Monday, March 19, 2018

Can We Please, PLEASE Just Be Kind to Each Other?!

"If you want to be a rebel, be kind."    --Pancho Ramos Stierle, activist and humanitarian

Sometimes its hard to tell apart the mature grown ups from the immature toddlers, in the current climate of divisiveness and division America lives within. 

So last week an "adult" named Leslie Gibson, a Republican candidate for a seat in the Maine State House, publicly mocked and disparaged two "kids", Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, survivors of the massacre at the high school in Parkland, Florida. Hogg and Gonzalez' very public activism in the days since the shootings--advocating for gun control, demanding that politicians make schools safe for children and youth--this was apparently too much for Gibson.  And so he took to Twitter and called Gonzalez a "skinhead lesbian" and Hogg a "moron" and a "baldfaced liar".

To their credit neither of the young people shot back with a Twitter tirade of their own, a tit for tat unkind tweet. Hogg did respond, in part, in an interview: "We need good people in office--people who are actually human and have an ounce of empathy."  And I might add, we also need people in public office who are, simply, kind. 

Kindness: the human virtue whereby we actually treat each other with decency. Agree to disagree yet always see the "other" as a fellow human being, a fellow citizen, a fellow child of God, worthy as much as ourselves of dignity, respect and care. In faith traditions we look to the Golden Rule for guidance on how to be kind: do unto others as we would ask that others would do unto us.

We all know such human kindness when we experience it.  When as a stranger we are welcomed in. When as a stumbler or mistake maker we are helped back up and gracefully forgiven.  When as a vulnerable person--poor or sick or young or powerless--someone watches out for us.  When kindness happens, it is such a gift, so beautiful.

We also know human cruelty when we experience it. When those with much give little or nothing to those with little. When lawmaker adults just cannot seem to understand the frightened and angry cries of children and youth they are called to protect. When to win at all costs--an election, a debate--trumps doing the right thing, the just thing, the honorable thing. When cruelty happens, it is such a tragedy, so ugly.

Ugly enough to want to publicly shame two teenagers, I suppose, two young adults who witnessed the murder of their friends and thus just want to change things for the better. And this is why Gibson was so nasty, so unkind?

Maybe I am naive or softhearted but I just don't get such hardness of heart, such bare knuckled mean-spiritedness.  And I'm also unsure of why our common civic life is so sharp and savage these days.  Politicians furiously fulminating in daily tweet storms that eviscerate and insult anyone whom they perceive as a threat to their power. Media filled with people who spend most of the time yelling at each other. Social media, with anonymity and speed, empowering us to be cruel in a split second, as thousands of folks join in with glee.

It doesn't have to be so.  The great thing about kindness is that to make it happen, to see its amazing, miraculous effect upon relationships, communities, a nation--all we have to do kind. That's it. 

Offer kindness both to the folks we see eye to eye with and to the ones we disagree with too. If we are to ever find common ground for the common good we must begin with respect for our opponent.  Follow the teaching of our parents, our elders: if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything. More often than not it is wiser to just keep our mouths shut. To not send a text in anger. Not re-tweet an awful story or share a terrible news item on Facebook. Instead use technology to spread love, to lift up others, to share good news about people and the world we live in. If Gibson had followed this advice he'd still be running for office.  Or be kind where you are right now: in your family, at your workplace, in your faith community, in your town or city, in your neighborhood. We may not be able to stem the tide of unkindness in politics and popular culture but we can sow seeds of love on the ground, where we live. Kindness always begins with you, with me, with one person deciding to just be kind.   

So be a rebel.  Buck the trends.  Push back against the temptation to join in our culture wide scrum and instead make this one choice today. 

Be kind.

Monday, March 12, 2018

When a Tree Falls, Can It Teach Us Something About Life?

"If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees."  --Hal Borland

It is called the quercus alba, or the white oak tree.  

Quite common in New England, chances are good that there is at least one of these trees growing in your yard or neighborhood. It is known by its gray gnarled bark ands its oversized green leaves with rounded edges, almost shaped like human hands. The white oak's most distinctive trait is the elegant upward arch of trunk and branches that reach to the sky, almost as if it is lifting hands up in prayer to its Creator. 

At my home five white oaks, each more than 100 feet high, have stood sentry like in the front yard, shielding me from the world beyond my cozy abode. In summer the trees' green canopies give shade and a place to sit and read in my Adirondack chair.  In fall oversized brown leaves carpet the yard in a lush brown overlay. Come winter the trees are stark, bare, resting, as snow piles up. In sweet spring I know new life is on the way as green buds appear on branches, signaling earth has woken up again.

Trees are amazing life forms, about the most plentiful, ubiquitous species on the earth. One recent study by British zoologists estimates that earth contains some 3 trillion trees: that's 450 trees for every single man, woman and child alive. Especially in this part of the world, trees surround us. Trees hug the land, mark this place, provide natural boundaries and thoroughfares as we travel from here to there. Fly into New England and its breathtaking to see just how tree covered, how green and lush and overstocked even, we are, with trees.

And yet, when we lose a tree, especially one we've come to know and even trust in a way, it can be a jolt, dislocating. That's what I felt last week when, upon awakening, the morning after our latest n'oreaster, and looking out the window, I saw that sometime during the night one of my great white oaks had crashed to the earth. Covered in a thick blanket of snow, it lay horizontal across the yard and driveway, felled by the weight of heavy snow or wind or age or disease or just exhaustion, I suppose.

I know, its just a tree.  I know, that given how many trees knocked down power lines or came down on cars or houses in the past few weeks, many of us would be more than happy to be rid of lots more trees. 

Yet losing that one tree reminded me of all the great trees that have been a witness to my one life. The tree in my childhood backyard I scrambled up into as an energetic little boy. The tree I leaned back against on the lawn facing the Charles River in Boston, at graduate school, my sacred place to study. The trees that grace the garden at the church I serve, especially the delicate red Japanese maple that always keeps me company as I write and think and pray.

Trees are mystical, magical, and mysterious somehow, perhaps more so than any other non-human species on the earth. I think it is because they live so long: the oldest white oak ever recorded was six hundred years old. The oldest living tree ever is a spruce in Norway, that is 9,550 years old and still going strong.

Trees stay. Trees stand and remain while human generations come and generations go.  Trees remind us that we are a part of a much larger cycle of life and death and creation and extinction, of beginnings and endings, a God authored story that stretches out far beyond our little lifetimes or stretch of minds.

Trees have been. Trees are. Trees will be, long after we are gone.

The poet Joyce Kilmer was right. "I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree....a tree that looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray....poems are made by fools like me but only God can make a tree."

So thank you God, this day, for trees. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? Unplugged and NOT Lovin' It!

"Where were you when the lights went out?"  --conversation starter after the blackout

The lights flicker.  Then dim.  Then suddenly the bulbs all go dark and the appliances cease humming and the screens blink out and the house is silent, all the noise of electrified modern life now stilled.


This past Saturday night in the small town I call home it was a chilled March evening, oh so windy, made all that much colder by the fact many of my neighbors were without power after the wicked northeaster that hit New England like a bomb. They and more than 300,000 other Bay Staters, more than a million folks on the east coast, were powerless, lacking electricity, the invisible current upon which modern life depends. And when the juice doesn't flow: no lights. No cable TV or internet service either.  For many no landline telephone. Or water, if you need a pump for H2O, which I do.  Or heat,  if you don't have a fireplace or wood stove or generator.

For hours, or a day, or even days, we were in the dark, without the basics of modern civilization that we all so easily take for granted. It really does seems like magic: to flick a light switch and a room is instantly illuminated. Open a tap and water runs freely. Click a remote or mouse and connect to everything, anything. Pick up the phone and the buzz of dial tone assures.  Open the fridge and the food is ice cold. Turn a thermostat. "Tic, tic, tic", the heat rising to warm winter worn bodies.

Until none of that happens. Until the lights go out.

I'm old enough to have fuzzy memories of the big blackout of 1965. On that Tuesday evening, the 9th of November, thirty million people in the northeast United States and Canada, lost power due to a glitch in the electrical grid.  For 13 hours one of the most densely populated parts of mother Earth was pitch black. Unlike a 1977 blackout in New York city, when wide spread looting and crime broke out, in 1965 the lowest level of crime ever recorded, marked that full moon illuminated night. There was even a spike in births nine months later. You've got find something to do when the power goes out!

It is humbling, scary even, to consider just how fully and completely dependent we are in 2018, upon the power that powers almost every device and convenience that marks life for us moderns.  I didn't lose electricity but as I write this, I am still without phone, internet or TV service. I'd like to report I'm reveling in this technology Sabbath, quietly sitting cardigan clad in a comfy chair, reading an actual book, scribbling away with pencil on a yellow legal pad. 

To be thus released was novel at first.  No annoying sales calls.  No wasting so much time getting sucked into the black hole of web surfing. No flicking through the channels on the TV to pass the time. Save for the one week a year when I travel to a corner of New England that still lacks a strong cell signal, I've been plugged in for more than twenty years.  So unplugged is kind of fun. 

Until it is not.   

After 48 hours I confess I'm "jonesing" for my screens.  Suffering a bit of withdrawal. No Netflix or surfing the news or Facebook. No television shows to soothe my distracted brain after a long day at work. No emails to answer or ringing house phone to pick up.  Now I wait for the technician from Verizon to arrive, pray and hope that this latter day magician will work her mystical spells, re-animate my comatose technology. 

A guy can dream, right? 

But until then I'm off the grid, blank, back to analog. I'm newly aware of how grateful I am for all my technology, for the miraculous and even magical ways our devices connect us, one to another, and out into the world. How much we can actually do with these machines!  Yet God willing, if I am wise, perhaps I can learn to have a bit more technology balance when I'm back on.  To maybe not be so ruled by my screens. Sound familiar? So too I am just thankful for electricity, for the wire that snakes into my home, that works without fail 99.9 percent of the time. Thank you Thomas Edison.  Amazing.  Or maybe God is just trying to teach me that I need to depend more on a real higher power and less on human created forms of power and technology.  And so given I still have no technology to interrupt my thinking, I'm wondering....

Where were you when the lights went out?