Monday, August 13, 2018

Life Is a Classroom. Are You Still Learning?

"Here's a test to find if your mission on earth is finished. If you're alive, it isn't."
--Richard Bach, "Illusions: The Adventures of Reluctant Messiah"

This time of year I always feel envious towards the young, as they prepare to go back to school, begin some new learning chapters in their blossoming lives. Late August reminds me of the excitement and anxiety, the nervous energy I always felt as a young person when brand new classes or a brand new place of study was just weeks away for me. There's no other feeling quite like it in all of life.

It's time to learn.

Time for brand new books that open with a satisfying "crack" as you explore those pages of knowledge for the first time. Time for unexplored class syllabuses outlining all you will learn in the days ahead. A time when your only job in life is to learn. To expand your knowledge of the world and yourself and others. A time when life is unsettled in a good way, as you wade into some challenging new academic or life activity with absolutely no idea of how things will turn out.  Life then is a blank slate, a canvas waiting to filled in, and so with courage and curiosity you move ahead. Try some new way of thinking or living. In that one bold act, your life changes for ever.

All because you are committed to the act of learning.

Which is why I also love this time of year, these pre-September days, as I see young people in my life leave for college so excited about all the new ideas that they get to study. As I drive the streets of the city and watch young adults move into a new neighborhood, wrestle a couch up a flight of stairs, live with new roommates, start their next academic semester. As in just days from now when I will drive by the bus stop in front of my suburban home and watch as nervous parents let go of the hands of their young children, sons and daughters off to classes, some for the very first time.

All of them learning. All of those young people reminding me that the best God-given life is always marked by this work: to learn and to grow. To expand hearts and minds and spirits constantly. To never stop studying. To see all of life as a beautiful and unexplored classroom. To learn just for the sake and the joy of discovering some new talent that you never knew you had or a new thought that you never considered before.

What I most fear as I age is not the slow breaking down of my body, the new creaks and cracks I get to experience in the morning as I get out of bed. Nor do I fear too much this fast changing world that admittedly some days feels like a foreign land to me. Everything shifting and so quickly. No: what I fear most is my mind's ossification, the nightmare that one day I will awaken and conclude that I no longer need to learn anymore, or learn anything else, in my life. That instead I've seen it all, done it all, learned enough to last me forever. What I really need to do is fall back into my Lazy-Boy chair, watch TV all day, preferably some mindless drivel, or worst of all, a 24 hour news channel that tells me exactly just what to believe. No thought necessary.  No learning.

If one day in the future you happen to find me living thus, please put a fork into me because then I will be done.

No. Give me a life of learning instead. Lifelong learning from the day I am born until the day I leave this earth. Give me a room full of books and the time to read them all, to allow those tomes to take me to places I have never been before. Give me a God who pushes me to try new things, a God who is ever faithful but always challenging me to expand my soul and never settle for narrow orthodoxy or dusty doctrine.  Give me the courage to try something new each and every day.  Some exotic food. To sing a new song I've never sung.  Ride on my bicycle to some new place I've yet to discover. Give me a new idea I need to think about, that just may change my mind for the better.

When will our lives of learning cease? When is school out of session? If we are still alive, God willing, never. School is beginning again. Today. Will I see you in the classroom called life?

Think about it.






Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Does Anybody EVER Retire From Politics? The Cost of Leadership That Never Leaves.

Retire (verb) 1. to leave one's job and cease to work, typically upon reaching the normal age for leaving employment                        --Merriam Webster Dictionary

Some things just get better as they age, get older, rack up the years, and go gray.  A vintage bottle of wine.  A classic or classical song or composition, the Beatles 1970 "Let It Be", Beethoven's 1824 Ninth Symphony. Take a walk around Boston with its aged architectural and institutional wonders like the Old North Church (295 years old), or Harvard University (founded 1636) or the James Blake House in Dorchester (circa 1661) and we are reminded that good things last. 

There is a power and a dependability to certain things staying, remaining steady and stable. Things come and go but the best lives on. Age is a gift sometimes. It can produce great human wisdom. For investing there may be no better sage than 87 year old "Oracle of Omaha" Warren Buffet, who was already a millionaire while I was still stuffing pennies into a piggy bank. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is no spring chicken but at the ripe age of 85 she is wise and witty and smart: a legal mind for the ages, still lifting weights at the gym while younger colleagues huff and puff. 

But sometimes things and people and institutions decline with age, become sclerotic, rigid, unresponsive, unwilling, unable to adapt to a new world. There's a restaurant I loved as a kid that forty years ago was the place to go for a great meal. Now when I go there I see faded carpet curled up at the edges, peeling wallpaper and a menu better suited to 1958.  I expect it will close soon. Ride a Red Line subway car on the T and chances are it's up to fifty years old, creaking and clanking its way down arthritic tracks.  Or consider the current state and age of our national political leadership. Lots and lots of gray hairs and dyed hairs and comb-over hairstyles in this bunch.

The President clocks in at 72.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is 78. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is 76.  The retiring list goes on: Hillary Clinton soldiers on at 70, while wild and white haired Bernie Sanders whips up kids his grandchildren's age at the grand old mark of 76.  Massachusetts is no younger.  Senators Elizabeth Warren (69) and Ed Markey (72) bypassed AARP years ago. Democrats are so desperate for a decent Presidential candidate that they continue to pine for 75 year old Joe Biden.

Which makes me wonder: is the current dysfunctional, gridlocked, hard headed and hard hearted state of politics in Washington D.C. caused by the scleroticism of old ideologies and old ideologues? Heck at 57, I'm a kid compared to the generation we still entrust to lead our stumbling republic. There have been times when America turned with confidence and hope to the young to lead us. John F. Kennedy captured the Oval office at 43; Barack Obama did so at 47.  But lately we seem to continually vote for folks who stay and stay and stay, folks I just wish would spend more time golfing and playing bridge and less time ineffectually tackling our 2018 problems with 1968 ideas.

I'm not anti senior. At the church I serve some of the most generous and committed leaders I am blessed to work with may be old of body but they are young of heart and spirit. This past weekend I rode one day and 85 miles in the Pan Mass Challenge bike ride while a teammate, more than twenty years my senior, went on the next day to ride an additional 84 miles! I know many "old" folks who are young and I know many youngsters who are much too old before their time. My faith tradition is more than 2,000 years old but it was founded by a 33 year old whippersnapper. Age is more about attitude than any numerical marker if, and when, we think young, we live young, and we continually grow: spiritually, emotionally and intellectually.

So what worries and frustrates are the aging politicians on both sides of the aisle who are more interested in a return to the "good old days" (that never really existed) rather the future, the real place we are all headed. We have too many aging politicians who think it is still the 1960's and that if you just march and sing nostalgic protest songs, everything will change. We have too many of the younger generation fleeing politics. I am not the biggest fan of 48 year old outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, but his departure, after getting caught up in the blood sport of the current administration, begs the question: just who will step up?    

The best actors always know when it is time to "exit, stage right". The humblest folks know when it is time to step aside and invite new leadership to lead the cause. The tired and well worn know when it is time to give it a rest and retire with gratitude. When I get to that point, I pray I will know when it is time to go.

It is time for a new generation to lead us. Anybody up for a game of bridge?



    



      


        

       

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Pedaling the Pan Mass Challenge and a Life Worth Living

"This is the true joy in life...being used for a [mighty] purpose..., being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live."   --George Bernard Shaw

What kind of life do you want to live? Its quality? Its energy? Its purpose?

Me? I've always hoped to live a life devoted, in part, to something beyond my own little world. I want to live for positive ideals and hopes, and not just spend my days itching every scratch and feeding every appetite that I have, and then imagine this is what existence is all about. I want to be challenged, instead, to live for something greater than myself alone, a noble cause, a worthy goal, some endeavor that reminds me I am not the center of the universe. I want to die having made a mark for the good in Creation, leaving this world better than when I arrived. I want to stop along the way on this journey of life too, and help someone who might be having trouble, someone the world might be tempted to leave behind or forget. I want to be kind to counteract the toxic atmosphere of mean-spiritedness that seems to be winning far too many hearts and minds in our country right now.

That's my life hope. Sometimes I get there. Sometimes I fall short. But always I keep trying, inspired by a God who made all of us for good things, for greater things, for lives of service, for days that wear us out but days that make a difference. That's why for the tenth year in a row, I will ride in the Pan Mass Challenge (PMC).

The PMC is a two day bicycling fundraiser for the Dana Farber Institute, Boston's world class cancer care and research facility.  For the past thirty eight years, come the first weekend of August, folks ride and raise money.  Ride in hope for a day when cancer will be but a memory.  In almost four decades the PMC has raised an astounding $598 million dollars! This year the goal is $55 million.  Every dollar donated goes directly to the cause. All these details absolutely will inspire and motivate me and the 5,000 cyclists and 3,000 volunteers who will work to get us all the way from the wilds of Sturbridge to the dunes of Provincetown next Saturday and Sunday. 

We ride in memory of those now gone, angels who died from cancer. For me that's Dottie, Nora, Frannie, Kathy, and Sue, to name but a few.  We ride for those fighting against cancer right now, like Uncle Bill, Brad, and Jean. God willing, if my legs and lungs and backside all hold up, come the 4th, I will cycle some 90 miles (about 80,000 pedal strokes) from Metrowest Boston to the Cape. It's amazing what miracles a plain old bike can create, just two wheels and hope.

So when you consider your one life, what is your "PMC ride", your cause, your dream for this world, your prayers in action? What are you doing to make your one God-given life amazing, transcendent, and other centered, a life for "thee" and not just "me"? A big life, in the best sense.

You may not be crazy or foolish enough to ride a bike for ten hours a day on a hot August weekend, but the PMC teaches that each of us, all of us, can make the life of this world gentler, kinder, and more loving.  We can actually slow down from the frenetic pace of modern life and show mercy on the road to any and all who need a helping hand and someone to care.  We can live a life of adventure, doing something we never imagined possible.

But first you have to figure out the kind of life that you really want to live. I think the best life, a good life, a life that says "thank you" to God for the gift of life, is one that day by day, mile by mile, and pedal stroke by pedal stroke makes the world brighter. That's why I ride the PMC.  To join with neighbors and friends and strangers who for one glorious weekend actually unite in a singular cause. To give so others might live.  With the way so much of our world seems to be going these days, that seems to me to be a worthy life mission. 

So what will you do with your one life?  That is the question we all must ask and answer in the limited time we have on earth.  As George Bernard Shaw concludes, "Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

And you? How will you burn brightly and with passion in your one beautiful life? I'm doing my chosen work on a bike. Who knows? Maybe I'll see you on the road.

And always, keep pedaling. (To make a donation, visit pmc.org)



  

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Modest Proposal For Happiness: Practice Moderation

“Moderation in all things”           --Aristotle

On my late Grandfather's 100th birthday (he lived to be 103), Grandpa's cake was topped by a word sculpture made of plastic, staked into that confectionary masterpiece.  It read,  "All things in moderation."  Or as we no doubt teased him, using his French-Canadian immigrant's accent, "All tings in moderation."  But the thought is the same.

A good life, a long life, maybe even the best life for many (certainly for him) is one marked by being moderate. Moderate: in hungers and appetites, in behaviors and actions, in lifestyles and beliefs.  I don't know if we could ever prove Grandpa's life philosophy contributed to his amazing longevity, but I absolutely believe his moderation did keep him on this earth long after almost all of his peers were gone.

Up until his early eighties he rode a bike to most of his daily errands.  He sometimes smoked, but usually one or two and then no more. He liked a drink but almost always limited it to a single or double.  He rarely got very angry or very vexed or very high or very low. He followed his daily routine like clockwork, from his morning breakfast menu, to his once a day walk to the mailbox, to an ever present book by his side. 

He was moderate. 

Not all agree with such a middle of the road life.  As the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson cheekily observed, "Moderation in all things, especially moderation." Yet if I were to coin a phrase for the way me and far too many of my fellow human beings live life in 2018, it might be: "Extremes in all things, especially being extreme." We live to the extreme, extremely, in this second decade of the 21st century. 

So with our technology, it is not enough to check our phones or social media accounts or email once or twice a day or even once an hour. Instead we furiously clutch our technological totems and bring them everywhere: to the dinner table, in the car as we drive, on our bed stand for an early morning jolt, even to church.  Our culture wide F.O.M.O. (Fear Of Missing Out) drives adults in the United States to be glued to a screen, on average, 10 hours and 39 minutes per day, according to the media company Nielsen.  Assuming 8 hours of sleep that means we have our nose to a TV, smart phone, tablet or computer the majority of our waking lives. 

That concerns me, our addiction to tech. How about you?

In our national politics, extremes also rule. Ideological puritans on the far left and the far right self-righteously insist that their singular "truth" is the only truth.  News is diced and sliced into left and right wing or worse, "fake". So many leaders tweet first and think later, work not for the common good somewhere in the middle, but instead for personal gain and ego inflation. To be a political moderate in this environment is all but impossible. I know, because I am one. But no one seems to want to hear from us, the majority of Americans who are, in fact, politically moderate.

That worries me for the future of our fragile republic.  How about you?

Even our playtime is marked by extremes.  Children and youth are so often overbooked, over committed and over taxed in over planned activities. Hours spent on playing fields or buried under homework, pressured to "succeed" at all costs.  Ask a harried Mom or Dad when was the last time the whole clan gathered as one around the dinner table. Such gatherings are rare, as everyone rushes off into different directions. We are captured by a cultural ethic that says life only matters when we are in constant motion. No time for moderation: swinging in a hammock on a hot summer day, or day dreaming as we look at the clouds or claiming an unplanned day or a wide open weekend.

That worries and exhausts me. How about you?

So here's a moderate proposal.  Be moderate.  Seek balance in your one God-given, precious life. Work but play too. Put down your phone tonight and look up at the stars in the sky. Consider what is the greatest good, not just for folks like you, but also for the rest of God's children in this world. Get enough sleep. Smile more and frown less and laugh at yourself and the absurdity of life, daily.  Indulge your appetites but seek moderation.  I know that's all kind of moderate.  But we must start somewhere.

And thanks for the advice, Grandpa.



  

 







       

   

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Gift of Summer: Returning To Our Happy Place


Happy Place (noun) A destination, location, [or] world...anywhere you feel the most at home and yourself. It is where you can have fun, smile, laugh, and get excited.
            --urbandictionary.com

Here's an interesting experiment.  The next time you find yourself day dreaming or tuning out at a boring meeting, perhaps doodling on a notebook page, as the minutes wile away, where do you "go"?  Where does your mind wander and end up? What do you draw?

My go to doodle sketch has been the same for 42 years. A lone white birch cross on a grass covered hill, surrounded by the White Mountains of New Hampshire, puffy white clouds framing that drawing.  That's my go to daydreaming destination too.  My happy place. I know that phrase sounds kind of "earthy crunchy" even cliché, but we all have some happy place, or should. Some real place in the world, some place in our memories, some part of the world where our souls sing and spirits relax. A one of a kind space where we truly feel at home in the world. A place to retreat to, recharge, just have fun. 

Where is your happy place?

My place is at summer camp, one week away I have enjoyed for most of the past four decades plus, worth of summers. The wooden cross I always unconsciously draw marks the spot, where at fifteen years old, I made lifelong friends, and "met" God for the first time. The spot where I watched the sun set in shades of pink and yellow, where one night I witnessed the shimmering aura of the Northern Lights.  A spot where the creaking sound of cabin screen doors opening and closing is the soundtrack of summer.    

It's simple to understand why this place is so special, so blessed for me.  In my life full of changes and moves and victories and defeats, camp is always there for me. It's dependable, as faithful as the return of the seasons each year. It's the sweet memories I associate with this happy place: diving into an ice cold pond on a sultry and sweaty July day; making sticky 'smores over a crackling fire; having seven days each year when I actually turn off my cell phone and don't crack open my computer. It's spending precious time with folks close to me in life, laughing and playing and creating community out of a group of kids who have never met before. On day one all are nervous and unsure. By the last day, most campers don't want to leave.

You might say our happy places are akin to a bit of heaven on earth, spiritual, sacred even. They are holy in the sense that when we arrive at our happy place, we get to be our most true selves. That's a hope our the Creator has for each and every one of us.  To know a safe place somewhere. A space to let down our guard, breathe, pay attention and enjoy life in the deepest sense, with no distractions.

Happy places can be anywhere. One of my oldest friends claims as hers' the shores of an ancient lake in New Hampshire, where she has returned to throughout life, since childhood.  Another friend loves her cabin in the shady woods of Vermont, in the shadow of the Green Mountains.  My neighbor doesn't have to travel far for his happy place: its in the green and verdant garden he plants in his backyard every year come spring.  Happiness for him is hands deep into the soil, and fresh grown veggies to share with the neighborhood.  Some happy places are actually mobile: think of a sailboat or a bicycle or a yearly road trip in the car to places unknown.  Happy places are always personal, unique, our own.  No one else gets to name a certain place "happy" but you or me. 

My prayer and hope for all of us then, at this mid-point of summer, is that we've either already made a pilgrimage to, or are excited to go back to, our happy place.  The ocean or a river.  In a camper crossing the country or staying in a five star hotel.  How about the hammock in the backyard or a tent crammed full with family and friends?   At a time in this world when there is more than enough unhappiness to go around, we may need to seek out happiness and our happy place now more than ever.

The real gift of these happy places is that they stay with us, like an old friend. As the author Alexandra Stoddard says, "When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go."  So even though every year I am sad to leave summer camp, I know that place will be with me for fifty one weeks, or a few years, or until the next time I get to go there.  And I can always draw a simple picture on a scrap of paper when I need to return.  Just one birch cross on a hill and I am there.

So here's to a happy summer and to our happy places! May we all find our way to that corner of Creation.



  
        

Monday, July 9, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor? That Is The Question For These Hard-Hearted Times.

"Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered . . . just one kind word to another person."            --Fred Rogers
  
He most certainly is not the kind of cultural hero we'd expect to find these days, in the rough and tumble and oh so hard and sharp elbowed world of 2018.  He's actually kind of geeky, clad in a brown or blue or even bright orange zip up cardigan, knit by his mother. His footwear is old school penny loafers and lace up tennis shoes. The first thing he does to greet us as he comes through the door is to sing! Instead of speaking in a loud or threatening voice, he always talks to us quietly, deliberately, and gently. As we listen, it is as if we are the only person in the whole world at that moment. Most amazing, when he does make or take a public stance or teach some life lesson through his TV show, he always does so with kindness and humility.

It's Fred Rodgers of course, or Mister Rogers, as those of us of a certain age remember him, the creator and host of "Mister Rodgers Neighborhood", a children's show that debuted fifty years ago this month. Mister Rodgers was the caring man who'd visit us each afternoon on our local public TV channel and then for one hour transport us to the land of make believe.  A land for the young and the young at heart.  A land where we were reminded by him every single show, that each of us, and every last child of God, is unique and loveable, no matter what our station in life. Or race or gender. Or ability or disability. He reminded us that the world is a good place.  That we belong here.  That we belong to each other, every single soul on God's earth. 

Though Rodgers died in 2003 at age 74 from cancer, he's enjoying a renaissance this summer, as the subject of a beautiful and heartfelt documentary now showing in theaters, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?".  Friends: run, don't walk, to see it, because in a short ninety-four minutes, this biographical and thoughtful examination of Rodgers' life and legacy to America's children and America, reminds us of one basic spiritual truth. Something that's so easy to forget in this time of Twitter wars and social rudeness and indecency and mean spiritedness on the part of so many of our so called "leaders" and even fellow citizens.

Basic human goodness, decency and care are still and will always be, the values that our nation and world must embody: to be our best, for and with each other.  Kindness, though it does not always "win", is the key to the most meaningful of lives for each of us and all of us, together.  Forget this Rogerian truth and we are doomed to an ever downward spiral of communal hard heartedness and social Darwinism, every man and woman and child for themselves, on their own.  Alone.  That's a cold and cruel neighborhood.

But when we remember just what Mister Rodgers taught us? We just may have a chance as a country and neighbors to save this land. To inspire each other through love, to be our better angels, our best selves.  As a cultural leader and sage, that's what most marked Rogers' life and ministry. (Rodgers was an ordained Presbyterian minister.)  He made us want to be good.  He showed us might does not make right, that in fact, doing the right thing is what makes right. 

And he always did so above and beyond any human divisions. It's interesting to note that Rogers was not that flashy of a guy in his private life, for all his cultural fame. He was married to the same woman, Sara, for fifty-one years. A lifelong registered Republican, Rogers neither drank nor smoked and he swam everyday of his life to keep in shape. But those labels, all human labels, meant nothing to him nor his philosophy. Everyone in his imagined neighborhood was welcomed, no one ever left out or left behind. Especially the young, the vulnerable, the children.

I know this vision of kindness is not selling well right now in our cynical and snarky and uncivil times. But something tells me Mister Rodgers would still encourage us to keep on trying and to keep on loving.  After all, who can say no to this one gracious invitation: "Won't you be my neighbor?"

That I absolutely will, Mister Rodgers. And thanks again for teaching us of the goodness in ourselves and in others and in this sometimes broken world.  After all, God's Creation is and will always be, just one big neighborhood. 


                   

                

Monday, July 2, 2018

Turn Off The News. Turn Way Up Some Soul Soaring Music!

"People all over the world, Join hands,
Start a love train, love train...."
--The O'Jays, #1 song, winter 1973

Seventies funk music: the kind that when turned up really, REALLY loud, as in "THUMP, THUMP, THUMP!", pushes speakers and headphones to their aural limits.  It's also called rhythm and blues. Songs by the O'Jays. Stevie Wonder. James Brown. Marvin Gaye.  Gladys Knight and the Pips. Al Green. Aretha Franklin. I'm not naturally a funky kind of guy, not at all.  But lately this music is one sure way for me to escape the unrelenting "THUMP, THUMP, THUMP!" drumbeat of bad news in the world. Hard news.  News that never, ever lets up. News that's often really difficult to hear, read, see, to comprehend. Some days it seems as if our society, our world, is struggling through a greater level of civic conflict and rancor than I've ever witnessed in my lifetime.

So I put on the O'Jays and dream of a love train, because love is the only thing power that works to defuse anger, discord, even war. 

War: on immigrants and refugees. War on free trade. War on the press. War on athletes who kneel for the anthem. War on Harley Davidson. War on the Republicans by the Democrats and by the Republicans on the Democrats. Every day seems to brings a new target for wrath or anger, for going off about the latest issue or tweet that makes folks blood boil. If our current level of civic dysfunction and conflict were a person, we'd be worried that they will blow a gasket, have a heart attack, if they do not calm down very soon.

Add to this the cruel truth we Americans also have access to more news, in more places, through more devices, at more times, from more sites and sources, than ever before in our history and we've got a perfect social storm. Which makes me wonder if one the reasons our nation seems to be freaking out is that collectively we are unable to stop consuming news, social media, information, in such copious amounts. We're like a famished soul who just cannot stop eating.

We have become news obsessives, news junkies, news addicts. I know this because I am one. "My name's John and I'm a newsaholic."  "HI JOHN!"

Cell phones "ding" a news notification and we must open that story up right away and read it.  NPR is on the radio in the car or kitchen all the time. Households keep the TV on and tuned to Fox News or MSNBC from morning until night.  Our Facebook feeds are filled with political rants from the left and the right and folks tear each other to pieces in the comments section.  Pay close attention to this "news" and you'll also realize that in most of it is opinion. Spin offered by journalists, pundits, washed up politicians and so called think tanks "experts".  They don't report any real news, but instead tell anyone who'll listen their "very important" ideas about the news. 

So as a refreshing alternative, I recommend, as soon as possible, playing seventies funk music on your Pandora or Spotify or home or car stereo or in your ear buds.  Or whatever other kind of music makes your heart soar and your toes tap, gets you singing at the top of your lungs in the car or the shower or as you make dinner or run or workout at the gym. 

Turn off the news, just turn it off, at least for a little while.  Then turn on, turn up...ABBA! The Beatles. Tim McGraw.  Glen Miller.  Joan Jett.  Ella Fitzgerald. Springsteen.  Rhianna. What's your secret musical indulgence that no one else knows about but you?  Mine is funk.

Whatever the genre, the artist, the playlist, I say get singing. Get playing. That's my hope and spiritual prescription for all of us in these strange, crazy, intense days for the United States and planet earth: that we'll all take a break from the news. Disconnect from the cycle of news. It will still be there when we get back. Yes we do need to stay informed as citizens and activists. Yes we are called as neighbors to care and to act and to make our world better, saner, kinder.

But we also need to give that impulse a rest regularly.  We need to refresh our spirits and for me, for many of us, music is the thing which soothes and comforts and inspires us.  Everything from gospel to rap to classical and yes, hardcore seventies funk.  So be warned: the next time you pull up next to me in your car at a red light, I may be rocking out in the front seat of my little Honda Fit to Earth, Wind and Fire.  When I look over at you, what song will you be moving to, grooving to? 

People all over the world! Join hands. Start a love train. Love train! Let that be some good news, at least for this one day.


Monday, June 25, 2018

At The Border Between Compassion and Hard Hearts: What Will It Be America?

"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."     
 --Matthew 25:40

The "least of these". 

That's the haunting biblical phrase I cannot get out of my heart after watching with horror and sadness the continued suffering of thousands of refugees, migrants and innocent children at our southern border. Forget for a moment the question of what is right or wrong when it comes to "illegal immigrants" or "refugees" seeking a better life here in the United States. That stubborn argument has been ongoing for a generation and no solution or compromise seems in sight. Forget for a moment the fact that by attempting to enter the U.S. these folks are breaking the law. No one on the left or right can dispute that fact. Forget the red hot rhetoric of political debate, the screaming headlines and dramatic press conferences and talking heads shouting at full volume at one another.

Just consider this. 

These are real people, children of God like you and me. They are poor with little or no protection. They are exhausted and frightened and hungry after their perilous trek northward. The overwhelming number of them keep coming because they are trying to escape terrible economic and social conditions in their home countries. We can get frustrated about this disaster and its chronic intractability.  But they are here, knocking at our door. Asking for help. How have we responded as a people?

Too often with mercilessness, with backs turned, with anger and judgment.   

Even though we know these downtrodden folks are the "least of these".  Least, as in lacking almost any power. Least, as in being at the mercy of our government.  Least, as in having almost no one to watch out for them, to care for them, to advocate for them. Least, the poorest of the poor, the lowest folks on the global totem pole. Those who are invisible in this world. The ones most often left behind.   

What has most shocked me about this humanitarian crisis is the fact that our government and many of our citizens too: we find it so easy to treat these suffering human souls as less than human. As objects. As annoying problems to be swept away, locked up, packed up and sent back to where they came from.  "Not our problem," we protest.  "Hard enough to take care of our own," we rationalize.  "They will overrun us!" xenophobic leaders warn and the flames of fear are stoked and the door is closed so tight, slammed shut. "Just go away!" I imagine many are thinking, hoping.   

But one truth will not go away. These are the "least of these" that we are talking about. Refugees asking for refuge because they are in danger. Is it not our moral responsibility as a nation to treat them with kindness, justice, and compassion?  And the many who claim the high moral ground of belief in God: are we not obligated to turn those beliefs into actual loving behavior? Does not a decent civilized society always take care of these the least among us? 

And not just refugees but the impoverished and the sick also. And the widowed and widower. And the orphan.  And the child in danger. And the hungry and the homeless.  And the exploited and addicted and disabled and war torn. The very old. The very young. Mahatma Gandhi once said that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. 

Using this simple criteria, America is not measuring up. Simple human decency seems to be in such short supply these days.  Decency and character from those who lead us.  Decency in our civil discourse, how we talk to each other, talk about others. Decency in agreeing to disagree and not just vilifying and dismissing those who disagree with us, a sin liberals and conservatives are both guilty of. 

Caught in the crossfire are the least of these, the ones whom God reminds us are actually members of the human family. Of our family. They are our flesh and blood and the hopes they have for their sons and daughters are just as legitimate as the dreams we have for our own kids.

America stands at the border of compassion and hard heartedness. The least of these need our help. Which way will we turn? God help us choose the right way.



      

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Intentional Cruelty Now Becomes Government Policy


"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home, a long way from home"
--African-American spiritual, 1870

I was seven years old, recovering from very serious ear surgery.  After a visit to the doctor, as we drove home in my Grandmother's car, the bandages used to staunch the bleeding in my ear came loose and suddenly I began to bleed uncontrollably. As my Mom cradled me in the backseat, my Grandmother sped to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, where I was wheeled into a treatment room to wait for a doctor.  All around me were bright lights and beeping machines. I was covered with blood and so afraid, but the worst was this. Hospital policy dictated that my Mom could not come into the room. Could not hold my hand, or soothe me, or tell me it would be alright. I could even hear her protesting voice just outside the closed door. 

Never before, never since, have I ever felt so separate, so separated from my parents, the ones charged in my childhood world to care for me. To never leave my side.  To be physically present through the best and the worst.  That's what a kid is supposed to be able trust in, maybe more so than any other promise in their little life.

That Mom and Dad won't go, no matter what.

Unless you are an immigrant from the south, showing up at the border, pleading for mercy. Because right now it is the stated policy of the United States government to forcibly take teens and children away from their immigrant parents. To house them in makeshift facilities. To separate them from Mom, from Dad.  Under Presidents Obama and Bush, both hard line opponents of illegal immigration, this was not the policy. It could have been, legally, but both chose to not carry out "zero tolerance", the name given to this program by the current administration.

So now cruelty is a tool of our government's immigration policy. The intentional affliction of suffering visited upon children, CHILDREN, is the unmerciful way to supposedly stem the flow of illegal immigrants.  According to scores of reports from both the left and the right in the media, some 2,000 children have been separated from their parents in the last six weeks, by the Department of Homeland Security.

But wait--it gets worse.  Attempting to justify these actions, the top law enforcement official in the U.S., Attorney General Jeff Sessions, tried to rationalize it by citing scripture, in a speech to law enforcement officials in Indiana. He said it was our Godly duty to enforce the law, I suppose even an unjust law. But he did seem to skip over the most relevant passages for this discussion, the truth that throughout the Bible people of faith are commanded by God to care for the refugees and strangers among us. To treat them as human beings and fellow children of God, with dignity. Makes me wonder if a few pages were missing from Sessions' Bible.

As Isaiah 10 warns, "Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless." That's kind of direct. No wiggle room there.  But as so often happens when we humans use the Bible as a fig leaf to hide that which is ultimately immoral, this effort is unmasked for the lie that it is.  Or as the preacher William Sloane Coffin once said, "Too many Christians use the Bible as a drunk does a lamppost: for support rather than for illumination."

The condemnation of this new policy has been universal and comes from across the religious spectrum: Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, Main Street Protestants, Jews and Muslims, even by usually ardent administration acolytes, like the Reverend Franklin Graham. Not one legitimate faith group has come out in support of Uncle Sam. 

So imagine this if you dare: life as a motherless child.  Imagine surviving a dangerous journey of hundreds, even thousands of miles with your parents, only to be snatched out of their loving arms when you arrive. Imagine such inhumane actions being promoted under the flag of our nation.

We should all be ashamed.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Most Important Question: Ask and You Just May Save the Life of a Despairing Soul


"Did you really want to die?"
"No one commits suicide because they want to die."
"Then why do they do it?"
"Because they want to stop the pain.”
  --Tiffanie DeBartolo, "How to Kill a Rock Star"

I've never been in so much emotional pain that I wanted to take my own life. Thank God.  But I wonder: if I ever did get to that desperate point, would the folks in my life who love me have the courage to actually ask me, out loud, directly, if I was thinking about hurting myself? Committing suicide?

I know that's a jarring, scary possibility to ponder. To know a friend or family member or co-worker. To be worried that they may actually be contemplating killing themselves. Should I say something? What can I do? What if I'm wrong? What if I'm right?

As a helping professional for almost thirty years, I've been in the middle of far too many such situations.  I've seen the terrible aftermath of suicide: the devastated family, the unanswered questions, the raw and ragged heartache of loving someone who faced into so much inner pain, that they finally decided they had no option but to die by their own hands, to leave this life. 

So awful. So sad. So heartbreaking.

Suicide has been in the headlines and on our national consciousness these past weeks.  Two high profile celebrities and cultural bright lights committed suicide: author and chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade. So too the Centers for Disease Control released a report on suicide in the United States with sobering statistics. Since 1999, the national suicide rate has increased by 25 percent. In 2016, 45,000 Americans committed suicide; most took their own lives using a firearm. Suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Men account for three quarters of all suicides.  In Massachusetts the suicide rate increased by 35 percent in the last twenty years.

Beyond the numbers, of course, are the people.  Our aging parents, our beautiful sons and daughters, the person we share a pew with at church, the neighbor next door.  Folks so caught up in the downward spiral of emotional anguish, mental illness and deep despair, that these tortured souls see no way out, no relief from the pain but death.

The danger is that we, their relatives, their friends: we might think we are powerless to prevent such tragedies.  But we are not.  First look for warning signs. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, these include: if a person talks about killing themselves, feeling hopeless, having no reason to live, being a burden to others, feeling trapped or facing unbearable pain. Behaviors can signal risk: increased use of alcohol or drugs, withdrawing from activities, sleeping too much or too little, or isolating from family and friends. A person's moods are red flags too: depression, anxiety, irritability, or humiliation and shame.

If we are worried for someone, then comes what may be the toughest, but perhaps the best thing we can do for them.  Ask.  Just ask. Say directly to them: "Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Are you thinking about taking your own life?"  And if that answer is "yes" then connecting them with health care professionals and resources to get them the help they need. 

Yes it will feel awkward. Yes it might be the hardest discussion you've ever had.  Yes you may be wrong and risk embarrassment or even angering another. But: what if you are correct in your feelings?  What if your one loving and caring outreach actually saves a life? 

Think about that.

So if you are worried about someone you love, if you have suspicions something is wrong, if you think suicide may be on someone's heart or mind: ask. Talk to them honestly and forthrightly. It just might be the most important conversation you will ever have. 

Ask.





       


   




    

Monday, June 4, 2018

If I'd Known Then What I Know Now: A Letter of Hope to Graduates

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it.
            --from the 1967 film, "The Graduate"

Do you remember who spoke at your high school or college graduation? On that day, perhaps long ago, when you as a grad sat in a hard backed chair on a sun drenched football field or in a cavernous college field house or on ancient wooden pews in a church? Do you remember what advice was given to you? The pithy wisdom. Seemingly profound directions for life. How about the guidance a well meaning parent or relative offered?    

Admit it: you were probably having a hard time listening then.

Because you were nervous and excited at the scary and wonderful prospect of finally being on your own, fully responsible for your one God-given life.  You didn't listen fully because you were sad about leaving a group of friends or the comforts of home. You were worried because you'd yet to find a job. You just wanted the formal rituals to end so you could party! You were ready to toss your mortar cap into the air and then get on with things.

I know I was distracted on the day I picked up my diploma from the University of Massachusetts thirty five springs ago. I felt as if all the ways I had identified myself up until that point in my 22 years--student, dependent child, dreamer--these were being stripped away. Now it was up to me to figure out who I wanted to be and what the quality of my one life would be, as well. How I would choose to live as I made my way into the big unknown world.

Looking back I do know what I wish someone had said to me. 

"John: this life is not all about 'you'. Make your life about something bigger than self alone. Devote part of your life to a cause or a passion or an ideal or an eternal belief that makes the lives of others and this world better."     

I don't know if I would have heeded that advice. But I do know that I have been happiest in my one life of nearly six decades now, when I have given myself fully over to something other than "me".  To a faith in God.  To a cause for the good.  To service for others who are struggling.  To being a loving and caring adult in the life of a child: as Godfather and Uncle and teacher and friend.

I wish someone had warned me that if a person lives a self-focused, self-centered, self-indulgent life, makes one's self the center of the universe, that's a pretty lonely way to live. I wish someone had challenged me to see physical pleasure, indulging my outsized  appetites, as okay in the short term but ultimately fleeting, even shallow in the long run. 

I wish someone had taught me that it is not about, "Who dies with the most toys wins."  The most joyful moments I've known have never been about money or things or stuff. It's always been about relationships: who I love, who loves me. I wish someone had talked to me about being humble, that to do so doesn't mean thinking less of yourself but thinking less about yourself. 

The gift of being young and just beginning life's journey is that you get to figure it all out as you go along.  So perhaps this idea of my present self giving my past self advice is a bit fantastical.  But still: I do wish someone had shared with me one simple insight I've come to understand through the rough and tumble and beautiful and broken process of growing up.

A life lived for self alone is finally, not much of a life. A life lived for others is the best and the most blessed life of all.

God bless the class of 2018.



Wednesday, May 30, 2018

We Are More Alike Than Different. That's A Very Good Thing.


"I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike."
            --Maya Angelou, "Human Family", 1990

Once a year, sometimes in the spring, sometimes in the summer, I pack up my bags and purchase a plane ticket and travel to an exotic place, a faraway land of fascinating natives people and odd customs, of stark geography and mysterious foods. 

Minnesota. 

Yup, the North Star state. For the geographically challenged, it's 1,377 miles due northwest of the Bay State, a 21 hour drive if you are up for an epic road trip. Bordered by Canada, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas, I've visited this corner of God's Creation for 24 years, spent more time here than in any other place, save for my New England home. At first I came because good friends moved there, but later? I fell in love with the place: its people, its natural beauty, its differentness in comparison to where I come from.

When I tell folks I'm headed to the Twin Cities for my yearly pilgrimage, the response from my northeastern brethren is predictable.  "That's where it snows a lot and is wicked cold, right? Where Mary Tyler Moore had her TV show? Where we fly over to get to the rest of the country?"  Ask folks from there what they envision in Boston and they respond with similar stereotypes. "That's where folks pahk the cah in Hahvad yahd!  Where everyone is always in such a darn hurry, maybe even a bit full of themselves." (Minnesotans always offer that last opinion very politely.)

Those responses reflect a larger bias, a knee jerk response as humans to "the other" and "other" places. When we think of a place, not close but far away, not familiar but foreign, we can easily focus upon what is different in "here" versus "there". What separates and not what unites.  What makes one place cozy and comfy and another place weird and even off putting. That blind spot is not just about the land of 10,000 lakes versus the home of the bean and the cod. 

In a place like America, we seem to revel in these geographic judgments.  And so northerners stereotype southerners as Confederate flag waving, pick up driving, moonshine drinking yahoos and southerners depict northerners as snooty, elitist, big city, latte drinking, Volvo driving liberals. Folks in the Bible Belt wonder what's up with Godless New England and Yankees view those folks down south as Bible thumping intolerants.        

Our current political climate has made these harsh opinions even sharper.  Some, not content to demonize folks who are "different" in just the good old U.S.A., now take their cruel stereotypes even further. So immigrants from far away are not strangers to be welcomed but thugs to be stopped at the border. Nations that once were our friends are now foes who threaten a xenophobic vision of America, as always and forever first.

Which is really sad. Because if you believe that God or some power greater than humankind made and shaped this beautiful world, you have to admit that the Creator made it pretty darn diverse. Even intentionally diverse.  An amazing kaleidoscope of peoples and places, faiths and cultures, ideologies and histories. 

Maybe "different" is good. Maybe different is actually supposed to teach and not threaten us.  Maybe underneath all of our perceived and real differences is the miracle that finally, we are all much more alike than divergent and we all share one common home.  In this nation. In our world. Then our shared hope is clear: to get along respectfully while honoring our differences. If we don't keep working towards that goal, I think we are in very deep trouble.

That's why I keep coming back to Minnesota. Because at Kay's Country Kitchen in Saint Joseph I can get Tater Tots as a side dish at every single meal. Because "Minnesota Nice" is not a myth, but in fact, a reality. Because I really need to hear "You betcha!" at least once during my visit.  Because this place and these people are different than me and just like me too.  Thank God.

The diverse world awaits. Take the plunge. Go and explore somewhere, anywhere, but the place you call home.  It will be different. It will be God blessed.  And if you go to Kay's, make sure and get the Tater Tots.