Tuesday, November 8, 2011

There Is a Season

Greetings once again Brethren.  I have been absent from the blog lately and for that I apologize.  Over the next few weeks, I will post those addresses I gave at this year's visitations with little change.  I ask you, therefore, to forgive such references as may be slightly out of date.  A good example may be found in the opening sentence below.
This address was given at Infinity Lodge No. 546 on April 13th

There Is a Season

Harshness gone. All at once caring spreads over
the naked gray of the meadows.
Tiny rivulets sing in different voices.
A softness, as if from everywhere,

is touching the earth.
Paths appear across the land and beckon.
Surprised once again you sense
its coming in the empty tree. – Rilke

Though the air certainly doesn’t feel like it, the calendar tells us that it is spring.  Most of you know that I’m a runner.  I’m usually out five or six days a week, regardless of the weather, training for the marathon.
I’ve been a running and cycling enthusiast for almost ten years now.  Conservatively, I have logged more than 7,000 miles on foot and probably the same distance on the bike, the vast portion of both being outdoors.   For me, one of the unexpected benefits of exercise has been to be in tune with the cycles of nature.
There is something about every season of the year that I love.
The summer brings warmth and a total greening of the world around me.  Everything seems to be alive.  In the fall, I love the gold and red glow given off by the trees as the first light of morning hits the tops of them.  The smell of the fallen leaves and the damp fall air make every run seem special.  In the winter, I love making the first set of tracks as I wind my through the woods; the skeletal trees standing in dark contrast to the yet-to-be trodden snow.
Spring, more than any season, is always special to me.  As the days begin to get longer, the crocuses and iris start to poke their heads out of the ground and awaken.  The birds return and the once silent trails are noisy early in the morning.  The earth and almost everything on it seems to be poised for rebirth.
As I ran this week and marveled at all that was being born again around me, my thoughts turned toward our Fraternity and the rebirth it is experiencing.
When we think about spring, we seem to think that everything happens on its own – that the plants just go to sleep in the fall and wake up again in April.  But that’s not quite true.  Plants spend the summer storing much-needed nutrients to help them survive the winter and re-emerge when the climate is more inviting.  Animals, in the same way, either spend the summer gathering what they need to survive the harsher months, or leave the area and use great amounts of energy to return with spring.
We as Masons must recognize that every year for us must bring with it a renewed focus, an expending of our energies and a time to plan for our future.  There is a tendency to think of what we do in and for our Lodge as linear; we learn a Degree, get certified and then confer it.  After that we move on to the next.  Or we move through the chairs of the Lodge, learning the work of each station.  We continue to advance until we reach the East.  After that we relax and watch others do it.  There always seems to be a beginning, a middle and an end.
If we viewed our Masonic duties as cyclical, how much better off would our Fraternity be?  What if every summer meant we spent the time learning our work for the next station we are to hold or reading a Masonic book?  Every fall could be a time to shed one bad habit or improve one thing about ourselves as men.  We could spend each winter volunteering in our communities and helping those in need at a very hard time of the year.
Spring then could be our time for rebirth.  We could talk to the people we know and love about how special Freemasonry is to us - and I know that if you are here tonight, Freemasonry is special to you.
I would be willing to wager that each and every one of you knows at least one great man who is not a Mason.  He may be a neighbor, a co-worker, an acquaintance from your house of worship or even a relative.  He may or may not even know you are a Mason, but that doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that you know he would be a good Mason and it is your duty – to yourself, to your Lodge and to your friend – to let him know how much more full his life could be by joining this great band of men.
My maternal grandfather was one of the best men I ever knew.  He worked most of his life as a brakeman for the Union Railroad.  He was simple man with a gentle soul and lived his life with a quiet dignity.  My understanding is that he attended Lodge – even if it was a little sporadically.  I have no recollection of him every wearing a Masonic ring or seeing anything Masonic in his house.  It wasn't until he went into the hospital in 1997, where he eventually died, that I found out he was a Mason.
The Friend to Friend video arrived in his mail.  I asked my mom what it was.  She said "I don't know, but Pap's a Mason.  Ask him."  I asked him if I could watch it and he said yes.  I never had the chance to watch it while he was alive since I was spending so much time with him.  But after I saw his Masonic funeral and was so touched by its words, I relayed that story to the Worshipful Master.  He told me to watch the video and to contact him if I was interested in what it had to say.   The rest is history obviously, but I can't help thinking that if he could have asked me to join back then, he would have.  I am thankful that he is chiefly responsible for me being a Mason, but I would be lying if I did not say I have some regret that we missed out on years of sitting in Lodge together and growing closer as brothers, not just as grandfather and grandson.
I have brought petitions with me for this year’s One Day Journey.  It will be held at the Greater Pittsburgh Masonic Center on November 5th.  After the meeting is over, come ask me for one.  Give it to someone who you KNOW will be a good Mason.  If you would rather, he can also advance the traditional way.  How he comes to be a Mason is not important.  What is important is that you will help a good man become a great one through his participation here.
Brethren, as I close, I implore you to let this time of year reawaken your spirit.  Let the Masonic Renaissance be a rekindling for you of the fire that burns deep within your heart and the heart of every Freemason.  Commit yourselves unequivocally to the ideals of our Fraternity and remember that your commitment does not end with the setting of the sun or the change of the season.  It must continue always, being born anew every year so that you are forever worthy of the title Freemason!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Honor and Recognition

On March 8th, I made my Official Visit to Penn Brotherhood Lodge No. 635.  The Worshipful Master, Brother Art Lindsay, and all the officers were in fine form.  We awarded four 50 Year Service Pins and it was great to hear those men speak about what Freemasonry has done for their lives.  My address is below.

Honor and Recognition



What you just read was an advertisement that was supposedly run in a London newspaper by Brother Sir Ernest Shackleton.  It may just be a legend, as there is no extant copy of the ad, but as the legend goes, according to Shackleton, “It seemed all the men of Great Britain were determined to accompany me, the response was so overwhelming.”
Why do you suppose that an advertisement that details such certain agony would engender such a response from the readers?  What is it about honor and recognition that motivates men to take such risks?  Are there lessons that we as Freemasons can take from that and apply to our Lodges and our lives?
As a culture today, we have by and large embraced the easy life.  There are few people who would read Shackleton’s advertisement and be motivated to apply for the job.  After all, there is no mention of health benefits, vacation, sick time or a 401k.  Why on earth would we be interested?  That mentality has also seeped into our Lodges.  Why should I pay higher dues?  What benefit do I get out of holding a fundraiser for the Masonic Villages?  How will working on a community service project help me?
I cannot stand before you and tell you that doing any of those things will be of direct benefit to you.  You may reap the ancillary benefits of improving your community or supporting Masonic Charities at some point in your life, but I would be lying if I told you that there would be an immediate and recognizable benefit to you personally for doing it.
I will tell you, however, that the satisfaction you will have from working hard to ease the path for others will be great.
Last year when I addressed this Lodge, I told the story of a king who placed a large boulder in the road to see who would move it.  All the able-bodied men walked by it, thinking themselves above the task.  A small boy finally moved it fearing that someone would be injured by it.  Under it, he found a bag of gold.  I told this story in hopes of inspiring you to action – to making you understand that clearing the path for others makes our passage easier as well.  Were some of the Lodges inspired to action?  Yes.  Was yours?  I’ll allow you to decide that for yourself.  If your answer is no, then it is incumbent upon you to make it happen.  Do not look at the man to your left or to your right and assume that it is he who should lead the charge.  If you elected officers are not doing it, volunteer to do it for them.  And I am speaking now of all the programs of the Renaissance – Open Houses, Community Service, Membership Growth, Suspensions and everything else that we have been striving to change in the last fourteen months.
I spoke to you recently about the importance of not resting on our laurels.  I mentioned that I expected the Lodges in this District to continue raising funds for Masonic Charities because doing that is the right thing to do.  I am challenging Penn-Brotherhood Lodge and all the Lodges of the 54th District to hold fundraisers this year both for the Pennsylvania Masonic Youth Foundation - at least $2,000 to this most deserving charity.  I expect you to band together and do what it takes to make the contributions that you should to the youth groups that we all support.  Why should you do this?  Why should the members of this Lodge come together, give up one or more Saturdays to raise funds for the kids or the elderly?  Because you are Freemasons and if you are true to your calling, you know that being charitable is the right thing to do. 
Saying we are charitable and being charitable are two very different things.  Being a Freemason, and yet sitting on your hands and or wallets when called to action are to me irreconcilable.  When a need exists within our Fraternity or without, we must unhesitatingly jum p up and be the first to try and meet it.  We must put aside concerns for our own lost time, or expended energy and do what we know is right.
I am calling on our leaders – those of you who hold, or aspire to hold, elected offices in your Lodges to do what you are called to do.  Lead your Lodges.  Find causes that you believe in, rally support, make the plans and take the steps necessary to make your events successful. 
Rallying support may mean more than putting an announcement in your Lodge bulletin that you want help.  It may mean picking up the phone and personally contacting your members to solicit their help.
The wages will be small for each of you who participates, but you will not have to deal with bitter cold, months of complete darkness or constant danger.  The honor and recognition will be the self-satisfaction of a job well done.
I mentioned at my first Visitation that I will not ask you to do something that I am not willing to do as well.  I will not stand here and pay lip service to the idea of working hard for our charities without doing it myself.  I am running the Pittsburgh Marathon on May 15th and am hoping to raise $2,000 through pledges of support from friends, family and my Brothers (my ever so generous Brothers) to donate to the DeMolay and Rainbow groups in the 54th District as well as to the Pennsylvania Masonic Youth Foundation.  There is a link on the District Website where you can make secure online donations through PayPal using a credit card, debit card or your PayPal account.
I encourage you – nay, I beg you – to give any amount that you feel comfortable donating, knowing that it both supports the youth of our area and forces me to suffer through 26 agonizing miles of running through the streets of Pittsburgh for the cause.
Brethren, I know it seems at times that Freemasonry may ask a lot of you, but to be worthy of the reward you must answer the call.  You must view your membership in the greatest Fraternity in the world as the “honor and recognition” that Shackleton spoke of and therefore be willing to endure – metaphorically speaking – small wages, months in complete darkness and constant danger.
I ask you, members of Penn Brotherhood Lodge as well as all of you here to become engaged in the future of your Lodge and of your Fraternity.  You will be better men for it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Do Me a Favor

On March 3rd, I attended Pollock Lodge No. 502 for my second Official Visit of the year.  I was delighted that almost ninety Masons showed up for the evening.  The Worshipful Master, Brother Jim Tomson, and all of the Officers and members made me and every visitor feel at home.

We gave 50 year emblems to two of their members and heard them talk about how special the bonds were that they developed through their membership in this great fraternity.

I gave the following address at the end of the evening:

Do Me a Favor

The deed is everything, the glory nothing. – Johanne Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust 

If you’ve been to more than one or two of my visitations, there is a better than average chance that you have heard me tell a story about Maestro Robert Page.  Bob was the long-time Conductor and Music Director of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, an organization I sang with for many years.  To my knowledge, Bob is not a Mason, but he embodies, both in spirit and in action, many of the virtues that Masons endeavor to practice.
One snowy night years ago, we were at the final rehearsal for a very challenging piece of music. We knew that there was still work to be done if it was to be perfect and all of us, including Bob, were feeling the pressure. At a break in the rehearsal, a young man, new to the group looked outside and saw that there was quite a bit of snow on the ground. He called his roommates and asked if the buses were still running.

“No. It looks like service was suspended because of the snow,” was the reply he got. This young man who knew no one in the group particularly well, summoned the courage to approach Bob and timidly ask, “Maestro, I hate to be a bother but I need a favor. Is there any way I can get a ride home with you after rehearsal?”

“Absolutely,” he replied. “Don’t think a thing of it.”

That, in and of itself, is not so remarkable. What happened next was. As we returned from our break, mentally steeling ourselves for another exhausting hour of intense rehearsal, Bob put down his baton, pulled up a stool and began to teach a life lesson.

“I was just asked to do someone a favor and I wanted to talk a little about what that means. A student asked me to give him a ride home tonight. He lives less than one block off of my route home. Now is that a favor? Is it really doing someone a favor to drop them at a house that I was driving by anyhow?

“To me, doing a favor for someone,” he continued, “should imply a hardship or inconvenience on the bestower. We are too quick to classify what should just be acts of decency as favors. A favor would have been driving him to the opposite side of Pittsburgh. A favor is changing a stranger’s tire while you are wearing a tuxedo or mowing an elderly neighbor’s lawn.”

So in his own way, Bob did me a favor that night. He gave up several precious minutes of much-needed rehearsal to teach a lesson that will stick with me forever: That we should consider the needs of others over our own needs, and that we should do things for people, not because it makes us feel good, but because it is the right thing to do.

Do I live up to that standard all or even most of the time? No. There are some of you who do, but most of us know we could improve. We sometimes focus on the glory, not the deed, or we assume someone else will pick up the slack since we’re too busy to help this time.

As Masons we are taught to be charitable. Certainly charity has to do with being generous with our monetary gifts, but we need to be charitable with our time and our talents as well.

Pollock Lodge is an example of generosity by any of those definitions.

They have held fundraisers, not just for the Masonic Homes at Elizabethtown, but also for members of their community who are in need. They have made their Lodge a presence in the community.

They volunteer their skills and talents to improve the building, making it into a place they want to spend their time.

They consistently travel to my Official Visits in an effort to win the Travelling Trowel. They come to the School of Instruction and rehearse weekly at their own Lodge.

Could each and every one of them find some other way to use their time, talents and treasure? Of course. What makes them and several of our Lodges different is that they did not. They choose to come here and labor for what they see as something very worthwhile. They do their Lodges a favor by sacrificing time at home or socializing with friends to be here several nights a month.

And the Lodge in turn does a favor to the community. It gives back by helping the distressed, cleaning up parks and playgrounds, volunteering at soup kitchens and hospitals. It also gives back in another and maybe unexpected way. It often brings in men who were searching for purpose and a way to be a part of something greater than themselves. It teaches them that service to others, self-improvement and continually striving for what is right are what it means to be a good man. After learning these lessons, those men return to their homes and towns, better fathers, better sons, better husbands and leaders.

Brethren, Pollock Lodge is just one example of doing the right thing by going above and beyond. Many of our Lodges and members do great things, but some are tethered to the ground by fear. Thoreau said “In the long run, men hit only what they aim at.” Perhaps we need to adjust our sights then. Perhaps we need to aim not at limping the Lodge along for another year, but at making it flourish.

Think about what your ideal Lodge would be. Would you want it to be a place where men are anxious to spend their time? Would your ideal Lodge give to others without hesitation when the need exists? Would a nonMason look at your membership and long to be in company with you?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, ask yourself what you are aiming at. Set goals within your Lodge to improve in those areas that are holding you back. Make more men into Masons this year than your Lodge ever has. Double what you give to charity. In short, aim at something new.

It might not be easy, but the reward will be great. Do yourself a favor. Not the easy kind, but the hard one. Give a little more time or talent or treasure to Freemasonry. Commit to working harder for your Lodge and the men you call your Brothers.

As Phillips Brooks said, “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for power equal to your tasks.”

Continue to work with your Lodge, with me and with the Grand Master to keep Freemasonry headed in the right direction. I know you will find the power equal to the task.

Do yourself a favor and try.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Helping Sisyphus

Last night was my first Official Visit of 2011.  Forbes Trail Lodge and Worshipful Master Pete Randazzo hosted approximately 60 members from the District and I again had the honor of presenting a Fifty Year Service Emblem to one of their own.  Before retiring for a fabulous meal, I was pleased to offer the following remarks:

Helping Sisyphus

In ancient Greece, it was customary to award the winners of Olympic events with a crown fashioned from laurel branches. In modern-day Boston, the winner of the marathon receives the same award and the term laureate, as in Poet Laureate has its origin in the word laurel and signifies that the poet has received a special honor for his or her work.

In the most recent Freemason Magazine, you may have read that for the first time in fifty years, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania has seen an increase in membership - in fact we have increased by 449 members since the end of 2009.  That they have seen an increase can also be said of a few of the Lodges represented here tonight, not all of them unfortunately, but some. As membership growth was arguably the cornerstone of Grand Master Sturgeon’s 21st Century Masonic Renaissance, it might then be fitting and proper for us to award him a crown of laurels and maybe even give them to ourselves for helping in the effort. After all, it took the hard work of many to see such a feat accomplished.

The tendency after making a great effort can sometimes be to take a break. It is human nature after all to occasionally rest from our labors. Let’s take a look however at those mentioned earlier and see if that is what they would do. Would an Olympian finish the competition and be satisfied to fade into oblivion? Would he see all the hard work and energy spent to reach the pinnacle of success be immediately undone – satisfied to return to his home and ordinary life? Probably not. Would the marathon runner hang up her shoes, never to run again? No. She would probably go out the next day for a recovery run and continue to keep herself in peak physical condition – able to compete again. Would the poet, a person uniquely qualified to craft the written word in such a way as to invoke images, colors and emotions in the minds of all who read his words stop writing and stop dreaming after one poem? No. He would continue to hone his art and make the world a more beautiful place through his words.

The origin of the term “resting on one’s laurels” comes from the idea that people rely on their past achievements rather than constantly moving forward toward a new goal or a new horizon.

I am here to tell you tonight, Brethren, that we as Freemasons are NOT going to rest on our laurels. We are not going to sit back and bask in the glory of a year of growth, pat each other on the back and say “Great job! Let’s go grab a beer.” We are going to use the momentum we have gained to continue to move our Lodges forward, continue to grow and continue to do good works in our communities and for our charities. We shall not be content to sit back, rest on our laurels and say at some future date that we were part of that ONE year when Freemasonry grew.

The Grand Master has authorized us to hold regional One Day Journeys. We will be holding ours in conjunction with the 47th and 55th Districts at the Greater Pittsburgh Masonic Center on October 15th of this year. More details will follow, but preliminarily, it will follow a similar format to last year’s event. I expect every Lodge to grow this year - every Lodge. We will set goals for growth and plans to achieve it. If we ask each of our new Brothers from last year’s Journey to recommend at least one friend, we would be nearly there.

To increase our visibility in our communities, we will continue to do service projects, helping to make our towns and neighborhoods places that we can be proud of. To help the public understand just who we are, every Lodge will hold at least one open house and invite the community into the Lodge to see how it works. Breakfasts, sponsorships of community events and booths at local festivals also help to make people aware of who we are and what we do and I encourage your Lodges to consider them.

Every Lodge will again hold fundraisers to benefit Masonic and other charities. I expect every Lodge to make at least a $2,000 contribution to Masonic Youth Groups, not because the Grand Master has asked – he has not. Not because I asked either, but because it is the right thing to do. Charity is one of the basic tenets of our Craft and if we do not continually strive to be charitable – especially to those institutions ancillary to our own – then we are not being faithful to our calling as Freemasons. Not every Lodge met the $2,000 request last year. Some did not really even try which is enormously disappointing. This year we all will. I know we will because I am even going to get in on the game. I am training to run the Pittsburgh Marathon in May and I will be seeking pledges for the Pennsylvania Masonic Youth Foundation. There will soon be a link set up on the District Website where pledges can be made by credit card through Paypal. My goal is to raise at least $2,000 as well. I cannot even imagine the embarrassment a Lodge will feel if the District Deputy, using only his feet, his training and four hours of intense suffering, is able to raise more money than its 200 plus members.

Am I asking a lot of you? Maybe. But to those to whom much has been given, much is expected. You have been given the singular honor of being a Freemason. You are following in the footsteps of some of the greatest men ever to walk this earth – poets, writers, men of letters, men who have freed nations from tyranny and countless others who have risked or given their lives that others may be free. So I will ask that question a different way: Is asking you to sacrifice a few hours of your personal time to ease the path for our youth, to better your community and to grow this great Fraternity for another year too much? I hope your personal answer is no.

Sisyphus was a great king of Greek mythology. For overstepping his bounds and angering Zeus, he was condemned to spend eternity pushing a heavy boulder up a hill.  Just before he would reach the top with it, however, it would slip away and roll again to the bottom and he would be forced to start all over again. Thus a Sisyphean task is one that is pointless or interminable.

Making Freemasonry better is certainly not pointless, but it most assuredly is interminable. Last year’s growth is just that -last year’s. It is history, relegated to the pages of our own mythology. The boulder is back at the bottom of the hill and must be pushed up again. Instead of watching one man do it himself, let us band together and help Sisyphus. Whether you interpret that as helping your Lodge and Grand Lodge grow and prosper, working to see your Lodge become relevant or making your community a better place to live is up to you. But if we each stand up, put our shoulder to the stone and help our own Sisyphus, we will most assuredly lighten the load for others and make ourselves again worthy of the name Freemason, not resting on our laurels while there is work yet to be done.

I want you to join me - not because I ask, but because you know it is the right thing to do – join me in continuing the hard work required to make this Fraternity greater so that we can look back in years to come and say not that we were part of that one year when we grew, but that we were there at the beginning of its Renaissance, the time that Freemasonry reawakened and began the long-term rise to the greatness it deserves.