Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The 2020 Election: Who Isn't Running for President??!!!

"You're just absolutely right. And I'm absolutely wrong. It must be nice to always believe you know better; to always think you're the smartest person in the room."
--from the 1987 film "Broadcast News"

Twenty one and counting.  

That's how many folks have declared that they are running to be elected, or re-elected, to the office of the President of the United States, come November 2020. If this group were a hand in a game of blackjack they'd win the whole pot.  If they organized a baseball game, you'd have enough players to field two full teams with three folks still in reserve on the bench. Don't get too married to that number "21". In the coming days there's a very good chance that at least two more candidates will also throw their hats into the ring, a ring now so crowded with head coverings that you could open a millinery shop. (That's a store that sells hats, and yes, I had to look it up.) 

So let's say 23 and counting. 

I'm not quite sure what to conclude about such a burgeoning group of Presidential wannabees, each one of whom actually believes, is absolutely sure, that he or she has the right stuff, the brains, the wisdom and the chops to sit in the Oval Office and govern the affairs of 328 million people. Each actually wants to be in a job that has been described by one President, Lyndon Johnson, as akin to, "a jackass caught in a hailstorm. You've just got to stand there and take it."

They are certainly the most diverse lot of candidates to ever to run. One is the nation's first openly gay candidate who also has the most unpronounceable name ever: Peter Buttigieg.  Go ahead. Take a stab at it. Butt-ee-geeg? Butt-i-geg? Butt-i-jeeg? Nope. Try Boot-a judge or Buddah-judge. I say let's just call him Pete. There's three Massachusetts politicians running: Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representative Seth Moulton and former Governor Bill Weld. Did anyone tell them about Mike Dukakis and John Kerry? Six women and four folks of color are in the field. One candidate, self-help guru Marianne Williamson, is known for promoting a new age philosophy based upon the book  "A Course on Miracles".  Okayyyyy.... The one running for re-election uses the word "great" more frequently than Tony the Tiger on steroids. All but two are serving or have served in a higher office.

The thing that most amazes me about anyone who would presume to be the President of the United States is that they really believe that they can do it. I'd add that most are also convinced, though they'd never actually say it out loud, that they are the smartest man or woman in the room. Just listen to them at their rallies and in their stump speeches. They almost always speak without any equivocation or humility. "This is what absolutely must be done and this is why it absolutely will work and I am absolutely the only one to do it as President."  There may be rare exceptions to this mind set but for the most part one does need a very big ego, a very large view of one's self, to take on what is one of the hardest and most complicated of job's in all the world. 

As a citizen I do want someone with confidence and the character and conviction to be the President.  What I don't want--and what I suspect most of my fellow Americans do not seek as well--is a President who presumes themselves to be somehow infallible.  A President so partisan that they do not have the wisdom and humility to work with the opposition, to come up with the best solution for the largest group of Americans. I don't want a President who spends most of their time in front of fawning fans, they who bow like acolytes before the second coming. Just watch any campaign rally these days of either political party. I find it all kind of spooky, even creepy. Candidates bask in the adulation of their rabid fans. Supporters fall all over themselves worshipping at the altar of "WE ARE COMPLETELY RIGHT AND THEY ARE TOTALLY WRONG!!!!!"  

Me? I'd just like to see a leader who takes the work seriously but not themselves so much.  A leader who is self aware enough to recognize both their talents and their shortcomings.  A humble leader who is in awe, maybe even a bit scared of, the huge responsibility they seek to attain. I'm reminded of what then Vice President Harry Truman said in 1945, when he heard that President Franklin Roosevelt had died. Facing the reality he was about to become the leader of the United States, Truman said, "“I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” 

Twenty three candidates and counting. Five hundred and sixty days or so until November 3, 2020, election day. So please: don't run for President. I promise I won't. I think we've got enough folks to choose from.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

One Nation, With Liberty and Tax Responsibility For All

“The expenses of government, having for their object the interest of all, should be born by everyone, and the more a man enjoys the advantages of society, the more he ought to hold himself honored in contributing to those expenses.”    --Anne Robert Jacques Turgot

Tax Freedom Day. Tax Deadline Day. This year both of those days fell on the same date in Massachusetts: April 16th, 2019.  Tuesday.

Tax Freedom Day is a "holiday" invented by the Tax Foundation, an anti-tax Washington, D.C. based think tank and lobbying group. According to the foundation, April 16th was the day when Americans worked long enough in the year to have met their total tax bills. Tax Deadline Day is, of course, the day we Americans are supposed to file our state and federal taxes. This year it fell on the 16th because of the Patriots Day holiday in Massachusetts.

So in honor of these two competing days, let's consider some facts about Americans and taxes. The Tax Foundation reports that in 2019, Americans will pay $3.4 trillion in federal taxes and $1.2 trillion in state and local taxes, for a combined tax obligation of $5.2 trillion. That's 29 percent of the nation's income, a lot of money.

A lot to pay and so I do no victory dance as I walk into the post office each April to mail out my tax returns. Like most Americans I get frustrated with how the government can waste my tax dollars. Taxes take a good bite out of the pay I take home every week from the salary I earn as a minister. Taxes mean I have less to spend on the needs and wants of my life: food, shelter, health care, transportation, and entertainment. It would be easy for me to be automatically anti-tax like millions of my fellow citizens, like most Americans and the politicians who lead us. 

What legislator has the guts or chutzpah to get up in public and declare how much he or she love taxes? Not one I've ever seen. Give any pol the chance to rail against taxes and we will applaud them and then definitely vote for them. The fact that America was born out of a tax rebellion makes our anti-tax sentiment a part of our civic bones.

And yet, I still can't envision my life or our shared lives without taxes, can you?

Think about it: a tax free country. Yahoo!! Right? But what would America’s civic life be tax-less? No state or federal income taxes. No property taxes.  No sales taxes.  No gas tax. No Social Security payroll taxes or Medicare taxes or capitol gains taxes or inheritance taxes.  No obligation to financially contribute to the common good, a greater commonwealth, common defense for safety and security, a compassionate cushion for the old and the infirmed and the poor, equal opportunity for those who need an education.

Makes me wonder what my late Dad might have to say about this, he who was cared for by Medicare, earned his MBA through the GI Bill, and secured a low rate mortgage with the Veterans Administration?  Or my grandfather who lived in a federally subsidized senior housing complex and collected Social Security every month.  Or a single Mom friend of mine whose children were temporarily covered by Mass Health after a messy and costly divorce.  Or the developmentally disabled young man who bags my groceries and lives in a state funded group home. Or even me, who enjoyed a world class education at the University of Massachusetts, supported by my fellow Massachusetts taxpayers. Thank you, by the way!

Call me wacky or a socialist or even un-American but I truly believe that paying taxes is in fact patriotic. As citizens it is our duty, like voting or serving in the military when and if the call goes out. Taxes remind us we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves: a town or city, a state, a nation and some of the price we pay for this is paying our fair share of taxes.      

Taxes remind me of the most basic lesson I learn in my religious faith.  By living in a community I have an ethical and moral obligation to give up some of what I have to ensure that others might not go without.  Who I am as a relatively wealthy person makes me directly responsible to care for the least of these, my brothers and sisters. This is what paying taxes means to me.

Tax Freedom Day or Tax Responsibility Day? A taxing choice to be sure.

What will it be?     

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Encourage Just One Soul Today. You Can Do It!

"Instruction does much, but encouragement does everything." --Johann von Goethe, author

"Knock their socks off John!" 

Thirty years ago this month I was about to set off on a road trip for my very first job interview. Graduate school was ending. The real world and my future called and boy: was I scared, gripped by anxiety. Sweaty palms. Racing heart. Did I have the right stuff? Would I come across as a confident candidate or a nervous neophyte?  Or maybe get lost in those pre-GPS days as I drove 110 miles west to the far away land of suburban Connecticut?

Could I do this? All I needed was just a little encouragement.

Not more instruction. My textbook days were over. Not a critique about how my suit was too wrinkled or my tie too loud.  Not unsolicited advice from a wizened elder who supposed they knew a thing or two. I just wanted someone to remind me that I could do it, that I had the talent within me and all I needed was to remember this.

Then an old friend and mentor, Sandy, leaned into my car and said words that have stuck with me, even now, three decades later.  "You are going to be great. You are ready. Knock their socks off, John!" And then I did! Nailed that interview. Got that job, my first in my thirty years as a pastor. I'll never forget what a difference her belief in me, made. She made me believe in me. She gave me courage.

That's what "encourage" means: to give heart.  To remind someone than they are always so much more than they might imagine. That they actually do have the right stuff.  All that is needed is for a fellow soul to speak encouraging words, to love another so much that we want the best for them. It is amazing what a difference just a little encouragement makes in the life of a fellow child of God, in my life, in your life too, I'll bet. It is amazing to consider what happens when a child of God lacks for someone to encourage them, or worse, is surrounded by folks who tear down or put down or dis-courage.

I re-learned this life truth last weekend when I was blessed to be a judge in a local student film festival sponsored by a community arts center.  Forty teams of budding high
school film students submitted short films. It was my job, along with fellow judges, to watch all those movies and then offer opinions about which films deserved to be honored.  The best part of the festivities came after all the awards, as young people mingled in a post-festival reception. There were smiles and laughter but most of all, a palpable atmosphere of young artists ready to soar, needing only one thing. 


A kind word.  An engaged conversation. An adult to take the time and let them know that they just might be the next Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg. Who knows?!  There is nothing like watching a person's face light up with joy and confidence when all you've done is offer encouragement. Like how you were encouraged once: when you thought you could not get that job or hit that baseball or ask that person out for a date or publish that story or become who God made you to be. But then someone gave you courage and...you did it. YOU DID IT!

I know this spiritual advice seems so obvious, so simple, so clear.  But in our far too often cold and even cruel world, a world forever focused on results and winning at the detriment of participation and effort, encouragement can get lost and forgotten as a virtue. By youth coaches who berate and yell at the kids, believe a win on the field at all costs is actually more important that nurturing young souls. By politicians who rip folks to shreds on social media and gleefully encourage followers to tear apart anyone who gets in the way. Even by religions that worry far too much about "sin" and condemning the "sinner" and far too little about the essential God given goodness within each of us, within all of us. 

If only we would take the time to offer encouragement: what a better world it would be.

So this week: encourage someone. Just one soul. A son or daughter or grandchild or spouse. A player on a team you coach or a new employee at the office or a struggling friend who needs one other person to care. Encouragement is so easy. It is free of charge. It is always heart shaping. Someone once encouraged you. Remember?

Now go and do likewise. You can do it!

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Real College Admissions Scandal? Higher Education For the Highest Bidder.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” ― W.B. Yeats

To make a living? To make a life?

Those are the questions I keep returning to as I've read with increasing sadness about the college admissions scandal revealed last month by federal officials right here in Boston. Prosecutors charge that fifty wealthy and privileged parents used bribes, totaling more than $25 million, to get their sons and daughters admitted into the "best" colleges and universities. Ethics and legalities be damned. Buy off a coach to put your kid on a team even though she never actually played the sport. Pay off a cheating adult to take a test for "junior" so he won't have to actually make the grade himself.  Above all do whatever you have to do to ensure that your kid is "in". 

Rules? Laws? Those are for other folks, I guess.   

What bothers me most about this episode is not the shamelessness of these Moms and Dads, college employees and college counselors who carried out this alleged fraud. No, what really depresses me is the transactional nature of the crimes. Pay enough money and you can buy anything, even a "perfect" future for your kid. Come up with the bucks and your child gets a pedigreed (emphasis on greed) sheepskin, that in just four years will open every single door to the "good life".

It's all about the cash, not the classes. Education is thus reduced to dollars and cents, economics, and the bottom line. Getting your money's worth. The final assumption is that the better your school the more money you will make thus ensuring you get to live a "successful" life. Checkbook learning. 


But God help us all if that is the ultimate the goal of higher education. Granted, we all have to learn how to make a living, make enough money to support ourselves, to pay the bills, to live. Yet the best education is always about so much more.  Education is about shaping young hearts, souls and minds, an exciting journey for the young as they work to figure just what their unique God given gifts, talents and strengths finally are.

Who are they made to be and to become? What are their passions? What matters most to them? The best education exposes a person to different ideas, asks them to engage those ideas and wrestle with them and then draw their own conclusions. To think for themselves. A great education opens the young, and all of us, to a world far beyond our upbringings and introduces us to a diversity of people and experiences. This isn't Kansas anymore nor is it supposed to be! 

Education as transaction or education as discovery? To make a living or to make a life? What will it be?

How we answer those questions as parents and citizens and folks who care deeply about our children: it matters. It's not just the future that's at stake. It's the future hopes and dreams of our sons and daughters too.

It's not an easy time to be a college student or college bound or college hopeful.  Young folks and parents are going more deeply into debt than ever before to attain education.  What were once research and education oriented places of higher education are now too often sharp elbowed players in a multi-billion dollar highly competitive business. Colleges close as the pool of applicants shrink.  Foreign students coming to the United States to learn make it harder and harder for U.S. young people to secure a place at the school of their choice. It's not hard to see why so many children and parents feel under so much pressure when it comes to picking a college or university.

My hope is that even in this highly charged atmosphere we won't ever lose sight of the greatest gift of all that comes from increasing our knowledge and wisdom as human beings.  Growth. To grow up into the persons we are meant to be and made to be.  Philosophers and writers. Engineers and artists.  Doctors and craftspeople.  Managers and parents.  Farmers and factory workers. Soldiers and first responders.

When it comes to the education of our children as they discover life calls and life paths: these can't ever be bought, not with all the money in the world.  Our sons and daughters must make this discovery for themselves. 

Let this be the lesson we all learn in the classroom called human life.