Wednesday, December 26, 2018

At the Holidays, Pass the Traditions Please!

"Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can't even describe, aren't even aware of."  --Ellen Goodman


For the uninitiated, tourtiere is a meat pie made from a pie shell filled with pork or veal or beef, that sometimes also includes potatoes and other vegetables. It's traditionally eaten at Christmas and New Years by French-Canadians, those up north over the border in Quebec, and by folks who immigrated down into New England, as my relatives did in the early twentieth century. So this week I'll enjoy, maybe even make for myself, this most traditional meal, use the recipe that was passed down to me from my Mom who got it from her Mom who got it from great grandmother, Memere.

I love tourtiere because of its simplicity. Just five ingredients--a pie shell, browned pork, cinnamon, salt and pepper.  I love how the spices infuse the pork, married to the freshness of crumbly fresh baked pastry. But why I really love tourtiere is tradition: the fact that when I eat it, in a mystical way, a profound way, I get to sit at the holiday table with my late grandfather again, who every Christmas day celebrated his holiday with a slice of that pie and a side of sweet pickles.

For me it isn't Christmas, it isn't the year's end unless I partake of tourtiere. That's my tradition, one among many traditions that mark the holidays for me.

There may be no more tradition filled time of year than right now. Traditions around food: toll house cookies, fat laden eggnog, black eyed peas, fish on Christmas Eve, maybe a big roast on New Year's Day. Traditions around decorations: some love "tasteful" white lights and a single spotlight illuminating a perfect wreath on the front door. Others go big: an oversized blow up Santa on the front lawn, a red and white visage so large and bright it can be seen from space. Traditions around faith: the holy quiet of a silent night with candles in hand or the lighting of the menorah around the family table, that holy object passed down from one generation to the next.

In a world that can feel as if it is changing so fast, too fast, traditions give humans a place to stand in this life, to depend upon even as so much else comes and goes, fades away. What's trendy today is so often passé tomorrow. Tradition gives us a place to reconnect with our cultural and familial roots, to remember where we came from and those who sacrificed to get us to this place. Tradition remind us that we are a part of a story--a faith story, a family story--so much bigger than ourselves, a story that began long before us, and, God willing, will continue after we are gone. Thus in my religious tradition, the story of the Christ child we celebrate and remember each December is more than 2,000 years old, ancient, yes, but trustworthy too, having survived the test of time. 

Not all traditions are meant to be carried on unthinkingly, unquestioned, or uninformed. In my house one of our childhood "traditions" was that of my Mom having to do essentially everything to make the holiday happen. By Christmas Eve she was always exhausted.  That's one tradition we've thankfully let go of. We all chip in to help now. In the past our holiday was so much more about gifts: giving and receiving. But now?  It's a gift to just be with each other.  That's a great new tradition.  So too the best traditions must be embraced by the next generation, made their own.  Hopefully one Christmas day I will sit at my niece's holiday table and eat a slice of tourtiere that she made.  But that's up to her.

I cannot imagine this life without tradition. Can you?

As Tevye, the main character in the play “Fiddler on the Roof”, proclaims, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” So go ahead: admire the delicate glass ornament on the tree, the one that came from Grandma. For fifty years it's marked this day in December. Return to your faith, and hear again the old, old story, one that still speaks to a world in desperate need of peace on earth and goodwill to all people.  That seems to never change.  Introduce the youngest to tradition: invite them to be a part of an unbroken chain of memory and life.

And that tourtiere?  Line a pie plate with pastry dough, hand made or store bought. Brown a pound and half of fresh ground pork, adding 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 3/4 of a tsp. of salt, an 1/8 of a tsp. of black pepper and a cup and a half of water. With a slotted spoon fill pie shells and add a little of the juice from the meat. Cover with the top crust. Cook at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Optional: add sweet pickles as a side and pork gravy.  YUM!   

Happy holidays. Happy traditions too.



Monday, December 17, 2018

The Human Yearning to Make It Home for the Holidays

"The desire to go a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be of the world, that center called love."    --Rebecca Solnit, author

Home. Home for the holidays.

In the coming days hundreds of millions of us will hit the road or fly the skies, or take a train or board a bus, or travel to the next town over or travel across the country, all to get home. Home: a physical place, a real point on the map, the three decker house in the city where we grew up, the leafy suburban neighborhood where we came of age, the place we had to leave in order to grow up and then come back. So our kids will return from college, our adult children will come carrying tons of presents with their kids in tow, or we will pile into the car and drive. 

That trip home will be spiritually bumpy for some of us. We miss a loved one who won't be at the holiday table this year and our hearts break at their absence. We are in conflict with a loved one and so we stay away or they stay away. We are just too far away and can't get home. We are among the hundreds of thousands who don't get a day or a week off: soldiers on the front lines, nurses at the hospital, firefighters staffing a quiet station, folks who serve tables and drive the bus and pump the gas and pour the coffee.

Still everybody wants to get home.

No matter what the ideal vision of home conjures up for each of us this twelfth month, always as humans, there is this deep desire to go home and to be at home in the world. Home: not just a geographic location but even deeper, home as a place in the heart, a state of the soul called home where we feel loved and accepted and welcomed, fully, completely, for who we are. No questions asked. Home: where we are safe, where we are found, and with a bit of God's grace, we know joy. Home: where someone knows our name and knows our story and welcomes us in.

In the church I serve, on the eve of the 25th, our pews will be much fuller than usual, as candlelight flickers in the frosty windows. It happens every year. I will look out upon the well dressed congregants holding squirmy kids, and families sharing a hymnal, and travelers coming in for the first time, and I absolutely get why they come. They seek a home in something bigger than themselves, in a power greater than themselves that somehow holds all Creation together. They seek the comfort of the carols they've sung year after year on a silent night.  They want to come home and to be at home in a 2,000 year old ancient story. They hope to find a home in the very heart of God. 

It's a universal yearning, a tug within the soul, especially in December.

Yes, we are so different from each other, we humans. We are poor and rich, gay and straight, married and single, immigrant and blue blood. We have lots of kids or no kids. The tables of our holiday feasts are packed with so many relatives or feature two or three gathered as family, some bound by blood, some by memory and experience.  We are Christian or Jewish or Muslim or agnostic or maybe even not so sure about this God idea.

Yet still we all seek just one holiday gift: to find a home and to be at home.

So my prayer and hope for all of us, dear readers, is simple. May we all get home this holiday, in these holy days. May the roads we travel bring us to a place of spiritual calm. May the joys and the sorrows of this season open our hearts to realize the miracle that is daily life.  In the words of the poet Max Erhman, from his poem "Desiderata": " at peace with God, whatever you conceive [God] to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your still is a beautiful world."

There is no place like home for the holidays so may God bless all of our journeys.



Monday, December 10, 2018

Chaos, the Game of Life and the Truth That Anything Is Possible

Chaos (noun) 1. a state of utter confusion 2. a state in which chance is supreme  3. the unorganized state of primordial matter before creation


That was the scene at the crazy conclusion to a football game this past Sunday afternoon between the teal green uniformed Miami Dolphins and New England's own red, white and blue Patriots. Even if you're not a football fan, it was hard not to be in awe of the chaos contained within just the blink of an eye, something you had to see to believe.

With just seven seconds left in the game, with just one play left for the Dolphins, with millions of Pats fans ready to celebrate another victory, I like so many others was sitting in my Lazy-Boy and thinking, "What could go wrong?"

Try everything.

Pats up 33-28. Miami's last chance. Sixty nine yards to go. No way! Then chaos arrived. The ball was hiked; a pass to one Dolphin who then tossed the ball to a teammate who then hurled the ball to another teammate who then zigged and zagged and scrambled into the end zone.  No time left. Dolphins win. Pats lose. The play looked like one I might have executed in a backyard pick up game when I was ten years old. 

Crazy. Cool. Nuts. Chaos.

What were the actual chances of that happening? Football statistics geek Brian Burke, on his website Advance Football Analytics, reports a team in the Dolphins position had a less than a one percent chance of winning. But then chaos comes, an ever present possibility in football, in life. A Pats player stumbles on his own feet and misses the tackle by a fingertip. A Dolphin runner cuts left. His opponent lunges right. Touchdown. The Fish win 34-33, thus proving that in chaos anything is possible.      

Chaos: the power hard wired into everything in life, from the beginning of life. It's the possibility in any given moment or situation for millions, even billions of outcomes to happen. Chaos is the reality that we while we mortals may think, presume, and assume we absolutely know a sure thing, a safe bet, or a clear conclusion, this does not always happen. Sometimes that's a good thing. Ask the Dolphin fans, some of whom consider their win a miracle. (Something tells me God doesn't much care who wins a football game.)  Sometimes it's a bad thing. Just ask a heartbroken Pats fan this week. Better yet don't. They're still recovering. 

What that game's chaotic ending reminded me, is that...we humans never know. Never know how things might turn out or shift or change or flip or zig even when we are sure life will zag.  It can be something as inconsequential as a football game. It can be something as profound as our health or a relationship or the direction of a country or the fate of the world itself.                   

Is chaos good? When a chance encounter with a stranger at a friend's party leads to love, marriage and family, yes!  When a random investment in an unknown stock called Amazon in 1997 leads to unexpected wealth, yes! When a midnight stroll under the stars happens the same night as a rare aurora borealis bursting in the sky with a technicolor God show, absolutely, yes! Bring on the chaos.

Is chaos bad? When health worsens, hurts us or a loved, yes. Chaos stinks. When politicians can't see beyond the self interest of their own politics or their own desires for power, even thought this guarantees worldwide upheaval, is chaos scary? Yes. When a tornado touches down, a hurricane howls, a blizzard blows, chaotic weather that cannot be predicted or tamed, is this a gut punch? Yes. No thank you chaos.

But still we can respond, in faith, to chaos. Accept chaos as a given, baked into Creation from the moment God formed the world out of the formless void of chaos. From chaos comes creation, then and now. Chaos humbles, reminds us that ultimately we as a species do not run the whole show. Chaos brings us together, pushes us to rely upon each other in community and mutual support. Chaos means anything is possible: the good, the bad, everything.

Chaos is.  As a Pats fan I know this is true. The good news? There's another game next Sunday. Who knows what might happen?

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Fact: The World Is Warming. Opinion: It's Not Such a Big Deal!!

"They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace." --Jeremiah 6:14

I'm in the belief business, have been for almost thirty years as a teacher and a preacher of the Christian faith.  To believe: that is when you or I trust something as true, and in the religious realm, when we have faith in the veracity of a spiritual claim.  Like, say, the statement, "God exists". The thing to remember about this truth claim is that it always relies upon the sincere belief of an individual or a people or an institution and is not necessarily based in verifiable, scientific or provable fact. So I have good friends who are atheists or agnostics who wouldn't agree with my unshakeable belief that God does exist. I have Muslim, Jewish and Hindu neighbors who do not understand Jesus in the exact same way that I do.

And that's okay.

Because when it comes to certain kinds of belief, it is always more about faith than facts. More about mystery than mathematics. More about profound feelings than concrete scientific law.  Unlike, for example, what we as humans, or what our "leaders" might "believe" about something like, say, climate change. 

Last week a team of more than 300 researchers and scientists from thirteen federal agencies issued a report about where our nation stands vis a vis the effects of global warming. It includes comments from more than 1,000 participants in forty workshops held in cities around the country and was peer reviewed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Global Change Research Act of 1990 mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) issue this report to Congress and the President no less than every four years.

The news is not good. Highlights of the report include these facts: the earth's climate is changing faster than at any other time in recorded history and this most likely results from human activity. Average temperatures in the U.S. have increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit in just 100 years. Climate change could cut gross domestic product by 10 percent or two trillion dollars by 2100, losses comparable to the Great Depression.

News flash: I believe in the climate change described in that report, but not as a matter of faith. Not as an opinion. Not as a polemic or a political posture. I believe in climate change because I believe in the integrity of and I trust the overwhelming majority of scientists worldwide who conclude that global warming is real, is man made and is a dire threat to our existence as a species.

Too bad our Commander in Chief doesn't "believe" the report, nor so many other folks in the media and politics, who pushed back last week, labeling the study a fraud or false or somehow a conspiracy on the part of scientists who are all making this stuff up. Yup--that's what was said and I can't make that stuff up. So even though global warming is real, is a fact scientifically, some in power still refuse to believe this. This fact perhaps scares me even more than the increasing frequency of super storms or the reality that in mere decades, the Back Bay of Boston might become an actual bay again.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, absolutely; no one is entitled to their own scientific facts. I wish those who refuse to accept the reality of climate change would be honest about why they really so vehemently oppose the report's conclusions. To so many of them, profits always matter more than people and stockholders more than the environment. The earth is a human owned resource to be sucked dry and exploited for economic gain at any cost. And since we are still okay in this generation, what's the big deal? Let future generations deal with it.

In the story of Creation, when God finishes making the universe and the heavens and earth and all that is within it, God makes a beautiful and simple declaration. "God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31)  My faith tells me that this belief is indisputable. I believe the world is a very good place, is created perfectly, and is ours' for a home, but only if we are very careful and wise stewards of planet earth.

Fact: the world is warming. Fact: left unchecked this will eventually damage Creation beyond repair. Fact: if our leaders do nothing, we are going to be in very, very deep trouble, and very, very soon. 

And those facts? Not very good. No.  Not at all.        

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Creation Is Wild: We Pay A Price In Forgetting This Truth

 “There is a patience of the wild – dogged, tireless, persistent as life itself.”
--Jack London, "The Call of the Wild"

In the end, the wild in this world still wins sometimes. 

Mixed within Thanksgiving 2018 week news reports of how to cook a turkey just right or about Black Friday deals on flat screen TVs or heartwarming stories describing folks traveling thousands of miles to get home, there was an odd story. A tragic story. A wild story. The story of John Allen Chau.

Chau, a twenty six year old from Washington state, an apparently fervent Christian singularly devoted to spreading his faith to the wild places and wild peoples of this world, died in that effort on November 16th.  A month before he had traveled to the wildest of places, North Sentinel Island, an isolated spit of land in the middle of the Indian Ocean, hundreds of miles off the coat of India.  There live a Sentilese tribe of 50 to 100 people, who have intentionally isolated themselves from the rest of the world for thousands of years. The Indian government considers the island off limits to all outsiders and tries to protect it.  But Chau was not to be stopped from his "mission". 

For four weeks Chau repeatedly tried to land on the island, at one point (according to his diary) yelling to the inhabitants from his kayak in the waters offshore: “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you!”  He was attacked by spears thrown by the islanders, had his Bible pierced by a razor sharp arrow, and was repelled by the tribe, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone. Left in the wild. Left to themselves. Yet still Chau insisted, persisted and so the inevitable happened. Chau finally landed on the island and was killed, his body buried under the sands of that wild and mysterious place. Efforts to retrieve his remains have thus far failed.

As a Christian, the same faith as Chau's, what most strikes me about his death is what a waste of a life it is, what a product his demise is of naive arrogance found in the human idea that we can somehow tame all that is wild. Control all that which is ultimately out of our control.  Presume we "civilized" folks know best how other "wild" fellow human beings are supposed to live. Chau foolishly, tragically died, a victim of the wild.

Yes, the wild still has much power in our world in spite of what we humans might believe or imagine. Chau's death shows this truth. Yet in 2018 it is so easy to assume that the wild no longer has reign in Creation. 

Our world is more connected and interconnected than ever before, billions of us able to communicate with each other through one tap on a smart phone screen. Diseases that once ravaged this world in wild and frightening ways--smallpox, polio, malaria--have been eradicated through the work of modern science.  Travel has shrunk our world to hours spent on a jet plane, one day in Boston, the next in Senegal or Mongolia or Madagascar. 

The world has been tamed but so too this world is still untamed, a very, very wild place. Witness the California wildfires that ravage the coast and burn in spite of all we humans try to do to stop them. Witness climate change, born from the arrogance of humans who presume we can tame wild mother earth, recklessly use all of her resources and then not somehow pay the price for our avarice. Witness our shared lives, the countries we call home, the systems of global organization that seemingly unite our fractured global community. 

All it takes is a handful of wild leaders to destabilize world order.  So now the United States is singlehandedly beginning to dismantle the community of western nations created post World War II in the cause of peace. The forces of Brexit in Great Britain insist upon divorce from the European community even though such an action is likely to wreck the British economy. Wild despots reemerge as bullies on the world stage, like Putin in Russia.

The world is still a wild place. A very wild place. Even our God is forever wild, a God we too often insist upon taming through rigid orthodoxy, narrow religious belief, and the arrogant notion that our little tribe possesses God's truth, all others need not apply.

We as Christians, as a species and as children of God would be wise to remember this truth, the wildness in the very DNA of God and the stuff of Creation. To respect the wild places and wild peoples and wild nature. To have a bit of healthy and fear and true humility when it comes to how we engage and encounter the wild in this life.

Because sometimes, even in this twenty first century, the wild still wins.



Thursday, November 22, 2018

Deep Thanksgiving Begins In This One Miraculous Moment

"It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. All that was going on in life and we never noticed....Do any human beings realize life while they live it? Every...every minute?"           
 --Emily, from "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder

Last summer I undertook an unusual spiritual practice. I tried my best to pay attention, pay deep attention, to singular and sacred moments in time. Moments that came. Moments I lived. Moments I loved. Moments that ended, gone forever.

While training for my yearly Pan Mass Challenge, a long distance August charity bike ride for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, I took one photo of my bike every single time I went out for a ride. One snapshot for each journey, from early May until late August. One image of my bicycle posed in front of a landmark that embodied each journey, every single trip. At summer's end I had a photo service organize those thirty moments into a poster, to remind me what a great and fun and hard and adventurous and blessed time I had riding through my life in the summer of 2018. What a gift from God that time was, each and every minute, every second.

I wanted to realize that time somehow. To be awake and alive to it. To really remember it. To be grateful to God for it, and to say "Thank you!"

There's a photo of my bike on the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, snapped on a lovely spring morning ride with my 12 year old Goddaughter BJ. An image of my cycle leaning against an ancient player piano someone left by the side of the road in Natick on a hot July day.  On the scorching August Friday when I rode all the way to Rhode Island and back, there's a picture of my bicycle leaning against a road sign: "Entering Woonsocket". That was an epic trip! A snapshot of me at the end of the PMC shows me holding my bike high over my head in joy, a ride marked by driving rain the final 48 miles. Then one final photo, my bike leaning against a wooden fence, with the blue and white surf of Nantucket Sound in the background.

I wish I could say I was just as attentive to the rest of my life, to the more mundane and typical and routine moments too. Days like so many other days: when I arise in the morning and drink my coffee and go to work and write sermons and visit folks and eat meals and watch TV and then go to bed. Because even in the midst of those seemingly everyday days, a beautiful and miraculous life is still unfolding, if I 'd only realize it. If I'd only see, really see: the smile of my co-worker Jose who greets me each weekday morning with grace and care. Nature all around me: a bright yellow sunrise, gorgeous colorful leaves on the trees, or an unexpected November snowstorm blanketing the world.  How about hot coffee, smoky and delicious? Or the people who love me, the folks I love?   

I need to pay attention more to my one life. We need to pay attention more to this life, appreciate it, never take it for granted, especially as mortals, we who live lives that will not go on forever, that instead have an expiration date. So maybe the spiritual question for life is this clear and simple: are we paying attention to the divine and God given moments we live, we are given?  Really, really enjoy days and hours and minutes and seconds, being fully within that time. Time that comes. Time that goes, never to return. 

Here's a Thanksgiving Day challenge. When you sit down at your table, take a moment and look around, really look into, the faces of those gathered together and then dare to thank God or thank the universe for gifting you with that exact minute and those exact people. Savor the rich food: the smells, the tastes, the memories these evoke of holidays past.  Because this one day will be unlike any day that has ever happened before or will ever happen again.  Your precious son or daughter will grow up and go off to college. Your sometimes annoying cousin will one day not be able to make it back east for a visit. Even if the turkey is dry or the rolls are burnt or a political squabble breaks out, what a gift this time will be, all of it, every single tick of the clock. 

If only we would pay attention. Then we humans might actually realize life while we live it. Every...every moment.  Happy Thanksgiving.






Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Don't Give Up On Our Unkind World Yet: Instead Be Kind.

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
--The Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist Leader

True story. Last weekend my Aunt found herself in need of a little human kindness.  She'd driven into Boston to visit my Mom, her sister, who'd had surgery, but in Carol's rush into the city and then into the parking garage and then out of her car and then up to the room, somehow she'd lost her keys. She searched the room, the hallway, the elevator, the shuttle bus that had taken her to the hospital. No luck.

"Can I help you?" a man in green scrubs asked, as she looked through the elevator again.  On the edge of tears, she explained her dilemma. Downtown. Alone. Stranded. This person could have easily walked on by, gotten to where ever he was on his way to. Seen someone in distress but kept going.  But instead he said, "Let's look again." Then he walked with her down the stairs and into the cold dark garage, searching right along with her and then finally back to her car, where they discovered those keys, right there in the ignition where they'd been the whole time.

"Thank you!" she said, so grateful for his help. Seeing his attire Carol asked if he worked at the hospital. "I'm a surgeon," he answered. He was on his way home after a long day of operations from dawn 'til dusk. And then they parted: two human beings, connected by circumstance and now bound forever by one simple act of human kindness. One soul assisting another soul in need.  One stranger daring to ask another stranger: "Can I help?" 

If we were able to have a bird's eye view of the hospital on that chilly Friday night, we'd no doubt have witnessed a hundred, maybe even a thousand such acts of simple human kindness. A taxi driver helping a limping man outside the emergency room.  A gentle nurse taking the blood pressure of a scared little boy, soothing his fears with quiet words of reassurance.  A flower delivery person evoking a mile wide smile in a cancer patient.  The security guard who gave a car battery jump to help a couple from Oklahoma, in town to visit their daughter who was in a terrible car accident.

Each in their own way making this world a little kinder, a little softer, a little better, and a little more loving.  Each anonymous.  Each making a conscious choice to be the light in a world we too often might imagine is only shadow filled. Each having that rare gift of empathy, the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes and then in that imagining, responding with compassion.

It's tempting these days to see this world through the lens of cynicism, even despair, when it comes to the hope for simple human kindness. Our President regularly insults, demeans, bullies and verbally bludgeons anyone whom he perceives as an opponent and the crowd cheers for more.  Our nation has been rocked by acts of cruelty and violence perpetrated by sick souls who worship at the altar of hate.  Our press doesn't help: it almost gleefully reports upon such meanness of spirit and actions, 24/7, always looking for the next thing to shock us with and to drive up ratings.

But here's one truth I am absolutely sure of: there is much more kindness than cruelty in this world. There are many, many more folks willing to stop and to help than to walk on by in apathy. Most folks are, at their core, decent people, who try their best each day to be good neighbors and good citizens and good people.  We need to remember this, to have faith and then dare to believe that in the long arc of human history, kindness always wins. Always.   

That deep truth will not sell many newspapers. It will not appeal to the preachers who want to condemn this world in fear and anger or the politicians who exploit human cruelty for their own personal power. Kindness might be written off as weakness by the strong or as corny by the annoyingly ironic. Don't listen to those voices. Don't give in. Don't give up. 

Instead look for human kindness. Ask for kindness from others. Teach kindness in your religion and to your family and community, then live it, and take it out into your daily life. Kindness will always make your one life "great" in the truest sense. Kindness is a gift from God and a loving universe but it only works when we put it to work.

Someone this day needs your kindness. You can do it. Be kind.



Thursday, November 8, 2018

America's Epidemic of Violence and Hate: God Grant Us the Courage to Do SOMETHING

"No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them."   --Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, author of "Night"

"Are you...are you okay? Can I do anything?"

That was the only response I could think to offer my friend, a kind and funny and talented person who sings with me in my community choir. I asked because he's Jewish. Because just a week before, the most violent act of anti-Semitism in United States history happened:11 people killed at a massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue, all of them shot, and why? Because they were Jewish.

"Are you...are you okay? Can I do anything?"

I could have just as easily asked the same question of my African-American friends too, in light of the murder of two people of color at a Jeffersontown, Kentucky grocery store late last month. The killer in that tragedy first went to a predominantly black church to presumably murder folks in that house of worship, but finding it locked, he drove to a nearby Kroger's and opened fire.  Two folks cut down while shopping and why? Because they were African-American.

"Are you...are you okay? Can I do anything?"

I might ask those questions of my women friends after the killing of two female yoga students at a studio in Tallahassee, Florida last week. The man who wielded the gun in that crime had a long history of hating women, of posting misogynistic videos on YouTube, who as a college student was arrested twice on charges of violence against women.  Two people murdered and why?  Because they were women.  

What can I do? What can we do to fight such sick and evil hatred? To name and confront the sins of racism, of religious intolerance, of deadly sexism?  To stand with and for all in our world who are threatened with injury or death or hatred because of the God they worship, the color of their skin or their gender?

As Americans, as humans, as people of faith, we have to ask these questions. Have to move beyond the lazy and specious responses too many offer when such hate crimes happen.  The killer was just crazy, mentally ill, yeah...that's why he did it.  It was random, an anomaly. Such acts of terrorism are so rare they are a fluke somehow.  That's not really who America is, who we are, right? It's easy for me to offer such platitudes, me. Who never has to fear going out in public because of my race or religion or gender. Me: who's never been stared at in suspicion or fear or sick lust because of who I am. 

Can we do anything? Will we do anything?

Or will we just let these tragedies quickly fade away in the insane news cycle that is America in 2018? Just wait a couple of days. Something worse will happen. We live in times when it feels as if we are so overwhelmed by so many stories about so many vicious acts of human hatred that we become numb to it all.

That's no excuse for apathy. We must do something: as individuals, a nation and as children of God. Because here's the hard truth: until neighbors truly love all their neighbors; until we refuse to tolerate as "the norm" the -isms that separate us one from another; until we call out "leaders" who by their indifference and bullying ways fan the flames of bias, we are all a part of the problem.  All of us. By choosing to do nothing we allow the status quo of hate to continue.

Will we do anything? Or will we not?

As concentration camp survivor and German Pastor Martin Niemoller warned the world in 1933, "First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—        because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."





Monday, October 29, 2018

To Heal Our Broken World: Love Thy Neighbor and Love Thy Neighborhood

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."        -- Leviticus 9:18,Matthew 22:39

Maybe the hope for our world all finally comes down to our neighborhoods and our neighbors.

Say the word "neighborhood" and I grow nostalgic for the tidy collection of homes and families and streets where I grew up. Beach Street, a collection of modest Capes and starter homes on a thoroughfare six houses down from Wollaston Beach, on Boston's South Shore. Two streets away from my Aunt and Uncle and four cousins. A half mile  away from my Grandparents.

When I return to that neighborhood now it feels small but in the eyes and memory of a little boy it was huge. It was home. It was a place for us children to roam in safety, aware that we were watched over by a neighborhood full of Moms and Dads. If we got out of line or yelled too loud, if we ran across the street without looking, we were called out.

We were known. We were seen. We were cared for in that neighborhood.

We played kick the can in the street and had crab apple fights in tree filled backyards. We climbed over a chain link fence into the bowling alley parking lot to ride our bikes and play wiffle ball until the summer sun went down.  And then at day's end there was the sing song sound of parents calling out from back doors, to round us kids up for supper. That was our neighborhood soundtrack.

That was our neighborhood.

I've lived in some not so great neighborly neighborhoods too, places of anonymity where I knew no one and no one knew me either, beyond a quick wave. Enclaves where practically the only interaction I might have with a neighbor was a stare down contest to secure that last on street parking spot. I've lived in a cramped apartment building and where I felt alone, even though I was surrounded on all sides by "neighbors". I now live in a neighborhood where we do know each other, a place where in a blizzard or a blackout I know I could turn to a neighbor and absolutely, they would help me and I would help them. 

And why? It's our neighborhood. A real place in the real world, with a physical address and clear boundaries and a clear sense that we are all in this together. 

This day I've been thinking a lot about one particular American neighborhood, a tight knit city district called Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Before last Saturday it was most well known as the place where Mister Rodgers grew up.  Now its known as the location of a deadly massacre and act of domestic terrorism, the worst and most violent act of anti-Semitism in American history, the place where eleven innocent synagogue attendees, neighbors, were gunned down as they worshipped their God on the Sabbath. 

Those folks were neighbors, good neighbors. They knew each other well.  Their kids went to Hebrew classes together, played baseball together, grew up together. The neighborhood is known as a historic Jewish community but it is a wider neighborhood too: of Catholics and Protestants, of blue and white collar, of newcomer and longtime resident.  Folks there overwhelmingly love their neighborhood for the same reasons all of us cherish the places we claim as our place in this world.

It's home. It's our neighborhood. 

So now neighbors from around the United States are trying to help those neighbors in need, trying to push back against evil, with large and small acts of kindness. To declare, "This is our neighborhood too. These are our neighbors." Like Muslims neighbors who through the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and the nationwide Muslim charity Celebrate Mercy, have raised more than $125,000 to help their Jewish neighbors in Squirrel Hill. The funds will help pay for funeral services, medical bills, and other needs in this awful time.

When a tragedy like the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue happens, it is so hard to find any hope, to look for the light in the darkest of days.  As the dead are remembered and buried.  As that neighborhood will never be the same again.

Yet hope finally is all that we have as humans, as fellow children of God, in the face of hatred and bias. And so I for one put my hope and faith in neighborhoods and neighbors, in cherished places like Squirrel Hill.  I have to because finally, neighborhoods are where we humans live and die, where we grow up, where we know love, where our families settle, where we worship our God and where we find a place to stand in this sometimes crazed and violent world. 

If this world is to change for the good, if bloodshed is to give way to shalom, if bigotry is to be defeated by love, it will all begin in our neighborhoods and with our neighbors.  Next door. Around the corner. Across the street.

Love thy neighbor. Love thy neighborhoods too. And say a prayer for Squirrel Hill.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Freedom of the Press. No Free Press? No Freedom.

"Why should freedom of speech and freedom of press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized?"
--Vladimir Lenin, Russian dictator

Some people are actually dying for a free press.

Twenty eight journalists so far in 2018. Women and men who went out one day to investigate a drug dealer, or learn more about official corruption, who wrote a critical opinion piece about a president or dared to challenge in print some religious or social orthodoxy. They did their jobs: took pen to paper, pecked away on a keyboard, met an anonymous source on a lonely street corner, stood up in front of the cameras as the bombs fell and the protests rang out.  And then they died.  They were murdered by people and powers threatened by the freedom to report the news.

Most of these deaths happened in nations we would expect to be hostile to press freedom, places of terror and repressive governments, nations torn apart by war or drugs, societies where the ideal of true freedom of the press is a myth. Ten journalists died in Afghanistan, four in Mexico, and one each in Columbia, Syria and Libya. But so too: journalists in India, Slovakia and Brazil died and four journalists in the United States as well. Last June 28th, in what police called a targeted attack, a gunman walked into the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland and opened fire. The shooter was angry about a story written about him and so he killed those he deemed "guilty", with a loaded shotgun.

The 28th death of 2018 has yet to be officially confirmed as a murder but it may turn out to be the most infamous and gruesome of the year, the recent passing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.  On October 2nd, he walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey and was never seen again. The fact that Khashsoggi was critical in print and public of the murderous and misogynistic monarchy that rules Saudi Arabia, led directly to his disappearance.  Some reports say Khashoggi was tortured first and then killed, his body dismembered for quick and secret disposal. 

Some people are actually dying for a free press.

And being jailed.  And being arrested and held without charges. And receiving death threats. And this all while toiling away in a craft that is mostly anonymous and filled with the drudge work of tracking down leads and working for months and months on a story that might not pan out and most of the time not being paid much for the work either.  But these journalists continue to do their work. To bring light into the dark corners of human behavior.  To expose the hypocrisy and corruption of political leaders.  To be the watchdog of government, keeping check on the cruel and the clueless, the power hungry and ego driven we too often elect to high office these days.

These journalists are able to work in freedom in the United States because freedom of the press is guaranteed by the Constitution and the rule of law.  This in spite of the fact that in 2018 it's fashionable and vote worthy to call journalists "the enemy of the people".  To threaten journalists with physical harm. To deride any critical story as "fake news" and any laudatory story as "the real story". 

I completely own my bias in support of journalists and journalism, having written for newspapers for much of the past twenty five years. Guilty as charged. Are there clowns and trolls, yellow journalists and trashy news purveyors among the ranks of working journalists? Yes. Is news sometimes slanted left or right? Absolutely. It's always been so. Freedom of the press means we get it all: good news, bad news, real news, bias news and false news. Our job then as free and informed people is to sift through it all and get to the truth. Not easy but so vital to democracy. Thank God I live in a land where that is still possible.

Some people are actually dying for a free press.

We need to remember this truth and tragedy. The press are not the enemies of the people. At its best the press is courageous and committed, and maybe the last hope for holding the powerful to account. A free press reminds all kings, both the enthroned and the self-appointed, that the people and not the princes, are what makes a nation truly great and a nation truly free.      

But no free press? What is that like? Just ask the people of Saudi Arabia.


Monday, October 15, 2018

Today Will Never, Ever, Ever Be Again: SO LIVE IT!!!!

"This is a wonderful day, I have never seen this one before.” --Maya Angelou, poet

Sunday, October 14th, 2018. 

It was a day like any other day, I suppose.  The 287th day of the year. Just twenty four hours long or 1,440 minutes or 86,400 seconds, if you are counting.  In these parts it was a typical autumn day, a bit breezy, with a bright blue sky and then  later temps dropping to a chilly 41 degrees as the sun went down and the sliver of an orange moon rose in the sky.

Do you remember what that one day was like for you?

What you did? What you ate? The music you listened to in the car, the expression on your face in the mirror as you shaved, the feel of a warm embrace as your kid hugged you, the softness of your elderly parent's cheek as you kissed them in welcome for another Sunday visit?

Remember? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not.

For most humans: we have so many days to live that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to recall the minute and mundane, the beautiful and the boring moments of just one day out of so many. Which if you think about it is kind of sad.  Because the truth is that a day, say like last Sunday: it never, ever happened before and it will never, ever happen again, so to let it slip by unnoticed, to banish it to memory, never to be retrieved, is a lost opportunity, a forgotten blessing, even.

There are rare folks who actually remember every single day, almost every single moment, in life. These souls have hyperthymesia, the ability to recall much of their lives in very specific detail. In ten years ask them about last Sunday the 14th and they will tell you what the stranger sitting across them on the subway was wearing. 

I don't think I want to recall that much experience and yet I do wish and pray I could be more conscious, more alive to and wide awake to, the precious and miraculous gift that is every sun up and sun down, every turn of the daily calendar page. I want to live by the wise words of the ancient author who declared, "This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!"

So--what was last Sunday, October 14, 2018, like for you? Try and recall, call it back. Guaranteed that on that one day you were blessed somehow. You were immersed in some experience that changed you: for the good, for the better, for sure.

Every day does change the universe, change us.  

So now I do remember that one day...the wide open smile and enveloping arms of an enthusiastic five year old boy who wrapped himself around my legs as I finished up worship.  He just wanted to say "HI!".  I remember going to the Patriots game and being incredibly cold but so excited and happy: to watch a nail biting, nerve wracking game with my brother and four cousins, a rare gathering, then to finally get home at one a.m., so exhausted and so thankful.  It was a day to put up on the shelf and then take down later and remember with deep thankfulness.

And there is this day too.  This Monday, now the 15th of October. A raw and cold and rainy day. A smoky cup of coffee to drink by my side and another essay to write about life, about this one day.  The mistake I make is to somehow see this more "everyday" day as disposable or forgettable or something to quickly move on from because, well, it is just another day. Right?

But here's the truth. This day, that day, each day, today, all days: these are not just any days. These are instead days that will only happen once in a long string of tens of thousands of days that we all, incredibly, actually get to live. Get to breathe in and breathe out.  Get to watch our kids grow up, and feel ourselves grow older and witness the world rock and roll with so much change and so much challenge and so much energy.

We get to experience all of it, every single minute.

So thank you God: for October 14th, 2018. The 15th too.  Let me rejoice and be glad in it.  Let us all take this one day too, whatever the date, and then use it up and use it well, every last second.  Because when it is gone, it is gone. 

All that really matters





Monday, October 8, 2018

The End of the World As We Know It: Blame Pumpkin Spice

Fluff (noun) 1. light...particles, as of cotton. 2. a soft...mass 3. something of no consequence             

(Trigger warning: this article is of absolutely no consequence. None. It's not political, partisan, profound nor p'oed. It is mere fluff, seven hundred or so words of cotton candy-ish rhetoric. You've been warned.)

I have seen the apocalypse, the end days, one sure sign that civilization as we know it is coming to an abrupt end. It appeared by stealth in these opening days of autumn, showed up unbidden on store shelves in the dead of the night, stocked by workers sworn to absolute secrecy. Perhaps you've seen it while strolling down the baked good aisles of your local grocery store, have recoiled in horror and fear at the appearance of this unholy spawn from the devil.

It is...Hostess Pumpkin Spice Twinkies. No, that's not a typo or a misprint.  Hostess Pumpkin Spice Twinkies. Yes, some food engineer sitting in a high tech lab somewhere in the middle of the corn fields of Indiana actually created this culinary catastrophe, this blending of two "foods", a Frankenstein like culinary monster of epic proportions. Bite into one of these spongy cakes and you'll be confronted with a vaguely pumpkinny flavored orange hued cream. Yum.

Okay. I know my harangue is a little over the top.  

But what is it with our nation's fascination every September and October now, with pumpkin or pumpkin spice flavored foods and drinks? I don't get it. Do you? This trend started in 2003 with the introduction by Starbucks of its Pumpkin Spice Latte, a $4.65 cent melding of coffee and (at least according to the company) "real" pumpkin flavoring. Do they blenderize a whole pumpkin and then somehow mix it in with the beans?

Regardless of how the baristas do it, this drink has become a huge hit for the ubiquitous java chain.  BuzzFeed reports that in 15 years, Starbucks has sold in excess of 350 million of these odd concoctions, wracking up sales of almost $1.5 billion. The drink is so popular it has its own Twitter handle with 110,000 followers and a hashtag that's been tagged some 850,000 times on Instagram.  Since I'm over 55 years old I have no idea what that last statistic means, but it must be important, right?

Not content to stop at a hybrid Twinkie or warped cup of coffee, a horde of companies have created a seemingly endless list of pumpkin or pumpkin spiced themed products.  Ready? Pumpkin ale. Pumpkin Greek yogurt. Pumpkin coffee creamer. Pumpkin marshmallows. Pumpkin Spice Cheerios. Pumpkin Pie Hummus Shake. (Yes these two foods deserve each other.) Pumpkin Spice pretzel nuggets.  Pumpkin Flax Energy Cakes. (Why not mix in a little kale while you're at it?). 

But wait! It gets better...or worse.

Pumpkin gum. Pumpkin Pringles. Pumpkin Oreos. Pumpkin spice sweet burrito. Pumpkin spice candy corn. (Making the worst Halloween candy of all time that much more unpalatable.)  Pumpkin spice English muffins and what better way to top those off than with Pumpkin butter and Pumpkin spiced Jiff peanut butter?

Leave it to America to take a fanciful little idea, a cute concept and then turn it into a mass consumption juggernaut. This season alone, pumpkin themed products will bring in more than a $1 billion in sales. I wonder. Whatever happened to plain old pumpkin pie, the once sole use for our discarded orange gourds, mixed into a pasty concoction, poured into a pie shell and then consumed with a dollop of whip cream twice a year, on Thanksgiving and Christmas?

Call me old school, old fashioned, an old guy who stands on his lawn in sandals, shorts, and high black socks and then yells at the kids to "GET OFF!" Go ahead. I still can't fathom drinking a pumpkin coffee to wash down a pumpkin Twinkie. Nope. 

Instead, just pass the pie.  That's good enough for me.

(Trigger coda: you've just finished reading a piece that has no intellectual caloric value, nor any opinion that really matters. Hope you enjoyed it.)

Monday, October 1, 2018

On Leaves and Leaving As Autumn Settles In

“Two sounds of autumn are unmistakable...the hurrying rustle of crisp leaves blown along the a gusty wind, and the gabble of a flock of migrating geese.”  --Hal Borland

Leave. To depart, to exit, to migrate, to go away from, to put in the rear view mirror, to part, to retire, to go on to something new.

Here's the odd thing I notice every year about the autumn. Spring, summer, winter: these seasons arrive with a bang. They pull up to the curb and bound out of the car and extend a hand and say, "Hello! Glad to be back!" They show up, often very suddenly. In April on a miraculous morning when the buds on the trees seem to have exploded forth overnight. In June when sultry heat arrives and so we drag the air conditioner out of the attic and prepare for the dog days. In December when the sky turns slate grey, and the sun's rays are so diffuse and then we look up and notice the first white flakes, lazily falling in circles to the cold ground.

But not fall.  Fall is about leaving.

Fall gets into the car and says to us, "It's time to go. It's time to leave. Get in."  Fall is always about leaving and leaves, of course. Red and yellow and purple and orange and pink and brown. These spread like a lush technicolor carpet over the mountains, circle a quiet suburban backyard, hang from trees that bend over city streets.  The leaves are so beautiful and yet we know that even as we enjoy this amazing God show, the painting of Creation by the master artist's hand, we know it is all temporary. That soon those same leaves will leave. Fall to the ground. Decay into the soil or get sucked up by the legions of leaf blowing landscapers who invade these parts every November.

Fall is about leaving.

I used to regret, push back against leaving. Who wants to face into the loss of someone or something, this going away? A son or daughter leaves for college and so even as we celebrate that rite of passage, we mourn too, aware of how much we miss the sound of their voice, the footfall of steps as they come down the stairs in the morning.  At the church I serve we recently gave leave to a couple who were members of our community for more than fifty years. The Sunday we said goodbye was bittersweet, filled with gratitude for all they had done for and among us, sure, but grief too, at their departure.  Who wants to face into such goodbyes, such endings?  Not me! And yet....

We need the fall. We need to leave sometimes. We need leaving in this life. 

For the new cannot arrive until the old has made way for it.  A new relationship cannot bloom forth unless we have made peace somehow with the old relationship, the one who is no longer with us. For children to grow up and into the world they will inherit, we adults must know when to hand over such responsibility, say to them, "It is yours' now. Take good care of it."  For the sweet promises of next spring and summer to come true we have to first welcome the fall, and finally close the door on last spring and summer. Pack those seasons up and put them away in the attic so that when all is ready, they can come back out and play next year.

Yes, there is a wisdom to autumn and to leaving. 

So as we move into shorter days and chillier temperatures, as the animals rush to collect forage for the winter, as the geese fly overhead and head south in a cacophony of honks, my prayer is that we can all lean into our natural and personal leave takings with grace and with care. That we can be grateful in the midst of leaving, for the times that are going away and the times that are coming, just up ahead.  In our leaving may we be thankful to our God for the people who come into our lives and bless us, but then have to depart. 

So welcome autumn. It's time to leave.