Monday, April 23, 2018

What Does It Profit Us to Gain the World But Forget the Soul?

“Inside us there is something that has no name, [yet] that something is what we are.”
-- José Saramago, Blindness

Every Sunday night from January to May, I am in the soul shaping business. On those evenings I meet for two hours with a class of rambunctious and curious and antsy eighth grade young adults. There I challenge them to do one very unusual thing: to think about their souls.  Not their minds that are well cared for in school all week.  Not their bodies that are challenged in sports and pushing through puberty so that each of them might grow into amazing young women and men.

No. What I seek to help them realize, cherish and develop is their souls. My faith tradition, all faiths recognize one essential spiritual truth. The best life, a good life, the most meaningful life, always works on soul shaping. Soul growing. Soul nurturing.  A soul: the unique part of ourselves that makes "me", me and "you", you, unlike any other human being among the 7.6 billion people who call planet earth home.

I know that for most of us "soul" is a very squishy idea, hard to nail down or define, and yet, we each do have a soul. Some "thing" within, more than our bodies, the mere physical containers within which we move through the world. A body is finally just a collection of chemicals that makes it possible for us to walk and run and breathe and eat and speak and laugh and procreate and touch and live.   

Nor is the soul about our minds either: the center of our ability to think and reason and learn and imagine and create. One hundred billion neurons, the cells that send and receive electro-chemical signals to and from the brain and nervous system: these fire our minds.  Make it possible for a toddler to say "Mama" for the first time and for Albert Einstein to propose E=MC squared, unlock the secrets of time and space.

Yet the soul is so much more than a body or a brain. 

Remember the first time you really fell in love and your heart leapt for joy? That was your soul.  The moment you cradled in your arms your newborn son or daughter and your heart broke wide open? That was one soul meeting another soul. The anger you feel at the world's cruelty and injustice and the conviction that moves you to do some good and make this world a better place. That's a soul in action.  The feeling you have that there must be more to life than arising, eating, working, sleeping, repeat.  That's a soul wondering.  Or the sparks of connection you experience in another: their energy, personality, passions, quirks, ideals, and essence?  You are encountering their soul.

Our culture does a great job in telling us how important it is to take very good care of our bodies and our minds.  So we spend hundreds of billions of dollars and spend lots of time and effort on going to the gym and playing sports and visiting doctors and taking medicine to make sure our chemical containers are in the best of shape. 

We spend the first 12 to 16 years of life, even beyond, in the full time business of learning, of filling up our brains with knowledge, honing the life skills we need to survive and thrive. We test and test and test our kids to make sure that their minds are up to speed, push them to get into the "best" schools, and pray that they will find a calling and work in life, and always be able to make a living.  

But what of our souls?  How well do we take care of the soul within each and every one of us?  How is your soul this day?  How are the souls of the folks you love: your children, your family, your community? What are you doing (or not) to shape the one soul that God gave to you?

A wise teacher once famously asked, "What does it profit a person to gain the world but lose their soul?" He knew that a life of wealth, power, material possessions or external beauty: it all falls short if a person does not also do the soul work of life. To find meaning and purpose in what we do and who we are. To live for others and not just for self alone.  To look beyond the external appearances of a fellow child of God--race or class or sexual orientation or ideology--and instead just see and honor another soul.  To love, not as a transaction, but as a gift and a courageous leap into life.

This is the work of the soul.  So absolutely, go and workout this week, hit Planet Fitness, take your pills, and eat healthy.  Read a book, go to school, soak in knowledge.  But don't forget to take care of your soul too.  And if you'd like to join my Sunday night confirmation class, you are more than welcome!

All souls invited.



 
      

Monday, April 16, 2018

He Kept a Promise for 81 Years and Showed Up. Could You?

“Faithfulness is not doing something right once but doing something right over and over and over and over.”        --Joyce Meyer

Four point two years.

That's the average time an American worker holds a job, according to a January 2016 United States Bureau of Labor Statistics report. So if you or I are "average" in our work life, we'll switch jobs every fifty months or so. That translates into ten job changes in a lifetime. But not everyone is so typical or average when it comes to work.

Take Phil Coyne, an usher for the Pittsburgh Pirates major league baseball team.  Last week he retired from his job of helping people find their seats at the park, directing folks to the concessions, and greeting fans with a smile to ensure that their time at the game is memorable.  After ushering for more than 6,000 games, beginning in 1936, Coyne, at 99 years old, finally decided to give up his calling, his faithful calling, to serve the fans.

To show up.

How faithful was Coyne, how dedicated was he to that work? Except for four years when he served in World War II in Germany, Italy and France, Coyne showed up to every single Pirates home game for 81 years.  When he began ushering in 1936 as an eighteen year old rookie, the new Baseball Hall of Fame had just inducted the living legend Babe Ruth. Franklin Roosevelt was President. Radio was the hot media outlet.  Admission to a ballgame cost about a buck .

Beginning then, Coyne, for the next eight decades, or 54,000 innings, at three ballparks, witnessed hundreds of thousands pitches and foul balls; heard "RED HOT PEANUTS!" tens of thousands of cries; stood tall in the hot August sun and the cold April rain; and watched as the Bucs most often finished just okay in the standings but then finally won World Series in 1960, '71 and '79.

All by just showing up. Every time. Every game. Dependably. Faithfully.

Faithfulness is a human virtue our world doesn't much honor or celebrate anymore. Fidelity: the ideal that when we make a commitment or a promise to a person or a job or a cause or a faith or a country or a community, job one is to just show up. To do what we have been asked to do or hired to do; to do our duty, to meet our responsibility, and not just because of "what's in it for me", but also because faithfulness is the glue that binds all human relationships.  Faithfulness is the right thing to do. When we are faithful to someone, when another is faithful to us, life is just better, safer, stable, whole. 

Like when you went to a Pirates game, you just trusted that if you sat in section 26 or 27, Phil Coyne would always take very good care of you.  Always.

Consider: there are lots of folks in your world whose faithfulness makes your life a gift, in fact they make your one life possible.  Parents who stood by you. A spouse who loves you, for better and for worse. Friends who always show up for you.  A God and faith that has supported you through everything, all your life changes.  Even baseball is faithful, a game that still returns every single spring.

So thank you Phil Coyne. 

For showing up. For teaching us about the hope and the call to always, faithfully, show up.  Show up for the folks who need us. Show up for a country that right now needs citizenship and civic fidelity so desperately. Show up and in showing up, building a better world.  All one day, one job, one commitment squarely met, at a time.

For in the game of life, the winners always, ALWAYS, show up. See you at the park.






   
             



                           

Monday, April 9, 2018

Think It's Not Rocket Science? Actually, It Is.

"Apply your mind to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge."        --Proverbs 23:12

Physically ill.  An upset stomach. Butterflies in the gut. Shaking hands. A racing heart. 

I suffered through all those symptoms every single Sunday morning I had to preach a sermon, for the first five years I practiced ministry. Somehow I got through those bumpy initial years of my profession, preaching way too many long winded speeches that put folks to sleep. I still had a lot to learn.  I was a rookie after all, so new to my calling.

But with lots and lots and lots of practice and experience, I've become better at my craft. Through practice: spending ten hours a week for 48 weeks a year for almost 30 years, researching and writing sermons. Through experience: delivering upwards of 1,400 Sunday talks. 

Do anything over and over and over, over a long period of time, and chances are very good you will eventually master it.  Become an expert.  Preaching. Teaching.  Singing.  Researching.  Building.  Managing. Governing.

Or...maybe not. Maybe we can just cut the line of experience and practice and instead be really good at something just because...we think we'd be good at it. Because...we want to be good at it.  Because...we can be an expert by just declaring to the world, "I'm an expert! Trust me!"

We are living in an age when the idea and ideal of experts and expertise is under attack.  Think of how "up for debate" the hard science of climate change still is, even though the numbers are incontrovertible and rising tides don't lie. Just ask folks who live in Boston's Seaport district. Or how about the news?  Attack hardworking honest journalists often enough, hard enough, loud enough and eventually no one, no news outlet or body will be trusted as experts or truth tellers. Goodbye Walter Cronkite--you'd never make it in 2018.  

Or consider the recently announced candidacy of actress Cynthia Nixon, running to become governor of New York state, an office with responsibility for almost 20 million citizens and a budget of $168 billion. Nixon is a talented person, an expert in the arts, a Tony award winning Broadway actress and former TV star of "Sex and the City".  But in formal governing or public office? She's without any experience. None.  Not even time on a local school board.

As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote recently about Nixon's lack of experience: "You wouldn't want to be operated on by a surgeon with only a few surgeries under his or her belt, and the assurance that this doctor brought a fresh perspective to anesthesia and incisions....So why the romance with candidates who have never done a stitch of government work before?"

Great questions.  Why would a reality TV star be qualified to win high office? Why are experts and expertise now so suspect to so many of us?

The internet doesn't help.  Once knowledge and expertise was contained in books and libraries and "experts" alone. Now seemingly all knowledge is available to us immediately, with just a "click" or a swipe, so much so, that we are tempted to conclude we are experts. Why? Because, "Hey! I googled it!" So too the line between opinion and fact: there is no line anymore.  Believe that something is true long enough and it will become true, at least in one's own mind, even if factually, it still isn't true. Not one legitimate scientific study has ever linked childhood vaccines and autism and yet: millions believe that this is so, a fact.  Experts and scientists be damned. 

I applaud Nixon for her civic spirit and sincere desire to change things for the better.    She'll absolutely shake up the race for governor.  But in a larger sense I wonder what will happen to us as a society if we continue to move the line or erase the line that marks the difference between a neophyte and an expert, a rookie and the master. Give me the wise one who is thoughtful and competent, from years of experience. What scares me is the fool who speaks up the loudest because they think they are an expert, and so they must be an expert. Right?

Life doesn't work that way. God gives each of us raw talents and gifts and our job is to then work hard and long to hone those skills into true expertise. Life finally takes practice and experience.

I know I've still got lots to learn.  How about you?     




  



                        

Monday, April 2, 2018

Fifty Years After King: Does America Have a Conscience?

"I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.”     
 --The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., February, 1968

Fifty years ago this week, a man who dreamed a dream for America died on a second floor motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. As his friends waited at the car to go out for dinner, that southern preacher, in town to support striking sanitation workers, ran back to his room to get a windbreaker. It was a chilly spring night and he wanted to ward off the cold. Seconds later the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

April 4, 1968. 

King was just 39 years old, amazingly accomplished for so young a man. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. Leader of the largest non-violent movement for change in the history of the United States.  For millions of his fellow citizens then and now, and for me, he was also the conscience of America. 

Conscience: the voice within a person and even a community, that reminds us we can always be better than we are at any given moment. Better. Wiser.  Kinder. We do not have to give into the base or cruel impulses that tempt us to hate or hurt or hit or lash out or live for self alone. The philosopher King might have framed this as good versus evil. The minister King might have preached it as sin against virtue. The historian King might have quoted the words of Abraham Lincoln, who in his second Inaugural Address, appealed to a warring nation to return to "the better angels of our nature".

Fifty years on from King's death, pundits, historians, politicians and Americans: we will  all debate what King's legacy is to the nation he so passionately and tirelessly worked to change for the good.  Racial justice and reconciliation.  Peace and non-violence.  Economic justice for the poor and forgotten. What I most love King for, respect him for, still look to him for, as a role model, icon and fellow pastor, five decades after his cruel death, is how as a leader he always called forth the best from the folks he led.  He sought to organize, not a mob to tear it all down, but instead a beloved community to build it all up, and for every last child of God too.

That's what great leaders do: in politics, from the pulpit, in business, on the playing field and in the arts.  The greatest leaders seek to bring out the highest of virtues and behaviors in the people they serve. Here's what King had to say in one of his most famous sermons, "The Drum Major Instinct", delivered just two months before his death. “We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. ... And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. It is a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.”            

Can you imagine a celebrity office holder or preening preacher uttering those inspiring words to a crowd of cheering acolytes in 2018? I'm hard pressed to do so. We are living in troubled times as fraught and frightening as fifty years ago.  Wars and rumors of war.  A nation torn asunder along lines of class, race, politics and gender.  Creation groaning under the strain of overuse and exploitation.

Yet what really scares me now is the scarcity of any moral or inspirational voices like King's.  King was not perfect or, a saint.  He struggled as all humans do with personal sin and temptation.  But when his times called for a powerful moral voice to call forth, to call America back to it highest ideals and hopes, leaders like King spoke up. Appealed to America's most noble aspirations.  Called citizens to be good neighbors, to work for non-violent change and to create a nation where all people, every last one, are a part of the American dream. No one left out.

Instead too many of the voices of leadership I hear in 2018 appeal most often to the very worst in us. Try and convince us it is most patriotic to pay as little in taxes as possible, to turn off the light in the Statue of Liberty until further notice, and to define a nation as great, not by self-sacrifice but instead self-centeredness. Every person for themselves. Such rhetoric doesn't appeal to the better angels within me. How about you?

So I miss you Reverend King.  Your voice.  Your leadership.  But most of all, I miss your conscience.