Friday, March 12, 2010

The Practice and Profession of Freemasonry

Last night was the third consecutive night of Official Visits in the District.  I know that it was a lot to ask of the Officers and I thank them for answering the call.  Worshipful Master Sam Harper conducted a fine meeting.  At age 87, Sam has taken up the helm in his Lodge for the second time.  The first was 1978.

After the meeting closed, we presented 50 Year Emblems to two Brothers, one 60 Year Wreath and a long (20 years) overdue 25 Year Award.  A beautiful evening indeed.

I was called on for remarks and offered what follows.

The Practice and Profession of Freemasonry

One must be something to be able to do something. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

There’s a story that has been told about a young boy and some starfish. You see, every so often there is a perfect combination of tide and wind and current that causes unusually high numbers of starfish to wash up onto beaches around the world.

It was on one of those days that an old and wise man decided to take a walk on the shore to clear his mind and think. A little way ahead of him, he saw a young boy constantly stooping to pick something up and throw it into the ocean.

As the old man approached, he could see it was the starfish that the boy was so focused on.  He stopped and asked the boy, “Why are you spending so much time throwing those starfish into the ocean?”

“You see sir, the tide is going out and these starfish will be stranded and die. I’m trying to help,” said the boy.

“But my dear boy, there are miles of beach and hundreds, maybe even thousands of starfish here. Why waste your time when what you’re doing can’t possibly make a difference.”

The boy, not missing a beat, picked another starfish up and with all his might, tossed it far out into the waves. As it hit the water with the splash, he looked to the old man and said, “It sure makes a difference to that one.”

Too often in life, we go along unaware of our actions and what kind of affect they have on others. With the cynicism that sometimes comes as we leave childhood and become men, we can easily begin to look at the big picture as hopeless instead of focusing on the specifics like that little boy.

We must be ever mindful that what we do as Masons may not have immediate impact on society as a whole, but it does impact individuals. Perhaps each of those individuals, touched by a kindness or spurred to goodness by a Mason decides to pay it forward. Soon, change happens on a greater scale, blossoming, in a perfect world, exponentially.

We are admonished at the opening of every Lodge meeting to “apply ourselves with zeal to the practice and profession of Freemasonry.” What is the practice and profession of Freemasonry? And how can we apply that to being a 21st Century Mason? We need look no further than the rest of that charge for the answer.

We must seek wisdom, for no man who is wise can be anything but good.

We must be united; for when people strive to work and agree, the load is lessened for all. Conversely, without consensus, the going is challenging at best.

We have been charged this year to do something that we’ve never done before. I say that with a wink, because I think if we’re honest, we will admit we’ve done it for years. Under Grand Master Sturgeon, we can now ask good men to be a part of our great Fraternity. There are stories of sons that have waited years for their fathers to ask them to join the Fraternity only to find out much later in life that they were supposed to make the inquiry themselves. It was always seemed a little like “double secret probation” to me. You only learned that you were supposed to seek membership once you sought membership. Well, that’s no more. We can now tell our friends, “Hey, you are the kind of man that should be a Mason.”

We’re even going to make it easy for these men. On October 30th, there will be a One Day Masonic Journey. Men who don’t have free evenings, men who work second shift and those who truly don’t have the time to join in the usual way can now become Masons. Making them want to stay after they join – that’s your job. Bring them to a Lodge that is active, fun and contributing to a better community and they will stay. They may realize that things they used to find important just aren’t when compared to the transformation he sees in himself as he matures as a man and Mason.

Some may grumble, “Well, that’s not the traditional way. He should have to wait a month between Degrees, like I did.” Well you know what, that isn’t the traditional way either. It used to take up to three years between Degrees. I imagine that our Masonic ancestors, if they were here, might complain that you and I didn’t really do it the traditional way either.

The point is that we must be united. We must realize that today’s Masonry needs to adapt to today’s culture if it is to remain relevant. Use the brochure as a way to open a door for a young man. Support the One Day Journey. It might not be your cup of tea, but we’re charged to be united, so unite.

We are told to be happy and contribute to the happiness of others. There are limitless ways that we can do that. Through our Lodge Community Service Projects, we can beautify our neighborhoods, help families in need and give back to the communities that we call home. Acts of Kindness that we have always done serve as outward symbols of the care and love that our Craft have toward all mankind.

What about promoting the useful arts and cultivating the moral virtues? We must mentor our members and tell them of our history. We must explain the value of adorning our minds and inspire them through the tales of the great Masons who have shaped the world. To help a man soar intellectually is the best gift you can give, for an educated mind is a free mind.

Nowhere is it more important to teach virtue and morality than to our young boys and girls. Building strong foundations of morality, teaching good judgment and empowering our future leaders to be all that they can be is an indispensible part of our mission to make the world a better place to live. Remember, one must be something to be able to do something. Giving fifty cents per member to the Pennsylvania Masonic Youth Foundation is one of the points of the Renaissance. I urge you not to stop there. Give more. If you can’t afford more money, give of your time. Bring them to Lodge to exemplify their ritual, ask them to help with your fundraisers, most of all, become their friends. Be the role models that are lacking in our society.

Thoreau said “In the long run men only hit what they aim at.” I charge you tonight to aim high. Aim not for mediocrity, but aim for the stars. Let the practice and profession of our Noble Art be your singular focus. Do all in your power to meet the Grand Master’s challenge to bring Masonry to the 21st Century so that your children, grandchildren and men of good character in generations to come can continue to be a part of something so sublime.

So mote it be.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Passion for Compassion

Tonight I made my first ever Official Visit to Infinty Lodge No. 546.  The Master and Officers were extremely well prepared and showed every kindness to many of us who were first time visitors. 

I presented 50 Service Emblems to four of the members.  One travelled from South Carolina and another from Detroit to receive their awards.  I asked if it was just a fortunate coincidence that they were in town at this time assuming that perhaps a wedding or family event found them fortuitously in the area.  They both replied that they made this trip specifically to receive the Award in their Lodge surrounded by people they know and love.  That speaks so much for the bonds forged in our great Fraternity.  What a glorious evening.

I had the privilege of offering the following to the assembled Brethren

A Passion for Compassion

. . . May I reach
That purest heaven, -- be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense!
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world. – George Eliot

There was once a small girl who lived in on the outskirts of a mountain village with just her mother and a servant. There had been a drought in the land and everyone and everything around was suffering. The girl’s mother was so weak and thirsty that the girl decided on her own to set off into the land and search for some water. She took the little tin dipper from the shelf and walked for hours until she found a tiny spring in the mountains that had just a small amount of water trickling out. The girl patiently held the dipper until she had what she thought was enough water for her sick mother, then she began to make her way back home.

On the way she met up with a little dog. The dog looked so weak to her. He licked her hand and his dry tongue made her take pity. She said to him, “I can only spare a few drops, for my mother is very sick, but you too could benefit from a little water.”

She poured some water into her hand and the dog quickly lapped it up, barked as if to say “Thank you,” and went on his way. The girl looked at the dipper in her hand and realized that the little tin dipper was now made of silver and it was just as full as it had been before.

She continued on her way, hurrying now because it was almost dark. The road was very long and she was so far from home. She was moving so quickly that she began to crave the water herself. “I can’t drink any of this. My mother needs it far more than I do,” she thought.

When she got home, she ran to her mother’s room and held out the silver dipper. Her mother said, “Please give it to our servant. She has been working tirelessly at my side since I have been sick. She needs it far more than I.”

The servant drank from the cup and handed back to the little girl. She looked at the cup in her hands and it was now a dipper of gold and still every bit as full as it was before.

Presently, there was a knock at the door. A stranger appeared before them and said, “I saw a little girl on the road earlier who generously shared her water with a sick dog and was hoping she could spare some for me.”

The mother knew the importance of helping others in need, so she told her daughter to give the dipper to the stranger, who took the cup and turned it upside down, spilling the contents onto the ground.

“From where this water seeps into the ground shall come forth a huge and generous spring that will slake your thirst and feed your land forever,” he said as he handed back the dipper, now encrusted with the most beautiful diamonds.

The family was so in awe of what had happened that they scarcely noticed that the stranger had left without another word. When they turned to thank him for his generosity he was gone, but they thought they could see a trail of diamonds flying into the night sky. Even to this day, they are there in the form of the Big Dipper to remind us of the importance of being compassionate.

What do you think of when you hear someone called compassionate? Is a millionaire compassionate when he donates one hundred dollars to a charity? In some ways, he may be. Is the same donation from a single parent working two jobs and raising children alone far more compassionate? True compassion, you see, cannot be measured simply in dollars. The little girl was willing to share all of what she had with others, not just a little. Giving a little when you have a lot is not nearly as compassionate as sharing a lot when you have a little.

Our Grand Master has asked us to share like that little girl. Through many aspects of the 21st Century Renaissance, he is asking us to give deeply of our time, our talents and our treasure to help make our communities better for everyone; to build springs that will shower our land with abundance forever.

I have talked before about acts of kindness. I encourage you to remember that others judge Masonry by the actions of the Masons. A little empathy for others – helping a stranded motorist, shoveling a driveway or, perhaps more timely in view of today’s balmy weather, cutting someone’s grass – marks you as a good man and your Fraternity as a groomer of good men.

Giving of your talents can include such community projects as renovating a playground or picnic pavilion, or helping prepare someone’s income tax. If you have a way to ease the suffering of another, is it not your duty to do so?

Giving of your time is important too. When you adopt a resident at the Masonic Villages, you will not only be brightening their lives, but I know you will enrich your own. Remember that I said last night that you are never too old to learn. Our residents have unique and interesting stories and spending time with them can be so rewarding.

Our Grand Master has asked us to give of our treasure as well. He wants us to donate fifty cents per member to the youth and hold fundraisers to donate $2,000 to the Masonic Villages. Is that a lot? I don’t know. Was it a lot to ask a thirsty little girl to share all of what she had with others? For some Lodges, each of those amounts may mean hard work, but when you set out to do grand and noble things, you quickly realize that hard work is essential to success. What can possibly be nobler than ensuring the success of our youth by building strong foundations in faith, education and charitable giving? How could we not choose to work hard to maintain our Masonic Villages for those who have gone before us?

We need to give to our charities and our communities so that wells of abundance spring up all around us. If there’s a need, we must provide. If we get tired, that means we are doing our jobs as Masons and men. Men who aren’t Masons should be envious of what we do. When they ask how you find the time to do what you do, hand them a brochure and invite them to find out for themselves.

I charge you tonight to go home, think about what you can do to make a well spring forth in your community. Long to become a source of what is good and right. Share your time, talents and treasure; share the light that is this great Fraternity with good and worthy neighbors, co-workers and family members. Be passionate about being compassionate.

Simply, “be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense!”

You needn’t wait to join the choir invisible to do it. Make it be so today!

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Virtue of Virtues

At tonight's Official Visit to Valley Lodge No. 613, one hundred one Masons turned out to share an excellent meal hosted by Worshipful Master Mike O'Hanlon.  I again had the privilege of presenting 50 Year Service Emblems to three of their members and to give the following address:

The Virtue of Virtues

They who disbelieve in virtue because man has never been found perfect, might as reasonably deny a sun because it is not always day. ~Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers, 1827

Merriam Webster defines virtue in several ways: 1. a conformity to a standard of right and 2. a beneficial quality or a power of a thing. With that in mind, tonight I want to talk a little bit about the beneficial quality of the conformity to a standard of right – said another way, the virtue of virtues.

In Freemasonry, we are taught to “practice the Masonic virtues,” but they are not specifically enumerated, nor are they further explained within our Pennsylvania ritual. If we seek more light and do some research, it is generally accepted that the Masonic virtues are the four Cardinal Virtues of Fortitude, Temperance, Justice and Prudence. Why did our Masonic forbears find these virtues of particular importance?

These days, the words fortitude, temperance, justice and prudence are used very infrequently. To modernize the whole conversation, let us refer to the Cardinal Virtues as the Principal Virtues. Let us call them courage, restraint, equality and wisdom.

C.S. Lewis said “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Perhaps that is why it is first among the virtues. At every point when your ethics are tested and you are given an easy choice and the right choice, it takes courage above all to see you through. Courage is often thought to mean physical bravery, but as a Mason, it refers to doing what is right, not necessarily what is popular. As a Lodge leader as well as in life, sometimes it is far more appealing to be liked by your peers than to have to make a tough decision.

For example, courage may require the raising of the dues when the Lodge is in the red – even if it makes you unpopular. The Masonic Renaissance is making changes to many aspects of how we, as Lodges, operate. It is probably a safe bet that every one sitting in this Lodge disagrees with some aspect of the Renaissance. That’s okay. It just requires brave leaders to say “We’re going to try it anyhow.” As leaders and members you must come together. Unanimity isn’t as important as consensus. You may not agree with certain aspects of the Renaissance, but you do irreparable damage to your Lodge if you don’t do all in your power to help it succeed. So courage in our leaders means making decisions that not everyone agrees with. Courage in our members then, means stepping up to help even though you may not like what you are helping with. You must set aside your differences and row with the others in the boat, not against them.

That brings us to restraint. Let’s say, for example, that you aren’t fond of the idea of the One Day Masonic Journey. You could do several things. Not tell any of your friends about it – friends who are busy and don’t have the time to leave the house in the evenings. You can refuse to help with it. You can even stand up in your Lodge after it’s over and boldly proclaim that you don’t see a single new member sitting there with you. You could do all those things or you could exercise self control. You could give the brochure to your busy friend and vow to make his experience so good, he will rearrange his evenings to start attending Lodge. You could also volunteer to be a mentor to those who come it through that class and teach them with months of one on one dedication what you think it means to be a Mason. You could also not stand up in Lodge and make such a statement. Be a stepping stone, not a stumbling block. Realize that there are several paths you can walk from the same starting point to the same destination. Always remember to restrain that part of you that wants to build barriers. Build Temples instead.

Justice, or equality, from a Masonic perspective has less to do with punishing the wicked or rewarding the good than it does with treating each and every person you contact with fairness. Equality means that regardless of your chosen profession, you are a child of God and entitled to be given all the dignity and respect one would give to anything of His making. It also means that we too, as Masons, need to treat everyone that way. We must remind ourselves that we meet everyone “on the level” and that our interactions with our fellow man reflect back on our character. Knowing that justice should be afforded to all should make committing acts of kindness not just easy, but necessary. There is now a portal on the Grand Lodge webpage that catalogues those actions taken by your Brothers around the state. Logon and see exactly how we’re helping make life better. Post your deeds there as well. Not for admiration or accolades, but as a challenge to others to do the same.

Justice should make us realize that it is our duty to adopt residents at our Masonic homes. It is our duty to care for those who have placed their confidence in our ability to do so. We should support the families of our Soldiers by giving generously to the Help for the Heroes Program. A few spare coins at the end of a meeting is nowhere near the sacrifice that they are making for us, but it can mean so much to them and their families.

The last of the virtues is wisdom. True wisdom comes not only from knowledge, but also from experience. Gautama Siddharta said “To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.”

If wisdom is the light, then we need fuel. That fuel is education. Whether it is the formal education of schooling, or informal education – the examination and questioning of the known and applying it to the unknown, matters not. Education is not just for the young. We can always learn if our minds are open to it. Brother Mark Twain is credited for having said “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Intellectual and emotional enlightenment should always be our aim. And remember, wisdom is a journey, never a destination. A wise man anticipates changes and adapts to them. He meets new challenges head on and is every ready to grow based on new experiences.

As our Fraternity faces the challenges of the 21st Century, we cannot rely on the solutions of years gone by. We must adapt to the needs of the men who are joining, not the men who founded the organization. I ask each of you to get on board with the Renaissance. Volunteer to lead one of your Community Service Projects; take the lead in adopting a resident of the Villages; call those Brethren who are delinquent to keep them from being suspended from this great Brotherhood; become a Mentor – it may help you learn a few new things too.

Most of all, realize the virtue of our virtues. Know that the practice of them makes you a better man and your world a better place. Leave here excited and proud to be a member of the Craft. Take a brochure home and vow to give it to a worthy man. Better yet, take five brochures home and invite deserving men to share in the great gift to mankind that is Freemasonry.

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Mediocrity: The New Awesome

Last night, eight one Masons joined in fellowship at my Official Visit to Pollock Lodge No. 502 in Tarentum.  I was privileged to present 50 Year Service Emblems to six Brothers and a Sixty Year Wreath to another.  I am truly humbled every single time I pin someone who has served this Fraternity for so long.  I will never get tired of doing it.

My address for the evening follows:

Mediocrity: The New Awesome

Badness you can get easily, in quantity; the road is smooth, and it lies close by. But in front of excellence the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it. - Hesiod

Last week, the Winter Olympics came to a close in Vancouver. I would venture a guess that most, if not all of you watched some portion of those games. Why are we captivated by athletes coming from all corners of the globe to compete in their chosen disciplines? Is it because they are average at what they do? Is it because they go out and give fifty percent? Of course not! I would venture a guess that if every four years, the mediocre athletic nebbishes from every nation gathered to put just a little bit of effort (not enough to break a sweat, mind you) into being anything but superlative, not only would it not be televised, but no one would watch it if it was.

The Olympics is just one example I can use. Poetry, art, music – all of these things – are really more fully enjoyed when they are done well. Sure, you can enjoy music or art when your child is in the chorus or brings home something for the refrigerator, because it is personal, but otherwise we expect greatness.

Poetry, for example, is said to be such a pure use of language that either adding or subtracting a single word would diminish the poem. When you experience the work of a master – truly examine the capturing of light by Rembrandt or listen to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony performed by a world class orchestra and choir - you are forever changed. There is quite literally a part of your soul that glimpses into the eternal and will never forget that experience.

Part of the reason that we can be so changed or affected by these things is that they are so few and far between. As a society, we have decided that almost perfect is the same thing as perfect. I would submit to you that almost perfect is the antithesis of perfect. Society grades on a curve, rewards fitting in and holds achievers back to spare the feelings of those who succeed at a lower level. Where triumph was once celebrated, it is now denigrated. Mediocrity has become the new “awesome.”

The problem with this is that the soul of a man wants more. Deep within us, we want perfection; we want to be part of something grand, glorious and larger than ourselves. We want to be perfect stones in God’s Great Temple. Stones that are nearly square or almost square won’t do.

So what does this have to do with the Craft? Quite a bit, actually.

There are men who, deep in their hearts, feel the longing to become better – no, the best men they can and give something back to their fellow man. There are men who don’t know that Freemasonry already does that.  The 21st Century Masonic Renaissance seeks to change that.

Thanks to Grand Master Sturgeon’s vision, we now have the ability to invite men of good character to join our Fraternity. How many of you have seen the new brochure? How many of you have read it? How many of you have given it to someone you know?

If you haven’t, you should. Ask your father, son, brother or uncle to join. If you attend church or synagogue regularly, you definitely know someone to whom you could give this. Friends and coworkers who may have spent years waiting to be asked (because they thought that was how it was supposed to go) might say, “I was wondering why you never asked me to join before.”

Some may say that they don’t have the time. Remind them that there will be a One Day Masonic Journey on October 30th. They can still join the old-fashioned way if they would like, but to the man whose time is truly a dwindling resource, the One Day Journey can be his gateway to the Fraternity. The hope is that after meeting such good men and doing so much to help his fellow man through our monthly outreach projects, he may reprioritize his life to make time for what he will then know to be an excellent endeavor.

Some in the past may have been put off because they heard about all of the memorization. The new Mentor program about to be rolled out eliminates most of the memorization in favor of teaching the story of our wonderful and glorious history. So many of us, even to this day, don’t have a clue what to say when someone asks about us because all we were ever taught was to memorize our obligation. The history of who we are and what we do – how we take care of the elderly, help our widows and give back to our communities – those are the stories that our new members need to hear.

If a man chooses to go on to be an Officer in his Lodge, he can now use the written monitor to help learn our beautiful degrees. Remember what I said before about poetry? Our ritual is like that to me. Every single word is important and few of us know every single word. Now a man can sit in the quiet of his own house, on his own time and learn his work.

I’m asking you tonight to help support the Renaissance. Invite worthy men to join, support the One Day Journey, hold your officers accountable to ritual excellence. I’ve told you before what the inimitable Robert Page used to say to our Mendelssohn Choir, “An amateur practices until he can do it right, but a professional practices until he can’t do it wrong.”

If nothing else, leave here tonight enthused. Norman Vincent Peale said, “There is a real magic in enthusiasm. It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment.” Be proud that you are part of the greatest Fraternity the world has ever seen and do all in your power to make it that much better.

Let’s continue to hold ourselves accountable and inspire each other to greatness by settling for nothing less than our very own best and the best in others. Let our endeavors be Olympic in that we bring our best selves to Lodge, putting aside the cares of the outside world, finding respite, peace and wisdom, fitting us to be true and perfect ashlars that the Great Architect of the Universe may use as His wisdom directs.