Saturday, November 23, 2013

Acts of Compassion

Several years ago, Brother and Dr. Ron Marshall’s developmentally disabled daughter was flying alone from Florida to Pittsburgh. The weather was bad and the plane was experience a good bit of turbulence. She was scared. She saw another passenger wearing a ring like daddy’s, so she approached him and told him her dad and brother had the same ring and that she was afraid. She asked if she could sit with him.

Without hesitation, this man switched his seat. He spent the remainder of the flight comforting her, assuring her that the bumps were not going to hurt her, and that they would land safely. After the flight, he accompanied her all the way past security and would not release her to her brother until he had examined him and found him to be a Mason, satisfying himself that she was safe and with the right people. When I asked Brother Marshall if I could share this story with his name attached, he replied, “Absolutely. I am so proud of this Fraternity because of how it took care of her.”

Similarly, this spring, Brother Danny Custodio, a Master Mason from San Juan, Puerto Rico contacted the Grand Lodge because his mother had been involved in an automobile accident in downtown Pittsburgh. 

She called him early that morning, telling him that at 6:30 on her commute into work, her car was struck by a woman who then fled the scene. Danny’s mom was uninjured, so she pursued the woman for several blocks through Pittsburgh crowded rush hour streets (do not try this at home) until the woman finally pulled over. Once the police arrived, the woman was detained for driving under the influence. His mom assured him that she was okay, but Danny was concerned. He wanted to make sure that his mom was not downplaying the severity of the accident or her own condition. What could he do ease the helplessness when more than 1,700 miles and an ocean stood between him and his mom? He needed to know she was okay, but he had no family in Pittsburgh to help him.

Oh wait, of course he did. 

He reached out to the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania who saw to it that someone made contact with her. Brother Bob Geiger and others called and stopped by to make sure she was okay and to see if there was anything she needed. She was overwhelmed by the outpouring of concern. She was touched not only by the deep love her son had for her, but by how, as she said, “someone who doesn’t even know me, or him for that matter, would take the time to make sure I’m okay.” 

“Your son is our Brother,” she was told, “and this is what we do for each other. I know he would do the same for any of us.”

Danny was equally grateful. He was touched, though not at all surprised, that his Brothers answered his call. “[Plum Creek-Monroeville Lodge] will always have a special place in my heart for what you did for my mom and me,” he said. He added that what he referred to as a “wonderful act of compassion” now appears in the minutes of Hiram’s Disciples Lodge No. 104.

Tales like that remind me of why I love this Fraternity so much, and why the value of what we have will always far exceed what it costs us to belong. We are Master Masons. We are Brothers helping Brothers. The stories of Brothers Marshall and Custodio should remind us that we – all of us – are lucky enough to be part of a family that truly does not deem it a hardship to serve each other. As sure as I sit here, I know in my heart that those same Brothers who were shown an unexpected kindness would do the same in return when called upon. They understand that being a part of something special requires you to be special yourself.

I share these stories so that when someone asks you what’s so extraordinary about the Masons, you have yet another answer.

Freemasonry is great because time and again, individual Masons are given the chance to turn lofty ideals into noble action. It happens every day when a neighbor gets a ride to the Doctor’s office or a stranger in a parking lot is helped when her grocery bag rips open and spills its contents to the ground.

Never forget that you have the high privilege of being a part of the largest and greatest Brotherhood the world has ever known. The cost of that membership? Simply that, when and if you are fortunate enough to be able to serve one of your Brethren, you will do so willingly and to the best of your ability. 

Are you willing to pay that price?

Can you afford not to?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What's in It From Me?

I began my Masonic journey in 1997.  On that November night, I was told by someone wise, “You get out of Masonry what you put into it.” What he said made sense to me then, and on some level, fifteen years later, it still does. When I hear that said today, after having experienced so many facets of the Craft, it seems both inaccurate and inadequate.

I get the meaning that it is supposed to convey: The more we put into it, the more we can expect to get out of it.  That’s simple and it’s logical. If one does not practice his golf swing, his score on the course is not likely to improve.  In the same way, if a new Mason gets his Degrees and never again darkens the door of the Lodge, he will be ill-equipped to strengthen his character or deepen the fraternal ties with his fellow Masons. 
Let me explain, though, why I take some exception to it.

I believe that it is inaccurate, in that what you put in, (the thing), in no way resembles what you get out. You may spend dozens, even hundreds of hours over the course of several months learning to confer a degree that lasts only an hour. In return you get the supreme honor of helping another on his quest to be the best man he can be. Likewise, when you donate to Masonic charities, you give money.  What you get back is the pride in knowing that your contribution to the Masonic Children’s Home or Masonic Youth groups helps pass on the core beliefs of the Craft to the next generation. Likewise, giving to Masonic Villages helps by caring for those who came before you. As a Mason, when you give time, you may receive honor. If you give money, you may receive a sense of pride. So what you get out is not what you put in.
Next, I believe that the saying is inadequate. I firmly believe that Masonry has given me far, far more than I could ever hope to give back. I never believed (and still have a hard time comprehending) that when the blindfold was lifted from my eyes, I would find myself in the presence of an ever-widening family – Brothers who would, with equal exuberance, celebrate my joys or help me in my darkest hours. They – you – would do so without question or hope of gain. Likewise, the few hours spent mentoring a new member is paid back with a lifetime friendship. The bonds which I have forged because of Freemasonry are deep, they are genuine and they are ineffable. Did I get out what I put in? Not even close. Freemasonry has enriched me beyond my expectations.

We live in a culture that puts personal wellbeing ahead of the greater good. Volunteerism is low, and membership in religious groups and fraternal organizations has continued to decline. There are many who believe that they are indeed the “I” in “society” and as its central letter, they should be worshipped and adored. They look at service and ask, “What’s in it for me?” As Freemasons, we must look at service and ask, “What’s in it from me?”

Now is the time when Lodges should begin planning for the ensuing year. Now, therefore, is the time for you to volunteer. It doesn’t matter which Lodge you belong to, your Lodge needs you. No Lodge is so flush with volunteers, be it for the Officer Line, as a Mentor, or even the pancake breakfast committee, that you will be turned away.

Whether you are an Entered Apprentice or a three-time Past Master, consider the call to service. Dedicate yourself to becoming Worshipful Master and your Brethren will be there to help you. Mentor and you will open up the world of Freemasonry and her lessons to men eager to dedicate themselves to something good. Volunteer with the youth and strengthen the foundation upon which the next generation may build.
Will you get out of it what you put into it? Absolutely not.
And isn't that a beautiful thing?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Spring Gleanings

“Spring shows what God can do with a drab and dirty world.” ― Virgil Kraft

There really are a lot of things that I like about the winter. I love the look of new-fallen snow and the way it clings to barren branches; the way I’m forced to squint as the sun lights it up and appears to be coming from everywhere at the same time.  I love how all of the familiar sounds are muffled after a snow fall. I even find a sort of comfort and security in the extra layers of clothing that I wear. In spite of all the bad publicity it receives, I still can see a lot of good in the cold dark days of the winter.
Spring is finally here, however. Though a rodent from the 52nd Masonic District (Punxsutawney, PA is in the 52nd Masonic District of Pennsylvania) may argue the point, spring officially begins with the Vernal Equinox – literally equal night – and marks the date when the days begin to have more light than darkness.  Passover, Easter, and numerous other religious observances occur, not coincidentally, near the Equinox as it is symbolic of hope, new life, and new beginnings.
Even the land takes on a new quality. Trees and plants, which appeared to be doing nothing for months (though they were actually quite busy), are beginning to unfold their leaves or poke their heads out from under the ground.  Everything around seems to be growing, changing, evolving.
What about your Lodge? What about you? 
Think about it. As the winter came on, the Lodge shed its old leadership. The new Masters and Wardens had the winter to become accustomed to their roles. During those dormant months, new ideas had time to form, take root. Now, with the spring, they can begin the metamorphosis from thought to action. As each part of the budding plant has a role to play in seeing it reach its full beauty, so too does each Mason have a duty in helping the Lodge reach its full potential. What can you as an individual Mason do to help?  For starters, stop waiting to be asked. Let your Master know you want to lend a hand. It can be something you’re already skilled at or even something you would be willing to learn for the benefit of the Lodge.
Next to getting Lodges out of the well worn ruts of old traditions, the hardest thing for a Master to do is find bodies to see projects through. I have seen more than one Master who had great ideas and plans that he couldn’t complete because there were not enough people to help him. Lodges are a lot smaller than they were thirty years ago. In many cases, they are half the size, so that problem will get worse before it gets better. So raise your hand. Better yet, lend it.
I challenge the Lodges to reinvent themselves this year. Discard the things that don’t work.  Seek to be more involved in your community. If we seek only to take care of what’s inside these walls, no one on the outside will care if we survive. Conversely, if we become a presence in our communities, there will be men in those communities who seek a presence among us.
Brethren, I ask each of you to do one new thing for your Lodge this year. You can choose what it is, but it should be something you haven’t done before. Ask to be on an investigating committee, cook one of the meals, do the audit, or even – gasp – try something new. If you have an idea, present it to the Lodge. The best way to do that is start with a sentence like, “I’d like your permission to organize a . . . ,” rather than, “Worshipful Master, you should organize a . . .” I don’t think I need to explain why.
Masters and Officers, as spring shows what God can do with a drab and dirty world, let it also show what you can do with a sleepy and stagnant Lodge. Stir it up. Shake the snow off of its branches and work to make it bloom into something that both brightens the community and feeds the souls of its members at the same time. Most of all, work so that years from now, when the members look at your picture on the wall of Past Masters, they think, “You know, that was a great year for our Lodge.”
So mote it be.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Singular v. Plural

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.


That simple children’s tale has its origin as early as the seventeenth century, but its message is as timely for today’s adult is it was for yesterday’s child.  Its message is simple: what may seem like a little problem, if left unattended, can create dire consequences. 
I’m certain that the farrier, on finding nails in short supply, did not envision the loss of his master’s kingdom.  In fact, he probably thought that the shoe would hold just fine without the requisite number of nails.  The bucket of new nails was probably way across the village at the smith’s shop, and taking the time to make that journey would set him back in his work.  If he took that time, he wouldn’t get his work finished until after nightfall.  He would probably miss dinner and most certainly, his wife would be furious with him.  This shoe would hold just fine with three nails, he thought.
It is easy to see how this might apply to your Lodge.
On the back of every Lodge notice is a list of the Officers and Committees.  At the top of that list is the Worshipful Master.  Every other Officer and Committee member is a nail in the Lodge’s metaphorical shoe, and when one of those nails fails to perform, the Lodge suffers for it.
Either a Lodge is strong or a Lodge are weak.  My decision to use the singular and plural forms here was intentional.  A Lodge working in the singular, with unanimity, is a strong Lodge.  All the members are of the same mind. They all want what is in the Lodge’s best interest and they all work together to make it possible.  However, when a Lodge is functioning plurally, it has broken itself down into a conglomeration of individuals – each acting in his own interest, building his own power, manipulating, deliberately defying the Master or circumventing the will of the Lodge on the mistaken premise that he is the only right-thinking man there.  That Lodge is no longer a singular unit.  It is rudderless, at war with itself, and hence I would say that such a Lodge are weak.
I would ask you to consider whether your Lodge is or your Lodge are.  It’s probably fairly easy to tell.  How is your attendance?  Would all members feel that their ideas are given a fair hearing or do you have one or two people who think that it’s their Lodge and you’re simply fortunate enough to be sitting in it?  Do the Officers and members cheerfully do what is asked of them by the Master or do they make excuses, complain and deflect responsibility?
A Lodge that is functioning singularly probably would have good attendance – ten percent or better.  Their members could come before the Lodge with ideas and they would be debated in a friendly way.  Debates would be about ways to improve ideas, not sabotage them.  When asked, members would happily do whatever is in their power to help the Lodge.
Conversely, Lodges that function plurally would have more empty chairs than full ones.  Discussions would be dominated by the few personalities who feel that theirs is the only opinion that should matter.  Attempts at innovation would be squashed, and requests for help from the Master would be met with grumbling, complaints and excuses.  People would pay lip service to work, but the rolling up of sleeves would seldom be seen.
If you feel your Lodge is doing well, congratulations.  If you feel your Lodge are not doing well, there is still hope.  One of the first charges we receive as a Mason is to be obedient to the Master and other Officers.  How well are you doing that?  How well are the other members of your Lodge?
In our Opening Charge we are told that “if we are united, our Fraternity must flourish.”  How united are we?  Are there people who perpetually dissent or threaten to take their ball and go home if things aren’t done their way?  Ask them why.  Perhaps there is a problem outside of the Lodge that is driving them.  We are taught to remind our Brothers of their failings and aid their reformation.  That has to begin with a conversation. 
When you have time to reflect, ask yourself whether you are helping your Lodge to function singularly or plurally.  As Mason’s we are to strive constantly to smooth the surfaces of our ashlar.  That requires us to occasionally stop and check the progress.  In preparing this talk, I became aware of areas where I could improve both my attitude and my actions.  If that applies to you as well, I encourage you to do what you can to change.  Don’t be the farrier content with a shabbily-shod horse.  Demand the best of yourself.  Your Lodge, and more importantly, you, will be better for it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

After Us Cometh a Builder

When I was a King and a Mason -- a Master proven and skilled --
I cleared me ground for a Palace such as a King should build.
I decreed and dug down to my levels. Presently, under the silt,
I came on the wreck of a Palace such as a King had built. 

There was no worth in the fashion -- there was no wit in the plan --
Hither and thither, aimless, the ruined footings ran --
Masonry, brute, mishandled, but carven on every stone:
"After me cometh a Builder. Tell him, I too have known." 

Swift to my use in my trenches, where my well-planned ground-works grew,
I tumbled his quoins and his ashlars, and cut and reset them anew.
Lime I milled of his marbles; burned it, slacked it, and spread;
Taking and leaving at pleasure the gifts of the humble dead. 

Yet I despised not nor gloried; yet, as we wrenched them apart,
I read in the razed foundations the heart of that builder's heart.
As he had risen and pleaded, so did I understand
The form of the dream he had followed in the face of the thing he had planned. 

*   *   *   *   *
When I was a King and a Mason -- in the open noon of my pride,
They sent me a Word from the Darkness. They whispered and called me aside.
They said -- "The end is forbidden." They said -- "Thy use is fulfilled.
"Thy Palace shall stand as that other's -- the spoil of a King who shall build." 

I called my men from my trenches, my quarries, my wharves, and my sheers.
All I had wrought I abandoned to the faith of the faithless years.
Only I cut on the timber -- only I carved on the stone:
"After me cometh a Builder.  Tell him, I too have known!"

~ Brother Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s poem tells the story of king who, while he was preparing a site to build his palace, comes upon the ruins of one which had stood there in a past age; and while it was written 111 years ago, its message is still relevant to the Masons of today.
So often, we tend to look at our labors in Freemasonry as individual, unique.  We don’t view what we do for our Lodges or for the Craft at large as part of a continuum, but rather as our own little snapshot in time, an island unto itself.  As leaders, we are easily led into doing things because “we’ve always done it that way,” or dissuaded from breaking new ground because “no one came when we tried that before.”  The king in Kipling’s poem was wise though.  He seized upon the opportunity to utilize those things of value left behind, those stones marked with “After me cometh a builder. . .”
It is interesting to me that he didn’t build a carbon copy of what was there.  He stuck to his plan, but salvaged as many of the pieces of the old palace that he could, changing and repurposing them to suit his vision for the future – cutting, resetting and even grinding some to dust.
Maybe we too need to do that.  Our Lodges have gotten smaller, our attendance more sparse.  If we continue down the same path, with the same reasons (excuses may be a better term) for doing the same old things in the same tired way, we will soon be no more.
Every Lodge should hold at least one open house this year – at the least, one.  If you held one last year that didn’t bring too many people through the door, will you do it the same way this year?  I hope not.  Perhaps, you can call one of the Lodges that did well to find out what their successes were and try to build on them.  After me cometh a builder. . .
Membership is the sine qua non of the Lodge.  Without members, we have neither revenue, attendance nor, when you get right down to it, a reason to exist.  Finding and attracting well-qualified men to our doors is a challenge that we must face head-on.  We cannot save it for the next Master to attend to. It is our responsibility.
The king realized that he was not the end, but just a paragraph in the whole story.  He knew that what he was doing was as important for the now as it was for the tomorrow.  After me cometh a builder. . .
So what are we to do once we have attracted these men to our Lodges?  If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard “These guys get their degrees then we never see them again,” or “They join the Lodge so they can get to Shrine or Scottish Rite,” I would have a bad back from dragging my enormously heavy bag of nickels around.
We have tools at our fingertips to make these new Masons want to come back to Lodge.  The Mentor program, when used properly, can spark excitement in a new Mason.  He can feel that he is part of something meaningful and bigger than himself as he learns about our system of government, our Grand Lodge and the great men of our past.  The online Masonic education courses are designed so that new and old Masons alike can learn about our history, our law and or labors.
Also, the new Mason can earn the prestigious Master Builders award from the Grand Lodge by completing a series of tasks and projects both within his Lodge and his District, but the catch is that he can’t do it alone.  The Mentor program plays a large role in his eligibility, and if your Lodge isn’t using it, you’re doing those Brothers – your future – a great disservice.   After me cometh a builder . . .
We have challenges ahead of us for sure, and a lot of work on the trestleboard.  Our Lodges should continue to work together, attending and supporting each other’s programs, even holding joint events.  We can be greater than the sum of our parts if we are willing to learn from each other, refine or discard the things that are holding us back and boldly strive to offer new and exciting events for Masons and their families. 
After us cometh a builder.  Tell him we too have known.