between summer and winter.  Those trees in the yard are well into shedding their leaves, as bits of organic matter let go and then drift back down to earth, fall and fall, and come back down to the ground. Fall is always here: the bittersweet and profound truth that we all fall.  So what and where in your life are you falling into or towards right now?  Another birthday?  A shift in a relationship?  A body which is breaking down? Or just change? 

We all fall. It is fall. So try and remember and trust that God is here in the fall too, not so much to catch us, as to give us the grace to fall and to fall well.  See you on the way down. Happy autumn.

Monday, October 23, 2017

God Knows We Are Good Enough. Do We?

"Dear God: You're God. I'm not. Thank God. Amen."
--Alcoholics Anonymous Prayer

It's what I call my rite of autumn. 

The letter of recommendation: written by me, for a young man or a young woman, a senior in high school, who is preparing to apply for admission to college.  I make it known to all the young adults I am blessed to pastor to, that if they ask me, I will joyfully and enthusiastically put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and create a heartfelt essay extolling all their virtues, the "whys" of what makes each of them as children of God amazing candidates for higher education.  In a typical season I'll pen five or six such tomes, along with a few Eagle Scout letters and job recommendations too.

But first I make them sit down and meet face to face and talk to me about their hopes and dreams for the future and their lives. They always share some mighty big goals--exciting stuff! But even as they reach so high, have such huge expectations for themselves, this is what I always try to tell them, give just one piece of spiritual advice. 

"You are already good enough. You know that, right?  No matter what school accepts or rejects you, it means nothing about your essential worth and goodness as a person.  Harvard or Haverford or UMass doesn't determine that. You already 'got in' with God.  I hope you can you remember that?  You are already good enough."

I think they hear me. I hope they hear me.  I pray they hear me.

Because the truth is that in 2017, for an increasing number of the youth I counsel, teach and know in my work and family life, high school and college kids, young adults and recent grads, down deep inside, too often, they are somehow convinced that they are just not good enough.   Not good enough, at some "deep in their bones" level. 

Not thin enough or smart enough.  Not intelligent enough to get into the "best" school or pretty enough to date a popular boy or girl.  Not creative enough to sing in a band or write a short story.  Not "successful" enough to live up to the real or perceived expectations of their parents and peers.  Not cool enough to be like the amazingly hip friends they obsessively follow on social media, all of whom seem to lead such perfect lives.

Just not good enough.

And so they secretly binge or purge and use food in response to that pain. Or they pack their schedules so full of academics and activities that they stress themselves into migraine headaches.  Or they spiral down into substance abuse to numb feelings.  Or they shut down and stay away from school or church or family and escape into the internet and video games.  Or they pin all their hopes on getting into that "ONE" school and if they don't, they are sure that their world and life as they know it is over.

If only this were an affliction of the young.  I see it in their parents too, in my peers, in me, at times. A constant chronic struggle to somehow measure up to some perfect ideal.  To live a curated and perfect life just like the ones we see on Facebook everyday, right? Trophy spouse. Spotless house. Kids right out of the "Sound of Music"! Vacations in paradise.  This is how life is supposed to be... and if this isn't how your life is, well then there must be something very wrong with you. 

You're not good enough. 

So do more. Be more.  Have a couple more beers or martinis at day's end to take the edge off.  Kill yourself at work to impress the boss.  Get up at 4 to go to the gym. Double down on the mortgage for a bigger house.  Lose yourself in another relationship and forget how sad you really are. The apple does not fall very far from the tree.

The desire for good things in life is natural and good. We want and need to love and be loved.  To discover and then use the unique gifts and talents God has given each of us.  We see a broken world and we want to make a difference with each of our lives.  We want to enjoy life in the deepest sense. 

But life is not and has never been perfect.  We try and triumph. We try and fail. We try and get halfway.  We are not perfect, not by a long shot.  But we are good and we are God's and we are good enough.  God certainly knows this, but do we?  Do our children know this?

Good enough.  And yes, I'm happy to write a letter of recommendation for you too.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Stories of Sexual Harassment: Will You Ask? Will You Listen?

Harass (verb) 1. to annoy persistently  2. to create an unpleasant or hostile situation especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical contact

Go ahead. Ask them.

Ask the women in your life--moms and sisters, wives and friends, daughters and neighbors: as a man, ask them, if, as women, they've ever experienced sexual harassment.  A leering look or sexually charged remark from a boss. An invite from a married male colleague for drinks after work.  A dirty joke shared in mixed company designed to embarrass or shock.  An outright pass from a supervisor with the unspoken or spoken understanding that if said pass is accepted one's career might just advance faster.

Ask.  And then just listen.     

I guarantee much of the time you will be shocked by the responses, by the truth that unwanted sexual attention by men towards women in the workplace is still so much more prevalent and common than society, and men, want to face up to. Almost all the women I know have at least one such story to share, often many more.  The fact it takes revelations around a Harvey Weinstein to remind us of this ongoing reality is all the more sad.  Weinstein is the now quickly falling and fading mega-powerful Hollywood producer whose apparently well deserved reputation as a lothario and harasser of women, was first reported in a blockbuster New York Times story last week. 

His story might be more shocking if it wasn't so typical. A powerful man uses the power of his position to intimidate, harass, or exploit women.  It can be a producer or the President, a minister or a CEO, a blue collar boss or a white collar manager. The setting matters less than the power dynamic, a relationship within which the one who has less power is subtly or not so subtly pushed or threatened to "just play along" for if they do not, the implication is clear.  Careers will be delayed, detoured, derailed or destroyed.

The time for self congratulation as a society is over, the comforting myth that we've come "so far".  Yes, the atmosphere in many workplaces is "better" for women, better than in generations past and yet still this stubborn societal sin of harassment (and its twin, bias)  hangs on. We may not be in the age of "Mad Men" any more but in so many major industries, women are grossly underrepresented in circles of power: high tech, government, filmmaking, and religion, to name but a few. This dearth of female leadership creates an atmosphere within which harassment easily flourishes, a locker room mentality.  It's far too easy and normative for "boys to be boys" when boys are the only people in the room.

I've been blessed in my life to be surrounded by smart, committed, ambitious and talented women, both in my family and in my work. I've grown up in a faith that declares the call by God to serve others has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with faithfulness. And I do so want to live in a world where all of us are given the chance to  become who God makes us to be, without any fear or any prejudice. That's the vision. That's the hope.  For me.

But even more important, that's the hope for Chloe and Caroline and Emily and Kara.  For Barb and Kathy and Lynne and Claire and Mary.  For Mom and Aunt Carol and Nancy and Linda.  Who are the women in your life who need to tell you their story? Who need to be heard? And more important, who needs to soar, to simply be given the chance to take the talents and the gifts that their God has given them and then succeed? Shine?

Go ahead.  Ask.  And then...listen to their stories.




Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Is It Still Possible to Go Local in an Amazon World?

“Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote for the kind of world you want."
            --Anna Lappe

$16.70. $17.84.  $27.99.

What would you pay for an item, given these three prices?

The cheapest one, right? The most inexpensive. The purchase that lightens your wallet the least. That's how I usually decide and make a logical consumer choice. Those prices, in order, are the cost for a hardcover copy of the best-selling memoir "Hillbilly Elegy", on, (shipped or in store) and from one of the last independent bookstores in my part of the world, Wellesley Books, right on Central Street, in the village, as locals call it.

I faced that choice recently when folks from the community I serve decided to read and study "...Elegy". I dutifully took everyone's orders and then...well, where to buy? Online or local?  Next door or from a far away warehouse? Cyber purchase or an up close transaction?

Calculated capitalism tells me to always buy the least expensive book, no questions, no doubts. Our bare knuckles marketplace always rules and so I should reward the bookseller offering the lowest price with my business. At a steep savings of $11.22 a copy at Amazon, the answer should be clear. Sign on to the internet, order with a few keystrokes and two days later the books arrive. No driving to the store. No hunting for a parking space. No scanning the stacks searching for my title. No need to actually visit a bricks and mortar address. It's true that online book sellers can go so cheap by taking a financial loss on "...Elegy" and other best sellers, but who am I to question such a deal?! 

Pick. Click. Read.

I should have picked Amazon. It keeps with my usual book buying habits: from the first of this year until now, I've already purchased 33 books from them! Yes: "My name's John and I am a book-aholic." Except, as you might have guessed, this time I ordered the books from that local bookstore.

It's the "local" in that sentence that finally changed my mind.  Local, as in nearby, owned and operated by neighbors and maybe even friends. Local, as in a real place to shop on a real "Main Street": an actual storefront with a front door and inside, folks who help customers find what they are looking for.  Local, as in a place where authors come to talk about their writing, where children plop down on the floor surrounded by titles, while Mom or Dad or Grandma looks for a good read and bargain hunters scour the basement for used books.  Local, as in sharing community with others, fellow book lovers.  And all right here, not somewhere out "there".

This isn't an anti-Amazon rant. I will still buy lots of stuff and some books, too, from Amazon. It is one of a score of companies that disrupt old business models and have flourished in our new cyber economy in this new century.  Whether it is booking our own travel, or buying anything, or hailing a cab, or connecting in community: every thing about how we humans actually do things in the world is radically changing and very fast too.  To imagine we can turn back this tide of social transformation is fallacy.

Yet still...every time we spend a dollar on a book or a pair of jeans, on a hammer or new shoes online; every time we bypass the downtown for a big box store; every time we dine at a generic chain restaurant, we, as consumers shape the quality of the places, the real places we call home. Going local reminded me I still need a local bookstore for a sacred hour to wander through the books and touch their spines and see those tomes up close and then imagine where these might take me. I need a local downtown cafe that sells locally grown food from the farmer's market. I need a cramped family owned diner where I can be with my brother face to face, and share life and stories and eggs over easy, rye toast on the side.  I need a thrift store or a junk store or an antique store to linger over musty records, used books and ancient posters. And I've actually found a nearby hardware store that's smaller than the state of New Jersey.

These hopes aren't just wistful nostalgia. I'll bet you wince too when you go to a downtown or walk a city street and see closed storefronts and wonder just where the heck are all those local places we once loved, places that defined a place as a place.  Even in 2017, there is something graceful and good we experience when we are connected deeply to communal spaces: town greens and urban squares, places to walk and shop and eat and connect and yes, to spend our dollars.   

To get local, to be local, and to claim "local" as home: that is still priceless.


Monday, October 2, 2017

Beyond the Anthem: What Does It Really Mean to Be a Patriot?

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control, 
Thy liberty in law!
--Katherine Lee Bates, 
"America the Beautiful", 1911

Just what does it mean to be a patriot and patriotic and who gets to decide?

This is at the heart of a culture wide debate that's emerged in the past two weeks as many NFL players, coaches and owners have chosen to take a knee or thrust a fist in the air, during the playing of the national anthem before games.  In response many of the fans in the stands, fellow citizens, even the President, have chosen to critique these protests as unpatriotic.

Some history: though the "Star Spangled Banner" is now routinely played and sung before thousands of professional and amateur sporting events, it was not always so. The tradition first began in baseball, in 1862, during a professional game in Brooklyn at the height of the Civil War and then later, in Boston, 1918, during the World Series, at a time when World War I raged.  There followed periodic occurrences. Then during World War II in 1942, Major League Baseball adopted this ritual as the norm before all games. The NFL adopted it as official league policy in August 1945.

It's telling to note that the context in the past, for players and fans to stand and sing the anthem, was always during wartime. There were few in the stands or on the field who had not been directly touched, effected, or hurt by war and the communal sacrifices it demanded.  Especially in World War II, essentially everyone at the game had sacrificed: served, fought, faced war rationing, worked in a war factory, hung blue or gold stars in their front windows, signifying a member of the household serving overseas. A gold star meant that a family had lost a son or daughter to war.  I'd say those folks were certainly patriots and patriotic.

But today, at least for this fan and citizen, the singing of the national anthem at games, save for a rare poignant moment, like at the first New York Yankees game after 9/11, or the first game after the Marathon bombings, when the fields were filled with first responders, the anthem can seem rote.  A ritual, still with great aspirations, but one which means...what? What does it mean when we sing that song in 2017 at a game? That's a question no one has asked, certainly not with any great thought. 

What does it mean for you? As you participate in this tradition, do you feel like you are a patriot, patriotic?  Is this what makes one a lover of country?  To know all the words (at least the first verse), to doff one's cap, put hand over heart and stand? 

I'd say sing too, but most of the time when I'm at the park singing, very few of my seatmates join in.  And what of the many other people in or outside of the stadium or at home watching on TV? As New York Times sportswriter John Branch wrote this week, "As players continue being judged by their postures during 'The Star Spangled Banner,' perhaps it is fair to turn the lens around. Those who have spent a lot of time in stadiums and arenas know that they are rarely sanctuaries of patriotic conformity and decorum."  Beer and food is still enthusiastically sold during the anthem. Folks standing in security lines or tailgating don't stop what they are doing. In living rooms, fans use the time to grab food or take a bathroom break.  Is that disrespectful of the flag? 

This whole dust up makes me wish I and my fellow country men and women would actually have a substantive discussion about what it might really mean to be a patriot and patriotic, to claim that title. Beyond the symbolism. Beyond a three minute ritual that demands little of those who participate in it, including me. Beyond the waving of flags and angry judgments by some against the sincere actions of others.  

What does it mean to be a patriot, patriotic? 

To me it first means I need to humbly look at my own civic life and ask, "How am I doing?" Patriotism means a love of country so deep that I actually act on that conviction: that my patriotic beliefs translate into patriotic behavior. Like the woman or man who signs up to serve their country in the military and makes that commitment. A person who exercises one of the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble. Or how about paying our fair share in taxes, no cheating allowed? Or voting every chance we get, not just when it's convenient or "exciting" ? I know I so respect folks who actively engage in the shared life of our towns and cities: serve on a committee, run for office, or volunteer. Helping a neighbor in need, collecting needed items or giving money for hurricane relief, helping rebuild: to me, that's patriotic.

Can we please get beyond the tweets and the boos and instead have a respectful dialogue about what it means to be a patriot and patriotic, and who gets to decide? Let's work on our own patriotic lifestyles (or lack thereof) before we so quickly condemn someone else.  And the next time you find yourself at a game and are maybe even standing next to me, feel free to join in and sing. 

I'd love the company.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Escape the Spirit Draining Noise of Modern Life

"...I realized that I spent a considerable amount of time banging around with a brain full of chatter...[so] there was no time to notice the neighbors had moved out, the wind was sneaking in from the north, the sun was shifting on its axis, and tonight the moon would look like the milky residue floating inside an enormous cereal bowl. I wondered when I had become a person who noticed so little.”              --Dee Williams

A CVS parking lot on a recent Sunday night is the last place I expected to encounter a pair of middle aged pony-tailed street musicians, strumming on their guitars. It was a muggy Indian summer evening with a day-glow yellow crescent moon perched in the sky as backdrop. The buskers were playing a languid blues riff and so I stopped. And then I listened. And then I breathed in and I breathed out. And then the weirdest thing happened.

The chatter stopped. The chatter of modern life, of a busy life, a stressed out life, of always being plugged in, on.  The chatter of self doubt and questioning and worry too. I heard the music and I saw that beautiful moon and I felt the warm air and I actually noticed the world all around me, for the first time all day, maybe all week.

No more chatter. Wow.

We all are immersed in this noise, so much so that we may not even notice it anymore.  Chatter in our brains and spirits working overtime, sometimes, it seems, all the time, from the hour we awaken at dawn until the moment we turn out the light and even then the chatter does not always cease.  "What did I forget to do today?  What do I have to do tomorrow?"  Make the kids lunches and load the dishwasher and catch the train and gotta get going, get moving, get cracking. Chatter: on the radio in the car, sports radio blabbing, new radio blaring, talk radio yelling. Chatter: from ear buds we rarely take out. Chatter from a TV that's rarely off, reports of so much news, so much bad news, so many blowhard politicians and self-important pundits demanding our attention. Chatter: not just aural but visual too: a never ending Facebook feed and text messages that "beep" and "ding". "HEED ME! NOW!"  There's internal chatter too: the nagging voice that tries to convince us, in spite of our best efforts, we are just not good enough or doing enough nor do we have enough nor are we just "enough".

So enough with the chatter. ENOUGH! Stop.

Thank God for those pharmacy troubadours and a sweet sliver of moon and late September balmy temps for they actually calmed my chatter. That serendipitous oasis reminded me how so many of us are addicted to chatter, how acclimated we've become to all the static, and the cacophony. So much technological trivia; such obsessive neediness to stay connected, afraid that we might miss out. The conversation in our heads is as old as life itself: all the secret fears and worries we harbor about ourselves, our loved ones, and our world. Those little demons poke at us, don't want to shut up.

The hard truth is that no one--no external power, no miraculous power--can mute this chatter for us or do the work of serenity and sacred attention. That task is ours' alone.  The world has and will always spin right along, tempting us to grab the next shiny bauble or jump into the next conversation or respond to the next distraction.  Life forever has just one more thing to do too.  As you are reading this essay, chances are very good you are already thinking about what's next. Right?

The gift of faith in a higher power greater than ourselves, is that such spirituality, at its best, always calls us back to the quiet, to silence, and to rest from all the chatter, if just for a bit.  This lack of chatter is not a luxury or something to do after we've accomplished everything else. To get to this spiritual center is essential for our humanity and our sanity. To get to the center is a divine reboot, a way to refresh our hearts and then remember that life is good.  That we are good. That there may be nothing more beautiful than a cooing baby or a tender kiss or stars at night or a hot cup of coffee.

But for such clarity to happen, the chatter has to stop.

That happened for me in a CVS parking lot. Who'd have thought that?  And you?  Where will you know sanctuary from the chatter?  Look for it.  Find it.  Then stay there, even if only just for awhile.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Eleven Million Among Us: Will They Be Welcomed Home or Sent Away?

Higher Law (noun) 1. an ethical or religious principle considered as taking precedence over the laws of society, and to which one may appeal in order to justify disobedience to a constitution or enacted law with which it conflicts.

They are "illegal aliens". They are "undocumented immigrants".  The descriptions we use about these people reflect how we frame this issue, especially since the election. First some facts, taken from a report by the non-partisan Pew Research Center, April 2017. 

Eleven million women, men and children live in the United States without the protections of U.S. citizenship or the law and make up 3.4 percent of the U.S. population. Eight million, 5 percent, work or are seeking work and make up 26 percent of all farm workers and 15 percent of all construction workers. Six states claim 59 percent of this community: California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. Sixty-six percent of the adults in this group have lived in the United States for a decade or more. Eight-hundred thousand came here as children, through no choice of their own.    

Those are the facts, the numbers, and the statistics, a good starting point to ask: what are we as a nation, citizens and neighbors to do, or not do, about this reality? 

I've been conflicted about this for a long time, for I consider myself a law and order person, a believer in the rule of law. At their best, human laws curb the worst of human behavior, protect our society, and give us a mutually agreed upon social compact to live in peace and safety. At their best, laws ensure a level playing field: we play by the same rules. If someone breaks the law, they should face the consequences and be held accountable. In the case of illegal immigration then, this view would advocate the immediate deportation of every last one of the 11,000,000 people who are here, in violation of the law. 

Facts. Human law.

But this issue is about people too. Flesh and blood people, fellow children of God, most filled with dreams and hopes and ambitions as noble and good as mine. Real people living real lives, among us.  Real friends and neighbors and co-workers and relatives and fellow church goers, who pay their taxes and go to work and just live. Real people: kids who sit in the classroom side by side with our children and then come by for a play date. Real people who take care of our aging parents in the nursing home and play soccer with us on the field. Real people who study at college and harvest our food, who build our homes and drive our school busses, who watch over our children and create beautiful art and music. Real people whose cultures enrich so deeply our American story.

Real people. A higher law.

Like all people of faith, I'm challenged to live not just by human laws, but by God's laws too.  I'm taught there are moral and ethical laws about how I am to treat the "alien". “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him shall love him as yourself...."(Leviticus 19:33-34). And, "[For] I was a stranger and you welcomed me." (Matthew 25:34).  (An important caveat: good folks of faith disagree on the immigration issue, as do many citizens. I speak for myself.)

So there's the struggle: tension between human law and divine law, human justice and heavenly mercy, secular logic and humanistic impulses. We each face this internal conflicts at some point and not just about immigration. On many social issues, we have to make choices. Where do we stand? What do we believe about abortion, the death penalty, war, or universal health care, to name but a few?  

To make these choices is among the most difficult and important work we do as humans. There will always be leaders and firebrands on both sides who act as if such choices are easy or simple.  They take a stand to win more votes or whip up a frenzied crowd or get more people to watch their TV show and or just pound the pulpit. Self-righteousness trumps thoughtfulness.  Toughness triumphs over mercy.

Yet to be a person of faith, just to try and be a good person, is tough stuff. It demands a willingness to hear all sides, a commitment to pray and think on it, and always with care. Human law? A higher law? After much discernment, I've made my choice.

What do you think? Have you made your choice about the alien among us, the stranger, the illegal immigrant, the undocumented worker? There are eleven million real people living among us. It's about facts and the law. But it's about people too.

Real people. I hope to God we remember this.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

After The Storms: Can One Person Can Repair the World?

“I always wondered why somebody didn't do something about that; then I realized that I am somebody." --Lilly Tomlin

What can I, as just one person, do?

That’s a natural question to ask in our world and country and communities.  Just days after two devastating hurricanes swept through the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean and Florida, leaving a path of unprecedented destruction in their wake.  Houston after Harvey: 50 inches of rain, 530 square miles flooded (twice the area of Chicago) and 40,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.  The Caribbean: where 95 percent of one island, St. Martin, was almost completely wiped out, stripped bare, right down to the sand.  And then Florida, where at the height of Irma’s howling winds, America’s third most populous state was under a hurricane warning from the Keys in the far south all the way up to Tallahassee in the Pan Handle, making for the largest evacuation in our nation’s history, 5.6 million people on the move, fleeing.  

Statistics like these can rightly cause us as individuals to spiritually and emotionally lock up, shut down, and become overwhelmed by so much human pain and suffering and hurt.  We just can’t take it all in, can’t comprehend the scope and scale of the tragedy.  Too many bad things happening much too fast and in way too short a time. 

We want to help, even need to help, but then we wonder and worry: I’m just one soul.  What can I really do?  How can I hope to assist? What difference will my small efforts make in this one big, ugly, awful outcome?

Here’s one answer: fueled by faith, proved by experience, and founded in hope. You can absolutely make a difference by what you now choose to do, after the storms. Act: refuse to be overwhelmed by the bad news.  Pray: hold those in peril in your heart. Donate: money or fresh water or disposable diapers, whatever is needed. Organize: take a group and travel to the flood and storm lashed places and then swing a hammer and help to rebuild.  For even worse than a natural disaster or a local disaster, someone in need far away or right next door, are human inaction, human complacency and human weariness.  The twin emotions of despair and cynicism can always trick us into thinking that our lives do not matter all that much. That “one” is the loneliest and most powerless number in the world.

What can one child of God do to change the world for the good?  What will you do?

The story is told of a young girl walking along a beach on which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!” The girl seemed crushed, deflated. But after a few moments, she bent back down, picked up another starfish, and then hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and said, “Well, I made a difference for that one!”

This is how the world is made and remade for the good, after a storm, in how each one of us choose to live and give and love.  We can save one starfish, feed one hungry person, love one orphaned child, house one homeless family and help one hurricane battered soul when we act with mercy and compassion.  Judaism describes this work and belief as “Tikkun Olam”, which translates as, “to repair the world”.  God knows and we know that this fragile and beautiful world is always broken and is always in need of rebuilding and renewal.    

We can’t do everything. But as citizens and neighbors, we can do something.  That clear choice and brave commitment is up to each one of us.  I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and open my wallet and begin to make repairs.  Now that the sun has come back out, it’s clear there is so much to do.

Can we really make a difference?  Yes! Let’s get to work.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

When the Winds Blow and the Water Rises, We're All in the Same Boat

“We’re all in the same boat.”              
--New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Déjà vu all over again. 

That's a cliché but one that is so true when it comes to hurricanes and tropical storms and life on the Gulf Coast of the United States. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last week almost twelve years to the day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.  Now Hurricane Irma is a potential threat too. And so then and now we all watched on TV and viewed online and read the papers and saw the horrific images.  Folks clinging to each other, wading through the waters, sitting shell shocked and soaked in the boats that ferried them away from their homes, their lives.
It’s hard to capture in words the devastation of a hurricane.

Standing in a place like New Orleans post-Katrina in March of 2006, I felt as if I’d landed on another planet. The church I served had sent me and a group of volunteers to help. Even seven months after the deluge, the level of destruction then was overwhelming.  Upwards of 10,000 ruined cars sat under an elevated interstate highway. House after house in the city sported a muddy brown line on the exterior, demarcating the level to which the floodwaters had risen.  A moldy and sharp smell lingered in the air.
Our group worked with a man to clean out the water logged home where he had raised a family and made a life for twenty years.  His wife and daughters were in Houston, along with tens of thousands of displaced folks. On the surface that homeowner and I could not have been more different from one another. He was African-American, a long haul truck driver, a lifelong resident of Louisiana, with an easy smile that belied the trauma he no doubt felt in returning to see his home for the first time in half a year.  

Me? I was the white Yankee pastor coming in for just one week; coming from a neighborhood where the houses were big and pristine and undamaged, in an old, old New England town, where most of those I served worked in high tech or banking with advanced degrees galore. You could say before Katrina, he and I were traveling in very separate boats in this life.  Chances are we’d never have met and gotten to know each other. 

Then the storm hit.

And so together, as partners, for three days we worked side by side to tear out soggy sheet rock and drag out ruined furniture.  We salvaged the soaked and mud stained remnants of his life: a wedding album, a family Bible, a stuffed animal.  It was heartbreaking and backbreaking work. The day we left we exchanged big bear hugs and shed so many tears. 

Because we were no longer strangers. No: we were now neighbors and friends. Bound for life by the compassionate work of helping when the worst hits. Bound as fellow citizens, Americans and children of God.  All together, in just one boat.

The one boat called life. 

The tragedy, the irony, is that it took and it takes something so calamitous as a hurricane or a tropical storm or a 9/11 to bring us together. To remind us there is so much more that binds us than divides us. How easily and quickly we forget this truth. Natural disasters are a cruel reminder that we are all in just one boat, together. The torrential rains that lashed Texas and Louisiana made no distinction as they soaked the ground and flooded the streets and uprooted hundreds of thousands of people. Every one was swept up in it: all races and cultures, all religions and sexual orientations, the rich and the poor, blue collar and white collar, conservative and liberal. 

And our national response, our commitment to help, is just the same. We are together in this work to rebuild and respond. Donations and volunteers pour in and step up to help: from Trump country and Hillary land, from New York City and Nashville, from Muslims and Christians and Jews, for Gods sake, for human’s sake, from the coasts and the heartland, from all across the United States.  Hurricane Harvey has woken us up again to a reality we seem to forget in this life. 

At a time in our history as a nation, when it feels as if we are so divided, Harvey is a wake up call, a communal summons to action and mercy and generosity. So pray for our neighbors down south. Give to our neighbors in need.  Work to rebuild and build a better world, for every last person in the boat, and not just now but always. Because when the floods come, we all need someone right in that boat with us, by us, and for us: to care and to help.

We’re all in the same boat.




Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Freedom of Speech: Sacred Right, Sacred Responsibility

“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.” 
 --G.K. Chesterton

I have a legal and God-given right to say, to preach, to take up pen or keyboard and express my opinion, give my thoughts, and share my judgments. What I think or believe or declare: about God, about my government, about my fellow citizens, about any person, idea or issue that piques my interest or pricks my conscience or inspires me to speak out.

That’s free speech. Guaranteed in the Constitution's First Amendment:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech….”

But…is this right always right?
Many years ago I was a young preacher, still so new to the pulpit, always looking for ways to engage the folks in the pews. On the spur of the moment, in the midst of a sermon one Sunday, I made what I thought was a witty joke about the wedding of a couple I’d married the day before, some throwaway lines about how half of the wedding party had been so late for the ceremony.  Ha, ha. In the midst of laughter, I looked up and saw that same couple sitting in a pew. Unbeknownst to me they had decided to come to church before leaving for their honeymoon. They wanted to thank me for my work.

Free speech. Mean speech. 

I’ll always remember the look of hurt and embarrassment on the face of that young bride. She stood and walked out of the church, as I blushed in deep shame at the pain my thoughtless words, my “free speech”, had caused her. How deep my words had cut and wounded another child of God. After the service I found her and apologized profusely and amazingly, graciously, she forgave me. But I will never forget the lesson I learned that morning about free speech,  how I use words to express myself. 

I may have the right to my speech.  But as I speak and write, especially about another, am I careful, care filled, compassionate, and thoughtful? In what I am about to speak or write, will it build up or tear down? Will it make a situation better or worse? Am I using free speech to puff myself up at the expense of another? Do I even intentionally use nasty or hateful speech to demean or stereotype or attack another? In Alcoholics Anonymous there is a wise adage that neatly expresses a simple formula to use before speaking. Ask yourself.  Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Does it need to be said by me? If you can’t answer “yes” to all three questions, stay silent.

This is just one way to ensure that free speech is right, and not merely a right. 

Doesn’t matter if it’s at the dinner table or a protest, on a college campus or at a cocktail party, in the intimacy of a relationship or in comments on Facebook or Twitter.  The gift of free speech is that except for rare exceptions, like shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowed theater or using words to directly threaten another, in the United States we enjoy incredible freedom. We can speak and not fear the heavy hand of government.  Speak and trust that what we say will be protected by the rule of law, especially when that speech is unpopular.  In 2017 we have so many ways to speak, in real and cyber town squares, to say just what we believe, more than ever before in history. 

Yet the challenge of free speech is to use it well and prudently. To see it as a gift from God, a human right so powerful, that with just a few words, the course of a nation or world can be changed for the good.  Think of Martin Luther King or Franklin Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony or Mother Teresa.  Their free speech transformed hate into love, oppression into freedom and despair into hope. With just a few words spoken in kindness, a broken heart can be healed, the young can be encouraged, a prayer can be offered, and a life made better.  This ideal all depends, not just upon our right to free speech, but also in the rightness of our free speech: what and how we choose to speak and to write. 

So this day—what will you do with your words? How will you use your right to free speech?  The decision you make will make a world and a word of difference.