Monday, February 26, 2018

Spring Is Coming and HOPE Is What Gets Us There

"Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blessed..."
--Alexander Pope, 1733

Got hope?

I got a little shot of hope yesterday, on a grey and rainy and "chilled to the bone" kind of late February afternoon, when I turned on my car radio, for then, at exactly 2:48 p.m., I heard the distant calls of a baseball game from Florida, the Boston Red versus the Baltimore Orioles. Coming to me all the way from the warm climes of the Sunshine State, where it was 86 degrees and sunny, that little shot of spring gave me hope.  Reminded me that hope springs eternal. Spring is coming!

Hope: the spiritual quality of looking for the good in the midst of the bad, of imagining and praying and working for the positive that lies just ahead, even if the current times are a challenge, hard, bleak even. Like millions of Americans I'm still processing the recent deaths in Parkland, Florida, that loss of life, so sad, so terrible.  Still wading through the cultural response to it as well: politicians who pretend to "listen" but still do nothing. Adults who seem to care more about their guns than our children, who are unable to lay aside conviction for compromise and the common good. Yet still I have hope as I watch the brave and articulate young people who survived, who have spoken out and stood up, spoken truth to power with such grace and such fire. Who demand change, NOW. Amazing. Such courage.

Hope: a saint in my tradition defines it as having faith in things not seen.  Meaning hope is not really hope unless we dare to believe in the better and the best yet to come, yet to be. In humanity. In the world. In ourselves.  It may be cold today but by the witness of tiny buds on the trees and little green shoots pushing up through the earth, we know spring is going to come.  ABSOLUTELY!  So where is spring coming into your one life, your world? Where is your hope? In children or youth who inspire you by their energy?  In folks around you who live lives of love and care but never make the news?  In faith that sustains you, gives you strength to carry on, especially on the chilly days and nights of winter?  Hope always takes commitment. To look for it.  Anticipate it.  Trust it. Embody it.

Hope looks beyond the incessant downbeat chatter of the media and the news.  If the world were actually as bad as journalists and politicians tell us to believe, need us to believe, we'd all be in deep doo-doo. Yes, life in 2018 is a challenge but so too it is full of so much hope.  Did you know that according to the United Nations, the world's poverty rate has been cut in half --HALF--in just the last twenty years? That according to F.B.I. statistics, the violent crime rate in the United States fell by 48 percent from 1996 to 2016? That the unemployment rate in the U.S. is at its lowest point in 17 years; and the current economic recovery and expansion will soon become the second longest in the United States since 1854? But fear mongering politicians don't get votes and cynical media outlets don't get readers and viewers by heralding such hopeful news.

Yes, it's February and it will probably snow and be messy at least one more time. Yes, spring is still many days away. Yes, we can all too easily look out at the world and find something to complain about, to be hopeless about.  But so too, we can look at the world and find plenty to be hopeful about too; to thank our God for; to see as a gift and a blessing.  We can listen for the song birds that are already singing.  Maybe they know something that we don't: that hope always spring eternal. 

Got hope? Get hope.




Monday, February 19, 2018

What If It Was My Child at Parkland? Dear God, What If...?

Empathy (noun,) from the German einf├╝hlung, meaning "feeling into"; to enter into the feelings of another person; from the Greek pathos, "to suffer"; to enter into the suffering of another person et al

What if?

What if it was my child, my son or my daughter, who was killed February 14th, Ash Wednesday, in the hallways of a suburban Florida high school? What if I was the one who got the phone call from a first responder or school counselor, giving me that awful, world shattering news, that broke my heart wide open? What if one of the 17 beautiful and innocent kids lost was my little brother or my big sister, my teammate or the friend I went to church youth group with, the kind neighborhood kid who lives next door, who I'd never, ever see again? 

What if?

What if the precious lives lost in America's latest mass shooting were not the stuff of sensational newspaper headlines we read and then turn away from, or breathless TV reports we watch and then quickly turn off, but are instead somehow real to us? Closer. So close that these deaths move us to in fact change our hearts and change our minds so that we actually do something, do anything, work, to make sure a similar cataclysm and tragedy does not happen again.  Ever.

What if?

What if the women and men in Congress and the President, actually showed moral imagination and empathy, that rare human ability and gift to enter into the suffering and the pain of a fellow human being?  What if, after this latest mass shooting, which came after the last mass shooting and the one before that and the one before that, instead of acting with spiritually vapid "thoughts and prayers" these pols did more?  What if they decided it was more important to protect school children than get re-elected? What if they actually reached across the aisle and worked for compromise on gun control, background checks, sharing mental health information, and making sure the mentally ill cannot, will not ever have access to firearms?

What if?

What if the majority of law abiding everyday gun owners tore up their National Rifle Association(NRA) membership cards and demanded a sane and merciful balance between legitimate second amendment rights and simple public safety, the notion that our kids must be free to go to school without fear?

What if?

What if we imagined the very heart of God breaking apart, shattering into a million pieces, in response to the death of the innocent, these children of God, who were made by God to live long and substantial lives? The young people of Parkland were supposed to grow up and fall in love and have children of their own and realize their dreams but now they will never know this.  What if God offers comfort in the midst of our national grief, but anger too? What if God demands that we the living actually do something, and not just wait until the next tragic news breaks again?  What if we as a nation are somehow collectively culpable until together, we finally, find a way out of this national nightmare?

What if?  

What if that was my child? I can't imagine that, but perhaps, I should. I must. I will.




Monday, February 12, 2018

The Lesson of the Olympics? Find Your Life's Joy. Then DO IT!!

"Even now I want to keep my amateur spirit, to spend my time, to be in the sport with all my heart."            
--Sergei Bubka, Olympic pole vaulter, former Soviet Union.

My friend Jimmy raises tiny baby sting ray sharks in thousand gallon salt water tanks in his suburban basement. My colleague Barb spends her free time on the frigid slopes of a Vermont cross country skiing course, shushing away in a silent winter wonderland.  My brother Ed straps on a backpack and hikes tens of miles up and down the hills and crags of the northern Appalachian trail.  My fellow choir member Jackie practices her solo in the car, on the way to work, while other commuters look on with astonishment.

And me? I sit down in a chair, stare at a blank computer screen or an empty legal pad, and try and create from thoughts and ideas and words, a coherent and, hopefully enlightening, piece of writing.

And we're all just amateurs. 

Folks who embrace individual passions and pursuits, not for pay or prestige, not because we have to, but because we want to, because we have found some "thing" that we absolutely love doing and thus we do it, with joy, with enthusiasm, and most important, with love.  "For the love of": this is what amateur means--to undertake a sport or a hobby, an art or a craft, a calling or an avocation, because when we do this ONE THING, it makes us happy.  It thrills our hearts.

Which is the main reason I'm watching the Winter Olympics, as 2,925 athletes from 92 countries compete against each other in the chilly mountains of South Korea.  Yes, its awe inspiring to see ski jumpers hurl through the air at sixty miles per hour and figure skaters jump with such grace, to witness the geeky precision of curling and the herculean stamina needed for cross country ski racing. 

But what I really enjoy is seeing how much these athletes so love to do what they are doing. How wide their smiles are; how sincere and authentic their efforts are; how committed and even brave they are, as they do their best, give their all, and not because of a paycheck, not most of the time.  A myth of the modern Olympic movement is that these once "amateur athletes" are now paid for their "work".  The truth is, that save for a few high profile athletes who secure multi-million dollar endorsements, the overwhelming number of Olympians have minimal financial support for their efforts.  Most make great life sacrifices to pursue their dreams of gold.  And most will go home without a medal, but with one truth to warm their hearts, to hold on to as a sparkling memory.

They are doing what they love.  They are still amateurs.  They have discovered what makes their souls soar and their hearts sing, this gift that God gave them, for the love of.

Every human being needs to be an amateur, to discover and then embrace some "thing" that captures the heart and thrills the spirit.  Connects us somehow to the deepest part of the soul. I think of folks who spend hours in the garden and find their place in the world among the flowers and the vegetables and even the weeds. An amateur carpenter who takes a piece of wood and then lovingly shapes it into a family heirloom, a gift someone will cherish forever.  The weekend artist who feels so free when she parks herself with an easel next to the waterfall and then just paints. A cyclist who loses himself in the thousands of circles that he turns on the pedals, with the pumping of his legs, as the world in beauty glides by.

It is the rare person whose full time work is also their full time bliss.  No, most of us find our liberation, our happiness, in some "thing" else.  Volunteering.  Creating.  Sporting.  Playing.  So here's to the amateur in all of us.  What do you really love to do? 

Find that out, discover what God made you to do, to love, and then you will win the gold medal!  Of that I am sure.

Monday, February 5, 2018

When A King Roars, The Free Press Is Doing Its Job

"Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy. It is democracy."
--Walter Cronkite

What scares or angers you more? A free press or unchecked government power?

Those are questions as old as humanity itself, at least as old as the God-given freedom of humans to organize and think for themselves, pitted against the desire of those who govern to control the governed. In the United States its a struggle founded in the first amendment to the Constitution (1789), that declares, in part: "Congress shall make no law....abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...." No laws, yet that has not stopped some in power in government from attacking, even seeking to undermine the freedom of journalists to write freely and therefore of readers to also think, and draw free conclusions, all without fear of retribution. 

This civic tug of war is powerfully portrayed in Steven Spielberg's latest movie, the Academy award nominated The Post. In 1971, President Richard Nixon sought to stop the New York Times and other newspapers from publishing "The Pentagon Papers", a top secret government study about the conduct of the Vietnam War.  The United States government claimed printing the contents and sharing it with the public was a threat to national security. Unspoken was also the truth that the document made the government look bad, and embarrassed it even. 

Nixon lost in the Supreme Court, 6-3. In writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black Blackmun wrote, "...the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors." 

To serve the governed, not the governors.

Which at least for me, puts our latest Commander in Chief's unalloyed disdain, contempt and even hatred for the press, in context. It has been a generation since an occupant of the White House has been so openly hostile to journalists and journalism. And now the public is also hopping on board this anger train as well. Line up! What better target is there for our disdain and disgust and cynicism, than the fourth estate? Those lousy liars!! Those fake news purveyors!! 

I get some of our frustration.  With more news and news outlets available to us than ever before in history, if we look long and hard enough, we will always find media to rile us up, and media to reflect just what we want to believe. It is harder than ever before to tease the truth out of so much false, slanted and questionable news. The days of a predictable, sane news cycle or a handful of networks and newspapers as "sites of record", are long gone, drowned in a sea of information. 

But what is the alternative? 

If there is no free press to keep the government in check, to call out leaders who lie or bend the truth, to confront elected politicians who use public office for personal gain, who will do this vital work of democracy?  We can ask our friends in Turkey. Following an attempted military coup there in 2016, its President put 81 journalists in jail, for writing the news.  How about China? Forty one reporters behind bars. Russia: when it is not meddling in U.S. elections, the Kremlin jails, even murders its journalists. From 1992 to 2018, 58 journalists in Russia lost their lives in seeking the truth, in seeking to be free and to be the press.

I'll take a free press over a thin skinned government and governing class any day.  I'll take the messiness, even the ugliness of democracy, too. The free press it isn't always pretty, this crazy exchange of so many ideas and so much news.  But our free and unfettered media, for all its faults, ensures that the people remain informed and free and that the government remains on notice.

A free press and freedom: we cannot have one without the other.