Jan 15, 2021

In Good Faith: Can We Handle the Truth?

In my January In Good Faith column, I write about the Capitol insurrection, truth, and the legacy of Oscar Romero.

Can We Handle the Truth?

When I was on sabbatical a couple years ago, I visited a coffee farm in El Salvador, high up in 

the hills near Santa Ana. The farm had been in the same family for generations and it was a beautiful piece of property with coffee plants growing under canopies of banana trees. 

At one time there was a grand manor house on the plantation, but now all that remained were the ruins. It had been destroyed in the Salvadoran Civil War that started in the late 1970s. As I ran my hand along exterior walls still pockmarked by bullet holes, it was difficult to imagine the violence and bloodshed that had taken place just a few decades before.

Watching the images from our nation’s capital last week, reminded me of that day in Central America. Civil war, political violence, the inciting of riots, reckless rhetoric, armed gunmen, the destruction of property, murder  — these are all things I never thought could take place here in our country. Not because we’re better than anyone else — we surely are not — but because mob violence unleashed in the halls of Congress is inconsistent with the yearning for a more just and perfect Union. The cognitive dissonance between the rhetoric of our stated values and the reality of what we witnessed was both striking and heartbreaking.

Collectively, we watched the violation of a treasured national symbol unfold in real time, as it was desecrated by rioters, conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, and insurrectionists, some bearing Confederate flags and others wearing t-shirts with anti-semitic slogans. 

When I was on that coffee farm, I met the owner of the property, and he was a proud and gracious host. Over lunch I asked him about Oscar Romero, the former archbishop of El Salvador. I figured maybe he’d encountered him at some point and had a story to share about this saintly soul who risked everything to lift up his country’s poor and vulnerable populations. 

But at the first mention of Romero’s name, the man’s face clouded over. The charm dripped away into an icy stare and it dawned on me that, while I naively assumed everyone in the country loved and admired Romero and treasured him as a national hero, the ruling class did not. It was anti-government rebels who had destroyed the family home, and the monied class was strongly allied with the repressive military regime against which Romero had railed. Romero was a truth-teller, an advocate for social justice, an ally of the oppressed, one who condemned violence and torture, and a man whose vision of equality for all people contrasted sharply with the ideology and practices of a power hungry dictator. 

The day after preaching a sermon in which he called on all soldiers, as Christians, to stop carrying out the government’s orders to violate its citizens’ basic human rights, Oscar Romero was assassinated while standing at the altar celebrating mass; martyred for telling the truth.

If you’re a politician, truth-telling won’t necessarily get you reelected or make you popular with your base. And yet, if there is anything this country needs right now, it’s more truth-tellers. Leaders with the courage to stand up, despite the political winds, and tell people the truth without spin or bias or personal interest. We need less flag waving — whether that’s an American flag or a flag emblazoned with the name of a particular candidate — and more truth-telling. We need courageous truth-tellers to hold us all accountable when we stray from our national ideals, just as Archbishop Romero held the oppressors in El Salvador accountable for their despicable actions.

I’m not sure what our collective future holds as a nation. But I do know that we can disagree without demonizing one another. That we can seek truth rather than spreading falsehood. That we can repent for the ways in which we have not lived up to our values. That what we witnessed last week wasn’t merely an aberration, it was a reflection of America in 2021. And that if the bodies of those who stormed the Capitol building had been black and brown rather than white, those hallways would have been stained with blood. In the spirit of truth-tellers like Oscar Romero, we need to hear the uncomfortable truths. For only then can we begin to embody hope and unity, rather than division and despair.

That old bullet-riddled manor house in El Salvador had since been converted into an open-air nursery. Gardeners lovingly tended the young coffee plants that would soon be placed deep into the farm’s rich soil. Out of destruction, injustice, and violence, the seeds of new life and growth were literally being sown. May we seek the freedom that surely abides in truth.

Dec 23, 2020

In Good Faith: Christmas is Canceled?

In my December In Good Faith column, I write about the inability to steal or even cancel Christmas. 

Christmas is Canceled?

In a normal year, many of us would be heading over the river and through the woods to
grandmother’s house. But this is not a normal year and we don’t want to inadvertently give grandma COVID. 

In a normal year, we might go Christmas caroling to wish our neighbors a Merry Christmas and demand some figgy pudding in return. But this is not a normal year, singing is a great way to spread the virus, and figgy pudding sounds dreadful. 

In a normal year, the faithful would gather at church on Christmas Eve “joyful and triumphant” to welcome the newborn king. But this is not a normal year and, because we love one another, we’ll be holding services exclusively online. 

Yes, there is much to mourn this year. We miss the joy of being together with friends and loved ones; we miss hugs and cookie swaps and the sharing of holiday cheer; we grieve for the family and civic traditions that won’t happen; Christians miss the sights and sounds of gathering in sacred space to mark this holy time. On the surface of things, it all feels different because it is all different. 

I stumbled upon a rather misleading headline in a British tabloid last week that proclaimed, “Christmas Canceled for Millions.” The subtext was a government decision to implement lockdown measures to combat a new strain of the coronavirus. And while I don’t doubt this will financially and socially impact many in England, the problem is, that’s not how Christmas works. As the classic Dr. Seuss story How the Grinch Stole Christmas reminds us, you can’t actually “steal” or even cancel Christmas. 

And that’s the good news as we prepare to celebrate Christmas in unique ways this year. The trimmings and trappings, the parties and presents fade away, leaving us with the very essence of the celebration: love entering the world in human form. That love may show up in a stable, but it’s up to us to bring that love into our own lives and then share it with the world. Love simply cannot be canceled.

Perhaps that’s the true miracle of Christmas in 2020. Not that everything is perfect — we don’t live in a Hallmark Christmas movie where there is always a predictable and happy ending — but that God sees our struggles and enters into them by walking right alongside us. God takes all that is not ideal in our own lives — the loneliness, the brokenness, the fear, the heartbreak, the grief — and through relationship with us, transforms it into a loving, liberating, life-giving hope.

Wherever and however you celebrate Christmas this year, I pray it will ultimately be about love. Not the sentimental kind, but the transformative kind that triumphs over every fear. The kind that reminds you that God delights in you simply for who you are, even when you’re feeling down or imperfect or overwhelmed. Because it’s not just true that God loves you, it’s the deepest truth there is.

So if there’s one thing to remember this Christmas, it’s that while everything is different, nothing ultimately changes. Merry Christmas, friends, and please do stay safe out there.

Nov 24, 2020

A COVID Thanksgiving Lament

This year, as many of us sacrifice our usual gatherings and bountiful feasts out of deep love and

concern for others, there is much to grieve. We miss our traditions, we miss our extended and multigenerational families, we miss inviting the friend or co-worker who has no where else to celebrate. It’s important to recognize these losses, even as we remain ever thankful for the many blessings of this life.

It is in this spirit that I share a brief Thanksgiving lament. May the peculiar and heartbreaking circumstances of this year’s holiday keep your loved ones safe. And may our prayers for those who go hungry amid the devastating affects of this pandemic be heard.

A COVID Thanksgiving Lament

For hugs not given.

For Turkey Trots not run.

For signature dishes not cooked. 

For high school football games not watched.

For great grandmas not driven.

For cheeks not pinched.

For holiday traffic not sat in.

For mounds of mashed potatoes not consumed.

For backyard football games not played.

For distasteful political commentary not heard.

For post-meal walks not taken.

For gobs of leftovers not eaten.

For all of these and more, we lament O Lord.

Nov 15, 2020

In Good Faith: Walking in Hope

In my November In Good Faith column, I write about my penchant for wandering around cemeteries and why I find such hope in these strolls.

Walking in Hope

One of the things I like to do when things are feeling particularly uncertain in the world or I’m just feeling out of sorts in my own life, is to walk through the cemetery down the street. I used to take our dog Delilah with me, but now that she’s 17 and not getting around so well, it’s just me and our younger dog Cooper frolicking among the gravestones. 

Given the state of things in this country, and the continued need for reconciliation and healing, you won’t be surprised to know that there have been multiple strolls through the cemetery these past few weeks. 

Now, I know that for some, there is no more depressing place than a cemetery. There’s a reason

we used to hold our breath when we’d drive past one as kids. In a cemetery, you are literally surrounded by death, and in each gravestone you come face-to-face with the very fleeting nature of life. But I find that, for me, walking through Hingham Cemetery is good for the soul. Rather than ghoulish or gloomy, I experience it as a place to reflect on life and faith. It offers perspective, and reminds us that our own troubles — whether personal or civic — when placed in the broad context of human history, are not so unique or important.

And I always think of the line from the prophet Isaiah: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever.” The temporal does indeed pass away — along with both our mortal bodies, no matter how much care and attention we’ve given them, and our earthly concerns, no matter how seemingly urgent. But what remains is the eternal. So in those headstones I see hope. 

Yes, I realize living in the midst of a global pandemic only exacerbates the sense of hopelessness so many are feeling right now. Maybe it’s because life has been so hard and so isolating. Maybe it’s because the things we normally do to alleviate our pain and loneliness, like hugging our loved ones and spending time with friends, has been taken away from us. Maybe it’s because we haven’t been able to fully gather in the communities that bring us joy and sustain our spiritual, physical, and mental health. 

It’s helpful to recognize that hope is not something that comes without grief or burden; hope is not untouched by pain and brokenness; hope is not cut off from sadness or despair. Rather, hope is the light that shines in the darkness, so that whatever we’re facing, whatever we’re struggling with, whatever difficult situation we’re confronting as individuals or as a nation, hope abides. hope endures; hope stands forever.

In the aftermath of a contentious election, driven by dueling narratives and much demonization, hope can feel elusive. These past months have revealed the worst of human nature, and we’ve all felt the deep division that pits neighbor against neighbor and tears families apart. And while we can’t compromise on respecting every human being — dignity is non-negotiable — there must be a better way. We know there is a better way. One that involves open conversation rather than hyper-partisanship; compromise rather than dogma; love rather than hate. And I find hope in the prospect of seeking a mutual path forward.

In the meantime, Cooper and I will continue to wander through the cemetery. I’ll say a quiet prayer when I pass the grave of a dearly departed parishioner; I’ll marvel at the 16th century headstones; and pause before the majestic Weeping Angel gravestone. And then I’ll continue to hold out hope for a better future.

Oct 2, 2020

In Good Faith: Easy Rider

In my October In Good Faith column, I write about my recent experience with the RMV and the whole notion of being judged.

Easy Rider

The single ubiquitously American rite of passage must be the driver’s license road test. Pass,

and you receive your ticket to freedom that accompanies your invitation to the open road. Fail, and you suffer the shame and indignity of having to once again be subjected to the diabolical whims of the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

No matter how many years have passed, everybody remembers their driver’s test. Some recall the euphoria of miraculously nailing the dreaded parallel parking portion of the exam. For others, the tester’s disappointed face is forever seared into their memory, and they can still viscerally feel the bump of the curb that signaled failure. 

But mostly, it’s the memory of profound anxiety in the moments leading up to getting into the car with the evaluator. There are few times in life when you are so intimately and irrevocably judged by another human being. Sure, there are tests in school and performance evaluations at work. But toss in the requisite insecurity of your average 16-year-old, add the discomfort of a stranger with a clipboard sitting next to you, and the driver’s test is a recipe for existential teenage angst.

I discovered something interesting this past week, however. 16-year-olds don’t have a monopoly on pre-road test nerves. As I found myself at the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Braintree preparing to take my first road test in 35 years, I felt a certain kinship with the nervous teenagers who were waiting their turn to demonstrate their driving skills. You see my learner’s permit for my scooter, a 50th birthday present from my brother, was about to expire after two years. Which meant I had to take the motorcycle road test.

Now, let’s be honest. A baby blue Vespa is not exactly a Harley. I may privately refer to it as my “hog” (which invariably elicits a deep eye roll from my wife), but the local chapter of Hell’s Angels hasn’t exactly come calling. But still, it’s powerful enough to require a motorcycle license in the state of Massachusetts. Which is why I found myself in a parking lot standing in front of a no-nonsense woman holding a clipboard, as I channeled my inner 16-year-old anxiety.

I was secretly hoping that simply making it from Hingham to Braintree without getting flattened by a Chevy Suburban would count as the test. But suddenly I was doing figure eights and using exaggerated hand signals as if I was flagging down a cab during rush hour in Times Square. 

Fortunately I stopped myself from hopping off my scooter in the middle of the test and indignantly screaming at the tester “Judge not, lest ye be judged!” And I think this heroic self-restraint contributed to my passing grade.

In this season of anxiety that is life in the midst of a global pandemic, my trip down the memory lane of anxiety felt like a small thing. It’s nothing compared with the amount of uncertainty and genuine fear floating around these days. All we can do is take each day as it comes and recognize that whatever we’re dealing with today, is enough. Tomorrow is another day.

I admit it’s a little strange to think I’m now qualified, at least on paper, to tool around town like Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. But for now I think I’ll stick to taking my scooter to the local coffee shop. That is enough for today.