Sunday, April 6, 2014

Seven Deadly Cynics

I can be cynical sometimes. My guess is that none of you who knows me personally just gasped at that revelation. In my own defense, my cynicism is born from the fact that it can sometimes make people laugh, and I enjoy making people laugh. Again, no one gasped. The problem is that just as a good attitude can be contagious, so can a bad one.

In a Masonic context, cynicism wears many faces, and the damage that it causes can range from something as seemingly harmless as depleting the energy and excitement of the members to the total destruction of the Lodge. There are several different kinds of cynics that you are likely to spot in your Masonic travels. I’m sure there are far more than seven, but I stopped there so I could make use of clever wordplay in the title of this column. (Remember, I like to be funny sometimes.) I will not try to explain what motivates each of these cynics; I will leave that to the psychologists. I will, however, try to offer ways to combat those attitudes

It will never work. The Brother who comes to the meetings with a litany of reasons why we should keep doing things just like we have is usually the first to remind you of how crowded the Lodge used to be, how busy they were conferring degrees or how much time and money they spent building the Lodge that you’re sitting in. What he forgets is that there used to be quality programs and frequent social events, even church visits in regalia. He also forgets that, at the time, his building, which was state of the art, and quite likely looks exactly - and I mean in a right-down-to-the-bright-orange-60s-modern-furniture-in-the-lobby kind of exactly – like it does now.

How do you fix it? Make it work. Have a family movie night complete with popcorn and pizza. Have a ladies' night with entertainment just for them while the meeting is taking place. As for the building, update the fixtures, furniture and carpet. Most of your Lodges can afford to do some or all of that. It’s amazing what a few changes to the building can do to the attitudes of the members.

Men join here just to get a ring. Also, men join here just so they can join the Shrine. Ask yourself if you’re giving them reasons to come back. What does Shrine do that we do not? While fun is part of their creed, it is not forbidden in ours.

We need to do something new, but we can’t get rid of that. Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – applies here. It is disturbing to talk to an incoming Master and hear that he has trouble bringing members out to Lodge, only to see his programs are an exact copy of the last three years. Things that don’t work should go away. We change light bulbs when they burn out. Why don’t we change Lodge programs when they do?

What’s the point? No one comes to Lodge anymore. Do we give them a reason to? If the only event listed on your Lodge notice is The Exemplification of the Examination of a Visitor, why would they bother? I would venture that, given the choice, many Masons would rather stay at home and watch a Real Housewives of Atlanta marathon than see the proper way to examine a visitor for the twentieth time. Give people a reason to come to Lodge. Don’t let that be the only draw, because quite frankly, it is not a draw. Schedule something afterward that has a broad appeal and invite their families so they don’t have to spend a night away.

 I already served as Master. It is time for someone else to step forward. We owe a great deal to those who have served before us, but as a Past Master, you must remember that the right to have the initials PM after your name comes with the implied responsibility to continue to serve when called upon. If you are tired of filling chairs, help the younger elected officers find a way to replace you. That may mean you need to pick up the phone and call someone. Just do it.

I’d like to step forward, but no one wants to give up their job. Ironically, I have heard this and the preceding complaint in the same Lodge during the same year.

Communicate. There can be a perception among new members, anxious to get involved, that they are unwelcome. If the new member, a chef by profession, can’t cook at the pancake breakfast because Bob has always done that, we are failing to use our assets wisely. Bob may be relieved that he can finally sleep in on a Saturday, and his new role as Mentor may give him renewed energy.

Who cares? We are nothing more than a social club. Most of you who have read my blog even a few times before know exactly how I feel about this. The fact that you are reading it right now indicates to me that you don’t agree with that either. I believe that the Brother who says that is voicing his frustration that our numbers have dwindled and that today’s Masonry isn’t what he fondly remembers from forty years ago, rather than the conviction that we have nothing to offer today’s man.

In all these examples, the underlying theme is fear of change. Glaciers change more quickly than Masons. We need to learn to be more fluid. When flowing water encounters a rock, it doesn’t stop and weep over the obstruction. It finds a way around. When you meet a cynic, you must do the same. Ask for his input. See what he would do. When he tells you, smile and thank him for volunteering to spearhead it.

If any of those descriptions reminded you of yourself, pledge to change your attitude. Pledge to change your Lodge. We can reach our full potential when we all work together.

If I were truly a cynic, I would conclude by saying, “Thank you for your time, though I doubt you were even paying attention.” I’m not a cynic though. I refuse to believe that our best days are behind us. Each of you is a Mason because you chose to be. You have a gift that Freemasonry can use. Offer it. Offer it and help us prove the cynics wrong.

We both know they are.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Five Points on Fellowship

There is a destiny that makes us brothers;
None goes his way alone:
All that we send into the lives of others
Comes back into our own. ~ Edwin Markham

As Masons, we are doubtless familiar with the five points of fellowship, which serve as reminders of the duties we owe to our Brethren. That is not, however, what I want to talk to you about tonight. Instead, I want to highlight five points on fellowship in the hopes of enhancing our interpersonal experiences within the Craft.

First, fellowship needs common ground. Luckily, Freemasonry provides that through the shared experience of initiation. We all came to the outer door, humbly sought entry, and our admission to this inner sanctum was the first acknowledgement that we were part of a new family. That first step that you took across the threshold also served as the first step in beginning a new friendship.

Next, fellowship needs honesty – not a yes-that-dress-makes-you-look-fat kind of brutal honesty – but a commitment to being your true self in front of your Brethren. Look at the man to your right and the man to your left. It is safe to say that either’s life has not been without a struggle. Maybe one has trouble with his job. Maybe the other doesn’t feel he is being the best father or husband. Whatever his demon, you can be sure he is fighting it in much the same way you are fighting yours. When we greet each other on the level, and without pretense of perfection, we begin to build the framework of deep friendship.

If honesty is important to good fellowship, then it is essential that we do not judge. More simply, fellowship needs blinders. Does that mean that we are to drive the get-away car, acquiesce to every bad behavior, or enable our Brother in those things he struggles with? No. We are charged to correct his errors, support him, and help get him back on the right path. Wearing blinders means not condemning your Brother for his faults, but instead seeking to understand why he made them and assist him in changing his ways.

Fellowship needs an exchange. It cannot be one-sided. In order to receive honesty, one must be honest. To be heard, one must be willing to listen. A friendship is an intricate puzzle with all the tabs and blanks interlocking. At times, you will need to lean on your Brother, at other times, you will be the sturdy column for him when he needs it most. And it is important not to keep tabs. At times, you may feel that you are giving more than you are getting. If you feel like you are doing all the work, you probably are. That could change at any moment though, and in all likelihood, that Brother will remember your kindness and be there for you.

Lastly, fellowship needs nourishment. That can come in many forms. In the literal sense, some of the strongest bonds I have formed within this Fraternity have come in the social time before and after the meetings. The regimented structure of our meetings does not encourage the strengthening of one-on-one ties, but it does serve as an incubator for those feelings of goodwill and belonging that can be strengthened over dessert, coffee, and conversation after we adjourn.

In the abstract sense, fellowship is fed by time. All of things I mentioned earlier? They take time. Common ground, honesty, forgiveness, and exchange – none of those comes naturally or instantly. Time is the most essential element to good friendships. Just as a flower opens one petal at a time, so do we slowly learn to trust enough to reveal our true selves to one another.

The following has been attributed to both George Eliot and Dinah Craik:

“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”

I love that sentiment. I also love that Freemasonry gives us the chance to have friends like that. Each of us probably had options on how we would spend this evening. We all chose to be here. When you go downstairs, tell someone why. It doesn’t have to be eloquent. It doesn’t have to be lengthy. Let it be from your heart, and that will be more than sufficient.