Monday, October 29, 2018

To Heal Our Broken World: Love Thy Neighbor and Love Thy Neighborhood

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."        -- Leviticus 9:18,Matthew 22:39

Maybe the hope for our world all finally comes down to our neighborhoods and our neighbors.

Say the word "neighborhood" and I grow nostalgic for the tidy collection of homes and families and streets where I grew up. Beach Street, a collection of modest Capes and starter homes on a thoroughfare six houses down from Wollaston Beach, on Boston's South Shore. Two streets away from my Aunt and Uncle and four cousins. A half mile  away from my Grandparents.

When I return to that neighborhood now it feels small but in the eyes and memory of a little boy it was huge. It was home. It was a place for us children to roam in safety, aware that we were watched over by a neighborhood full of Moms and Dads. If we got out of line or yelled too loud, if we ran across the street without looking, we were called out.

We were known. We were seen. We were cared for in that neighborhood.

We played kick the can in the street and had crab apple fights in tree filled backyards. We climbed over a chain link fence into the bowling alley parking lot to ride our bikes and play wiffle ball until the summer sun went down.  And then at day's end there was the sing song sound of parents calling out from back doors, to round us kids up for supper. That was our neighborhood soundtrack.

That was our neighborhood.

I've lived in some not so great neighborly neighborhoods too, places of anonymity where I knew no one and no one knew me either, beyond a quick wave. Enclaves where practically the only interaction I might have with a neighbor was a stare down contest to secure that last on street parking spot. I've lived in a cramped apartment building and where I felt alone, even though I was surrounded on all sides by "neighbors". I now live in a neighborhood where we do know each other, a place where in a blizzard or a blackout I know I could turn to a neighbor and absolutely, they would help me and I would help them. 

And why? It's our neighborhood. A real place in the real world, with a physical address and clear boundaries and a clear sense that we are all in this together. 

This day I've been thinking a lot about one particular American neighborhood, a tight knit city district called Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Before last Saturday it was most well known as the place where Mister Rodgers grew up.  Now its known as the location of a deadly massacre and act of domestic terrorism, the worst and most violent act of anti-Semitism in American history, the place where eleven innocent synagogue attendees, neighbors, were gunned down as they worshipped their God on the Sabbath. 

Those folks were neighbors, good neighbors. They knew each other well.  Their kids went to Hebrew classes together, played baseball together, grew up together. The neighborhood is known as a historic Jewish community but it is a wider neighborhood too: of Catholics and Protestants, of blue and white collar, of newcomer and longtime resident.  Folks there overwhelmingly love their neighborhood for the same reasons all of us cherish the places we claim as our place in this world.

It's home. It's our neighborhood. 

So now neighbors from around the United States are trying to help those neighbors in need, trying to push back against evil, with large and small acts of kindness. To declare, "This is our neighborhood too. These are our neighbors." Like Muslims neighbors who through the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and the nationwide Muslim charity Celebrate Mercy, have raised more than $125,000 to help their Jewish neighbors in Squirrel Hill. The funds will help pay for funeral services, medical bills, and other needs in this awful time.

When a tragedy like the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue happens, it is so hard to find any hope, to look for the light in the darkest of days.  As the dead are remembered and buried.  As that neighborhood will never be the same again.

Yet hope finally is all that we have as humans, as fellow children of God, in the face of hatred and bias. And so I for one put my hope and faith in neighborhoods and neighbors, in cherished places like Squirrel Hill.  I have to because finally, neighborhoods are where we humans live and die, where we grow up, where we know love, where our families settle, where we worship our God and where we find a place to stand in this sometimes crazed and violent world. 

If this world is to change for the good, if bloodshed is to give way to shalom, if bigotry is to be defeated by love, it will all begin in our neighborhoods and with our neighbors.  Next door. Around the corner. Across the street.

Love thy neighbor. Love thy neighborhoods too. And say a prayer for Squirrel Hill.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Freedom of the Press. No Free Press? No Freedom.

"Why should freedom of speech and freedom of press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized?"
--Vladimir Lenin, Russian dictator

Some people are actually dying for a free press.

Twenty eight journalists so far in 2018. Women and men who went out one day to investigate a drug dealer, or learn more about official corruption, who wrote a critical opinion piece about a president or dared to challenge in print some religious or social orthodoxy. They did their jobs: took pen to paper, pecked away on a keyboard, met an anonymous source on a lonely street corner, stood up in front of the cameras as the bombs fell and the protests rang out.  And then they died.  They were murdered by people and powers threatened by the freedom to report the news.

Most of these deaths happened in nations we would expect to be hostile to press freedom, places of terror and repressive governments, nations torn apart by war or drugs, societies where the ideal of true freedom of the press is a myth. Ten journalists died in Afghanistan, four in Mexico, and one each in Columbia, Syria and Libya. But so too: journalists in India, Slovakia and Brazil died and four journalists in the United States as well. Last June 28th, in what police called a targeted attack, a gunman walked into the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland and opened fire. The shooter was angry about a story written about him and so he killed those he deemed "guilty", with a loaded shotgun.

The 28th death of 2018 has yet to be officially confirmed as a murder but it may turn out to be the most infamous and gruesome of the year, the recent passing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.  On October 2nd, he walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey and was never seen again. The fact that Khashsoggi was critical in print and public of the murderous and misogynistic monarchy that rules Saudi Arabia, led directly to his disappearance.  Some reports say Khashoggi was tortured first and then killed, his body dismembered for quick and secret disposal. 

Some people are actually dying for a free press.

And being jailed.  And being arrested and held without charges. And receiving death threats. And this all while toiling away in a craft that is mostly anonymous and filled with the drudge work of tracking down leads and working for months and months on a story that might not pan out and most of the time not being paid much for the work either.  But these journalists continue to do their work. To bring light into the dark corners of human behavior.  To expose the hypocrisy and corruption of political leaders.  To be the watchdog of government, keeping check on the cruel and the clueless, the power hungry and ego driven we too often elect to high office these days.

These journalists are able to work in freedom in the United States because freedom of the press is guaranteed by the Constitution and the rule of law.  This in spite of the fact that in 2018 it's fashionable and vote worthy to call journalists "the enemy of the people".  To threaten journalists with physical harm. To deride any critical story as "fake news" and any laudatory story as "the real story". 

I completely own my bias in support of journalists and journalism, having written for newspapers for much of the past twenty five years. Guilty as charged. Are there clowns and trolls, yellow journalists and trashy news purveyors among the ranks of working journalists? Yes. Is news sometimes slanted left or right? Absolutely. It's always been so. Freedom of the press means we get it all: good news, bad news, real news, bias news and false news. Our job then as free and informed people is to sift through it all and get to the truth. Not easy but so vital to democracy. Thank God I live in a land where that is still possible.

Some people are actually dying for a free press.

We need to remember this truth and tragedy. The press are not the enemies of the people. At its best the press is courageous and committed, and maybe the last hope for holding the powerful to account. A free press reminds all kings, both the enthroned and the self-appointed, that the people and not the princes, are what makes a nation truly great and a nation truly free.      

But no free press? What is that like? Just ask the people of Saudi Arabia.


Monday, October 15, 2018

Today Will Never, Ever, Ever Be Again: SO LIVE IT!!!!

"This is a wonderful day, I have never seen this one before.” --Maya Angelou, poet

Sunday, October 14th, 2018. 

It was a day like any other day, I suppose.  The 287th day of the year. Just twenty four hours long or 1,440 minutes or 86,400 seconds, if you are counting.  In these parts it was a typical autumn day, a bit breezy, with a bright blue sky and then  later temps dropping to a chilly 41 degrees as the sun went down and the sliver of an orange moon rose in the sky.

Do you remember what that one day was like for you?

What you did? What you ate? The music you listened to in the car, the expression on your face in the mirror as you shaved, the feel of a warm embrace as your kid hugged you, the softness of your elderly parent's cheek as you kissed them in welcome for another Sunday visit?

Remember? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not.

For most humans: we have so many days to live that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to recall the minute and mundane, the beautiful and the boring moments of just one day out of so many. Which if you think about it is kind of sad.  Because the truth is that a day, say like last Sunday: it never, ever happened before and it will never, ever happen again, so to let it slip by unnoticed, to banish it to memory, never to be retrieved, is a lost opportunity, a forgotten blessing, even.

There are rare folks who actually remember every single day, almost every single moment, in life. These souls have hyperthymesia, the ability to recall much of their lives in very specific detail. In ten years ask them about last Sunday the 14th and they will tell you what the stranger sitting across them on the subway was wearing. 

I don't think I want to recall that much experience and yet I do wish and pray I could be more conscious, more alive to and wide awake to, the precious and miraculous gift that is every sun up and sun down, every turn of the daily calendar page. I want to live by the wise words of the ancient author who declared, "This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!"

So--what was last Sunday, October 14, 2018, like for you? Try and recall, call it back. Guaranteed that on that one day you were blessed somehow. You were immersed in some experience that changed you: for the good, for the better, for sure.

Every day does change the universe, change us.  

So now I do remember that one day...the wide open smile and enveloping arms of an enthusiastic five year old boy who wrapped himself around my legs as I finished up worship.  He just wanted to say "HI!".  I remember going to the Patriots game and being incredibly cold but so excited and happy: to watch a nail biting, nerve wracking game with my brother and four cousins, a rare gathering, then to finally get home at one a.m., so exhausted and so thankful.  It was a day to put up on the shelf and then take down later and remember with deep thankfulness.

And there is this day too.  This Monday, now the 15th of October. A raw and cold and rainy day. A smoky cup of coffee to drink by my side and another essay to write about life, about this one day.  The mistake I make is to somehow see this more "everyday" day as disposable or forgettable or something to quickly move on from because, well, it is just another day. Right?

But here's the truth. This day, that day, each day, today, all days: these are not just any days. These are instead days that will only happen once in a long string of tens of thousands of days that we all, incredibly, actually get to live. Get to breathe in and breathe out.  Get to watch our kids grow up, and feel ourselves grow older and witness the world rock and roll with so much change and so much challenge and so much energy.

We get to experience all of it, every single minute.

So thank you God: for October 14th, 2018. The 15th too.  Let me rejoice and be glad in it.  Let us all take this one day too, whatever the date, and then use it up and use it well, every last second.  Because when it is gone, it is gone. 

All that really matters





Monday, October 8, 2018

The End of the World As We Know It: Blame Pumpkin Spice

Fluff (noun) 1. light...particles, as of cotton. 2. a soft...mass 3. something of no consequence             

(Trigger warning: this article is of absolutely no consequence. None. It's not political, partisan, profound nor p'oed. It is mere fluff, seven hundred or so words of cotton candy-ish rhetoric. You've been warned.)

I have seen the apocalypse, the end days, one sure sign that civilization as we know it is coming to an abrupt end. It appeared by stealth in these opening days of autumn, showed up unbidden on store shelves in the dead of the night, stocked by workers sworn to absolute secrecy. Perhaps you've seen it while strolling down the baked good aisles of your local grocery store, have recoiled in horror and fear at the appearance of this unholy spawn from the devil.

It is...Hostess Pumpkin Spice Twinkies. No, that's not a typo or a misprint.  Hostess Pumpkin Spice Twinkies. Yes, some food engineer sitting in a high tech lab somewhere in the middle of the corn fields of Indiana actually created this culinary catastrophe, this blending of two "foods", a Frankenstein like culinary monster of epic proportions. Bite into one of these spongy cakes and you'll be confronted with a vaguely pumpkinny flavored orange hued cream. Yum.

Okay. I know my harangue is a little over the top.  

But what is it with our nation's fascination every September and October now, with pumpkin or pumpkin spice flavored foods and drinks? I don't get it. Do you? This trend started in 2003 with the introduction by Starbucks of its Pumpkin Spice Latte, a $4.65 cent melding of coffee and (at least according to the company) "real" pumpkin flavoring. Do they blenderize a whole pumpkin and then somehow mix it in with the beans?

Regardless of how the baristas do it, this drink has become a huge hit for the ubiquitous java chain.  BuzzFeed reports that in 15 years, Starbucks has sold in excess of 350 million of these odd concoctions, wracking up sales of almost $1.5 billion. The drink is so popular it has its own Twitter handle with 110,000 followers and a hashtag that's been tagged some 850,000 times on Instagram.  Since I'm over 55 years old I have no idea what that last statistic means, but it must be important, right?

Not content to stop at a hybrid Twinkie or warped cup of coffee, a horde of companies have created a seemingly endless list of pumpkin or pumpkin spiced themed products.  Ready? Pumpkin ale. Pumpkin Greek yogurt. Pumpkin coffee creamer. Pumpkin marshmallows. Pumpkin Spice Cheerios. Pumpkin Pie Hummus Shake. (Yes these two foods deserve each other.) Pumpkin Spice pretzel nuggets.  Pumpkin Flax Energy Cakes. (Why not mix in a little kale while you're at it?). 

But wait! It gets better...or worse.

Pumpkin gum. Pumpkin Pringles. Pumpkin Oreos. Pumpkin spice sweet burrito. Pumpkin spice candy corn. (Making the worst Halloween candy of all time that much more unpalatable.)  Pumpkin spice English muffins and what better way to top those off than with Pumpkin butter and Pumpkin spiced Jiff peanut butter?

Leave it to America to take a fanciful little idea, a cute concept and then turn it into a mass consumption juggernaut. This season alone, pumpkin themed products will bring in more than a $1 billion in sales. I wonder. Whatever happened to plain old pumpkin pie, the once sole use for our discarded orange gourds, mixed into a pasty concoction, poured into a pie shell and then consumed with a dollop of whip cream twice a year, on Thanksgiving and Christmas?

Call me old school, old fashioned, an old guy who stands on his lawn in sandals, shorts, and high black socks and then yells at the kids to "GET OFF!" Go ahead. I still can't fathom drinking a pumpkin coffee to wash down a pumpkin Twinkie. Nope. 

Instead, just pass the pie.  That's good enough for me.

(Trigger coda: you've just finished reading a piece that has no intellectual caloric value, nor any opinion that really matters. Hope you enjoyed it.)

Monday, October 1, 2018

On Leaves and Leaving As Autumn Settles In

“Two sounds of autumn are unmistakable...the hurrying rustle of crisp leaves blown along the a gusty wind, and the gabble of a flock of migrating geese.”  --Hal Borland

Leave. To depart, to exit, to migrate, to go away from, to put in the rear view mirror, to part, to retire, to go on to something new.

Here's the odd thing I notice every year about the autumn. Spring, summer, winter: these seasons arrive with a bang. They pull up to the curb and bound out of the car and extend a hand and say, "Hello! Glad to be back!" They show up, often very suddenly. In April on a miraculous morning when the buds on the trees seem to have exploded forth overnight. In June when sultry heat arrives and so we drag the air conditioner out of the attic and prepare for the dog days. In December when the sky turns slate grey, and the sun's rays are so diffuse and then we look up and notice the first white flakes, lazily falling in circles to the cold ground.

But not fall.  Fall is about leaving.

Fall gets into the car and says to us, "It's time to go. It's time to leave. Get in."  Fall is always about leaving and leaves, of course. Red and yellow and purple and orange and pink and brown. These spread like a lush technicolor carpet over the mountains, circle a quiet suburban backyard, hang from trees that bend over city streets.  The leaves are so beautiful and yet we know that even as we enjoy this amazing God show, the painting of Creation by the master artist's hand, we know it is all temporary. That soon those same leaves will leave. Fall to the ground. Decay into the soil or get sucked up by the legions of leaf blowing landscapers who invade these parts every November.

Fall is about leaving.

I used to regret, push back against leaving. Who wants to face into the loss of someone or something, this going away? A son or daughter leaves for college and so even as we celebrate that rite of passage, we mourn too, aware of how much we miss the sound of their voice, the footfall of steps as they come down the stairs in the morning.  At the church I serve we recently gave leave to a couple who were members of our community for more than fifty years. The Sunday we said goodbye was bittersweet, filled with gratitude for all they had done for and among us, sure, but grief too, at their departure.  Who wants to face into such goodbyes, such endings?  Not me! And yet....

We need the fall. We need to leave sometimes. We need leaving in this life. 

For the new cannot arrive until the old has made way for it.  A new relationship cannot bloom forth unless we have made peace somehow with the old relationship, the one who is no longer with us. For children to grow up and into the world they will inherit, we adults must know when to hand over such responsibility, say to them, "It is yours' now. Take good care of it."  For the sweet promises of next spring and summer to come true we have to first welcome the fall, and finally close the door on last spring and summer. Pack those seasons up and put them away in the attic so that when all is ready, they can come back out and play next year.

Yes, there is a wisdom to autumn and to leaving. 

So as we move into shorter days and chillier temperatures, as the animals rush to collect forage for the winter, as the geese fly overhead and head south in a cacophony of honks, my prayer is that we can all lean into our natural and personal leave takings with grace and with care. That we can be grateful in the midst of leaving, for the times that are going away and the times that are coming, just up ahead.  In our leaving may we be thankful to our God for the people who come into our lives and bless us, but then have to depart. 

So welcome autumn. It's time to leave.