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.