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.

Sep 4, 2020

In Good Faith: Walk It Off

In my September In Good Faith column, I write about the mental health challenges during this time and the unhelpful advice to keep a stiff upper lip while everything around you is crumbling.

Walk It Off

“Walk it off.” When I was in middle school, that was Coach Spencer’s answer to everything. Hit

in the face with a dodgeball thrown by the biggest bully in school? “Walk it off.” Dying of thirst with a touch of heat stroke after the forced one-mile sprint around the perimeter of the campus? “Walk it off.” 

Coach Spencer’s primary role at the all-boys prep school in Baltimore I attended was varsity football coach. This was a hallowed position, and a certain aura surrounded him wherever he went. His “other duties as assigned” included overseeing a few sections of middle school gym class, and he clearly believed the role was beneath him. Which may have been why he tortured us with various obstacle courses, cutting us spoiled brats down to size, while keeping his eyes peeled for the next star running back. 

One day, when I tripped and banged my head on the hard concrete floor during one of his sadistic exercise routines — hard enough that I literally saw stars — the first thing I remember was Coach Spencer standing over me, muttering “Walk it off, walk it off.” 

This is one of the ways we often approach life’s challenges: we try to “walk it off.” Here in New England we call it “keeping a stiff upper lip,” but the principle remains the same. We get knocked down and then we get back up and keep going. And there are absolutely times to demonstrate such resilience. Minor setbacks, disappointments, the various challenges that life sends our way. Nobody wants to hear about our problems, we’re told. Suck it up. Man up.

But living in a pandemic is different. There are challenges we face, both as individuals and as a community, that we can’t simply “walk off.” Life has been turned upside down, the deep human need for connection goes unfulfilled, uncertainty and trepidation abounds. Beyond the physical impact, this whole period reveals an unprecedented mental health challenge which transcends our deepest desires to “walk it off.” The visceral reactions that manifest themselves as anxiety and depression are the fruits of this pandemic, and they impact everyone to varying degrees.

If there was ever a time to reach out to friends and family, just to check in, this is it. And don’t take “fine” as the answer to the question “How are you?” and then quickly move on to discussing the weather. People are not fine. You are not fine. And to pretend otherwise is to exist in deep denial of the reality of the present circumstances. The inclination to “walk it off” runs deep — in ourselves and others. We can fake it for awhile, pretending everything is “just fine.” But it’s so much healthier to face the disappointments and frustrations and fear, before everything comes crashing down around us.

For your own mental health, it’s okay to let others know you’re struggling. Reaching out to a friend or even a therapist is not an admission of defeat, but of strength. As Scripture reminds us, “power is made perfect in weakness.” Admitting we can’t just “walk it off” is often the first step towards wholeness, and I encourage you to walk this path towards healing. You are not alone.

Ironically enough, Coach Spencer does offer us a word of wisdom during this time. Walking is good for the soul. It’s just important to allow faithful companions to accompany us, and then to walk alongside others. 

Aug 7, 2020

In Good Faith: Clashing Symbols

In my August In Good Faith column, I address some controversy stirred up in Hingham surrounding the so-called Thin Blue Line flag. It even ended up as a story on NPR.

Clashing Symbols

Symbols are powerful. Take the bald eagle. When most Americans see an eagle prominently displayed on

the back of a quarter or on the presidential seal, they see it as a symbol of pride and strength. The eagle, declared the national bird in 1782, has long been part of the iconography of the United States. 

Never mind that Ben Franklin allegedly preferred the turkey over the bald eagle as a national symbol. When the eagle flies, on currency or in the emblem of the United States Marine Corps, we wrap ourselves in the imagery of majestic freedom, and we seek to embody the spirit of the eagle in our national mythology.

Yet, the United States didn’t invent the eagle as a powerful symbol. Long before the American Revolution, long before the first Europeans landed on this continent, the eagle was already a revered symbol of courage, wisdom, and strength. Native Americans considered the bald eagle a sacred animal, and eagle feathers were said to hold a connection to the Great Spirit.

In the Bible, eagles are symbols of spiritual strength. The prophet Isaiah writes that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” If you’ve ever been to a funeral at a Roman Catholic church, you’ve surely heard a soloist sing “On Eagle’s Wings.”

All of which is to say that no one has a monopoly on symbolism. The same symbol may mean different things to different people in different circumstances. Symbols change and evolve, just as situations change and evolve. 

In the 1920s, the Nazi party created a new symbol known as the Nazi Eagle. Depicting an eagle with open wings above a swastika, the Nazi Eagle has since been appropriated by neo-Nazi groups and continues as a popular symbol among white supremacists. Like the swastika, it is used as a cudgel to intimidate and strike fear into the hearts of non-Aryans and those opposed to an ideology of hate and bigotry.

This has been a tough week here in Hingham on Boston’s South Shore. Symbols have been twisted and misconstrued and misrepresented, leading to much division and hurt. The so-called Thin Blue Line flag stirred controversy when town officials sought to remove it from firetrucks and firefighters refused to take it down. Back the Blue rallies were hastily scheduled, resulting in counter protests and calls for unity. 

Emotions have run hot, engendered with much passion, and complicated by the two-year anniversary of the death of a police officer shot in the line of duty in neighboring Weymouth. And while justice must always override feelings, it’s hard when neighbor opposes neighbor in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic.

Proponents of the flag view it as a symbol of solidarity with the police; opponents see it as a racist symbol used to counter the Black Lives Matter movement. And there is very little middle ground, indicative of the divided and highly polarized and politicized times in which we live.

Unfortunately, the Thin Blue Line flag has been co-opted by white supremacists in the same way that the Confederate flag has been co-opted. That’s not an editorial statement, but a fact. This doesn’t mean that everyone who flies it is a white supremacist, or that those who care deeply for and support the hard work of police officers shouldn’t be passionate about standing up for them. I know the vast majority of people participating in Back the Blue rallies have good intentions in their hearts.

But it does mean that some white supremacists fly this flag. And when we listen to people of color say that this flag is a cause of deep pain, fear, and oppression, it’s time to take the symbol down. Anything we can do to remove barriers to healthy, honest, and open conversation is worth doing. Especially when so much is at stake. 

Symbols are powerful. We all must use them wisely and be aware of their ever-evolving meanings. 

Aug 3, 2020

Waiting and Fasting

This past weekend's gospel reading about Jesus feeding the 5,000 included some very tangible

echoes of the Eucharist. The same four-fold action that happens in front of the large crowd mirrors Jesus’ movements in the Upper Room. He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the gathered assembly. 

At a moment when many are still fasting from Communion and participating in virtual worship, the story of the feeding of the 5,000 engages a deep and soulful yearning. 

In my sermon, I shared a few things I miss about receiving the Eucharist. I've supplemented this list and offer them to you below. I'm sure you have others from your own experience and context. 

  • I miss the altar guild reverently placing the chalice and paten on the altar and veiling the vessels with care and devotion. 
  • I miss young acolytes struggling to light the tall candles, especially when they’ve recently been replaced with new ones. 
  • I miss our Verger racing around before the service making sure we have enough wine and wafers to feed everybody. 
  • I miss the unspoken action of the Eucharistic table setting during the offertory anthem.
  • I miss saying a quiet prayer as the server ritually washes my hands before the Great Thanksgiving. 
  • I miss that brief silence - just a beat - after I raise my arms in prayer and gaze out upon the congregation before the words pour forth.
  • I miss consecrating the elements at the altar, using the ancient manual acts that are both so familiar and meaningfully mysterious. 
  • I miss momentarily losing my place in the altar book and then quickly and, usually seamlessly to the naked eye, finding it again.
  • I miss the well-worn cloth strips used to mark the book, which I still never trust anyone else to set. 
  • I miss the silent choreography with and among the other clergy at the altar. 
  • I miss looking out at the congregation and seeing the familiar faces of people I care so deeply about as I elevate the silver vessels. 
  • I miss looking out at the congregation and seeing the familiar faces of people I care so deeply about as I elevate the silver vessels. 
  • I miss communicating the altar party, especially the wide-eyed look of the newest acolyte. 
  • I miss offering the sacrament first to the choir before they return to their pews to sing the communion anthem and lead the Eucharistic hymns I never get to sing, but often hum along to as I go from one side of the rail to the other. 
  • I miss offering the gifts of God for the people of God. 
  • I miss the pride our ushers take in orchestrating the orderly movement of parishioners from pew to altar rail. 
  • I miss seeing outstretched hands at the communion rail, some covered with magic markers, others covered with wrinkles, and most somewhere in between.
  • I miss the very real presence of Jesus in my own life that only comes through the reception of the Eucharist. 
  • I miss fulfillment of the deepest yearning of my soul. 

We wait. We fast. Yet Jesus abides even in the wilderness. And I take solace in that.

Jul 8, 2020

In Good Faith: Tearing It Down

In my July In Good Faith column, I write about Confederate statues, the reality of racism, and Babe Ruth.

Tearing It Down
The first statue controversy I remember revolved around the Babe Ruth statue outside the newly-constructed Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. No, it wasn’t controversial because it immortalized the iconic player associated with the hated New York Yankees. The Babe grew up not far from the stadium, after all. 

Rather, it had to with his glove. The nine-foot tall bronze statue depicts a young Ruth leaning on his bat, while clutching a right-handed fielders glove on his hip. The problem is Ruth was left handed. Not only did he hit every single one of his 714 home runs from the left side of the plate, he was also a southpaw, first as a pitcher and then as an outfielder. 

Given the controversies surrounding statues of Confederate generals, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the problem of the wrong glove on the Sultan of Swat, seems rather quaint. Since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis at the end of May, over 30 Confederate monuments have come down across the country. While some have been toppled by protesters, the vast majority have been removed by state and local governments. 

Now, one thing we don’t have in New England are statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, or Jefferson Davis on our picturesque village greens. So it’s easy to sound self-righteous railing against statues of Confederate generals from the safe confines of Boston’s South Shore. Heck, here in Hingham, we have a prominent statue of Abraham Lincoln, whose ancestors helped settle the town in the 17th century. Of course, that’s not to say racism isn’t just as present in our own communities as down south — that’s one of the great northern myths about racism. 

But I do not mourn the loss of these statues, which serve as powerful symbols of a hateful and treasonous heritage of white supremacy. Some claim taking them down “erases history,” as if by virtue of their removal, we’ll forget the lessons of the Civil War. Well, I’m not buying it. History isn’t told through statuary, but story. Much of American history has been whitewashed over the years and many stories have gone untold, but that’s changing. Raising our collective awareness about the unvarnished history of this country is one of the great opportunities of this moment. And this happens not in sculpture gardens, but through open hearts and minds.

I’ve gotten to know the Rev. Rob Lee over the years. Yes, he is a direct descendent of General Robert E. Lee, and he’s become persona non grata in certain circles for his belief that all the statues of his famous forebear should come down. In a recent editorial in the Washington Post, titled, Robert E. Lee is my ancestor. Take down his statue and let his cause be lost, Rob wrote, “Perhaps you’ve heard the mantra, ‘The Civil War was fought for states’ rights.’ The catch is that there’s more to that sentence, something we southerners are never taught: The Civil War was fought for states’ rights to enslave African people in the United States of America.” 

This is an important reminder for everyone, regardless of geography. And that’s what these statues stand for. They weren’t erected in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but as part of the Jim Crow south to remind blacks to remember their place in a white dominated society. And they need to go.

Referencing the recently removed statue of his ancestor in Richmond, VA, Rob wrote, “The statue is a hollow reminder of a painful ideology and acts of oppression against black people. Taking it down will provide new opportunities for conversations, relationships, and policy change.”

That’s the hope. And we surely don’t need bronze statues of Confederate generals to remind us that the ripples of racism still emanate from the original sin of slavery.