Monday, October 18, 2021

UCCofE - the thing I never knew I needed... till now

Masonry is a funny thing. We tell the new Master Mason that this is the highest degree and then, it's like that scene in Airplane! when Robert Stack is walking through the airport.

Thing is that while Masons pretend that the blue lodge is the end all, be all, we all know that this is never going to satisfy the brethren. We are seekers of further light. And since light diffuses so widely, it shouldn't surprise anyone that there are so many Masonic adjacent bodies. Case in point, the Universal Craftsman Council of Engineers, a body I am now proud to call myself a member. 

My day started like any other, it was a beautiful autumn day in Minnesota. Not to hot, not too cold. I was heading out to the meeting of my very first invitational body, Minnesota Council No. 34, Knight Masons. It was at this particular meeting that I was also elected as its presiding officer, Excellent Chief. It was just so exciting. We are back in person, the brothers excitedly meeting and seeing each other to confer the degrees. I am so thankful to them to entrust me with this position for the year. 

Because I attended the meeting with one of my really good friends, MW Bro. Joe G., who was kind enough to drive down with, I got to have great conversation and great fellowship. But since he was the driver, I stayed longer than I would have otherwise. We ate and Joe remembered he was a member of a group. 

"No problem, Joe, you go to your meeting. I can just hang out."

Little did I know that I was going to be a candidate. 

"Hey, Nick! Go over to the prep room!"

I had never heard of the Universal Craftsman Council of Engineers, which is usually abbreviated UCCofE. I was really happy that I was able to join this body.

To explain, UCCofE is a Masonic body founded in 1902 in the state of Ohio by Bros. Pomeroy and Dettleback, who were engineers in factories in the rust belt. This organization was founded to bring together other engineers who were also Master Masons. Because we, as Masons, love meeting together, this body grew and grew and became so popular that even non-engineer Master Masons who also were craftsmen (what we would think of as blue collar today) wanted to join. At first, the UCCofE encouraged those MMs to start their own councils aimed at their own crafts, e.g., electricians, but as is always the case, the first mover has the advantage and UCCofE ultimately started allowing non-craftsmen and laborers to join.

The ritual was fascinating because it is so different from what I recognize yet so similar. It was really fun to experience the role of candidate and to hear something different but familiar. The main reason I recognized the ritual is because it was similar to so many rituals used by unions throughout history. 

I am not a blue collar worker but I come from a long line of railroad workers and heavy machinery guys (my brother is the next in that long, long line of railroadcers). I've never been a factory worker, laborer, blue collar worker nor really had a job that would be considered that. However, I have spent many years researching the many rituals that unions used in their meetings because of the number of union members in my family. Union fraternal rituals are a subject that needs far more scholastic research than it currently does and I hope that whatever contributions I can make will be helpful.

Thank you to everyone in Minnesota Council No. 79, UCCofE for admitting me as a member of this august and fascinating body. I really look forward to all the many years of research and participation I hope to dedicate to the Council. 

If you are interested in joining, click the link.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Guest Article: Tempus Fugit by W.Bro. Gary Thomas, Jr.

 In this time of Advent, waiting, and family traditions, I am proud to share this article by one ary Thomas, Jr. He is a past Grand Officer, having served as a District Representative and Grand Sword Bearer. He has served in the East in two lodges., Star of the East Lodge No. 33 of Owatonna and Red Wing Lodge No. 8, where he again serves as Worshipful Master. He's also one of my closest friends (and someone I can talking about wrestling and comics with for hours). 

Thank you, Gary.

The Christmas tree had always been a pain to put together. It seemed that every year, the pre-lit tree that my mother had purchased 15 years earlier had been a thorn in my side. The very first time trying to put it together seemed to take forever. The metal trunk did not fit quite as well as it should in its base and trying to line up the network of plugs and wires to get all 3 sections of it to light up properly was a headache. As I would lay there on the floor by myself, and in later years joined by my son, Bennett, I would mutter and curse under my breath as the branches scratched my forearms and hands to pieces as I tried to line up the screw in the stand to the hole in the trunk that wasn’t drilled all the way through properly. By the second year I had to re-drill the hole and put a bolt in it. I honestly thought the tree had it out for me. Every…single…year.

My mother had me help her pick the tree out at our local Target store in 2004. My parents had to move back to Minnesota after a scant two years of living in Florida. I received a call from my father in September of that year that his bladder cancer had returned after almost 7 years and it was now in his lumbar area of his spine. My father told me that he needed my wife, Coleen, and I to find them a house in the town we were living in . We looked at a dozen or so houses and finally found one that was one level so it was easy for my father to move around in. He was now using a walker and his mobility was decreasing daily it seemed. Also, my older handicapped brother, Dean, who my parents had cared for since being injured in a car accident in 1986 needed a house that did not have a lot of steps. We were finally able to find them a house and worked as middle-men to help facilitate the sale. A few short weeks later, Thanksgiving weekend, they were back in Minnesota with help from two of my older brothers who helped to move and drive them back.

That Christmas, which would end up being the last one that we would celebrate with my father, my mother wanted a new tree, a pre-lit one that she would not have to string lights on. We took a ride to Target and after helping her pick one out she purchased it and I loaded it into her car and brought it to their home to set it up. I then made the trip to the basement to grab the multiple tubs of Christmas decorations. After hanging up the ornaments, some that had been in our family for years, we strung the new garland that she had bought around the tree. The last thing to add was the angel topper that my younger brother, Darren, and I had bought for her when we were kids at the Hallmark store in Owatonna, Minnesota, where we grew up. After plugging the tree in we stepped back to admire the neat LED lights and I put the tree skirt around the bottom of it. In my inner Linus Van Pelt voice, I decided it wasn’t such a bad tree after all! My father agreed, as well!

The following August. my father lost his 9 year battle with his bladder cancer. It was the hardest thing I had ever been through. Seeing a man who was so strong and so skilled be defeated by such a horrible disease was almost too much to bear. I held his hand as he drew his last breath and bid goodbye to this world and the pain he had been living with for years. 

My oldest brother, Steven, had a plastic Fischer Price grandfather clock that he had received as a present from our mother’s parents when he was a toddler. On the face of the clock were the words, Tempus Fugit. The phrase comes from a line from the poet Virgil’s epic agricultural poem, Georgics. Translated it means, “It escapes, irretrievable time.” 

Tempus Fugit. Time Flies. It was a team that my mother and I would utter to each other all the time. Whenever another year would pass and we would think about the highs and the lows or the ones we had lost  it never seemed to fail that one of us would utter the phrase. Tempus Fugit.

That year I set the tree up again, having to drill the aforementioned hole in the trunk for a bolt to be inserted in it to stabilize it from swaying too bad. It was tough doing it without my father there. The holidays would never quite be the same again. He really was just a big kid at heart. His family did not have a lot growing up and he always did his best to make the season bright for everyone.

My mother never enjoyed the holidays as much as she did before my father’s passing. She had a lot on her plate taking care of my father and older brother. My brother should have been placed in a group home facility years ago to give him a chance to have a life of his own. It also would have given my parents a chance to have a life of their own, as well. But, being cut from old New England cloth, family took care of family. While I loved and admired their determination, this hindered them all in a lot of ways.

Being the only local child in the area ,my mother leaned heavily on me for all kinds of things from shopping, filling her car up with gas to taking her or my brother to doctor appointments. This also included frustrating things like when either her or my brother would hit the wrong button on the television controller at 9 o’clock on a Sunday night and they would call me and I would have to run over to their house to reprogram it, or in most cases, show them the wrong button they had pressed.

While this was frustrating, it even became more frustrating when my wife and I had children. I began to feel like I was being pulled away all the time from my fatherly and husbandry duties to help my mother and brother. I was torn, at times, as I struggled with establishing boundaries between my mother and my family at home. I wanted to honor my mother and brother but I found it increasingly hard to do it with such a young family. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to make people laugh and smile. Humor has always been my defense mechanism when I get nervous and I do my best to avoid conflict when I should be tackling it head on.

My mother would never ask me to put her and my brother before my family but as she got older, I saw her losing her independence more and more by having me do little things for her. Even running to the store for a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk was just one more thing that she did not have to do for herself. A few years ago she fell at home, one of several that she had, and fractured vertebrae in her back. Her osteoporosis did not help matters and she developed a hunch in her back and one arm was becoming hard to use as she had injured that as well in another fall.

Almost every year I would set the tree up and take it down. There were only a couple years I didn’t as one of my other brothers had volunteered to do it. The more and more I did it, the more and more patience I would lose. While I liked to help her set the tree up, I found the act of getting the tree up in a timely fashion to be annoying. Every year it seemed to get a little more difficult. Inside I was struggling more and more with being the only local family member my mother had to help her. To be fair, besides my brother Dean, I have three other siblings in the state. They would help as much as they could but a lot of it fell on my shoulders as I was the only one in town. It was not all bad, of course. My children got to know their grandmother and their uncle. Mom was always quick to give my children a dollar or two to buy something at the store or would offer me gas money for running errands for her. Even if I refused, I always lost the argument.

Like the annual frustrating tree ceremony, I found myself struggling to witness my mother’s health decline at a pretty rapid pace. The last few years the change had really seemed to have sped up. My siblings and I did our best to tell my mother that she really needed to get Dean placed in a group home facility and that she should get an apartment as she could not take care of the house anymore. But her and my brother were so financially and emotionally attached to one another that it was almost impossible to separate them after all those years. Plus, even though my mom knew she could not take care of the home, the sense of pride of knowing it was her house was something she took seriously. No one was going to tell her she had to leave. She would make that decision herself at the time she saw fit and it would be on her terms. To have these conversations, we must also confront our own mortality. No one likes to think of these things but they are inevitable. There is no way to escape it but it does not mean it is not a struggle to swallow our pride and to face it.

The night before James Hellwig passed away he gave his final in-ring speech and he touched on coming to grips with our own mortality. He really nailed it on the head when he said to all of his fans,

Every man's heart one day beats its final beat, his lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others, and makes them bleed deeper, than something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized by the storytellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honor him and make the running the man did live forever.

My brother Nathan and I finally had one last conversation with her in August of 2019. We tried to get her to talk about things, explaining to her in one last ditch effort how her not wanting to talk about what needed to be done would just end in a tragedy. We told her as my brother’s conservator for so many years she had done an amazing job and if something were to happen wouldn’t she like to have some say as to the type of facility that my brother would be placed in. She saw our points, acknowledged them, but was not sure. She was scared. Scared to live on her own, to have to more than likely live ina senior building or nursing home. We understood her fears and did our best to gently persuade her to think things over. Finally, Nathan was blunt with her and explained what would happen to both her and Dean if something happened to her. He said they would both end up in facilities and their choices would be limited as neither of her children could take either of them into our homes. We would be stuck with the task of having to decide for them. I could tell that she did not like us saying this to her but she realized that we were right.

Last Christmas I was late getting the tree up. She had called me a few times to set it up for her and I finally found a time to do it for her. One more time I got it into the wobbly tree stand, secured to bolt and decorated the whole tree by myself. I had grabbed the multiple boxes, bins, and totes of her Christmas decorations and lugged them up from her basement and set them up. She was not able to help much as it was getting harder for her to do many things. She told me to not worry about setting too many decorations up as she wanted to do some herself at a later time.

Last Christmas was a busy one but we found a chance to get together and exchange gifts. She did not want to come over to our house for dinner as her back was bothering her even more but we all found a time for us to get together at her house to celebrate with her and my brother. It was around this time that talk of a new coronavirus from China was beginning to spread and that it was expected to reach other countries as it spread globally. 

My mother was also experiencing some vision problems and scheduled a surgery date in February to have cataracts removed from one eye and a stent put in her eye to relieve the pressure of her glaucoma. When that eye was healed they would do the other one a few weeks later. She was having a very hard time keeping the dates straight. It seemed that as of late her memory was not as sharp as it normally was. She would repeat things, tell the same stories, etc. We were not too concerned and just thought it was the boredom of being housebound and the stress of just thinking about the surgery. 

I was not able to get the tree down right away after Christmas and it did not bother my mother much since I was late getting it up; point in fact, it just gave her and my brother more time to enjoy it. I kept telling her that I would get it down when I could. I was dreading it, to be honest. I kept telling myself that it would be a whole afternoon spent wrapping each individual ornament and packing everything up before unplugging all the cords of the tree, taking it apart and trying to stuff it into the storage bag. My mother just said to take it down when I could.

The date came for my mother’s surgery. My sister,  Jill, came to stay with her and my brother for a week and to help them out after my mother’s surgery. My mother was unsteady enough as it was so her having to have anesthesia, and her vision being affected, was not a good combination. My mother was glad that Jill could help out. Jill called me later that afternoon to let me know that our mother was a little groggy and but that her surgery went well. She was going to make them all dinner and they would settle down for the night.

Later that evening, our mother fell.

Jill called me to let me know that she had been out of the room for less than a couple minutes and she heard a loud crash. She went into the living room to find my mom on the floor. Against the orders of my sister to stay put, my mother had gotten up to make herself a cup of tea and had reached for something, lost balance and toppled over with her walker, her head just missing the stone hearth in the room. She was rushed by ambulance to the local hospital and we received bad news. Her hip was shattered.

A couple days later. my mother received a hip replacement and was sent to a nursing home to rehab. My brother Dean ended up going to a local facility that specializes in traumatic brain injuries. It was determined that my mother was a fall risk and would not be able to return to her home. To make matters worse, my mother was now displaying very obvious signs of early dementia. Reluctantly, she accepted the fact that she could not go home and stayed at the facility she was rehabbing at, going into the long-term care program. 

Then the COVID-19 pandemic exploded and my brother and her were restricted at their facilities. Not only was that stressful, but since my mother and brother could not return home, we now had to make the tough decision to clean out their house with very little input from them and to get it listed on the real estate market . It would be hard because they could not be there to help and to really have a say about what to do with all of their belongings. Plus, being my mother’s power of attorney, I was beginning to crack under the pressure. I was not sleeping well at night and often woke up, unable to sleep as I lay there thinking about everything. I could not turn my brain off at all.

As we finalized the plans of when all of my siblings could gather at our mother’s house, it was suddenly April. There was one  thing I had to do. It wouldn’t be easy but there was no avoiding it. This time I was dreading it more than any other time. 

I stood staring at the tree for a long time, not wanting to touch it. I understood what I had to do. I was about to take down my mother’s tree for the final time. As much as it frustrated me at times, there was no mistaking what I was going to have to do, alone. I was the one that helped my mother pick out the tree, the first one to set it up, and I would be the last one to ever take it down. As the weight of the responsibility hit me, as I was taking down the ornaments that had always been on our tree growing up, I broke into tears. I cried like a child. Why had I complained so much about setting the tree up in the past? Why was I not more patient? Where had my patience gone? The uncertainty of the future of my mother and brother, the weight of responsibility that I could not run away from, the stress of the global pandemic, everything just hit me at once. I never felt so alone as I did that day.

After the tree was down, stuffed in its bag, the ornaments all wrapped, and everything stored again in my mother’s basement, I picked up rest of the Christmas decorations and carried them back down to the basement. After locking up the house I cried all the way home 

A couple months passed and my siblings were finally able to help clean out my mother’s house so we could get it listed on the market. A large dumpster was ordered and we began filling it with all of the things that we did not want or could not donate. It was sad to see so many things get hurled into the dumpster but the reality is most of it meant nothing to us. We were able to divide up the heirloom objects. The stuff bound for the dumpster was more than I thought.

I stood in front of the dumpster with the Christmas tree bag I had just hauled up from the basement. I was hesitating a bit to throw it away. This tree meant a lot to my mother and brother. Paranoid that I may have forgotten an ornament on it I unzipped the bag and looked everything over. After I was satisfied that I had not missed any ornaments, I could not stall any longer. I threw the tree away. 

A couple months later after the house was entirely cleaned it was listed on the market. My mother’s dementia, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, made it hard for her to sign papers so as her power of attorney I signed the closing papers for her. I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. It was an odd moment as I thought about being one of the people who found the house for my parents, I was now the one who was selling it for my mom. Very similar to the situation with her tree.

My family decided to purchase an artificial tree this year. My wife and I made sure it did not have a plug system like my mother’s tree had. This one went together like a breeze. When I told my mother that we had bought an artificial tree this year she asked me what had happened to her tree. I paused a moment before telling her that I threw it away. She got quiet and I told her that it was starting to shed, which it was, and that it had seen it’s better days. She understood but I could tell that she was disappointed.

Today my mother and brother are still in their prospective facilities, unable to currently have visitors due to COVID-19 cases in their facilities. While I am glad that they are safe, the isolation from family is affecting them greatly. My mother’s dementia comes and goes. Some days she is great and others she is struggling. My brother is keeping a positive outlook but he has always been an optimist. 

My children and I were able to visit with my mother today at her facility. We sat outside her window  and chatted with her on the phone. We had given her a bag of gifts that her nurse had set on a table in her room. Bennett asked her if she could open them while we were there but she was not able to get up and get the bag as her legs were bothering her. Bennett understood and asked her to let us know how much she likes them after she opens them on Christmas. It was so hard to see that, my mother, one so strong and proud, now frail and unable to stand. I wished I could have been in there to help her but I could not. I felt not unlike the ghost that Jacob Marley showed Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. The distraught ghost who saw the poor mother holding her infant close to her as she huddled on a cold doorstep, and was unable to intervene on her behalf. I worry that I may never again be able to just give my mother a hug, to comfort her. She was always there for her children when we needed her and she needs us now more than ever.

I have often heard it said that next to losing a child the hardest thing in life is seeing our parents age. While I have never lost a child and cannot imagine the pain one goes through with that, watching my mother grow old had been devastating.

A renowned chef that I worked for years ago once told me after a very stressful night of cooking, the first really busy dinner service I had ever been involved with, that time has no conscience. He pointed at the clock on the wall and said that it would eat you alive if you did not respect it. The older I have gotten I realize that truer words were never spoken.

Tempus Fugit, My Brothers. 

Time Flies.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Guest Article: "The Problem with Banning Politics and Religion" by WBro. Robert H. Johnson

I am honored to be publishing a really intriguing article touching one of the third rails of Masonry by a friend of mine, WBro. Robert H. Johnson, podcaster and wonderful all-around brother. Enjoy!

It’s one of the first things we’re told regarding the fraternity, whether due to the instruction of a new member or explaining some basics to the profane (uninitiated). “We don’t discuss politics or religion in lodge. It’s divisive.” We may also hear something along the lines of, “No two topics divide men like politics and religion.” The hope is by adhering to these “rules” a more unified organization emerges. We as members of this fraternity are intended to be brothers, not in title alone, but in the fullest import of the term. We are to cry with our brothers, rejoice with our brothers, to be intimately connected with them—to have Storge. Storge is the Grecian term for a familial love. C.S. Lewis considered it, “... responsible for 9/10ths of all solid and lasting human happiness.”

This love is of the utmost importance. It provides a basis for our relationships and gently guides us in our actions when interacting with our members. Unity is the goal. We cannot have men angry with each other and also be unified, not in the way we want. We want to promote a unified vision of making good men better, of uplifting the human condition and the conscious mind. Above all, we treat our members as family. We are a diverse collection of people, who all have different backgrounds, customs and beliefs. Just like in the profane world where we have biological families with beliefs different from our own.

In our various interactions with family, do we stray from the discussion of politics and religion? In recent times, that answer is “Yes.” According to a 2018 CBS poll the majority of Americans don’t talk politics at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Currently political opinions are more than divisive, they are accusatory, they are defining, they are misunderstood. Absolutely polarizing and disruptive. This is a trend that has reached fever pitch in 2019.

The apprehension, fear and trepidation we have as a society in terms of the discussion of our ideologies and other beliefs stems from some simplistic shortcomings.

When discussions of any type are taking place there is an inability of the average person to listen, think, and ask refining questions as to the ideas being proposed. We hear a few trigger words and our attention is immediately drawn to our own minds, instantly retorting, and taking a series of mental tangents. We’ve lost the ability to ask and listen, and repeat.
Once we’ve heard the position, we can then ask the person, “Can you tell me if I understand you correctly?” Wrap up the position as you understand it and get that persons approval--”Is this what you mean?”. Then, if you disagree, present your position. This is proper, polite and allows us to grow through the mutual expression of ideas.
Secondly, we have a problem with cognitive dissonance. This is the emotional aversion to learning something which may not support or which may be in complete contrast to an idea we’ve spent years believing in.
A man goes to prison for a murder ten years ago. Eyewitness testimony along with top investigative work was used in the man’s conviction. The idea that this man was guilty was something believed by the prosecution. His conviction was proof of his absolute guilt. Years later there is an appeal. DNA evidence is available and for the first time, our convicted man has a chance to prove his innocence. The case is reopened, the DNA is tested and his innocence is proven. The man is still convicted in the minds of the people who put him in prison. This is an example of cognitive dissonance. When we fail to acknowledge new information regardless of what it means for us, we fail to progress mentally and emotionally.
If we may learn to address these things as a society, then perhaps there is a chance at growth and effective compromise. This however, is only a start.

Addressing Our Vulnerabilities

We have an inability to admit vulnerability to our peers. Specifically, we won't admit when we don’t understand something. There is no shame in admitting that we don’t understand a political or religious concept to our peers.

We all have apprehension in this, because by admitting we don’t understand something, we’re egregiously labeled as something, whether that's a “bleeding heart liberal” or a “bible thumping conservative”, choose your own insult here. Instead of assisting someone to understand, we label them ignorant and a part of the problem. This is wrong.

Strengthening the Mind

We have a general illiteracy of mind which is only further weakened by an inability or a willful ignorance to try and understand better. This “try” is an action--an exercise which without its use atrophies our minds and the consequence is a blank slate by which politically charged media may imprint their own version of events.

Succinctly, this is an eisegetical subjective message which is presented on a network, whether conservative or liberal. It will promote a way of thinking or narrative which is designed to either win over a simple mind or solidify the existing belief of the observer. The only way to combat this is to practice your own critical thinking skills. It’s hard. We all know the dangers of sharing articles on social media without reading them, basing our share on a great headline. This is relevant because this is an example of not critically thinking, not reading, not absorbing the actual information for yourself.

Consuming Ideas

It was not always this way. There was a time before social media, before headlines were underscored with the number of minutes it will take to read. e.g. “3 minute read.” appearing under an article posted to Facebook. In the past we would need to get the paper or book, open it and read it. Digest it, talk to our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers in order to work the information over in our minds. To swish around the wine if you will. If we travel farther back in time, you could note that the title of books came at the end of the text. e.g. At the end of gospels, it might say something like, “This is the gospel according to John.” In this way, you would read the book, and then get a title. Today, we have a title and if not enticed by it, we pass it up.

In the days of yore, pre-internet, pre twenty-four-hour news coverage, I presume, evidence lacking, that we may have been better at discussion and critical thinking. Likely, because we had to be. Now we’re too busy to do our own research, to busy to form our own opinions and rely on what we trust to be accurate and objective news and information. Like Bing Crosby said in “White Christmas”, "everyone’s got an angle." You know who doesn’t though? You. Us. The only angle we might have is that of trying to understand and by our understanding, improve the outlooks and current conditions humanity is existing within.

What this does to the Fraternity

So why have we banned the topics of religion and politics within the lodge? They are divisive, yes, but only when we decide not to practice those first three pieces of the liberal arts and sciences. Those three arts whose foundation is predicated on faith in intent, hope in understanding and love of our Brother. The trivium-- Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic, which are glossed over in lodges and emphasis is almost entirely given to the quadrivium.. But let’s be honest, how many truly study these when we’ve been told to? What I outlined above are just a few techniques on how we can begin to utilize the trivium in order to understand and hold polite discourse with an objective of finding common ground and solve our issues.

Freemasonry is said to be a Progressive Moral Science. So much of what we speak about within the craft is of a language unknown. While we maintain that we understand the words and meaning, the reality is that we do not. We infrequently look at the meaning of the words within the time the words were written. Words change over time and so do their meanings. WB Scott Dueball is well known in my home jurisdiction of Illinois of explaining this to our constituency. A wonderful example is the word “Condescension.” In current use it is something negative. When the word was written however, it meant something wholly different. It meant to meet on the level.

Where It Comes From

Let us look at the words, Progressive Moral Science in their contextual use--that is, how those words were meant when they were written. This exercise will enable us to comprehend whether or not we are truly acting according to the dictates of Freemasonry, something we often are
concerned with, in other words protecting the vision as laid out by the sacrosanct documents; The Ancient Charges and the Landmarks.

The word “Progressive” has since the 1600s, been used in the majority of the time to describe idealizm and moving it forward. While this may not be news to you, it will be news to those who say the word “Progressive” is only meant to convey that we “Progress” from degree to degree. Because it’s more likely the former, when we say a “Progressive” moral science, we are setting the tone for a purpose. That purpose is to enact a system by which we may influence an idealizm that promotes acceptance and, social reforms. This point is further supported when we look at the next word, “Moral.”  

The word “Moral” can be traced to the 1400s and its use there is one depicting the ideal of character and the ideas one displays in his day to day life. His behaviors are defined as his morality. As we progress in time, likely to about the period the language was used within our fraternity, the word changes very little. It’s now taken on not only the behaviors, but also the concept of customs. Finally in 1752 we see the use in order to describe one's principles, good conduct and confidence. Interestingly it maintains the idea of customs as well, which is very relevant when we consider that there are various customs the world over. Further, that each of these customs is of a subjective nature in the country from which they were born. E.g. Does one use the left hand for a greeting? And if so, is that “Moral” in the region in which the greeting was given?
This information supports the idea that the word “Progressive” means or is tied to “Social Reforms.”

Next we must look at the word “Science”. From the mid 1300s, we see it used to describe knowledge, the application of knowledge and learning. This has remained the case to this day.
By this exploration, one must necessarily ask ourselves how we would practice this Royal Art? Obviously we are going to run into a conundrum. Don’t see it yet? Let us continue.

The Conundrum Explained

There is a point where our governments have provided us leaders through the process of democratic means. These leaders are titans built on idealizm and funded by donations from constituents, lobbyists and by companies. These leaders give us the laws by which we are to live and yet, where do they get these laws from? Our laws stem from, in most cases, our philosophical take on life-- the majority of this is given to us through our various faiths, and at other times, it is derived from simply reflecting on the human condition.

Our political system as it exists has taken on idealizm given by our religious texts.To make matters more complicated, it’s largely based on the issue of interpretations of those texts. This is human nature, to make sense of things and to want to govern and rule with a set of ideas which one believes in, to impart the best way of living, to promote the aforementioned idea of unity.

By nature, a government is to address the issues of the people. Our United States constitution gives us the right to “[...] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” A sentiment similar in nature comes from Thomas Paine, in his book, The Rights of Man, in which he lists the role of government. In his case the British monarchy and parliament. “Government's sole purpose is safeguarding the individual and his/her inherent, inalienable rights; each societal institution that does not benefit the nation is illegitimate—especially monarchy and aristocracy.”

In order to assist the nation, a government takes it upon itself to address it’s social reforms, the “Progressive moral science.” Not surprising considering the Masonic connection to our country’s founding philosophy.

The Rub

So then, the eventual outcome is that religion has infiltrated the politics and has made the two inseparable. In addition the political system has taken on what the Masonic fraternity is charged to do. And, because these are now inseparable, we many not discuss the “Progressive Moral Science” in its proper context without violating our stand against the discussion of politics or religion in our lodges.

Today, if you tell me something you believe in, I can drop you into a bucket which would be labeled a broad definition of a political camp. Republican, Democrat but more likely, Liberal or Conservative, due to the extremism in America at the present. Alternatively, you could tell me which political party to which you are a member and I will guess your Religious alignment.

The Pew Research Center published a poll which gives us the data on this topic. Party affiliation has almost become the new religion due to the moral values which have been absorbed into the institution. A simple idea like assisting those less fortunate through a tax is Democratic and to support the those same people via voluntary donation is seen as Republican. The outcome is similar but the way we get there is different. The contention that exists is largely driven by the understanding of human rights as it pertains to our own property and its ability to be taxed or not, and a slew of other various philosophical minutia.

Returning to the beginning of this paper, I outlined a set of practices in which people could begin to hold social discourse and to work to understand each other. If we did this, could we then begin to talk about issues affecting society and raise more awareness than our tempers? I wonder if it’s okay to discuss in a tiled lodge, the safety of a group of local workers constructing a building? Could I do this in such a way, and organize a social program or even introduce a bill into local government to assist these workers? Could you use the Masonic lodge to speak to our benevolent minded brothers regarding a social injustice that’s happened in the community?

The answer is a resounding, “No.” There is a great confounding of politics and moral values. How do I know this? Because I have seen it shot down in lodge. Because I have seen men brought up on Masonic charges for attempting to practice the “Progressive Moral Science.” A simple idea to assist and organize something for the community, due to the local governments intellectual jurisdiction over all things relating to the welfare of her constituents is by nature political and as such, is banned from the local lodge. We’re left to donating money to benign causes. Donating money to organizations that do the work for us, and who likely contribute to the very politicians who promise to help. Have we abandoned Freemasonry’s original intent? Have we negated it completely? Or perhaps, is what we’ve been doing simply the best we can do since we’ve bound ourselves up?

A Charge

It’s my contention to assert a very real revelation. Directly, that by the exercise of removing our right to discuss politics or religion within a lodge, we have effectively neutered our ability to practice the Royal Art within the context of our original stated purpose. Abandoning our tradition, without ever even realizing it. On one hand we vehemently oppose changes to anything, on the other, we stand ignorant of what’s changed already and accepting of the limitations we put on ourselves.

If we are to take control and practice Freemasonry, then we ought to learn how to effectively communicate, listen, digest, ask further questions, listen again and comprehend. By this action, we may be able to have these discussions within a lodge and hence affect our local communities, truly working for the betterment of the human condition. Maybe even leaving the world a better version of what it was before we came into it. Perhaps instead of banning talk of a religious or political nature, we should instead train how to hold proper discourse?

Undoubtedly there is no recourse in separating political ideology from religious ideology. The bond is indissoluble. Perhaps rightly so. There are throughout the ages, philosophical discussions about whether humanity can have a set of morals without having a codified religious dogma from which it would be bourn. Again, two sides, who ardently disagree over the revelation of human rights, and morality.

In closing out this dialogue I wish to leave you all with an ask, and that is to be mindful. To listen before formulating a response and to attempt, however uncomfortable it may be, to see things from your fellow’s point of view. Walk a mile in their shoes, truly. Only through attempting this exercise in perception can we see the foundation of an idea all the same foreign to us, and from there, where we can align our values and endeavor to embody Unity. Then, we can practice Freemasonry’s Royal Art, the Progressive Moral Science.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Guest Post: WBro. Jimmy Harris - Football, Flags, and Protest

WBro. Jimmy Harris, Past Master of Faribault Lodge No. 9
I was born an addict. My mother and father both used drugs and suffered all the consequences associated with that. My father left when I was five and went on to become a very low bottom drunk/addict. He was a hobo and worked as a carnie with several amusement companies before his addictions finally made him unsuitable for even that. Although he did eventually gain ten years of sobriety, he threw that away and died a drunk at the age of fifty-two. My mother, sometime after my father left us, turned to prostitution to support her heroin habit. After several moves, we found ourselves in Homestead, Florida. My two brothers and I (all under 8 years of age) were left alone for long periods of time to fend for ourselves. One day a neighbor noticed some bruises on my youngest brother’s back and legs left on all of us from my mother’s Marine Corps lover/supplier. That night we were removed from my mother’s care and spent the next two years in various foster homes in Dade County. (This was more than a decade before the name change to Miami-Dade in 1997.) Following much effort on the part of my maternal grandparents, we were adopted by them in August of 1984. We moved to a very small farming community called Beaumont, Kansas where I had a troubled youth and young adulthood. I found myself making many mistakes and having to come to terms with my own addictions. I completed my last in-patient treatment on December 13, 2004 and was raised to the Sublime Degree of a Master Mason that night in Star of the East Lodge #33 Owatonna, Minnesota.

I give this very brief history to say this: I have found help in my struggles throughout my life. Although I have not had it easy, I have had it easier than many. In Masonry especially I have found many friends as well as Brothers; the closest of which is Worshipful Brother Nick Johnson. He originally invited me to write about another completely unrelated topic, but I found I could not focus on that with the matters of free speech, respect for country, and protest consuming so much of our collective attention.

Today, as I sit in my suite on Waikiki Beach and enjoy the wonders our Great Architect has wrought in this paradise, I recognize I sit here largely as a function of my birth. Although I was not given much, I was afforded many advantages men born into different circumstances do not enjoy. The first of which is the fact that I am an American. I have never had to seek refuge from a warlord or been afraid to speak my mind. But even in America that is also a function of the color of my skin. I remember vividly standing alongside the family during their interview on CNN regarding Philando Castile who was gunned down in Minneapolis. I have never had to fear a uniformed police officer or had to ask why I was stopped. Other advantage I had due largely to my skin color includes a good education. With that education, I completed an apprenticeship and became a Journeyman Lineman. I enjoy the benefits of being in the top 5% of income earners with very little encumbrance upon my advancement. During my career, I have worked in many distressed areas throughout this country. I have befriended people in the Southside of Chicago, Kansas City Kansas, South Central LA, Detroit, North Minneapolis, and many other cities. I have seen firsthand there is no such thing today as liberty and justice for all.

Receiving most of my education in a small 3A school in rural Kansas, I was able to participate in several sports. Taking a knee was never a sign of disrespect. It was quite the opposite. We took a knee to get instruction from our coaches. We also took a knee to give solemn respect to any injured player, friend or adversary.

I say all of that to say this: as men and Masons we owe it to our nation to be honest and forthright in our deliberations. Let us not confuse the separate issues of protest with patriotism. Let us not forget why these men kneel in respect. Let us always be mindful of that time we ourselves stood blind and penniless at the Altar of Masonry.

I was moved by seeing the players, coaches, and owners standing together in a chain of unity. Would that Masons also stood united in support of every American regardless of their circumstance remembering we regard the inward characteristics that elevate us! Let us stand together, even with those who kneel to do it.

I am fortunate to have many close friends in Masonry, very especially, my good friend WBro. Jimmy Harris. He has been gracious in writing this paper on things that have weighed on his mind, just as they have on the mind of many. Thank you, brother. You're a gift in my life.

Have an opinion? Leave a comment below.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Commentary: Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 (with some Job)

In my final commentary concerning the scriptural reference found in our degrees, I have seen a change. I've changed after rereading this closing poem to Ecclesiastes. Because I think context is key, I have posted the full poem while highlighting what we recognize.

Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8

Truly the light is sweet, 
and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun: 
But if a man live many years, 
and rejoice in them all; 
yet let him remember the days of darkness; 
for they shall be many. 
All that cometh is vanity.

Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; 
and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, 
and walk in the ways of thine heart, 
and in the sight of thine eyes: 
but know thou, that for all these things 
God will bring thee into judgment.
Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, 
and put away evil from thy flesh: 
for childhood and youth are vanity.

Remember now thy Creator 
in the days of thy youth, 
while the evil days come not, 
nor the years draw nigh, 
when thou shalt say, 
I have no pleasure in them;
While the sun, or the light, 
or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, 
nor the clouds return after the rain:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, 
and the strong men shall bow themselves, 
and the grinders cease because they are few, 
and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
And the doors shall be shut in the streets, 
when the sound of the grinding is low, 
and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, 
and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, 
and fears shall be in the way, 
and the almond tree shall flourish, 
and the grasshopper shall be a burden, 
and desire shall fail: 
because man goeth to his long home, 
and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, 
or the golden bowl be broken, 
or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, 
or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: 
and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; 
all is vanity.

I find our use of this particular passage fascinating. We discuss in our lectures the subject of death and mortality. In fact, of all the subjects in all the degrees, mortality seems to get the most ink. It's a focus of the Royal Master, Select Master, Order of the Temple. The symbols of death, the coffin, the shovel, and the grave are highlighted. But, have we thought of the square?

As I mentioned in the previous two entries to this series, I think that matching the movable jewel to the Biblical passage is a good exercise for us. In this degree, we see the joining of the two previous tools, the plumb and the level. Through the working of time (the level) and the rectitude of our character (the plumb), we square ourselves for the day when the silver cord is loosed, when the golden bowl be broken. This is the final measurement.

All these things we do, these things we concern ourselves with, are vanity of vanities, in the words of the preacher. They are vain attempts at perpetuity. Then the physical self returns to the earth and the soul departs to Heaven. These words are not intended to be hopeful, this is a lamentation after all. It's the judgement of the Grand Master of Heaven and Earth, wearing the symbol of life, the square, that determines what's next. And that's the rub. We don't have a single passage to work through. We lament but then we find hope.

At Masonic funerals, the words found in Job 14 are spoken (with additions from the Latin Vulgate of collection of Psalm verses). Job is a beautiful and difficult book. It lyrically laments on the absolute power contained within God and the minuscule contribution a single man will have, no matter how successful. The specific words we use are meant to give us some sense of completion, that what we work for and strive for has purpose. And it is explained thusly:

Mortals, born of woman,
    are of few days and full of trouble.
They spring up like flowers and wither away;
    like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
Do you fix your eye on them?
    Will you bring them before you for judgment?
Who can bring what is pure from the impure?
    No one!
A person’s days are determined;
    you have decreed the number of his months
    and have set limits he cannot exceed.
So look away from him and let him alone,
    till he has put in his time like a hired laborer.
“At least there is hope for a tree:
    If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
    and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
    and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth shoots like a plant.
But a man dies and is laid low;
    he breathes his last and is no more.
As the water of a lake dries up
    or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
so he lies down and does not rise;
    till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
    or be roused from their sleep.
“If only you would hide me in the grave
    and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
    and then remember me!
If someone dies, will they live again?
    All the days of my hard service
    I will wait for my renewal to come.
You will call and I will answer you;
    you will long for the creature your hands have made.
Surely then you will count my steps
    but not keep track of my sin.
My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
    you will cover over my sin.
“But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
    and as a rock is moved from its place,
as water wears away stones
    and torrents wash away the soil,
    so you destroy a person’s hope.
You overpower them once for all, and they are gone;
    you change their countenance and send them away.
If their children are honored, they do not know it;
    if their offspring are brought low, they do not see it.
They feel but the pain of their own bodies
    and mourn only for themselves.”

Boy, that's depressing. So, what do we do? How do we take this set of verses and apply them to the hopeful nature of Freemasonry? 

For me, reading through this, with the idea of vale of tears clearly in mind, I think it's the author's way of telling us to stop worrying about death and instead to focus on life. We will experience death, we will leave sad and despondent people behind just as some before us have left us behind. Our work may be forgotten but ultimately, the Great Artificer is design plans upon some celestial work. 

We are living stones but just one. Nothing more, nothing less. All things are vanity, meaningless, when we reside on the quarry floor. We can't see what might be constructed from our efforts so we exert because it is good.

The final commentary by God to Job has always been distressing to me but also heartening. Boiled down, God is chastising Job for thinking he can know the great multitudes present in creation. Job has tested God into explaining what everything means. And God rebukes him.

Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?" (Job 38:2)

And then, God uses building metaphors to describe the creation of the universe:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?" (Job 38:4-7)

Again, a request for trust, for faith. That sometimes, when we think that we are not receiving the fairest possible shake from God, perhaps it's only that at our ground level view, that we don't actually see where we fit, how we fit. And that is absolutely frustrating.

My take away is that sometimes, in our darkest fears, that death will cut short our contributions, that life is too short, that everything is meaningless, that our lack of contributions are just us lacking perspective. We just need to keep shaping our living stone, keep working, and know that God will ultimately fit us once we cross the vale of tears. Meaningless might be what we think we do but meaningless is not what we are. That's what sayeth this preacher.

Thoughts? Leave your comments below.