Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Blessing of Constancy and Baseball's Return Every Year.

Constancy (noun) 1. the quality of being unchanging or unwavering, as in purpose, love, or loyalty; faithfulness.               --Dictionary.com

Fifty one years and counting. Fifty one springs and counting. Fifty one seasons and counting. And it all will begin for me in the car, on a chilly late March day, about a month from now. The birds will finally be returned to my backyard feeder. There will be a whiff of spring in the air and tiny buds pushing up through the dirt. Remnants of the last snow will still stick around, all muddy and melting in the driveway. 

I'll turn on my radio and there it will soon be. A sound as heart soaring as the first robin of the season singing away.  A dependable soundtrack for life that soothes my soul and comforts my heart and helps me believe in the constancy of this life. Trusting that some things, some people, some hopes: they always come back. They just have to.

Like baseball. Red Sox baseball. As it was. As it is. As it will be. Preparations are already under way for this imminent arrival. Out of shape players are training and huffing and puffing down south, to one day soon come home to the city. Yes, it will probably snow again, maybe a couple of times.  Remember last March and those wicked storms that caught us all off guard?  But the game, this past time: it can't be stopped. It will return.

It has to return.  There must be some things in life that we can count upon.  Believe will still go on while other people and events and fads fade away.           

Truth is I fell out of love long ago with the more human, fallen traits of professional sports.  The petulant and braggy personalities that come and go.  The loud din of the media that inflates sports to a crazy level of cultural importance.  The few players who will always cheat and find someway to win, even if it breaks the rules.  The business of the sport, the reality that a night for a family at Fenway Park is pretty darn expensive, out of reach for too many fans. 

But this is not why I am still a fan.  

I've realized after more than a half century of fandom that what I really love about the Sox and spring and baseball is the constancy of it all. It's year after year after year dependability. The fact that for most of my life baseball has just been there, faithfully, as I've grown up from a little boy listening to the game on my transistor radio late at night to a fifty-something grown man who still jumps out of his Lazy Boy and yells in joy when the BoSox win a nail biter or even the world championship.

We humans need to be able to believe in such faithfulness, yes, even if it is corny and yes, even if it is overly romantic and even if it breaks our hearts some times.  Last week I said a final goodbye to a dear friend and co-worker who was a constant presence in my life for the last eleven years. Almost every day that I went to work, I would open the church office door and see Jose sitting at her desk, smiling, always ready to greet me and in her faithfulness, I somehow felt more grounded in this life.  Solid. Stable. So when cancer took her away, it rocked my world.  It robbed me of the constancy I need. 

We all need such constancy to claim a place to stand in this world. Fidelity to people and in relationships: a marriage, a friendship, a constant connection to one faithful soul who stays. In our God, in a faith that at its best walks with us through all of the valleys and all of the mountaintops that life throws our ways.  In something or someone or some ideal or some power or some hope that just keeps on keeping on even as so much in modern life comes and goes, rises and falls, burns bright and then burns out. 

This is how the character of Terrence Mann, in the 1989 baseball film and fairy tale "Field of Dreams, spoke of the game and its return every spring. "The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again."  

Even something as seemingly simple as a game, as an on field competition among overgrown boys--even this can remind us of the hope in every human heart that some things in life must be constant.  Less than four weeks and counting to Opening Day.  It's time to pull the faded ball cap out of the back of the coat closet and tune the radio to a game.

Come spring. Come hope. Come constancy. And play ball.



Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Our Age of Self-Righteousness: I'm Right and That's It!

“Beware the self-righteous man, for he will destroy the world many times over before he sees his folly.”    --Stewart Stafford, author

Have you heard? A border wall is absolutely immoral. Really. That truth is totally true, is cut and dried, at least according to this righteous claim made by one of our political parties in the midst of the recent tantrum over government funding. That's the fight between folks who try and pass themselves off as actually being in charge of our nation these days. It must be great to be so sure of one's self, of one's opinion, so convicted, and to also make sure that everybody knows just how correct you are.  

Have you heard? Thousands of criminals and gang members and drug dealers are just pouring over the border between Mexico and the United States. Really. So many in fact, that it is a national emergency! Wow.  That claim was made by the other political party. That truth is true, as true as true can be, apparently, even though this assertion might not be backed up by anything as inconvenient as "facts" or statistics or reality. But hey: when you are right, you are right. Right?

Have you heard? If you don't believe in God a certain way, if you go to this house of worship instead of that one, if you pray the wrong words or profess incorrect beliefs you are going straight to H-E-double hockey sticks! Seriously. God told me!  Now if you are willing to believe absolutely everything that I totally believe, then maybe you can get on the train straight to heaven. But if not? Going down?

Have you heard? I read on Facebook or maybe Twitter (now I'm not so sure) that a certain person--you know who I'm talking about--they are positively guilty of, of...? I forget. But whatever they did, man, I heard it was awful! Ban them! Judge them! Call them names! Shame them. Because if someone in social media says that someone else is a bad person, that must be true. It's not like folks pass judgment on someone's guilt or innocence before actually doing research or taking a second or two to think about it.     

Have you heard? We are living in a golden age of self-righteousness, days when the most important thing is to be CORRECT and always righteous, and the more loudly, the more insistent, the more judgmental, the better. If you want to slam someone else, or put them down, or stand over them in righteous rage, there's a public outlet for you. A news site that reports only what you want to hear. A Twitter feed that rips folks to shreds and reflects the absolute worst of human behavior. A pulpit to stand up in, condemn apostates because they dare to claim a higher power that does not line up with your religion.

As the poet William Butler Yeats wrote in "The Second Coming" about such chaotic and righteous times, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst, Are full of passionate intensity." Sound familiar?

It's not that we humans aren't supposed to have opinions or somehow eschew moral or ethical convictions.  We do need to know what matters most to us, and at times, to share where we stand with the rest of the world. I get that. I do it every week in this blog. But can't we just do that with a little humility, recognizing that no one has all the answers or a lock on morality?  It might feel good to righteously rise up but are we absolutely sure that we are absolutely right, absolutely all the time? Come on.

Can't we show a little humor when it comes to our differences, share a laugh, admit how we all take ourselves way, way too seriously? Get over yourself. I know I need to! Can't we confess that when it comes to a subject like faith and religion, the truth is that at the end of all our assertions is ultimate mystery. God only knows.

Have you heard?  A politician got up at a press conference and admitted that they were wrong and then apologized. A media pundit went on a TV show to debate another journalist and actually listened to his opponent, and had his mind changed by what another person said. A legislator reached across the aisle and asked a person from the other party to work together and then they did and then they compromised and then a bill was actually passed! A preacher preached that she does not have all the answers about God and so her congregation was blessed by that holy humility.

It all happened on the day we realized the folly and the danger of self-righteousness. I know that much is true. You?

Monday, February 11, 2019

True Presidential Greatness Can Save a Nation and a People

"And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand."   --Mark 3:25

What makes a President, a leader, an office holder, great?

By the time President Abraham Lincoln stood up to give his second inaugural address on a blustery and rainy Monday the 4th of March, in 1865, the Union, what was left of the United States of America, an experiment in democracy less than ninety years old--the country lay in tatters. Torn asunder from coast to coast, from North to South, between slavery abolitionists and slavery proponents. Violent partisanship and anger marked the political and civic dialogues of the day.   

In less than a month Lincoln would be dead, the victim of assassination. In five weeks, the Civil War would finally end, but not before claiming the lives 618,222 soldiers on both sides, two percent of the nation's population. Imagine 6.5 million war deaths in 2019 and the scale of that cataclysm is clear. And although Lincoln had won a second term, the vote, of course, did not include any of the secessionist southern states. His election opponents, the Democratic Party had called for an immediate peace while Lincoln insisted the war must waged until the unconditional and complete surrender of the enemy.

So on that day Lincoln might have been "right", even justified, to condemn the Confederacy in his speech. Vilify them as traitors and turncoats, seditionists to the last man. Lincoln could have used the speech to outline his plan for a harsh Reconstruction, describe how he would now punish these fellow citizens, mete out sharp justice on all those who had started the war, dared to found a new "nation" on the continent.

What makes a President, a Senator or Congressperson, truly great, the right person for the right time in history?


Lincoln, in just seven hundred words, the second shortest inaugural address ever--the man from Illinois known affectionately as "honest Abe" and "Father Abraham": the President chose to lay down his sword, unclench his fist, set aside self interest and party, and instead offered a powerful vision for peace and reconciliation.  He did so first, by reminding the country that each side imagined itself in the right. "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other....[then] let us not judge that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered." 

What makes a President, a legislator, truly great, one who serves the common and highest good, not for personal gain or power, but instead as a servant of the people?

Instead of humiliating the South, Lincoln knew that peace would only be realized if both sides approached the other with sincere humility and honest confession before the God each claimed as their own. No one escaped the guilt and responsibility for the insanity of warfare. All had blood on their hands. For civic fractures to be repaired, for a nation to be reunited, for opponents to work together again, Lincoln knew the only path to true justice and shalom was mercy.  Was forgiveness. Was grace. Was love.

As he concluded on that long ago day, "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

On this Presidents Day weekend, we are right to ask as nation, as a people sorely divided by party and partisanship and self-righteous surety, we are still right to ask. What makes a President, a leader, any candidate for high office, great?

The question still matters, 154 years after one of our greatest Presidents gave the answer and reminded America what true greatness could be and still is. Thank you President Lincoln. God help us all to never, ever forget you and your wise, wise words and great leadership.  

Happy birthday.



Wednesday, February 6, 2019

I Was Homeless and You Gave Me a Place to Lay My Head

“I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”   
--Albert Camus, The Plague

It's something I always wonder about, even worry about, on those sub-zero frigid nights New England is known for this time of year.  Maybe I'm running out to my car from my warm workplace, a fifty yard parking lot sprint in the chill.  Or I shuffle down my driveway to get the mail and feel the icy sting of wind.  Or I awaken and see the snowflake like frozen patterns on my bedroom windows, a toasty 68 degrees inside but just 8 degrees outside.

What is it like to live on the street in such winter weather?

What is like to hunker down under a cardboard box below a Route 93 highway overpass and try and stay, not just warm, but alive? What is it like to wander the streets of the city all day, a backpack filled with your meager possessions, your route taking you to churches and shelters who can protect you from the cold--at least for awhile? What is it like to struggle with mental illness or an addiction, or both, and have those afflictions doom you to a life forever wandering in this world, never finding a stable place to lay your head?

I especially wondered about these questions last week when the mid-west (and Boston to a lesser degree) was hit with its coldest temperatures in more than a generation.  It's one thing to live on the streets when it is merely freezing. Its another when to live on the streets is a potential death sentence, as temperatures plunged in Chicago to -50 below zero.  In such extreme weather frostbite happens in minutes.  Fall into a snow bank and pass out and you could die oh so fast.

But one Chicago women, Candace Payne: she decided to go beyond asking those questions, wondering and actually did something to love and protect and care for the homeless folks in her city. On the most bone chilling of nights in the windy city last week, on the "spur of the moment" in her own words, Payne spent $4,700 of her own money to rent hotel rooms for more than 100 homeless people in Chicago. Putting out a call on social media for help transporting folks to that shelter, Payne was soon inundated: with more volunteers, and with even more donations, some $10,000! Thus those folks experiencing homelessness got to stay in a warm and safe hotel room not just for one night but for four nights. And Payne didn't stop at lodging: she also purchased and solicited donations of food and toiletries and clothes. Area restaurants brought by fresh meals.  There were pre-natal vitamins and care for two pregnant women.

It was all kind of a miracle: especially at a time when it is so tempting to see only the harder aspects of life in our country these days, or to listen only to the bullies and the braggarts, or to the folks whizzing around town in their no doubt toasty limousines, doing little or nothing for strangers on a cold winter night.             

So why did Payne act with such generosity and commitment? She was not employed by a social service agency nor for a religious organization nor is she a social worker or counselor.  Payne is actually a real estate broker.  What moved her to actually do something? What moves any person to respond with mercy to the struggles of a fellow child of God?

I think it was Payne's compassion.  That's the human ability to enter into and be able to imagine another's suffering, and then to act to alleviate that pain. Compassion remembers, "That could be me." Compassion demands moral imagination, the gift of being moved by another's plight so much that we dare to love them, even a stranger. Compassion sets aside the need to judge or worse to not even see the "other". 

Said Payne, "I am a regular person. It all sounded like a rich person did this, but I’m just a little black girl from the South Side. I thought it was unattainable, but after seeing this and seeing people from all around the world, that just tells me that it’s not that unattainable. We can all do this together.”

On a cold winter's day, when our deep freeze will settle in for at least another six weeks,   I know Payne's compassion is good news that absolutely warms me up. Reminds me that there are every day regular people doing extraordinary things each day to make this world a better and kinder place.  To live with compassion.  

Someone was cold and needed a warm place to sleep. Someone said, "I will help."  So thank you and God bless you Ms. Payne for reminding us that each of us can make a difference in this world.  We just have to wonder about another's lot in life and then roll up our sleeves and get to work.

We can all do this together.