Friday, May 11, 2012

Companions On My Journey

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn't make any sense.

Rumi, Tr. Coleman Barks

Tonight is the final Official Visit of the 2012 season. When I get to this point in the year, I often begin to reflect on what I have written and delivered to you thus far, usually in an effort not to repeat myself. What I have found interesting is that each year some sort of theme usually presents itself. That has never been my goal, mind you, just a manifestation of where my soul is, and what, if anything, it compels me to write about. It is evident to me that this year, my soul has been on a journey of reflection.

I have tried to use this platform to challenge all of you, as well as myself to come to a better understanding of who we are, of why we believe the things we believe and why we do the things we do.  My hope has always been that you leave either inspired, challenged, invigorated, called to action or some combination of those.

Each and every time I sit at my desk and begin what is occasionally the easy, but oftentimes proves to be the daunting task of writing a talk that seeks to do those things, I start by reflecting.  I try to sit quietly and listen to that place in my chest which is constantly seeking light.  I guess if I were completely honest, I write for me.  I write to organize my thoughts, discover who I am, work through my problems, fears and inadequacies and hope that by doing so, the conclusions I come to will empower me to change what needs to be changed and to reinforce whatever I find to be acceptable.

Tonight’s blessedly brief talk is my way of saying thank you.  Thank you all for being my sounding board and for helping me to smooth my extremely rough ashlar.  Thank you for a season of Official Visits that have been incredibly enjoyable, uplifting and memorable.  We have laughed, we have cried.  We have shared things that can only be shared within the walls of a Masonic Lodge.

I have finally come to realize that you, my beloved Brothers, are Light.  This peace, the blessed joy of Masonic fellowship, is what my soul craves.  I look around at your faces and realize I would know virtually none of you if not for this bond.  I would bet that does not just apply to me.  Masonry is the sine qua non of most of the friendships here.  Perhaps some of us would have met by chance through business or family or some other way, but without the gentle spirit of the Craft pulling at our common need for understanding, we certainly would not know each other as well or as deeply as we do right now.

If you feel the same way, I ask you simply to do one thing.  Use the Masonic silence of the summer to rededicate yourself to the Craft.  Return this fall with renewed energy and a commitment to action.  Bring a man to your open house.  Bring two.  Volunteer.  Be an ambassador.  Listen to that part of your soul that is yearning to be part of something great, and nourish it.

Thank you all for traveling with me this year.  I am incredibly blessed to be your District Deputy Grand Master.  I have learned and I have grown both as a man and a Mason and I hope the same can be said for each of you.  I appreciate you having shared your light with me and listening while I shared mine. 

As my own words for how deeply I feel seem inadequate, I will close tonight as I opened, with the beautiful words of Rumi. . .

Those with no energy have gone.
You that remain, do you know
who you are? How many? 

Can you look at a fountain and become water?
Can you recognize the great self
and so enjoy your individual selves? 

Do you run from joy?
Perhaps the lion
should not flee the fox.

Let your loving and your soul
burn up in this candle.
Let a new life come. 

The friend is at the door.
You are the lock his key fits. 
You are a piece of candy,

the choice words of a poem,
the friend and the swallow
of silence here at the end.

Thank you for coming on my journey.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Man for Others

On May 8th, I visited Tyrian Lodge No. 644.  The evening was absolutely wonderful.  Over 150  Masons packed into Plum Creek-Monroeville Lodge to see Brother Byrl J. Johnson, Regional Instructor, receive his Fifty Year Service Emblem.  Brother Byrl has labored tirelessly for Freemasonry and is a mentor to so many of us.  His love for the Fraternity was the inspiration for my address that evening.

A Man for Others

"What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone? How else can we put ourselves in harmonious relation with the great verities and consolations of the infinite and the eternal?” ~ Brother Winston Churchill

Freemasons are seekers – seekers of wisdom and of truth.  We seek justice, peace and equality.  We crave understanding.  The principles of Geometry, which form the architecture of our basic teachings were developed as a way to understand.  To understand nature, to find order in what seems at first glance to be chaos; and by finding that order, come to a better understanding of the nature of the Divine.

The Craft has always tried to put itself – as Brother Churchill so eloquently stated – “in harmonious relation with the great verities and consolations of the infinite and eternal.”   From the days of Pythagoras, whose teachings and discoveries form the foundation of much of our work, man has sought to commune with the Great Architect by gaining understanding of all that He has created.

The Masonic path – the quest to find one’s best self – is by necessity one that must be traveled alone.  There are two ironies in that.  First, while it is a solo journey, it cannot be taken without guides.   There is the guide who brings you into and through your Masonic Lodge and then, if you are lucky, there are other souls – kindred spirits – who open you to a greater understanding of yourself and of Freemasonry.

The other irony is that, through this personal formation – this incredibly self-involved act – one finds himself changed into a Man for Others. 

I have said before that the world needs Freemasonry because Freemasons are good, kind people.  We look to ease the burdens of others, to teach, to support and to improve everything that is in our power.  We are not perfect.  We make mistakes – sometimes large ones – but we endeavor at every turn to learn from them and to help teach others not to make the same ones.

As I look around this room tonight, I can honestly say that it is full of my personal mentors, Men for Others.  Some are role models of leadership and dignity, of character and right action.  Others are teachers who expect and accept nothing but my best.  Others still are spiritual friends whose hearts and souls emit a light that helps keep me on my path.  Each of us has someone like that.  He may be sitting next to you or he may have laid aside his working tools.  You may be that man to someone else in this room whether you’re aware of it or not.

I’d like to read a poem entitled “The Bridge Builder” by Will Allen Dromgoole.

An old man, going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep, and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.

The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.

"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim, near,
"You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again will pass this way;
You've crossed the chasm, deep and wide-
Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?"

The builder lifted his old gray head:
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
"There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.

This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.

After we close this meeting, we will be honoring some within our ranks by presenting Fifty Year Service Emblems.  Each of them has been a Bridge Builder for us.  Without them, and without the ones who came before them, this Fraternity would not be here for us.  They have labored, in their own manner, to shore up our foundation and ensure our future success.  They are Men for Others.

We need emulate these men.  We need to be willing to shoulder whatever burdens come our way, be it raising money for Masonic Charities, leading our Lodges, being ambassadors of the Craft and attracting new men or simply as a laborer who pays his dues and quietly wears the badge of Freemason.

As we leave this sanctuary tonight and go back into a world that is strikingly at odds with the peace we feel within these walls, we must each take what we have learned on our personal journeys and vow to use it in a very public way.  Be like your mentors and “make this muddled world a better place for those who live in it after we’re gone.”  In short, be a Man for Others.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Growing Down

This address was delivered at Infinity Lodge No. 546 on March 14, 2012.  Infinity Lodge is in the process of merging Penn Brotherhood Lodge No. 635 into theirs.  The new Lodge will be a combination of ten previous Lodges.  While this is in many ways a sad commentary on the realities of modern life and the competition for a man's time, Infinity Lodge is one of the most charitable and caring Lodges around.  My Vist there, as it always does, energized and uplifted my soul.

Growing Down 

I find you there in all these things
I care for like a brother.
A seed, you nestle in the smallest of them,
and in the huge ones spread yourself hugely.

Such is the amazing play of the powers:
they give themselves so willingly,
swelling in the roots, thinning as the trunks rise,
and in the high leaves, resurrection.
Rilke, The Book of Hours I, 2

I chose that poem as the epigraph for this talk with the intention of using the growth of a tree as a metaphor for a Masonic Lodge.  I read it, reread it, leaned back at my desk and searched the sky for inspiration, or at least a starting point. 
I started searching for new poems and new stories to inspire me.
Then finally it hit me.  The tree would really be quite a good symbol for a Masonic Lodge if. . .  
If it grew backward.
If each individual Mason was a leaf that stood on its own and the gentle wind of commonality blew us all together, would not that Mystic Tie of our Brotherhood begin to connect us twig by twig?  Small groups of men would join for the common purpose of self-improvement.  As those men met others nearby, they might realize that connecting their branches into a common trunk would give them strength and stability – support for the work that Masons do.  That trunk would put down roots, weaving itself into the ground of the community in which it wants to grow and to which it wants to give protection, shade and comfort.
That’s what I see happening here.  Over the last 100 years or so the branches called Braddock’s Field, Fort Pitt, Homewood, Delta, Justice, Penn, Fox Chapel, Duquesne, Beta and Swissvale Lodges are now poised to be one great tree right here in Penn Hills.  That tree – this Lodge – brings shelter to the school that it neighbors, shade and comfort to those in need and support to the Charities of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
To continue the metaphor, once our tree has established roots, it must feed to grow.  That food can come in the form of new members.  Each Lodge this year will be required to hold an open house.  Opening our doors to those who know nothing about Freemasonry, what we stand for or the good works we do, is one simple way to attract men of good character who want to make themselves better.  At the Pennsylvania Masonic Congress held in March, a survey was taken and the number one reason those men listed for joining a Lodge was that men they admired were already Masons.  We need to open our doors so that we may inspire others to join our ranks.
Once they have entered, we must teach them.  We need to begin to see the Master/Apprentice relationship as more than allegorical.  We must use the Mentor Program developed by Grand Lodge to impress upon the newest Brother our history, our ideals and our mission.
The Online Education program of the Grand Lodge allows all Pennsylvania Masons to take classes on Masonic Law, History of the Craft and the Mentor program with new classes to be added soon.  Each of you should sign up that you might be better equipped to tell a non Mason friend why you’re proud to be a Freemason.
The Grand Master’s theme for his term is “Freemasons: Master Builders. Building for our Future.”   He has given us many ways to nourish our trees.  The Grand Master’s Award for the Lodges who earnestly attempt to make themselves better, the Master Builder’s Award for new Masons who complete a list of items designed to make them active, educated and useful members of the Lodge as well as the other tools I mention above are all food to help our hungry plant thrive.  In return we are asked to do some hard work.  We have been asked to donate funds to the Library and Museum this year and the Masonic Children’s Home next year.  We are expected to open our doors and become beacons in our community where good men gather to do great things.  In short we are tasked with being good Masons.
I would like to close with a poem by Rumi.  To me, it illustrates the connectedness that we all must have to those around us and how that connectedness – like our tree - can lift us all into greatness.
How does part of the world leave the world?
How can wetness leave water?
Don't try to put out a fire by throwing on
more fire. Don't wash a wound with blood.

No matter how fast you run, your shadow
more than keeps up. Sometimes it's in front.
Only full, overhead sun diminishes your shadow.

But that shadow has been serving you.
What hurts you blesses you.

Darkness is your candle.
Your boundaries are your quest.

I can explain this, but it would break the glass cover
on your heart, and there is no fixing that.

You must have shadow and light source both.
Listen, and lay your head under the tree of awe.

When from that tree, feathers and wings
sprout on your soul, be quieter than a dove.
Don't open your mouth for even a cooooo.
~ Tr. Coleman Barks

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Better Than I Deserve

Every day, I feel blessed to be part of this Fraternity.  I feel even more blessed that I have been given the chance to be District Deputy Grand Master for the diverse and incredibly caring group of men that make the 54th District.  I confess, however, that sometimes I forget how lucky I am.  I delivered the following talk at Plum Creek-Monroeville Lodge, my home Lodge, on Tuesday night.  They help me remember sometimes that life truly is:

Better Than I Deserve

One of the duties of the Office of District Deputy Grand Master is the presentation of 50 Year Service Emblems.  I consider it the highest honor to be able to present those pins and personally thank my Masonic elders for being part of the continuum of Freemasonry.
It is also a high honor for each of us to listen as those recipients try to condense 50 years of service to the Craft into a few sentences.  At last month’s Visit to Penn Brotherhood Lodge, one of the recipients described his membership in the following way:
“You know,” he started, “when people say to me, ‘How are you doing today,’ I used to tell them I was fine or great, but now I feel I’m finally old enough now to reply, ‘Better than I deserve.’”
Better than I deserve.
That struck a chord with me that night, and as I looked around the room, I could see that it did the same for many.  So often we become complacent about the things around us, the people around us.  We take for granted that they are there and that we have somehow earned title to them.  Society speaks of entitlements.  The television tells us what we need -  or more accurately - what we just can’t live without.
As soon as that Brother finished speaking, I hurried for my notebook and wrote down that phrase, “better than I deserve.”  The next day, I sat at the computer with the intention of writing my talk for the next night's Official Visit around that idea.  The words just weren’t there yet, so I decided to tuck that away for awhile somewhere in the back of my mind.  I resolved to spend a little time trying to figure out what it meant to be better than I deserved.
From a scientific standpoint, in order to determine if something was better than I deserved, I would first have to discover what it is that I truly did deserve.  That prospect terrified me.
We are imperfect people.  We meet as Freemasons to try and perfect ourselves, fully realizing the futility of such an effort.  We come, nonetheless, and for a time strive to reach a place where we feel worthy of some of what has been given us.
If I am honest, I could be a better son, Brother, friend, loved one, teacher, student or any of the other myriad roles I play in my life.  I could listen more and talk less.  I could love more deeply, be more understanding, more empathetic.  Less judgmental.  I think we all could.
Take King David.  He was not exactly the perfect man.  He was a warrior, and a schemer.  He murdered his friend so that he could steal his wife.  In fact, he probably broke all of the Commandments.  In spite of all of that, he was chosen and beloved by God. 
David realized that what he had was better than he deserved, so he chose to honor God by building a Temple.   The Temple was, of course, built by Solomon, his son, but it was nevertheless, David’s recognition of God’s abundant grace that was the impetus for its construction.
So what are we as the allegorical heirs to that grand edifice doing with the gift we have?  Are we doing something every day in Masonry to be deserving of what this Fraternity has to offer?  Young men now get reduced dues and initiation fees if they are enrolled in school.  Have you asked a young man to take advantage of that?  Have you volunteered in your community as a Mason?  Are you going to help at your Lodge’s open house?  Have you reached out to a Brother in need?  Have you helped someone who needed it without waiting for them to ask?  Are you an ambassador for Freemasonry in all you do?  I would suspect that precious few could answer all of those questions affirmatively.  I know I cannot.
Each of us is richly blessed, and whether we are each in a place in our lives to fully appreciate that or not, we need be thankful for the gifts we have been given.  We must be grateful for those who love us, and love them back as deeply as our hearts allow - never holding any of it back.  We must be thankful for our Brothers and supply their needs to the best of our abilities, and finally, we must cherish the gift that is Freemasonry by being good stewards.  Just as I thank those who came before me for making this possible for me, I hope to one day stand before a room full of Masons much younger than me and know that I did my part to keep this Fraternity vibrant, healthy and alive for those yet to come.
I have no idea if what I have said tonight has touched any of you.  I don’t know if you’ll leave here feeling inspired to action.  I have not a clue if any of you feel lucky to be a Mason.  What I do know, however, is that the next time someone asks me how I’m doing, I will respond with the answer. . . Better than I deserve.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Run the Whole Race

This talk was delivered tonight at my Official Visit to Valley Lodge No. 613.  Whether you are a Mason or not, there are important lessons that can be taken away.  Giving up at the end, or deciding to settle for the waiting room of mediocrity because busting down the door of excellence seems daunting, ulitmately leads to regret.  Feel free to comment.

Run the Whole Race

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. ~ Theodore Roosevelt

We have all heard the inspiring story about the young football player who, when his team was down by 3, with no time left on the clock, miraculously broke free from the line of scrimmage.  He had no one between him and the goal line and no chance of being caught.  The young man looked over his shoulder, saw that victory was his and took a knee at the one yard line losing the game. 
What about the heartwarming story of the runner who ran 26 miles, 284 yards of the marathon and gave up with three feet left to the finish line, or the winner of the Indy 499.9?
Who remembers those stories?  That’s right.  No one does.  No one wants to remember quitters.  No one erects statues to the near-finishers of races.   The people who earn glory, who get to bask in the glow of a life well-lived, are the ones who finish the tasks laid out before them, the ones they set out to do. 
Most of us are familiar with Brother Theodore Roosevelt’s quote.  In his Man in the Arena speech, he tells the listener that it is okay to try and fail.  He suggests that mistakes are not only acceptable, but expected, “because there is not effort without error and shortcomings.”   Nowhere does he ever suggest that it is okay to give up.
So to be clear, I’m not saying that losing a game or failing to finish a race is shameful.  I am simply here to ask you: Are you, as a Mason, making your best effort both for yourself and your Lodge?  What have you, personally, done to bring a new man to the Craft?  What have you done to see that none go away dissatisfied?  Tonight this Lodge was prepared to suspended 38 of your Brothers.  Does that make you happy?  Do you all feel that you have done your best?  Or do you think that perhaps you could have done better as a Lodge and as a Brother.
Here is what I found out today:  Brother W. (names omitted for privacy) and his two sons are having a hard time right now.  One of the boys suffered a back injury and is uninsured.  Now a 38 year member of the Lodge thought he had to choose between putting food on the table and paying for dues cards for himself and his sons.  He is a proud man and proud to be a Freemason, so much so that he asked his sons to join.  How do I know?  I called him.  I didn’t get through the first time, so I called him again because he matters.  The best part of that is, through our conversation - and because someone offered him the hand of friendship, he now knows he matters.
Brother F. is in medical isolation.  He has, in his words, “kicked cancer’s butt” twice and is currently undergoing blood transfusions for multiple myeloma.  His doctors don’t allow him to answer the phone, but he snuck a call back to me to ask not to be suspended.  With a voice trembling to fight back tears, he told me that he would never want to give up his membership in his Lodge.  With all that was going on to his body, he was worried that remitting his dues for another year would be hard on the Lodge.  He needs our prayers, Brethren, but we were willing to turn our backs on him, satisfied that one or two phone calls was the best effort we could make.
I know I usually stand before you and give you words of encouragement, and I ask you to take tonight’s talk as just that.  Please do not walk away from here thinking you were chastised, but rather that you were challenged.  If you squirmed in your seat, resolve to be better.  If you broke out in a sweat, vow to change your behavior.  Masonry is, at its core, a journey of self-improvement. 
The simple truth about Lodge sustainability is that our numbers matter.  More than that, however, Brotherhood should matter.  We should never be happy with letting a Brother walk out the door.  The loss of any one of us diminishes the whole.   This Lodge was ready to potentially turn away not only $3,800 in revenue, but men.  Brothers who are tied to us by Oaths we took to help, aid and assist.  Are we doing that regularly?
Are you, the Members, more especially those of you who are wearing the badges of leadership, doing every single thing you can to make your Lodge grow?  Do you simply what is expected, or do you do what is needed?  If you were Brother F. or Brother W. or one of the many others whose story is not completely known, how would you want your Fraternity to respond?  Be that kind of Brother.
We can do better.
Ask yourself tonight, would you rather find a way to be faintly satisfied in the dim, gray gloaming of a life half-lived or bask in the glorious meridian sun of triumph, content in the knowledge that you had given your all, run the race, done the deed and earn your place with others of whom it may be said done their all at all times?
The choice, my Brothers, is yours.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Managing the Trestleboard: Work Is Worship

On February 16th, I made my Official Visit to Forbes Trail Lodge No. 783.  We had about seventy Members brave the chilling rain to be part of an evening of fellowship.  The Worshipful Master was unable to be there.  Consequently, the junior Officers had to advance Stations and perform a little harder.  I was proud of them all for doing so well under the stresses of an Official Visit.  
My remarks for the evening follow.

Managing the Trestleboard: Work Is Worship

Nothing will work unless you do.
~Maya Angelou

Every two years, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania installs a new Grand Master who brings to the Craft his vision of how we should best direct our labors that our Fraternity may both shore up its foundation as well as beautify and grow its edifice. All too often, we concentrate on one or the other of those things, but an impressive structure cannot stand without a strong foundation. And, let’s face it, a foundation alone is nothing to look at.

When standing in a metropolitan city, one often forgets, as he gazes upward at the marvelous skyscrapers, that underneath of those skyscrapers is a support structure that is buried deep in the earth to support them. No matter how grand the plan, if it is not built on a secure foundation – one anchored deep into the bedrock – it will not stand the test of time.

This year, Grand Master Jay W. Smith has put plans upon our Trestleboard that, if properly carried out, will both strengthen the foundation of our Fraternity as well as add to the grand edifice that Freemasonry rightly is to the world.

To strengthen our structure at the Lodge level, he has continued the Grand Master’s Award for the Lodges. Points are awarded to Lodges for increase in membership, increase in meeting attendance, use of the Call to the Craft and Mentor programs, attendance at other Lodges, charitable giving, Officer participation in the Warden and Secretary Seminars and a variety of other criteria. What does each of these have in common? They seek to make each Lodge stronger by fostering fellowship, communication and work among the Brethren. Will it be easy to receive the award? No. But what kind of award would it be if it was given out cheaply and not purchased with a little hard work?

I will be meeting with the Worshipful Masters this weekend and detailing the program. I expect each Lodge to either achieve the award, or fail while striving valiantly. There is no shame in not receiving the award. There is, however, shame in not even trying.

This year, each Lodge will be required to hold an open house. It may be held alone or in conjunction with other Lodges in the District. I will be asking the Worshipful Masters to provide the dates to me and we will coordinate a print ad for the District to publicize the event. This is an excellent opportunity to show the outside world what Freemasonry is about. We have so much to offer to men, both young and old, who are yearning to be part of something greater than themselves. We need to open our doors and show them the good works we do for the community as well as what we can teach them about being their best selves.

We will again be holding a One Day Class. This year it will be on September 29, 2012 at the Greater Pittsburgh Masonic Center. The format will be the same as in the previous years. Those men that come to the open houses can either join in the traditional way or through the One Day Class as their schedules and consciences dictate.

To help metaphorically ornament the edifice of Freemasonry, the Grand Master has begun a Masonic Online Education Program. Courses are currently offered on Masonic History, Masonic Law and the Mentor Program with many more to be made available shortly. These classes are user-friendly and are designed to educate Masons – both new and old – on the workings and history of the Craft.

For men joining now, there is a Master Builder’s award. New Masons must fulfill a series of required tasks including attending a Stated and Extra meeting of their Lodge as well as a youth event and an Official Visit, serving as a greeter, assisting in fundraising and completion of the Mentor program. It is critical then, that the Mentor Program be used within the Lodge. If a Lodge does not participate, you will deprive the new Masons of the opportunity of receiving the award.

There is a full Trestleboard before you Brethren. The Grand Master has traced the plans he believes will help us build for the future.

Be ever mindful that the largest skyscrapers need enormous foundations to soar to their impressive heights. Do not forget that what you see rising above you is anchored by solid concrete hundreds of feet deep. Both are necessary, both are important, and each of you is part of the magnificent structure we call Freemasonry.

It is said that all work is worship. Whether you find your labor in the brute work of digging and strengthening the foundation or in the fine and meticulous detail work of the great fa├žade, know that it is vital to the overall success of our endeavor and do it well. Offer your best, and encourage your Brethren to do the same. Help us build for the future of Freemasonry.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Pillars of Cloud and Fire: The First GPS

My first Official Visit of 2012 was held at Bethel Lodge No. 789 last night.  I had the great honor of presenting Fifty Year Service Emblems to three members of the Lodge.  One of them journeyed from Columbus, Ohio to receive the award. 
I have missed the fellowship that these Visits afford me.  Though there is work involved, my soul is refreshed. 
My address to the Brethren follows.  Feel free to respond with your thoughts.

Pillars of Cloud and Fire: The First GPS

Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue. - Buddha

The Book of Exodus in the Bible tells the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian captivity. The Lord promised that he would guide the Israelites to the Promised Land by appearing as a pillar of cloud by day and as a pillar of fire by night. The Israelites did not have a map, they did not know their final destination and they did not know the route that lay before them, but with Pharaoh’s army at their back, they set off on their journey with the trust that they would be delivered. The Pillars were, in essence, the first GPS.

There are many challenges that face our Fraternity. Some are challenges from within, and others are challenges from without. How we meet these challenges will, in no small way, affect our future both at the Lodge level as well as the Fraternity as a whole. Would it not be wonderful, then, if we had a GPS to guide our Lodges and our Fraternity to prosperity, higher meeting attendance, increased membership or some other destination or goal that we would like to reach?

The beauty of a GPS is that it makes it possible to set off on a journey of several hundred miles to an unfamiliar destination without even looking at a map or planning a route. The machine does all the work. Ironically, the terror of a GPS is that it makes it possible to set off on a journey of several hundred miles to an unfamiliar destination without even looking at a map or planning a route. As I have traveled to various Lodges around the state or through areas that are wholly unfamiliar, I have thought about how utterly lost I would be if my GPS decided to utter its last direction at that moment; I have no doubt that the Israelites felt much the same way.

Our new Grand Master, Jay W. Smith, has implemented programs that will help the Lodges reach some of their goals. He has made it easier for men who have been suspended to return to the Fraternity by streamlining the process and forgiving the dues that were in arrears. He has made it more affordable for young men to join by reducing the initiation fees and dues for men ages 18-23 who are enrolled in college. He has continued the Grand Master’s Award for Lodges who meet a series of goals with regard to attendance, growth, community service, mentoring and several other factors. This award will serve as a GPS of sorts to help the leaders of the Lodges guide the Lodges to a state of vibrancy, prosperity and relevance.

To help the individual Mason, the Grand Master has started the Master Builder certification for new Masons. The cornerstone of the program is the new online Masonic Internet Education Program. Currently courses are available for Masonic Law, History and the Mentor Program. They are self guided and have quizzes to mark your progress. I would encourage everyone here to avail himself of this great tool to become a more educated Freemason.

There’s a funny quirk in my GPS system, and I’m sure that many of you have experienced it too. Sometimes it takes me on one route to my chosen destination and a completely different route home. As I choose to take the route that I’m more familiar with, Jill (that’s what I call her) will get irritated with me and try to get me to see things her way. At every opportunity, she will try to have me make my way back to her chosen path or even to make a u-turn – only when it’s safe of course, because she really does care about me.

Lodges can be a lot like that too. There are a myriad of ideas about how to best run a Lodge and there is usually no shortage of less-than-bashful people to tell the Master and Wardens that they have deviated from the chosen route. If you are the leader, you have to be confident that the plan you have chosen will work. If you are one of the less-than-bashful people who think you know a better way, you have to be more willing to suggest than to command.

If we are to succeed as an organization, it is important that the Brethren unite with their Worshipful Masters, the Masters with the District and the District with the Grand Lodge. It is through unity that we can accomplish great things.

Whether you are called to be a leader or called to be a laborer, what you do for Freemasonry is important. You may not be a great Ritualist or aspire to the East, but you may be an ambassador.

As I was organizing my thoughts for this talk, it occurred to me that Freemasonry itself is sort of a GPS – we can even call it a Guiding Principal System. The tenets of Freemasonry, when coupled with the tenets of an individual’s Faith, can help guide a man to be the best he can be as a father or son, a citizen, leader, and – forgive the pun – a pillar in his community. The man you are, and the virtue you show in your everyday life, may inspire someone to knock at the West Gate of our Temple. Your participation, therefore – in whatever form it takes – is essential to the success of the Craft. There is another Buddhist saying that a drop of water is a small thing, but it will not dry away if united as a lake.

In today’s world, we do not have a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire to guide us. What we do have as Freemasons is our individual faith and the working tools of the Craft to act as our GPS – our Guiding Principal System – to help make ourselves, our communities, and our Lodges the best we can be. I challenge each of you to begin that journey tonight.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Brief Meditation

This address was delivered on May 23, 2011 at Lodge Ad Lucem No. 812, our Traditional Observance Lodge.  I chose this format as a way to encourage discussion afterward at the Agape Feast.

Disclaimer: I in no way hold myself to be a literary expert.  I am not a Rumiologist, but rather a Rumiphile.  The views expressed here are my own and based solely on the emotions and thoughts evoked by my reading of the poem.  If you read the poem and have other insights, please feel free to share them in the comments section below.

As I have been preparing these papers for publication on The Point Within a Circle, I realize that I quite often (nearly constantly) quote Rumi.  I am of two minds on this.  Part of me feels that I need to broaden my stable of quotable poets, as there are so many great ones from which to choose.  The other part - obviously the one that is winning - feels that there is such a gold mine of elegant and simple metaphors and life lessons within his words that I should mine it until the lode is gone.  Every reading and re-reading (and there have been countles re-readings) opens something new to me.  When I finish reading, I am always left with a fresh question, and occasionally, if I'm lucky, the shadow of an answer...

In the Arc of Your Mallet

Don't go anywhere without me.
Let nothing happen in the sky apart from me,
or on the ground, in this world or that world,
without my being in its happening.

Vision, see nothing I don't see.
Language, say nothing.
The way the night knows itself with the moon,
be that with me. Be the rose
nearest to the thorn that I am.

I want to feel myself in you when you taste food,
in the arc of your mallet when you work,
when you visit friends, when you go
up on the roof by yourself at night.

There is nothing worse than to walk out along the street
without you. I don't know where I'm going.
You are the road and the knower of roads,
more than maps, more than love.

That poem by the Persian poet Rumi, while written hundreds of years prior to what we think of as the beginning of Craft Masonry, captures what I believe is the essence of what we as Freemasons are constantly seeking: a reconnection with the Divine.

While an individual’s reasons for seeking our Fraternity and the Light it can offer is as variable as the weather, the message that he will receive and the lessons he will learn – assuming that he applies himself – are changeless.

When stripped of all its trappings, the essential message of Freemasonry is the search for perfection and a connection with the Divine.  Each and every working tool, every ornament or jewel within the Lodge and even the allegory of the Master Mason’s degree speak in some way to the loss of or hunt for perfection.

In tonight’s brief meditation, I want to read the stanzas of the poem and allow you to apply them to your profession as a Freemason.  Tonight I will ask questions rather than supply answers.  Tonight, you will work upon your own Trestleboards. 

Don't go anywhere without me.

Let nothing happen in the sky apart from me,

or on the ground, in this world or that world,

without my being in its happening.

To whom is the poet speaking?  What is he asking for?  What would you be willing to do to have that kind of connection with your God?

Vision, see nothing I don't see.

Language, say nothing.

The way the night knows itself with the moon,

be that with me. Be the rose

nearest to the thorn that I am.

Is there a reason that the poet chose vision and language as the first two symbols?  Is there a Masonic connection between vision and language?  Can it be said that a cathedral or great edifice is itself a prayer to Deity?  What is the connection between how the night knows itself with the moon and how a man can better know himself by Freemasonry?

I want to feel myself in you when you taste food,

in the arc of your mallet when you work,

when you visit friends, when you go

up on the roof by yourself at night.

In this stanza, God is given very human qualities.  He eats, works, socializes and relaxes.  Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if we feel that He is present with us when we do those things.  Are we bringing our best selves to our Agapes?  Our labors within the quarries of the Craft?  What about our relationships with our Brothers?
As men who are seeking Light – more accurately, knowledge – is there anything worse than not knowing or understanding your God?  Can we be sure of anything without the help of “the road and the knower of roads?”
Those questions are not necessarily meant to be answered out loud.  I do not have the answers and I most assuredly do not have your answers, but take a little time to reflect on those lines.
Perhaps a poem that is over 800 years old can help you be a better man and Freemason today.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Going the Extra Mile - or 26.2

This address was given on May 10, 2011 at my Official Visit to Valley Lodge No. 613.  Rather than edit the text and tense, I chose to leave the address as it was delivered that evening.

Going the Extra Mile - or 26.2

Ability is what you are capable of doing.
Motivation determines what you do.
Attitude determines how well you do it.
--Lou Holtz

Four days, 10 hours and 30 minutes from now, I will be standing with 15,000 other people at the start line of the Pittsburgh Marathon waiting anxiously for the gun to sound, signaling the beginning of my journey through the streets and neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.  Measured purely in distance, it is 26 miles and 385 yards of running.  Measured in preparation, it is 500 miles through snow, rain, wind, heat and whatever else nature cares to throw my way on any given day, it is sheets of Moleskin to ease blisters, 40 hours of last minute physical therapy for a knee that hates me a little bit for what I’m asking it to do, it is the mental preparation necessary to suffer and push through the last miles when every fiber of your body is begging you to quit.  I know that many of you have heard me talk ad nauseum about this and you may all be thankful when I move on to a new subject.  Marathon running is not necessarily for everyone, but there are lessons we can all learn from what it takes to train and complete one.
I noticed something interesting as I was training for this race.  When I took my first fifteen mile run, the last mile was difficult.  When I took my eighteen mile run, mile fifteen was easy, but again the last mile was difficult.  Same with my twenty mile run – eighteen was not difficult, but the last mile was miserable.  Now, I cannot say that in the seven days between each of those runs, I got in markedly better shape.  So why is it that the last mile of the run, regardless of the length, is such a struggle?  Why is going the extra mile – or in this case, the last mile – so daunting?
T. Alan Armstrong said, “Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it,” and whether we are talking about running a marathon, running a Lodge or making yourself into the best man and Mason you can be, that is true.
Each of you sitting here has inherited a great treasure – that of the name Freemason.  Each of you then, is required to do something to be worthy of that name.  Not everyone is called to be a Lodge Officer, or a Ritualist, and it is not necessary for each of us to play every role in the Lodge for it to be successful.  Your role may be Ambassador.  You may attend regularly, or even not-so-regularly, but you wear your lapel pin with pride and you act like a Mason wherever you go so that the world knows we are good because YOU are good.  A commitment to practicing the tenets of Freemasonry makes them a natural part of you.  You must always go the extra mile to live and act in a way that preserves our reputation as a fraternity of fine and upstanding men.  If your calling within the Craft is to be an Officer, you must prepare for it by learning your work, choosing men to support you, scheduling exciting programs and giving the men who you lead a reason to want to come to Lodge.  The extra mile you must run is committing the time necessary to lay the groundwork for a year as Worshipful Master.  Just like the physical conditioning a runner must have, preparing in advance helps make success achievable.
If you feel called to be a Ritualist – and let us make no mistake – this Lodge, and most Lodges could use more Ritualists – you must not look at it as a daunting and unreachable task, but one that can be prepared for properly over time.  It may seem as daunting to you as the task that is before me on Sunday, but with hard work, determination and practice, nearly every one of you that wants to learn to confer our degrees certainly can.
So what is the reward for going the extra mile?  What can proper planning and execution do for seemingly impossible tasks?
Right Worshipful Grand Master, Thomas K. Sturgeon, came into office having seen fifty consecutive years of decline in membership.  He recognized the critical importance of reversing that trend.  He stood at a starting line nearly 18 months ago and had an imposing task ahead of him, but when the gun sounded, he fixed his mind on a goal and did not stop fighting until it had been reached.  Last year our membership grew.  Was it a massive expansion?  No.  But compared to the usual loss of approximately 3,000, a net gain of 450 was phenomenal.  It did not happen on its own.  It was the result of years and months and hours of preparation and of all of us going the extra mile to see his vision achieved.
This year we will again be holding a One Day Journey.  If you have a son or grandson, father or grandfather, nephew, uncle, neighbor or coworker that you believe would be a good Mason, ask him to join.  Tell him you think enough of him to have invited him to be a part of the greatest Fraternity in the history of the world.
I know you have all been asked to do a lot.  You were asked by the Grand Master last year to raise funds for the Masonic Villages.  I have asked you to raise at least $2,000 for the Masonic Youth.  I am happy to report that my Marathon for Masonic Youth is on its way to raising at least that much.  As of this afternoon, I have had $1798.79 contributed by individuals, Masons and non Masons who recognize the important mission of the Pennsylvania Masonic Youth Foundation as well as the good work of Pitcairn Rainbow Assembly and Lincoln Chapter, Order of DeMolay.  My work is not finished, I feel like I can exceed the original goal.  I would love to be able to say to myself as I run that every mile I run will earn $100 for the Youth.  That means we need to work a little harder.  You can help me by donating tonight – I accept both cash and checks – or you can visit the District Web Page and connect to the secure Paypal site and donate that way.  I ask you all to be benevolent as we are taught here in the Craft.  Help me go the extra mile – or extra 26 miles, 385 yards to build and grow our youth groups.  If our finish line as Masons is making a better world for all, then the youth is where we must start.  Editor's Note: The goal set that evening was, to say the least, exceeded.  As I lined up at the start line, I knew that each mile I ran would bring over $267 to our Masonic Youth!  I am, to this very minute, humbled by the outpouring of generosity by my friends and Brothers.  Thank you all.
It has been said that every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up and it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed.  Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up, it knows that it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve.  It doesn't matter whether you're a lion or a gazelle, just that when the sun comes up you'd better be running.
Your personal goal may be to run a marathon, run a Lodge or improve yourself and the world in which you live.  Whatever race you find yourself in, run it.