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.



Tuesday, August 22, 2017

After Charlottesville: Remember and Beware the Mob

"No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them."              --Elie Weisel, 1992

Before the angry debate last week about the President’s response; before the violent clashes in Charlottesville a week ago last Saturday and the tragic deaths of an innocent young woman and two police officers; before the inspiring and overwhelmingly peaceful march in Boston, 40,000 strong, and other counter protests around the country, there was this, the one spark of hatred that started it all.

Friday night, August 11th, on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  Dozens of white men and women, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, many carrying firearms, march in a torch lit procession.  They chant: “blood and soil”, a Nazi era slogan meaning one race (white) and one place (the United States) reserved for them alone.  They chant: “Jews will not replace us” and “You will not replace us.” At evening’s end, “Unite the Right” organizer Jason Kessler, who helped organize the rally, wrote on Twitter, "Incredible moment for white people who've had it up to here & aren't going to take it anymore."

Hard to quote Kessler, to remember the chilling and seemingly otherworldly images of those protestors.  It seems an image more akin to 1930’s Berlin than 2017 America and yet there it is. Here it is, still. White supremacists hatefully, violently, virulently, unashamedly declaring that they are superior to all others.  One religious faith above all others too.  One warped and racist ideology right and true; all others wrong and false.

White supremacy. Religious supremacy. Human supremacy.

It haunts me to even write these words, to face into the truth of such ugly, deadly beliefs and yet as humans we must not turn away from or imagine we can ignore or wish away this side of humanity, humankind’s stubborn and unyielding original sin. Supremacy: the declaration that one group alone stands above and over another.  That one tribe has the right, even a self-proclaimed God-given right, to supplant another, oppress another, hurt another, hate another, even kill another.  

And so what happened in Charlottesville and the whirlwind that ensued: it needs to be remembered and not just swept away in our voracious hyper-fast news cycle or by our collective horror and shame at such human sinfulness.  That’s the temptation now.  To turn away: because it is all too awful to contemplate. Because it indicts us as a nation and world, reminds us that human hatred is still alive and well despite our hope that such beliefs are the stuff of our parents’ and grandparents’ world, certainly not our own.  We want to look away because we imagine ourselves standing in this 21st century, awash in unprecedented technology and global interconnection and interdependency, all so post-modern. How could such things still happen?    

This is how it happens.  This is how it always happens.

A mob gathers in the cover of night, their faces lit by the flames of hatred.  They are bullies and braggarts, skinheads and cowards, racists and terrorists, united by fear and paranoia and bloodlust.  They carry clubs and guns and knives and seek to do harm.  They march. They have always marched, led by the Hitlers of this world. Their power comes, not just from the terror they seek to inspire but also from the unwillingness of the good folks in this world, the ones on the edge of the mob, to confront them.  To name them and their beliefs as evil. 

With no equivocation. No moral equivalency.  No hesitation.

Charlottesville reminds us that for all the great aspirations of humankind—to live in peace, to honor every living soul, to name as good all peoples and faiths and races—we’ve still got a lot of work to do as a species.  The enemies of the common good may hide in the shadows but the allies for justice and mercy must speak up and out from the light and in the light.  Folks of faith too must declare that God abhors racism, and any and all –isms that seek to dehumanize and hate any child of God.

So that’s what happened on August 11th. The mob. Remember? For our, for God’s sake, I for one, hope that we won’t soon forget.


Friday, August 18, 2017

Character Always Trumps Personality. ALWAYS.

“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character…..”     --Anne Frank

It’s been many years but I still remember the anxiety and excitement of my late teens and early twenties, times when a well meaning relative or friend would buttonhole me at a party, sidle up to me at the family reunion, and then interrogate me. 

So John—what are you going to study in college? What do you want to do for work when you graduate?  What about grad school? What part of the country do you want to live in?  What about marriage and kids? What are you going to do with your life? 

Young adulthood is a gift because the world is laid out before us, as never before or ever again in this life. It’s a blank slate. An open road. And so the adventure begins! Young adulthood is a challenge because now a young man or woman is in ultimate charge of their one life. Responsible for their decisions and choices and then dealing with the consequences. Trying to discern the path, the right path, to follow.

So what are you going to do now?!

A natural inquiry, and yet, maybe it’s not the best question to ask the young people in our lives, as they set out for the future.  This is the time of year for such conversations: in these late summer weeks as young people in our lives and world leave us for college or graduate school, or face graduation next spring, or start a new job or contemplate getting married.  As we help them pack up their suitcases and leave the life they’ve known, perhaps we’d do better to help them think about the person they want to become.  Their inner lives and not merely the outward trappings of a “successful” life.   

I wish someone had asked me then, not an insistent “what?” but instead a curious “who?”—as in, “Just who do you want to become in life?” I wish someone had checked in with me about the state of my spirit and not just my career path or the size of my starting salary.  I wish I had taken more time then to work on shaping my values and ideals and worried much less about things like my major or my roommate or the dorm I’d call home.  I wish that I had worked harder to be more intentional about becoming the person I wanted to be, not just on the outside but on the inside too. 

But no one ever asked me about such things.

Most of the time our higher educational system does a good job of teaching professional skills, giving us the tools we need to make a living.  Our nation produces millions of graduates and craftspeople, folks empowered to do something.  But we also we need help, at all points in life, to learn as well how to make a life too.  How to become a good person. How to be the kind of dependable friend peers trust, look up to.  How to find a calling in life that feeds the soul and not merely fills the bank account. How to become a good citizen, to live a life not just for one’s self alone, but for others too. How to have faith in something beyond yourself. How to be worry less about how we look or are perceived on the social scene or in social media and more focused on who we really are, in real life.

How to have true character.    

For we’re living in weird times, days when outward personality can so often trump inward human character.  Our sons and daughters may know just how to pose for a quick Snapchat, or send out a pithy tweet or carefully curate a picture perfect image on Facebook, all external things. We help them learn how to prepare for that first interview or find a perfect internship but are we helping them as well, to cultivate their character? Create lives of integrity and goodness. Have faith in a power greater than themselves, and know they can depend upon God for strength and comfort and guidance. 

So my hope and prayer for all the young adults now trying to make their way in this world, this generation who very soon will be running the show, is simple.  May we as a world encourage them always to be people of character. To seek not just a job but a calling, some work or passion or interest that brings them joy and makes the world a better place.  To live a life worth living in the deepest sense.

Because the “whats” of life: these come and go and change.  But the “who”—who we want to become: this is what makes and shapes the best life of all.


Monday, August 7, 2017

To Really See the Gift of Life, Try the Bleachers

Bleachers (noun) 1. A cheap bench seat at a sports arena, typically in an outdoor uncovered stand.              

Time was that a seat in the bleachers, the viewing stands farthest from the action at a baseball game—well, the bleachers were always for the masses, folks who couldn’t afford the more expensive seats. College students out for an afternoon in the sun and some cold, cheap beer.  Little league teams ready to cheer on their heroes up close. Last minute fans hoping for any ticket to see the game.  Bleacher seats were often wooden benches. Move too fast and you’d get a splinter in the backside.  Folks in these seats even have a nickname: “bleacher bums”, connoting their once downscale status. 

Now? Bleacher seats at Fenway Park, home of Boston Red Sox, are no longer that cheap. But at $30 a pop for a seat way, way up in the nose-bleed section, 500 feet from home plate: it’s still the best deal in the place.  And as I discovered on a recent balmy and blue sky August evening, when the Sox took on Chicago’s White Sox, the bleachers are also still about as democratic and diverse a place as you can find anywhere.

Sitting directly behind me were four young women, visiting the United States for the very first time, from France. It was their first ever baseball game too. Next to me: three Hoosiers from Gary, Indiana who’d never ventured to either coast. They were stopping by friendly Fenway before going on to Maine for a wedding. With me were four “Minnesota Nice” old friends, Twins fans making a pilgrimage to the oldest major league ball park, circa 1912, still in use in the United States.   

It was a magical night, one I could not plan, one I’ll not soon forget. 

We all stood in respectful silence for the national anthem, hats or hands over hearts, as an oversized flag flapped and snapped in a gentle August breeze.  The Parisians ate their mustard slathered covered hot dogs with gusto, and I did my best to explain the game to them. They enthusiastically watched and asked lots of questions. What better way to learn about America than at a ball game? The Hoosiers shared their impressions of Boston (so much traffic!) and they asked me about the best place to eat lobster down east. My younger mid-western seat mates, BJ and Nathan, nine and twelve years old, screamed with gusto at the BoSox’ first home run. At games’ end our mini-community parted as new friends, grateful for wonderful folks to catch a game with, share stories, and share life, if only for a little while.

And guess what? None of us, not one, wanted to talk about politics or even bothered to look at breaking headlines on our smart phones.  Red state, blue state, “America First”? Who the heck cared about that!? The action on the field was much more interesting and fun.  Any thoughts of our differences faded away amidst the spectacle of baseball, a seemingly eternal game, played on a field of bright green as the city skyline faded into a pink and purple sunset.  My new friends from France even said that Bostonians were actually friendlier than the folks from their home town! Yes. Seriously.  The Red Sox won in a rout and we even made it to the train before it got too overcrowded.

We live in times when it is easier than ever to immerse ourselves in “the news” and “the latest” all the time. Like crack addicts we stay glued to our screens, awaiting the next thing to freak out about. I know I’m guilty of this obsession. And since such reports are most often slanted to the negative, this media saturation can give us a warped view of life.  A view from 30,000 feet that tempts us to see only the bad in the world. To grow cynical or weary or pessimistic about it all.

But if we are wise, we will go local, get down to earth and on the ground and see that much of the time, most of the time, this life is still good.  We just have to look for it and remember. That most folks are kind and welcoming. Strangers are just friends we’ve yet to meet.  Home towns are the places we cherish so much that we want to share these with visitors from far away.  And what really gives us pleasure day to day is not overly complicated either: spending time with the people we love and being open to all the God given gifts each twenty four hours has to offer. But first we have to get in the game and pay attention. 

So that’s my view from the cheap seats, the bleachers.  Perhaps it’s time for you to take in a game soon. I hear that tickets are still available.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Why I Ride The PMC: To Remember....

“No one is ever really lost as long as their story still exists.”  --R.M. Romero
I've gotten into a new habit on many of my training rides this spring and summer, as I prepare for the 2017 Pan Mass Challenge (PMC). Often now, when I arrive at my destination after a long afternoon ride, or stop to rest at a halfway point, I take out my phone, lean my bike against the nearest landmark and snap a photo of my riderless cycle. I think it’s my way of somehow reminding me and the universe, that: “Yes, I am still here. I can still ride. And so I will keep on pedaling.”

I’ve got snapshots of my battered blue road bike on a bright blue July 4th in Franklin center, leaning against a weathered wooden bench, white puffy clouds in the distance. There’s a shot of my two wheeled vehicle in front of the oversized gothic doors of the chapel at Wellesley College; and one image of my ride propped against a huge cherry red “University of Massachusetts” sign at the entrance to my old school, UMass.  

The photo I cherish most is one of my trusty bicycle carefully balanced on the side of a simple granite marker in Medfield, just down the road from my house. That stone stands sentinel like, next to a cemetery, on the grounds of the old Medfield State hospital.  A brass plaque simply declares: “Remember us: for we too have lived, loved and laughed.”

This is my eighth summer doing the PMC, the largest athletic fundraiser in the world. Come this Saturday and Sunday 5,000 of us we will seek to raise $48 million dollars for cancer care and research, at the Dana-Farber in Boston. One hundred percent of every dollar raised goes directly to this world class institution. 

That’s why I ride.

But I also ride to remember: those who lived and loved and laughed, but whom cancer stole away.  A dear mentor, Sue.  A kind cousin, Kathy.  A thoughtful church member, Dottie, and many more too.  And I also ride so that those who battle cancer right now—like Bob, and Angela, and T Michael—that they might continue to live, love and laugh, for many years to come. 

It’s far too easy in this life, as we whiz along doing the “oh so important!” stuff we seemingly must do, to forget those who came before us, those who struggle even now quietly: with ill health or life challenges.  The best life always remembers that in fact we stand on the shoulders of those who are now gone.  The best life lives with mercy and care towards those who still need our help. 

That’s why I ride.

So here’s my request: come Saturday morning please say a prayer for all the riders: for safety and a brisk tail wind and good weather. Say a prayer for the 3,000 volunteers who make it all happen with grace and joy. Say a prayer that one day cancer might be history, that we won't need the PMC anymore. Say a prayer for the bicycles without riders: their memories still inspires us to ride on.  And yes: if you’d like to make a donation, that would be great too.


They lived. They loved. They laughed. May God keep us to the promise to not forget: every step, every mile, and every pedal stroke, in this miracle called life.