Monday, July 31, 2017

Go Ahead. Call Me a Boy Scout. PLEASE!

“A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.”       --Boy Scout Law

Boy Scout: One who does everything according to the rules. --Urban Dictionary

The pinnacle of my life as a Scout came at the age of eight, when I won the Pinewood Derby in my local Cub Scout pack.  The derby is a race, pitting hand built wooden cars against each another, the hope being that as boys compete, they also will learn about being a good sport and fair play.  Me? I loved my winning trophy but soon thereafter the Scouts faded from my life. 

Yet through the years I’ve grown to have a deep respect and admiration for the scouting movement, both for girls and boys. Scouting is one of the few American youth organizations remaining which works to build individual character and good citizens. That’s its central mission: to shape the values and ideals of young women and men, so that these future leaders can build a better nation and world.  True: it’s been a bumpy few years for scouting. It’s struggled to be more inclusive of LGBT youth and adults and the number of kids in scouting is in decline.  It’s tough to compete against the explosive proliferation of youth sports and a high tech screen filled world that kids call home. 

But scouting carries on in its idealistic work, even when it finds itself caught up in the mud and muck and mess of our current political situation.  Recently, the President addressed a crowd of 40,000 scouts and their parents at the Scouting Jamboree, an annual summer gathering. The Commander in Chief is the honorary head of the scouts and this speech is traditionally an opportunity for kids, volunteers and Moms and Dads to hear what has always been a non-partisan “rah-rah” speech, an address about American values, scouting and patriotism. 

Until this year, when, in an odd, disjointed, bordering on rude, even obscene talk, the Tweeter-In-Chief went on a rant: about Washington, about his “enemies”, about New York City cocktail parties filled with “hot” guests, about the failure of Obamacare, about his disdain for the “fake media”, etc., etc., etc. Some cheered. Others booed. Most were just confused by the weirdness of the address.  Of course the media picked up on it and created a firestorm, one so red hot that the Boy Scouts of America Chief Executive Michael Surbaugh was forced to apologize: “We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.”

Call me a “Boy Scout” if you will, but I think this train wreck of an event embodies so much of what is going wrong, going south, and maybe even fast going away, in America.  Things like civic ideals and civic values. Remember? These are the hoped for character traits that are supposed to bind us together as a nation; ensure that we can and will flourish in community when we commit to acting in a certain way, in all of our public dealings, as citizens and neighbors and leaders. 

Things like decency in language and behavior. Honor in all our relationships. Humility in triumph and defeat.  Respect for the person on the other side of an issue.  Trustworthiness when you commit to an agreement. Faith, in all its shapes and forms. Public service, not for personal gain, but for the common good. Service to others, in gratitude for the gift of freedom.  Kindness to others, especially for those who struggle in this life. Patriotism, a sincere love for our country, in all its diversity and beauty.

The problem is that in our current culture—political, social, media—such “Boy Scout’ish” behavioral norms are often judged as naive at best, or impossible to practice, at worst.  “Boy Scout” is now used as an ironic pejorative, a put down for one who is too idealistic and earnest.  The easy thing would be to pin the blame for our current struggles on just one person or one political party, one ideology or one group of people, but the truth is we all own this societal challenge.  We got to this point in our nation together. 

And so we all are responsible, personally and communally, to reaffirm that to do the right thing is the right thing to do.  To act with honesty and integrity in relationships is the way to live.  Doesn’t matter if it’s at a Scout Jamboree or a vote in Washington, D.C., in a town meeting debate or at a discussion over the fence with a neighbor.               
So please, yes, call me a Boy Scout. I still actually believe in America, that as Americans, we can do better and hold ourselves and our leaders to the highest of ideals and values.


Monday, July 24, 2017

The Eclipse Is Coming: Get Ready for a Godshow!

“On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.”  --Amos 8:9

Oh how I wish I could go back again and visit Carbondale, Illinois. 

You may have never heard of this fair city of 25,092 souls, 331 miles south of Chicago. Carbondale: home to Southern Illinois University and the “Fighting Salukis”. (I’d never heard of that dog breed either, bred in Egypt and famed for its hunting skills.) I got to know Carbondale when I performed a wedding there for a good friend, who grew up in that quaint locale. Carbondale is like most places in the world: loved by loyal locals but not so well known by outsiders. 

But not anymore. In just a few weeks Carbondale will be the center of the universe.

Come next month a total solar eclipse, that most rare and breathtaking of celestial events, will happen on Monday, August 21st, at 1:21 pm, Central Standard Time and Carbondale is the best place in the world to view it. For two minutes and thirty eight seconds, as the moon passes directly in front of the sun, the day in Carbondale will grow dark. Eerie shadows and lunar shade will take hold. Stars will come out and twinkle in the sky. Temperatures will drop. Animals will grow restless and anxious.   

In New England we won’t be blessed like Carbondale with a front row seat, but still in the Boston area, we’ll get a good view at 2:46 pm, when 63 percent of the sun will seem to just disappear.  So get your eclipse viewing paraphernalia ready for this “Godshow”; that’s the word I use whenever Creation wows us with its awesomeness.

Yes I’ll be in awe that day of the science and natural law behind this once in a century event. But as a person of faith what I love most about a “Godshow” like an eclipse is that it reminds us humans of our true place in the universe. It brings us down to earth. It teaches us that for all our insistence that we are the center of Creation, actually we are not. Not by a long shot.

Instead we homo sapiens are just one very, very, very small part of the big miracle called existence. Long before our ancestors learned to stand upright for the first time some 200,000 years ago, the universe had already existed for some 13.8 billion years, according to the latest scientific theories.  Earth is just one of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in the observable universe.  And if you embrace like I do a belief in God, a power greater than us, started it all, lit the fuse on the Big Bang, then that Divine force has existed forever.  As in eternity. Infinity. 

Ponder that as you watch the eclipse. 

Or pause and be still as you stand under a vast black summer night sky and then find the Milky Way, billions and billions of stars and planets spilled like milk across the heavens of this third rock from the sun, the place we call home.  Or watch in wonder as a violent thunderstorm rolls through, jagged bolts of lightning flash and rumbling peals of thunder crashing in on a humid August afternoon.  Or take the tiny hand of an infant in yours’ and imagine the miracle of birth that brought this one tiny soul into the world.

If and when we actually pay attention, Creation will always humble us. That’s a good thing, for the conceit of our species has always been hubris. The myth that we run the show and that Creation exists solely to serve our needs.  But then we are gifted with a “Godshow” like an eclipse and perhaps we remember just how fragile and beautiful and mysterious and powerful the universe finally is.  And then all we can do is say, “Wow! Thank you God.”

So congratulations Carbondale.  Enjoy the “Godshow”.  Wish I could be there!


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!