Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Summer: Go Away, Get Away, Find Your 'Away' Place in the Sun!

“Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”    
--John Muir

Forty summers.

That’s how many seasons, give or take a few, I’ve packed up a suitcase, tracked down my musty sleeping bag, stocked up on heavy duty bug spray, dusted off hiking boots, and then gone away to camp. Away. To summer camp.  For me it’s not yet summer without at least seven days at camp. So in the coming weeks, as I have since I was sixteen, I’ll spend 168 hours in the middle of the woods, in the middle of nowhere, with a bunch of like minded adults and 250 youth too. Crazy? A little. Excited? Absolutely!

Our hopes for that time are simple: to discover or rediscover a sacred place, a separate place, a special place, an away place, maybe even a holy place, and all in God’s Creation. 

Not that summer camp is for everyone.

The world is clearly split into two opposing camps when it comes to camp. Some can’t get there fast enough while others would rather endure a root canal than spend rustic time among the sticky pine needles and free roaming critters right outside your door.  And the bugs. No matter how tightly I shut my screen door, one lone dive bombing mosquito always finds me. Privacy? Where else can I share a communal bathroom with one hundred new friends? Fine dining—that’s hot dogs by the lake or a raucous breakfast with a table full of fidgety thirteen and fourteen year olds. Finally, all the screens I’m so addicted to staring at will go blank: no cell calls, no Netflix, no emails, no texts, no Facebook. 

But that’s precisely why I love camp too. 

For it gets me away, it takes me away, sends me away, unlike any other place I claim as home the other fifty one weeks of the year. It’s the only time I take the time to lie back on a dew covered ball field and then stare up in wonder at a night sky filled with so, so many stars.  Being away and unplugged reminds me that the “community” I experience in cyberspace always pales in comparison to spending face to face 24/7 time in an intentional community of campers and counselors.  Camp allows me to be childlike, even joyful: jumping into an ice cold lake at dawn, singing silly songs around a campfire at the top of my lungs, saying a gentle “Good night” to a cabin full of kids.

Granted, I may not be able to talk you into going to sleep away camp but perhaps I can push you to find a similar soul refreshing experience before these last precious weeks of summer slip away.  Hate to say it, but before we all know it, Labor Day will be here and then our chances to get away and go away will just slip away.

Away.  Find it. Go to it.  Then enjoy it. 

A quaint cabin in the woods or a familial house near the beach.  A special day at the amusement park, with frightened squeals of delight on the roller coaster, or a cold frosty ice cream at the local creamery, as the sun sets.  A visit to an amazing national park or a road trip cross country to rediscover that America is still here and is doing okay.  Time for a long bike ride on a lonely country road or time on the sand with a book to lose yourself within.

My away place is camp.  That’s where I find God amidst the tall trees and puffy white clouds and a nighttime lullaby of peepers. We all need our away time: time to unplug, chill out, just be. Where is your away place?  May you get there. Go there.  And maybe even find the sacred when you finally arrive.

Happy summer. 


Monday, July 3, 2017

The July 4th Gift of Human Freedom: Happy Birthday America!

"I'd like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free and wanted other people to be also free."--Rosa Parks

There is nothing more American, more summer celebrating, more freedom inspiring for me, than loading up the car with a battered suitcase, filling the tank to “F”, donning some cool sunglasses, playing funky music or a book or a baseball game on the radio, and then hitting the road for a long road trip. Something about this so embodies human and American freedom, a July or August car adventure to practically anywhere.  To gritty urban Akron or earthy crunchy Ithaca. To Birkenstock Burlington or sweaty D.C.  To artsy Minneapolis or “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire.

The destination matters less than the act of being blessed by God and empowered as a free human being, to just be free.  I am free! To go where I want. To travel in freedom.  

But “we” are free too. You. Every other American who also hits the road for a vehicular vacation.  According to the American Automobile Association, this summer is shaping up as unprecedented for road trips. AAA estimates that 44 million Americans will hit the road for the July 4th holiday, a record number.  So I will have to share my road freedom, for on the road called America, I’m in a community. I am free but also part of a larger nation of folks, with whom I live and work and play and worship and yes, drive too.

So I can’t drive as fast as I want, barrel along recklessly, or tailgate to my heart’s delight.  I can’t refuse to pay the tolls that fund the highways we all enjoy. Can’t rudely cut the line at the roadside gas station so I can snag the last hot dog from the grill.  Can’t curse that family from Ohio who is crawling along at 45 miles per hour in the travel lane.  Can’t toss my trash out the window or drive without my headlights on, or drink alcohol while I drive or text away on my phone and not pay attention.  Okay I can, I could. But I should not.

For I’m free but my freedom is always intertwined in the freedom of others. 

This is the quality of moral freedom envisioned, declared and fought for, by our foremothers and forefathers, beginning July 4th 1776, 241 years ago.  A simple reading of our Declaration of Independence might tempt us to conclude that human freedom is all about the individual, even a crazy free for all: every man or woman or child for themselves.  No right or wrong attached to our self determination.  No agreed upon commitment to the common good.  No moral underpinnings to our freedom. Freedom as self centered actions taken to the extreme.

If this is the case I can do or say or tweet anything I want about any one I want, because I am free.  I can obey just the laws I agree to, because I am free.  I can do all I can to pay as little in common taxes as I can, because I am free.  I can make as much money as I want and accumulate as much stuff as I want and I can keep it all to myself, because I am free. I can tell others just how to worship their God (or not), because I am free. I can even try to deny the freedom of others in their pursuit of happiness and human rights, to selfishly protect my precious freedom to be happy and free. 

In the ongoing social experiment called American democracy, a tension always simmers just below the surface.  Me against us.  I versus thee.  Independence in apparent opposition to interdependence. But such unfettered human freedom taken to its radical conclusion inevitably ends in social chaos.

To me, the best human freedom is always bound by shared morality, communal ethics, and the rule of law. We can always find these noble truths: in ancient faiths, in cherished traditions, in time honored customs, and for sure in Philadelphia, on a hot summer day, so long ago. As Benjamin Franklin said just before putting his signature on the Declaration of Independence, risking his one life for the cause of freedom: “Gentlemen: we must surely all hang together or surely, we will all hang together.”

So this is my July 4th freedom prayer.

May our freedom always be tempered by a shared moral commitment: to not just do the free thing but also the right thing.  May we know that life is not lived in a social vacuum, that instead every time we exercise a right or freedom it affects another; therefore may we be wise, prudent and compassionate in how we live. May our leaders embody and model for us the highest of human virtues and may we also demand the same of ourselves, as citizens and neighbors.  May we pursue our happiness with passion and joy and may we work to ensure that others, in freedom, can also do the same. 

For me to be free and for you to be free as well: that’s the vision. Happy birthday America! Happy road trip!  Happy freedom!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Curious George, The Bible and Harry Potter: The Power of Books to Change the World

“Maybe reading was just a way to make her feel less alone, to keep her company. When you read something you are stopped, the moment is stayed, you can sometimes be there more fully than you can in your real life.”      
  --Helen Humphreys, “Coventry”

“Curious George Goes to the Hospital”: that’s the very first book I claimed as my own, the first volume of prose not read to me by an adult.  It was all mine to read: by myself, for myself.  A book! My book! In the mid 1960’s Children’s Hospital in Boston sent copies of that book by Margret and H.A. Rey, to boys and girls about to enter the hospital for surgery. The hope was that this story about an overly curious and mischievous monkey, who swallows a puzzle piece and needs to see the doctor, might soothe a child’s fears and worries. It worked.

Do you remember your very first book?

To me at five years old, “Curious George” was an absolute page turner, and made my overnight stay for a tonsillectomy much less anxious—that and all the ice cream I could eat.  That tome made my life better, fuller, richer, more fun, and confirmed me as a lifelong book reader, voracious book consumer, confirmed bibliophile. Some might say a book addict.  All the kids in my life know that at Christmas or on a birthday, chances are 100 percent that they will absolutely receive a book from Uncle John.  My home overflows with books: piled high on the nightstand, spilling off shelves, taking over whole rooms even. 

I am always in the middle of reading some book.

I’ve got books on my brain today because this week marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of one book that changed the state of reading for kids, and many adults too: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone”, by J.K. Rowling.  Two decades on, with 107 million copies sold, that story of a boy wizard and the magical world he inhabits, introduced a whole new generation of young people to the joy of reading.  Made reading cool again, in a way, brought reading back to a level of communal excitement not seen for a very long time.  Folks waited in midnight lines outside bookstores for the latest volume.  Middle school kids, parents too, cherished their dog-eared copies like dear old friends.    

Books do this. Change lives. Change the world.

Books have had this effect on humans since the publication of the very first book by ancient Egyptians in 2400 B.C.; maybe even “Curious George Goes to the Pyramids”—okay, probably not.  But there is something magical, mystical, even sacred about a book.  Just one book can empower the powerless, topple kings and kingdoms, spark revolutions, transform for the good so many lives.  Like the Bible, the first widely published book, in 1517; the Quran, the sacred text for Muslims, first organized into book form in 650 A.D.; or “Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book of Sayings”. In the 1950’s that slim volume of political wisdom united a new nation of 550 million people.  Researchers generally agree that these are the three most printed and read books in human history.

Granted, every few years we’ll read a story about the decline of book reading, even the death of book reading: as printed books shift to electronic formats, as folks seemingly eschew a heavy print book for a lightweight smartphone, as our attention spans shorten. “Who’s got time to read a whole book?” But as the author Mark Twain might opine, if he was still alive: “Reports of the death of book reading are highly exaggerated.” 

According to a 2016 Pew Forum poll, seventy-three percent of all Americans report reading at least one book in the last year and the typical reader has read four books in the previous twelve months.  Those numbers, while down slightly in the last decade, have held pretty steady. We may now get our book from Amazon and not the corner bookstore, and yet we humans do still read a lot, A LOT, of books.  Last year alone, more than 1.2 million new books were published around the globe, according to the United Nations.  And yes, I probably bought a fair chunk of those!

Because I love to read and I love books. 

Books keep us company: when I’m reading, I never feel alone.  Books expand our world and world view: where else can I travel to the four corners of the planet without ever leaving the comfort of my backyard Adirondack chair on a summer day? Books entertain us; make us into armchair detectives or bodice ripping romantics, science fiction rocket pilots or medieval slayers of dragons. Books reintroduce the past to us: remind us that many others came before us and so maybe we are really not “all that”. Books teach and illuminate, free minds to expand and souls to soar.  Books allow us to escape into realities we could only dream about. Books engage our brains like no other activity.  Books make us think, a noble ideal, especially in times when the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, can feel as if it is under attack.

So here’s some summer advice.  Find a good book, a comfy place to sit, get your favorite beverage and then sit back and read.  Read a book. A good book. Who knows where it will take you or how it might change you and even the world?  And if you’d like to read some Curious George, I can always lend you my copy.

Good reading.   

Monday, June 19, 2017

When Opinion Passes for Fact and Every One Is An Expert: HELP!!!!!

“No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.”
 –“The Death of Expertise”,Tom Nichols, 2017

Sometimes the smartest people are smart because they know what they don’t know. In part, that’s what makes them wise and intelligent. Sometimes the smartest people are smart because they are experts. They have worked and studied hard to school themselves in one area of science, craft, art or human endeavor.

But what happens when experts are no longer trusted or turned to for wisdom?  What happens when opinions trump facts? When the person who wins the argument is not the smartest but instead just the loudest or most insistent? 

This is what can happen: chaos, confusion and communal breakdown. 

Take childhood vaccinations against diseases like the measles. Two generations ago there was widespread public acceptance of the common and individual good created by vaccines. It never would have occurred to parents then to question the need for this medical care for their kids.  Medical experts like their family doctor recommended it.  Government experts in the Centers for Disease Control backed it. Pharmaceutical experts perfected the safe creation of the medicine. Vaccines worked and work, in large part, because every one agrees to both their efficacy and to opt in.

Until they don’t.    

Until increasing numbers of folks instead trusted just one medical “expert” who declared a link between autism and vaccinations, in a 1998 article in the British Medical Journal The Lancet. The study was written by a British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield.  Now 19 years later, this “scientific” study by an “expert” was long ago deemed false and based on shoddy research, and was rescinded by the medical journal that published it. Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine too. 

Argument over? Nope.

Google “autism and vaccines” and you get 235,000 results.  The first link is to an autism advocacy group that clearly refutes any causal link. But scroll down just eight stories and you can find a link declaring vaccines do cause autism.  Go even deeper in your search and you can find the two leading “experts” in the United States on this debunked theory: stand up comic Jim Carrey and former Playboy Bunny Jenny McCarthy.  I can’t make this stuff up.

And so today even though good science clearly, overwhelmingly, declares vaccines safe, large numbers of folks are still convinced otherwise. Out of fear. Out of ignorance. From mis-information, from false “expert” information.   And potentially all of us could pay the price for this public health nightmare.

Or how about climate change? Can we really trust the overwhelming majority of climate change scientists worldwide who say that climate change is actually real?  Maybe not.  I can find a study, an article, a blog piece, or an “expert” to tell me otherwise.  Thank goodness we pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, right? What do all those other nations and all their scientists and all their citizens know anyhow?! Maybe climate change is a hoax.  I read that somewhere.

Here’s the irony. In 2017, we have immediate access to more information and knowledge and facts and expertise than ever before in human history.  Our smartphone potentially makes us “smarter”, or at least more well informed, than all the generations that ever lived before us.  Or it can also make us imagine ourselves experts, when we really are not. In this age of information overload, pseudo-experts now abound in government, in culture, on Main Street, in the pulpit, even in academia.    

Thus we are tempted to first form an opinion and then find an “expert” to support our worldview, even when that “expert” is really no expert, and not all that smart either. When that “expert” is really just “expert” at being the rudest and most pontificating guy or girl in the room, able to shout down any one who disagrees.  Want some proof? Watch cable TV news for five minutes.

The hope is this: God gave us all a brain and not just to have an opinion on everything, but also to know both what we know and, what we don’t know.  So I thank God for the experts, the women and men I trust to go deep in their search for knowledge, not just to be right, but also to make this world both true and good. I thank God for the smart folk who know so much more than I ever will. I thank God both for the ability to question and the humility to sometimes accept truth as truth, even if it contradicts how I feel.

When it comes to figuring out what is true and what is false, I say we follow the sage advice of Detective Joe Friday, a 1960’s fictional gumshoe cop, who always began his investigation with the most important request of all. 

“Just the facts ma’am, just the facts.” 

Monday, June 12, 2017

You Almost Hit Me With Your Car: PLEASE Pay Attention

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”       --Mary Oliver

You almost hit me with your car. 

Okay: maybe it was not that close, a week ago last Tuesday night, when I rode my bicycle past your canary yellow Ford Mustang convertible, such a sweet car to cruise around in, on the first warm night of spring.  You were stuck in traffic.  I was pulling up beside you on a long straightaway.  One of the gifts of cycling is that in heavy traffic, bicycles can go faster than cars. 

I pulled up beside you and said, “Nice car!”  “Thanks!” you replied, with a smile, and then I zoomed onward and you waited for the light to change in the distance.  And then you finally caught up with me and I wondered if maybe you’d greet me with, “Nice bike!” or “Beautiful night for a ride!” but as you drove by, you never looked up, or out either. You just looked down at your phone, clutched in your right hand, your left hand casually draped over the steering wheel. 

Man, your eyes were locked on that screen: and not on me. Not on the road.  Not on the bright blue sky at dusk or the azalea bush in explosive pink bloom on the roadside.  Mesmerized by a glowing electronic talisman, you were not really there, driving.  You were somewhere else: lost in a text or a photo, or another “important” cyber message.

And I just wanted to say to you, “Pay attention: please.” 

Pay attention to me, so your 3,800 pound car doesn’t drift over into the shoulder and clip my 17 pound bicycle, splay me out on the road. Crack open my skull. Break my leg.  Scrape my skin raw.  I actually, really, wanted to yell at you, with full volume: “HEY! PAY ATTENTION!”  You see, as a cyclist, I don’t want to be a statistic, one of the more than 800 bicyclists in the United States who will die in 2017 on the roads, or 45,000 who will be injured. 

Cycling has always been risky, sharing byways and highways with steel behemoths whizzing along at 50 miles per hour, while I make my way on two wheels, pedaling at 13 miles per hour.  And yes, cyclists can be as clueless and stupid and rude as drivers.  Riding in packs and hogging the road. Drifting from side to side.  Ignoring traffic laws.  I get why so many folks just cannot stand bikers.

But since distracted driving is now the norm in our world, as drivers juggle their smart phones while also thinking they can simultaneously and safely drive, cycling is akin to “Death Race 2000”.  So along with drinking coffee and putting on make-up while you drive, and yelling at the kids in the backseat and feeling around on the floor for that dropped quarter, you are also using your phone. 

And most certainly, not paying attention.

Our lack of vehicular focus is taking a toll, and not just on cyclists.  In 2016, 399 people died in vehicle crashes in Massachusetts, a fifteen percent higher figure than 2014.  This two year spike is the highest increase in fifty-three years.  Deaths and injuries from accidents are up in thirty nine of the fifty states. Government and highway safety experts agree it is directly caused by distracted driving. 

When you or I so need to text a smiling emoji to a friend,  our eyes look down or look away for just a second and then…we crash.  The four wheeled machine we are supposed to be in control of is always capable of instantaneously hurting and killing another: your kid in the back seat, your neighbor on a bike, the guy you know from work, on his mountain bike, out for an after dinner ride. 

And then we’ll hear or read that he died because someone’s Facebook status needed updating. She died because she loved that Instagram post and just had to respond.  The toddler on the tricycle died because you were using an app to order a pizza. And you died, YOU: because you had to send just one more text.   Just one.

All for lack of paying attention.

So in these cycling months ahead, if you see some guy on a purple road bike with a lime green helmet and a day glow yellow shirt and you hear him yelling, “PAY ATTENTION!” that just may be me.  I do so not to be rude but to survive. Let’s share the road in care, civility and most importantly, with full attention.  I promise to watch out for you and I ask you to promise to watch out for me, too. 

And if you are behind the wheel of some hot rod or antique classic, a cherry red Mustang or jet black Porsche, watch for a thumbs up and my grateful smile too. 

See you on the road.  


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Paris, Power and the Fate of the Earth: Creation In The Balance

“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny…I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...”  --Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

Life is a battle to be won, a zero sum game. I cannot triumph unless you lose. I cannot be first unless you are last.

Life is found in cooperation, mutually dependent relationships. I cannot survive unless you do too.  We either sink or swim together.

These two views of human life well sum up the greatest challenge of the human condition on planet earth, this amazing God made creation, spinning in space now for some 4.5 billion years, containing 7.5 billion people, give or take a few souls.  Look at earth from space and there are no boundaries between nations or peoples, just one breathtakingly beautiful globe, deep blue, set in a jet black backdrop of the universe.

But from the moment the first human beings decided to live in community: share a cave, go out on a hunt together, farm the land, and gather in villages and towns and cities and nations together: a tension has always existed.  A struggle between “me” and “thee”, “I” and “we”. Cooperation versus competition.  Sharing versus accumulation.  War or peace. We are all in this together or every man for himself. And sometimes in history, this tug of war for the soul of humans and humanity: it plays out so profoundly.

Last Friday the United States chose to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, to instead join with Nicaragua and Syria, and not be a signatory to the global effort to collectively fight climate change. This shift is about politics, the environment, ideology and economics.  But at a deeper level, it reflects an intentional choice to opt for the “life is a battle” scenario.  “America first” is the new name for this age old philosophy.  It’s summed up in one sentence from a May 30th Wall Street Journal article, by two government architects of this policy, H.R. McMaster and Gary D. Cohn. They wrote: “…the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

There it is.  The world is not a global community. 

It is now, apparently, every nation for itself.  It is sharp elbows and in your face diplomacy, go it alone, mano e mano and may the best country win.  As a lifelong student of humanity, I wasn’t surprised by this declaration.  History is littered with the wreckage from past times when humankind has turned in on itself, chosen to ignore enlightened self interest and cooperation, for unenlightened selfish interest and competition. 

So, what will it be humanity?  Will we ever somehow all find a way to get along?  Or are we instead doomed to eventual extinction, and not for some “natural” reason, but finally because we could not figure out how to share one common, abundant home? Discern how to live together in mutual respect, even peace.

As a person faith, I believe that all life is God given and God created, and so I sometimes wonder what the Creator might “think”, as we humans perpetually fight with each other over so many things, about everything, about seemingly anything, really. Not just natural resources, but religion and culture and ideology too. Does God weep at the chronic hardheadedness of our species?  Will God one day choose to just reboot the earth, decide that Rev. 1 isn’t working out, write some new code that’s not so chronically glitchy, and begin again. Earth Rev. 2?

Until that happens, we have to figure out how to live with each other, all riding along on just one whirling orb, on this third rock from the sun.  So call me stubborn or stupid or pollyannish or best of all, one who refuses to give up hope and faith in humanity.  With our nation’s decision, for now, about climate change, the stakes are so clear.  For that we can thank those who seek America first. 

I’m for an America first who takes its rightful place as a moral leader in the global community. I’m for an America first that’s a leader in creativity, technological innovation and political courage, a nation which stands with, and not against, the world. I’m for an America first that leads the way through goodness and not just naked raw power. 

Life as battle? Life as cooperation?  The earth asks.  What will be our answer?


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. 




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. 

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


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.