Jul 6, 2017

In Good Faith: Message Received

In the July edition of my In Good Faith column, I write about the unique ways in which we receive messages. Sometimes even through an abandoned coffee mug left on the perimeter of a historic cemetery.

Message Received

In between the well-traveled path between my church office and my “satellite office” at Redeye Roasters coffee shop stands Hingham Cemetery. People here in town know it as a venerable, historic New England burial ground that dates to 1672. In it resides grave stones marking the final resting places of the original town fathers and mothers, two Massachusetts governors, some ancestors of Abraham Lincoln, and Sarah Derby, who founded the first coeducational school — Derby Academy — in the country.

In my frequent walks down Water Street in search of caffeine-assisted inspiration, I walk past a series of waist-high granite pillars delineating the cemetery’s side entrance. One day, I noticed  a bright blue mug on one of the posts. I didn’t think much of it other than, “That’s an odd place to leave a coffee mug.” I mean, there’s no school bus stop so it wasn’t accidentally left by a sleep-deprived, distracted parent. And there are no unspoken rules against wandering around a cemetery while sipping a latté. But mostly I just noticed it and went on my way. 

I spied it again the next day. And the day after that. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to take a closer look. The mug had words on it, I noticed. An inspirational saying of sorts. It proclaimed in white letters, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the presence of faith.”

Now, I’m not big on bumper sticker theology. “Honk if you love Jesus” or Hallmark-inspired phrases that adorn pictures of fluffy clouds or Facebook posts about “blessings” masquerading as humble brags. But this unattributed quote (no, it’s not in the Bible) did make me think as I continued home.

It’s certainly true that courageous acts often come with a personal cost. To do the right thing in the face of opposition takes a brave heart. And facing one’s own fears does take courage. There’s a recognition that it takes a force beyond ourselves to persevere in trying circumstances. That’s where faith comes in. A recognition that we are not in this world alone and that faith in ourselves or our own abilities only goes so far.

For Christians, this faith is not a blind one. It’s not a faith that assumes everything will turn up roses in the end. It’s not a faith of denial but a faith that proclaims that even in the midst of life’s inevitable trials and tribulations, God, as made known through Jesus, is present with us at every step of the way.

My other thought was about the placement of this mug. It didn't seem entirely random to me. That perhaps a grieving soul had placed it there because it was a message the person desperately needed to hear and incorporate into his or her life. Or perhaps someone had found a sense of peace and wanted to, in some small way, share it with a stranger. 

Who knows? But the mug was there for a week and then it suddenly disappeared without a trace. Vital messages come in different forms — through other people and through circumstances and through events. Perhaps the message on this mug is speaking to you through this very article. Or maybe it was just a mug that got forgotten and was eventually remembered.

Either way, it is important to be receptive to the many messages that surround us in this life. Some are overt, some are subtle, but all are dependent upon keeping an open heart and mind.

Jun 28, 2017

Sitting in a pew -- I'm the worst!

I'm lousy at sitting in pews.

Of course as a "professional" church goer, I don't do it very often. On Sunday mornings I strut around the altar in fancy vestments, stand in the pulpit for 10-12 minutes, and sit only when other people are doing liturgical things -- like reading from the Bible or singing a choral anthem.

But as Summer rolls around and vacation looms, I'll be spending a few weeks sitting in pews at some yet-to-be-determined churches. And I'll again realize just how easily annoyed I can be. Uncharitable thoughts inevitable arise. Like:
"I can't believe how many typos are in this bulletin. 'The Lard be with you?!' Come on!" 
"That is not the proper order in which to light the altar candles. What kind of liturgical yahoo trained this acolyte anyway?"  
"If this hymn was played any slower, I swear I'd fall asleep standing up." 
"Would it be rude to yell, 'I object!' in the middle of this vaguely heretical sermon?"
Perhaps it's simply an occupational hazard. I mean, when bus drivers ride the bus, they can't help but think to themselves how poorly the driver took that turn back on Main and Elm, right? But I'll be honest. No one likes sitting next to me -- certainly not my family. It may be the what-I-thought-was-barely-audible-but-apparently-was-not sighs too deep for words.

I remember a slightly different approach to clergy sitting in the pews that was equally irritating to the priest's family when on vacation. The spouse used to complain about her husband the minister acting as "Pew Captain" whenever they'd be in church together. He'd be the first one in the congregation to stand up or respond to a versicle. His "amens" were hearty and he encouraged everyone around him to sing louder.

I guess that would be a different kind of annoying. But the truth is I'm easily distracted when I sit in church and this does nothing at all for my spiritual life.

It's not a bad thing to want to worship in the beauty of holiness or to want worship to be "decently and in order." But when small things consistently get in the way of your experience with and of God, you may have some spiritual work to do. I know I do.

And it's worth reflecting on two questions: Where does your mind go during worship? And where does your heart go? Not every service will feel like a heaven-meets-earth transcendent moment. I get that. But you also have to put yourself in a receptive frame of mind to encounter the holy and be accepting and grateful -- and forgiving -- in order to experience God's amazing grace.

So worship, as important as it is, can never become an idol in and of itself. We can't sacrifice our faith on the altar of personal piety. Certainly not when it comes to going to church in an unfamiliar place a few Sundays a year.

So wherever I end up worshipping this Summer, I'll try my best to relax and enjoy being in relationship with Jesus while having a break from being in liturgical control.

And, anyway, I'm sure I'll have some clergy stop by St. John's this summer. And they'll feel the same way about some of the things I'm doing up there.

Jun 5, 2017

Words of Wisdom from Uncle Matt

Ben receiving his diploma
There's a slew of advice slung around this time of year. Especially for the freshly minted high school graduate. Some is inspiring, some is heart-felt, some is clichéd, some is unsolicited but either way, there no lack of it.

Whether through commencement addresses or notes to the graduates, the opportunities for doling out advice is legion. With my eldest son, Ben, graduating from Hingham High School this year, I'm particularly aware of the abundance of advice. 

One of the endearing traditions at Hingham High is the presentation of the Red Envelopes at the graduation rehearsal. 

Here's the deal:
"Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, clergy and friends may send their senior student a special note of congratulations on his or her upcoming graduation. We will carefully keep these cards and notes for each student and distribute them to the seniors during their graduation rehearsal." 
I had a lot of fun writing Ben's letter -- as we all did -- and am proud of him and his 2017 classmates.

The best letter he received, however, was from my brother Matt. Uncles are great, right? They can say things parents can't and Matt has always had a great relationship with Ben. I asked Matt if I could share his letter with the wider world and I do think every high school graduate could benefit from Matt's wisdom. Feel free to share it with that special graduate in your own life.

Dear Ben,
Uncle Matt

You're a high school graduate! Hurray! 

One more step to go in your academic career! Well, unless you're a masochist and choose more school after college. Either way, I'm here to congratulate, support, and give some free uncle-ly advice:

The real world is where the action is, and you're right to want to zoom through college and get to the good stuff. Sure, post college life also has rules, schedules, and responsibilities, but at least they come with a paycheck. And while at school you're rewarded for great performance with a vowel, out in the real world you get handed a bigger paycheck. I know what you're thinking. It's so close, you can almost taste the freedom.

But from someone who couldn't wait to get out there and start achieving, take a deep breath. Slow down. You're about to learn the big things that will help make you successful in the real world. And don't worry -- I'm mostly talking about things outside a classroom. Here's my list of things you need from college, things that will make you succeed when it's over, but that you can't rush through:

1. Live without mom and dad. Seems simple, but it's an adjustment whether you believe it or not.

2. Manage your time. Successful people do this without teachers or parents nagging them.

3. Learn how to hold your liquor. It's better in business when the other guy is more drunk than you.

4. Learn internal motivation. The role of grownup as authoritarian is over. That's a blessing and a curse. Make it a blessing.

5. Make deep friendships. That just happens at college. And you'll need them. And they'll be there when you do.

6. Question stuff. But don't just ask why in a late night philosophical way. Ask how to change and improve. Then do it.

7. Don't date one person the whole time. But don't date a hundred people either.

8. Go abroad for a semester or a year. Just do it.

9. Don't drop out. No matter what. You need the piece of paper. 0.1% of the time it works out and you only hear about those.

10. Be a brash and confident kid. But eventually, be humble. And thankful. Arrogance doesn't win in the end.

Have the best time! I'll be visiting you and checking up on this list!

Congrats, Ben. 


Uncle Matt

What's Matt doing these days? He's doing his usual entrepreneurial thing, currently serving as the Vice-President for Admissions at Smartly, the online MBA company. Previously he led the global growth strategy as Executive Vice-President at Rosetta Stone. Oh, and he went to Williams College.

Happy graduation season, everyone!

May 4, 2017

In Good Faith: Keeping Up Appearances

In my May In Good Faith column I share a bizarre experience from my previous life working in political campaigns and write about the importance of vulnerability.

Keeping Up Appearances

Twenty-five years ago, I went to California to work on a congressional race. This was back
when I did this for a living so it wasn’t completely on a whim. When a campaign manager friend of mine called and asked if I’d come out to run the field operation, I figured “why not?” My dad had just died and I was looking for a change of scenery anyway. Of course, as with most campaign jobs, he wanted me there immediately. So I hopped in my dark blue 1985 Ford Bronco II and headed West.

Our candidate was a successful divorce lawyer in the East Bay area but, as this was the first time he’d ever run for office, we had some educating to do. Like when you go knock on doors in a rougher part of Alameda County and you’re trying to position yourself as a man of the people, you probably shouldn’t show up driving your sporty new Mercedes.

This wasn’t the only problem with this particular campaign or this particular candidate. When we would organize phone banks to call voters, his wife would invite a bunch of her friends…which was good. But she’d also bring cocktails…which was bad. So it started out fine but by the end of the night, they were basically drunk dialing potential voters.

I mention this because when we’d be arguing with this guy about his choice of car — and he had a lot to choose from — he would always refer to his Mercedes as his “battle vehicle.” It was the car he’d take whenever he had to be in court. And that phrase — and more importantly that mentality — has always stuck with me. 

So often we approach life as if we need to wear “battle armor” — which is actually what he called the expensive suits he’d wear to court. We want to project an image of strength and power and great confidence while not allowing anyone to detect even a whiff of insecurity or weakness. And so we go to great lengths to enter into situations on our own terms, with great bravado.

The problem is that this isn’t any way to go through life. We can only keep up such images for so long because they don’t reflect reality. We are not the images we project and eventually the walls do come a-tumblin’ down. Weakness and brokenness, rather than strength and wholeness, more often reflect the reality of our lives.

The thing about the life of faith is that it’s not about keeping up appearances or projecting images; rather it’s about being broken open to the God who knows our imperfections and loves us anyway. 

In order to be our most authentic selves, we must allow ourselves to be broken open. And that means putting away our battle vehicles and our power suits and standing naked before God — at least metaphorically — and recognizing that not only are we unable to control every situation, we shouldn’t even bother to try. Because it doesn’t work. And the only thing we end up battling is our own integrity. 

It’s helpful to occasionally ask ourselves what walls have we built up around our hearts? What defenses have we erected to protect our vulnerabilities? What images are we seeking to portray that don’t mesh with reality? It takes a tremendous amount of energy to maintain an inauthentic image. Energy that’s better spent being in right relationship with God and those with whom we interact in this life. 

So, how did this particular election turn out? Let’s just say I was not entirely sorry when we lost a close primary and I headed back East.

Apr 10, 2017

Holy Week Invitation: Will you admire Jesus or follow Jesus?

At one level, we love the grand pageantry of the entrance into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is fun. Like Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, it attracts large crowds. And like bobble-head night at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, there's a liturgical give-a-way in the form of palms; a tangible souvenir to prove your presence and loyalty.

There's something we love about the image of crowds and palms spread along Jesus' path. Riding on a donkey doesn't exactly project the same image of strength as a Presidential motorcade but still, the palms are symbols of admiration and adulation. And this excites us. In a world of dwindling church attendance, we're dazzled by the prospect of big numbers. We can't help but think, “Finally, they get it. Finally, Jesus is getting his due. Finally, they recognize Jesus for who he is.” We equate large enthusiastic crowds with validation for his message. And that pleases us, hoping that this will also, somehow, validate us.

But here’s the problem with this model: Jesus didn’t come into the world to attract admirers. He didn’t seek to build up his base by drawing large crowds. He wasn’t concerned with the optics of success. 

No, Jesus didn’t seek admirers but followers. He sought people who would follow him not just when things were going well, but when things didn’t go according to plan; not just when things were joyful and euphoric but when things turned dark and tragic. And they do. 

This coming week we must ask ourselves whether we will be admirers of Jesus or followers of Jesus. Holy Week brings us face-to-face with the question of whether we are content to call ourselves people of faith only when it’s on our terms or whether we are disciples of Jesus willing to follow him when it’s inconvenient or difficult or painful. Are we fair-weather Christians who love to wave palms around and proclaim “Hosanna” or are we disciples of Jesus who recognize our complicity in the Passion by crying, “Crucify?” 

It’s easy enough to follow Jesus when things are going well. When life is smooth. When the parade is heading down the street and we’re surrounded and buoyed by the support of others. It’s harder when life takes a turn. And there’s a health crisis or a relationship fades or we’re confronted with conflict at work or home. Jesus knew full well about life taking a turn. 

Yes, we can and should admire Jesus. But if we stop there, we’re missing the invitation to truly transform our lives. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, writes about the difference between being an admirer and a follower of Jesus: “A follower strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.”

The Christian life is not an intellectual pursuit. It is about the entirety of our souls. We can’t follow Jesus at a safe, emotionally-detached distance. We can surely admire him that way and that’s a good first step. But Jesus wants all of us, not just part of us. To follow Jesus takes heart and soul and mind and full immersion. 

So, the invitation has been extended. How will you respond this week? Will you keep your distance or fully engage with Jesus? Will you be willing to make sacrifices or will you play it safe? The possibility of radical transformation awaits as we prepare to walk the way of the cross. As we prepare to follow Jesus.