Friday, December 2, 2016

The Election

              Dylan was speechless. He sat in the station of the Senior Warden, unsure of whether he should scream, laugh, or try to wake himself from this terrible dream. He glanced to his right and caught Henry’s eye. He seemed shocked, too.

              Fine, he thought. If the Lodge wants to elect the Junior Warden ahead of me, they can have him. He sure isn’t getting my help.

              Henry could see the disappointment on Dylan’s face. The tellers were still tidying up from the ballot, so he took advantage of the distraction and approached Dylan.

              “Smile. Be gracious and accept the Senior Warden’s chair again when the election continues,” he whispered.

              “Are you kidding me? I’m done. They can have him,” Dylan hissed back.

              “Trust me. Stay where you are. The Lodge needs you, just not right now. Chin up. Be classy, and we’ll talk after the meeting,” he concluded with a pat on the shoulder before he returned to his chair.

              After the meeting, Henry took a seat in the corner of the fellowship hall at what he considered a safe distance from the rest of the brethren. When Dylan entered, Henry held two cups of coffee in the air as a signal to join him, which Dylan did.

              “If he thinks for one second that I’m helping him, he’s lost his mind,” Dylan spat. “In fact, I’m going to do everything I can to make it miserable for him. Did you hear him? A Mardi Gras party? Yeah, right. Oh, and a night at the theater? Gimme a break. He’s going to bankrupt the Lodge. And for what? No one is going to come.”

              Henry said nothing.

              “Oh, I have so many ideas,” he said, imitating the Worshipful Master elect. “I’m going to do this, that, and the other. Ha!”

              Henry said nothing.

              “He wants to invite the families of all the Past Masters. Are you kidding me? How are we paying for that?”

              Henry said nothing.

              “Yeah, and more money to grow the charity fund. Dream on.”

              “Remind you of anyone?” Henry asked with his eyebrow raised.

              “What? Who? Not me.”

              “Yes, you. Let me remind you how we met. You were that kid who wanted to change strawberry night.”

              “Yeah, but. . .”

              “Don’t interrupt me. You wanted surf and turf,” Henry continued. “And what did I say?”

              “You objected. Strenuously. You insisted that it was strawberry night. But that’s not the same. I’m . . .”

              “Quiet. I haven’t finished. You’re so quick to talk. I wish you were quicker to listen,” Henry joked.

              He was used to Henry’s snark - loved it, actually. Dylan rolled his eyes, but didn’t open his mouth.

              “You wanted surf and turf. I grumbled, but I gave in. Do you know why? Don’t answer, that was rhetorical,” he added quickly, smiling. “Because you were eager and I could see you believed in it. Not only that, but we never know what will work until we try it. Your surf and turf idea was one of the best. Eva still talks about that night, and if I had been a stubborn fool and tried to undermine you, it never would have happened. Understand?”

              Dylan was silent.

              “That was a real question. You can talk now,” Henry said, taking another sip of his coffee.

              “I don’t think they are quite the same, but I see your point,” Dylan admitted. “The bigger problem for me is that I deserved to be Worshipful Master. It was my turn.”

              “There’s no such thing as your turn, at least not in the sense of it being your God-given right,” Henry said. “It’s your turn when you have the most votes, or no one opposes you. I voted for you. I’m disappointed that you didn’t win. If I’m honest though, I think you’re only going to get better the longer you’re involved. Maybe this extra year as Senior Warden will make you an even stronger Master.”

              “Still, I did a lot of work,” Dylan said.

              “You did. And none of it will go to waste. Your plans will keep. They will get better if you pay close attention to the things that work and the things that don’t this coming year. Learn from his mistakes, but also learn from his successes. You want to know my philosophy?” Henry asked.

              “Isn’t that what you’ve been yammering at me for the last ten minutes?” Dylan quipped back with a grin.

              “No matter what your current or past rank, your biggest achievement, or your strongest opinion regarding the Fraternity, you owe your complete loyalty to those in charge. Whether it’s the Master, District Deputy, the Grand Master, or the Commander-in-Chief, your duty as a Mason is to help make his vision a success. You don’t have to like everything, you don’t have to understand everything, but it’s your responsibility to carry it out to the best of your ability.

              “Cathedrals had one set of plans,” he continued. Dylan could see that Henry was on his soapbox and knew better than to interrupt. He also sensed he was learning something profound. “One set. Not a set for the laborers to gripe about, another for the quarrymen to debate, and yet another for the artificers to question. Chartres would look more like something from an Escher print if that were the case. One set of plans - drawn by the Master and followed by all. That’s how Masons should work.”

              Dylan was speechless. He knew Henry was right. He just stared at Henry and the fire in his eyes.

              “That’s it,” Henry said. “Here endeth the sermon.”

              “I never thought of it that way. And your one hundred percent right. I’ll be right back,” Dylan said. “I’m going to go offer to head up the Mardi Gras committee.”

              Henry simply smiled.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Citius, Altius, Fortius

The 2016 Olympics have just concluded. Stories of triumph, of overcoming great adversity, of facing down seemingly insurmountable odds are still fresh in your memory. So too, unfortunately, are be the stories of tragedy, of near misses, of heartbreak, and of greatness not achieved.

As I watched the opening ceremonies and the first few days of competition, I began to wonder what our Fraternity would be like if we took it as seriously as Olympians take their respective sports.

For starters, the title of this piece – Citius, Altius, Fortius – is the Olympic motto. Translated from the Latin, it means Faster, Higher, Stronger. While that doesn’t specifically apply to us, we could steal from their superlative script and go with something that applies more directly. I’m too close to my deadline to translate it into Latin, but I would suggest something in the way of Wiser, Stronger, More Beautiful.

You’re probably asking yourself, Aren’t those just the three pillars of Freemasonry that he stole? If you did indeed just ask yourself that question, first, stop talking to yourself before people start wondering if you’re all there. Secondly, good catch. Those are the three pillars, but I didn’t steal them. They’re Masonic and this is a Masonic essay. There was no real need to come up with something catchy, shiny, and new when a perfectly good thing was right there for me to use. And in the final analysis, is there really anything that is truly new? Despite all of our protestations that “we’ve never done it like that before,” you can be nearly certain that somewhere, someone has done it precisely that way before. But I digress.

Back to our potential motto. To stand out among peers, an athlete must constantly strive to improve – trimming seconds, adding feet, improving dexterity. They would constantly reach for faster, higher, and stronger.

If Masons were Olympians, we would not just seek to get through all the degrees. We would push ourselves until we could do them to near perfection. We wouldn’t be content with just the words in the Degrees either. We would be compelled to look deeper and apply them to ourselves. We would make ourselves wiser.

We wouldn’t offer boring (or worse yet, not offer any) programs at our meetings and grumble about poor attendance. We would work hard to give our brothers a reason to come out and support the Lodge. Fine meals and interesting programs will nearly always yield high attendance. Nor would we ever suspend our brothers without making personal contact with them. We would make personal contact to let them know we care and we are there to help them. We would make ourselves stronger.

Olympic Masons wouldn’t be content to watch their buildings crumble around them either. They wouldn’t wring their hands as they tried to figure out why the Lodge can’t thrive, much less survive, on the paltry fifty dollars in dues that they pay each year. They would recognize that the sacred space that is the Lodge room deserves adornments and enhancements from time to time. They would understand that the physical appearance of the Lodge not only attracts members to the doors, but makes them want to come back. If we apply a little bit of creativity and solicited the help of the membership, every Lodge could be made into a space that people would want to come to. We would make ourselves more beautiful.

An enriching Lodge experience is the right and privilege of every Mason. If we each set a goal of constant personal improvement, and we hold each other accountable, that experience is within our reach. It will take effort, time, and sacrifice, but that will pay off when the Master and Wardens ascend their podiums and look out over a beautiful room filled with the wisest men who know in their hearts what it means to be a Brother. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Mind the Gap

The phrase Mind the Gap or some derivation of it is in use on light rail and subway systems throughout the world. It serves as a quick and concise reminder to travelers that they should heed the space between the train platform and the railcar they are entering or leaving. Hence, if one fails to pay attention to where he is going, or forgets to mind the gap, bad things could happen.
For too long, Freemasonry has forgotten to mind a gap of its own – the generation gap.  We like to think of Freemasonry as this timeless, changeless, transcendent institution. While that may be so of her core values and fundamental lessons, it certainly cannot be said of her meetings and social functions. Just as the Freemasonry of the 1700s bears little resemblance to our present practice, so too will the Freemasonry of tomorrow wear a face much different from the one we see today.
So what, precisely, is required to mind the gap? How do we connect with – and then keep – today’s young men? First we must examine how and why they came to have an interest in Freemasonry. Next, we need to ask what it is they hope to get from membership? Then we have one more step. No, that step is not to look at them and sternly inform them that this is the way we have always done it and this is the way we will always continue to do it. The last step is to adapt our sometimes pathologically inflexible Lodges to the wants and needs of the men we wish to attract. Let me say that again. We must adapt our sometimes pathologically inflexible Lodges to the wants and needs of the men we wish to attract. Heresy, right? But what about strawberry night? We’ve done that for 50 years and it used to be crowded. Sure, it used to be. Is it now? If not, it should at least be considered for the chopping block.
Whence come the young? If you’re over 50, there’s a good chance that you were attracted to Freemasonry because you knew and admired a man who was a Mason. Maybe it was your father, your boss, someone from your church, or a well-known member of your community. You knew very little about what to expect from the ceremonies, and you knew even less about what any of our symbols meant. All of the men (or at least the majority of them) were men you respected. You joined because you wanted to be like (or at least keep company with) the men you respected.
Mind the Gap, Brethren!
Today’s young man knows more about Freemasonry before he joins than some of our current members. He has gained knowledge of the ritual, symbolism and history of the Craft, as well as those of other esoteric bodies via the internet. He has seen television shows and movies that (usually) portray us as shapers of history. While he may know a few Masons, they probably were not his reason for joining.
He comes to us not from other Masons, not from his father’s insistence that he join, and not out of admiration of people that he knows and admires. He is attracted to the mystique of this institution that has worked behind the scenes in the birth of nations and battles for freedom, and captivated the minds of the great thinkers of the past. Freemasonry holds for him the key to unlocking his own inner philosopher or freedom fighter.
So, what come they here to do? Again, if you are part of the over 50 crowd, you might have joined because many of your work colleagues belonged. Perhaps you thought of it as an excellent networking opportunity. You may have been motivated by the idea that they were visible in the community at a time when community meant a whole lot more than the three street, all cul-de-sac subdivision that you lived in. Your Masonry involved marching in parades, attending church services as a Lodge, working with large and thriving youth groups, organizing community festivals and the like. But those things don’t really exist anymore – certainly not in the way they did years ago. They are relics of a time when most families had one car, bought their meat from the butcher, their bread from the bakery and tacitly accepted the sad fact that they couldn’t buy fresh asparagus at Christmas time.
Mind the gap, Brethren!
While the young man who is seeking admission today might not mind marching in a parade, that isn’t why he sought us out. His primary focus will never be flipping pancakes or peddling raffle tickets. Don’t misunderstand me. Those things aren’t bad. Working behind the scenes at the community breakfast gives him a chance to know his Brothers better, and selling tickets makes him feel he has a vested interest in the Lodge’s future. If that’s all you give him, though, he will soon be one of the few who “get his Degrees and never return,” and you will be left scratching your head.
Today’s young man joined to gain insight into the meaning of his life, to perfect the better side of his nature, and to give back to his fellow travelers. Do we give that to them? Do we listen to what they want, or do we tell them that they should want what we offer?Here Are we even willing to change to keep them?
I refuse to believe that Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire or Mozart rushed home from a busy day of diplomacy, philosophizing or composing, changed into a fresh ruffled shirt and knickers so they could to get to Lodge to hear the reading of the minutes, pay the bills and learn about income tax preparation, retirement planning or fly fishing.
In an age where most young men know each other only by avatars and screen names, and the closest thing they get to human interaction is a poke or a retweet, we have a tremendous opportunity. We can take them by the hand (literally), raise them up and say, “See. There is something bigger and more important than yourself and the tiny virtual universe contained in your iPhone,” or we can stubbornly cling to the Freemasonry of the past and wring our hands as they walk out the door, disillusioned and unfulfilled.
So what do we do? Start by asking what would Lodge need to be like to convince your child or grandchild to join? What would we need to give them in the Lodge to make them miss their child’s soccer practice or a night at home? I suspect it would be something Masonic – something they couldn’t get anywhere else. It could be something as simple as having an open discussion about the ancient charges. Spend fifteen minutes dissecting exactly what it is we are charged to do in the opening, closing, or the degrees. You could download one of the Grand Master’s PowerPoints, show a quality YouTube video on Masonry, or engage a speaker.
Next, we need to educate them. I’m talking now of Masonic education. In order to make young men into Masons, we need to teach them Masonry. Encourage them to use the education portal. You can even use it with them. We have the Master Builder program for new Masons, and now we have the Master Pillar program for the more seasoned among us.
Lastly, we need to value them. By that, I do not mean that we approach them following their Master Mason’s Degree and ask them if they want to be Junior Warden next year. We simply need to get the new members involved – to make them feel valued and necessary. And we need to do it in a way that works for them. If they are excited about floor work, make a spot. If they want to try a fundraiser that you’ve never done, let them chair it. Play on their strengths, their interests, and their abilities. If you do that, they’ll come back because they have purpose.
We don’t exist in a vacuum. As timeless as our teachings may be, we need to adapt them to the actual time we are in. The Lodges that do that the best will succeed. The ones that do not will struggle. The future isn’t bleak, Modern Vitruvians, it is just different.
Mind the Gap!