Monday, January 15, 2018

I'd Like a New Year Please. I Think This One Is Broken.

Chaos (noun) 1. a state of utter confusion 2. the confused unorganized state of...matter before the creation of distinct forms               --Merriam-Webster Dictionary 

I'd like a new year please. I think this one is broken.

I'm serious. I'm wondering if 2018 is defective. Can I return it? Exchange it for a new one? Get a replacement? I don't want money back; just a restart. Because if these first intense, over the top days of the new year are any barometer of how the rest of 2018 is going to proceed, I'm not sure I can take it.

False alarms of nuclear missiles raining down on Hawaii and front page directions from the Boston Globe on "How to Survive a Nuclear Attack". A nasty nor'easter with 15 inches of snow then a polar vortex and then sixty degrees and then flooding rains to wash it all away. A commander in chief who reportedly characterized a whole continent of peoples and nations as one big sh**hole, but who then also humbly reassured us to not worry, because he is the "least racist person you will ever interview".  Thanks for that clarification. Upwards of 1,000,000 people living in the United States--"dreamers" (children of undocumented immigrants) and folks from El Salvador and Haiti---facing deportation. Or not. Or maybe?! An imminent federal government shut down but tax cuts, we've got tax cuts!!! 

Is it just me? I'm exhausted and we've barely put a dent in 2018. 

We can't blame this on manufacturer error. The Creator delivered a new year on time last December 31st, a pristine package of 365 days, ready for our use.  But the living of these days: that's always up to us and so far, the ride's been chaotic, wild, "meshugene", to use a favorite Yiddish word, meaning really, really, really crazy.

A big part of the problem is our media and cultural echo chamber. So a news item is breathlessly reported and then instantaneously parsed and picked apart and then commented upon and then re-tweeted and then blown up and then sent all the way around the world and then we all stand in a big virtual circle and then we yell at each other through our screens.

It is as if we are living in AN ALL CAPS WORLD ALL THE TIME!!!!!

With no time....for thoughtfulness or dialogue or a chance to decompress and think things through and just breathe. Nope. Gotta feed the beast. It's hungry. We're hungry, as news consumers, addicted to the rush of the next outrage or next calamity or next crisis or next social earthquake. And just when you think you might actually have a sense of what is happening, the next "big thing" breaks and it is chaos, again. 


The problems we face as a nation and world are serious. Folks who are hurting because of the actions and words of those who hurt others: that's real. Folks of good will and stout hearts and deep faith are called to step up and speak truth to power and demand basic human decency and compassion from those who lead us. That hope holds true no matter what the year: 2018 or 1918 or 2028.

Yet somehow in the midst of the chaos, we need to find a center, space, time to move through life and survive, even thrive, in spite of the chaos that can mark these days.  Maybe its just about being with each other more in the "real" world, putting down our devices and sitting at the dinner table, in the pews, at the coffee house, in a 12-step meeting, at a protest or a prayer gathering.  Maybe chaos is manageable when we remember the narrative of human history, the wars we've fought and won, the crises we've faced and overcome, the bad leaders we've encountered and sent away. Chaos is not new to the human condition. Maybe we believe that a power greater than us is in fact also working for the good, that in the prophet's words "the arc of the moral universe always bends toward justice."           

So it looks like 2018 is here to stay. No returns allowed. It may be crazy, but with 50 more weeks to go, my prayer is simple: that somehow we will find our center in the midst of all the chaos.  






Monday, January 8, 2018

The Cure for the Chill of Loneliness? The Warmth of Community.

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”   --Dorothy Day, Catholic social activist

What do you do on the absolute coldest night of the year? On the absolute coldest evening in many years, almost 100 years? Like this past Saturday, when the mercury bottomed out at -6 degrees outside my door, making this part of the world feel more like Alaska's Bering Strait than the Bay State. January 6th into the morning of the 7th, 2018, was the most bone numbingly frigid day and night we've known and will likely know for many lifetimes. The kind of weather we'll tell our grandkids about one day. 

You'd think the smart thing would have been to keep the car parked in the garage and your backside parked on the couch, hunkered down, binge on Netflix, scroll through Facebook, text friends, and wait it out in the warmth, cocooned, settled in. But for me that night I was hosting a long planned house party for friends from my community choir, and then the next morning, doing church, as me and my faith community do every Sabbath, as we've done for 332 years, something like 17,000 Sundays and counting. 

As both events neared, I was increasingly worried I'd receive a torrent of last minute party regrets and then in the a.m. face sparsely peopled pews in our ancient white meeting house on Main Street.  An empty house at night with way too much food and too few guests, and then a quiet seventh day, maybe a few hardy souls warbling hymns as the radiators clanked and clunked. 

But then...a mini miracle. Community happened instead. Community. Folks actually came.  Folks showed up.  We gathered face to face and heart to heart. Not even the cold and the chill could keep us away. We needed each other.  We needed community.     

So my house party was packed and folks brought hot casseroles and coolers of cold craft beer. Karaoke was sung with gusto late into the night even as ice crystals formed on the inside of the living room windows.  And then on a sharp and clear dawn, church was well stocked too, people greeting one other, praying for peace or for a neighbor with cancer, announcing the birth of a new great-grandchild, sharing ancient rituals with friends and strangers.

All in community.  All in spite of the cold. 

As someone who has been in the community building business for almost thirty years, I know these are strange and challenging days for the hope of bringing people together for a common cause, in common actual places, for the common good, to undertake work or to just play, in common.  The reasons for this are numerous: the death of communal "Sabbath"; 24/7 access to work and technology; racial, political, social and class divides that separate us along sharp lines that seem so uncrossable.

Yet: always we humans need community.  Real community, beyond our phones and computers, our packed schedules and cocooned lives.  Community that gives us gracious time to be with each other and sing with each other and talk to each other and listen to each other and learn from each other and yes, maybe even help each other.  The gift and miracle is that such community still happens, even if it doesn't make the news in these crazy, weird, even scary communal times we find ourselves living within.  Community still happens in choirs and youth groups, in homeless shelters and coffee shops, on playing fields, and neighborhood book groups, anywhere people make the choice to leave isolation, to leave "me" and seek "thee".  

Dorothy Day was right: there is a "long loneliness" within each human heart, a deep spiritual yearning that knows we are created by our Maker for each other.  Even when that's hard.  Even when its wicked cold.  Even when all we want to do is stay inside and keep warm.  But to be truly warm, this I absolutely know. 

I need you.  You need me. We need community.

Anybody up for karaoke?

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Be It Weather or Human Behavior, Extremes Make Life Stormy

"It is the nature of men having escaped one extreme, which by force they were constrained long to endure, to run headlong into the other extreme, forgetting that virtue doth always consist in the mean."      --Walter Raleigh

Fifty one point four degrees Fahrenheit.  51.4

Cool enough for donning a fleece pullover or windbreaker yet just warm enough for a brisk beach walk, a long run in the woods or a leisurely bike ride on a sunny afternoon. That's the "average" weather day, in the Boston area, in greater eastern Massachusetts, the place on God's earth most of us call home.

Though in these frigid days and sub-zero nights we been gripped by as of late, caught in mother nature's freezing fist in the last days of '17 and first days of '18, memories of such an "average" day are cold comfort.  Right now furnaces groan to kick on. Frost cracks and snaps in the dead of night like a ghoulish gunshot. Car batteries sputter and die. Pipes burst. Exposed skin quickly numbs. The dog pleads "thanks but no thanks" for its usually exuberant outside walk. 

For now, we are just cold.  Wicked cold.  Bloody cold.  Numbingly cold.  Dangerously cold.  Caught in an unprecedented one hundred year cold, not felt here since 1918.

Extremely cold. 

The thing to remember is that our current climate challenge is just that: extreme.  An outlier.  Highly unusual. Rare.  And yes, dangerous if we were to live this way for an extended period of time. But soon weather patterns will shift and the air will warm up and temps will hit a balmy thirty two degrees, maybe even higher, and then we'll think that we're caught in a heat wave! Might even recall the extremes of real heat we felt just last June when temps soared above ninety degrees for a third straight day. Then Boston was in the midst of its seasonal second heat wave, the earliest date for such a sweaty event since records had first been kept beginning in 1872.         

Extremely hot.

Makes me hope and pray for a moderate weather day one day soon, that, if you are curious, is most likely to occur in early spring or late summer, on a beautiful April Monday or a sweet September Sunday. 

Moderate. Temperate.  Good for the weather we share.  Good advice for the life we share on planet earth too.  Sure, there is something dramatic, alluring, sometimes even exciting about living on the extremes, on the edge.  Pushing out to the boundaries of behavior or actions or life.  Makes for great headlines and lots for things for us to talk and chatter about, not unlike extreme weather, but after awhile, to live extremely is exhausting at best, threatening at worst.

So just as I'm glad to one day soon bid adieu to our recent extreme weather I'm happy to say "So long!" to some of the more extreme extremes of human life in 2017 as well.  Extreme housing and stock prices that are always more fun for the ride up than the ride down.  Can you say "bubble"? Extremely crude and crass behavior from folks we've elected to lead us, ideological extremists who love to tweet and taunt and pose, but don't do so well when it comes to governing from the center, where most Americans live. Extreme levels of information, ours' for the asking, but an extreme lack of basic human wisdom too, when it comes to understanding just what it all means.  Extreme expressions of religion that co-opt God and insist that the Divine loves "them" more than "those other people", extremists who actually believe that violence and intolerance is an act of holiness.

God help us all.   

Do anything to the extreme and eventually it will kill you: physically, spiritually, communally and yes, when it comes the natural world too.  So bundle up while you must but trust that eventually, we will return to the average, the mean, the middle, on that we can count, at least when it comes to the weather.  Our world in the unknown year ahead?

Like the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., my prayer is that we can be extremists for love.  As for the rest of the next 51 weeks: I'd like an average, moderate, kind of boring, "unextreme" 2018.