Prayer Breakfast

Kudos to Cong. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL)  for putting together a wonderful prayer breakfast as part of a national day of prayer throughout our nation.  This was at the Winter Springs Civic Center, and brought together people from the surrounding community, including the 3 Wise Guys from 90.7 FM, Rev. Coffin, the director of the Interfaith Council, and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Cedric Richmond (D-LA).

It was fascinating to hear them all talk about faith in a time of strident division.  It was obvious that they were more than faith leaders and preachers of a specific faith, but also listeners.  The overriding message was this–no matter your background, your upbringing, your variety of faith or lack of faith, your political affiliation or lack thereof–there is more than binds us than tears us apart.  You ask any individual in our society–black, white, Latino, LGBT, straight, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, gun owner or gun control advocate, rich, poor, middle class.  We all want pretty much the same things–a good life for ourselves and our friends and families, peace in our country and our neighborhoods, opportunity to be whoever and whatever we want to be, to love and to be loved.

So, in the continuing dialogue in our nation’s web space, I paused for a moment today to pray for those basic ideals to be sought and fought for, no matter who is arguing in the halls of government about blue states and red states and deep states.  The ideals that founded the country are still present today, and reflected through the different prisms of faith expressed by the faith leaders and followers.  I challenge myself and all of you reading this to put aside differences and come up with new ways to express compassion for those who are suffering the loss of a child to cancer, the loss of a child to gun violence, the loss of hope, overwhelming loneliness and sense of helplessness, for the homeless and those who are unsure of their next meal.  Reach a helping hand wherever you can, and give a smile, a meal to the hungry, clothes to the naked, shelter to the homeless, and in those actions, our ever-loving and ever-present God will smile on your actions…and bring you peace.  Amen.

Remembering Virginia Tech

Eleven years ago today,  April 16, 2106, I was working away in the midst of another busy real estate day when I got a call from my wife, who said she got a surprising phone call from my daughter, Stephanie.  “I’m okay now, coach got us off the field and we are locked inside the VT Coliseum and safe.”  Which made us wonder, “Safe from what?”  Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and other social media were either not invented or were in their very early days.  That meant the way people got news was from a news outlet, and since we were working, we had not learned that there was a shooter loose on the Virginia Tech campus.  Steph was a freshman going through a morning training session in the off season, but the word spread there was a shooting on campus, prompting response from campus and local police.  It was only hours later that word spread that a 23-year-old English major from South Korea had killed 32 students and faculty before turning a gun on himself.  We were eternally grateful that my daughter and her soccer team avoided the gunfire.  But the third most deadly mass shooting was surpassed here in Orlando during the Pulse shootings.  49 died on that horrific day.  And then there was the  all-time mass murder at the Mandalay Bay country music concert.  I have attended conferences at Mandalay.  It is a huge complex, and while some of you have never been near to mass violence, it is becoming an all-too-familiar narrative.  Dozens of victims, a day of prayer, promises to “do something” and then still another headline.  Because my own daughter’s proximity to the violence made me more aware of such tragedy even more deeply, I reflect 11 years later that not enough has changed to prevent the tragedies.  Semi-automatic weapons have proliferated…mental health is at an all-time low…conflict is all around us…and concerns have been raised.  But it is up to all of us to help pitch in a prevent the “next time.”  Common sense background checks, a ban on assault weapons which should only be in the hands of military personnel on missions in wartime, bans on bump stocks, and a far greater emphasis on mental health.  Just as with infrastructure deficiencies in our nation, there is a huge need to make sure people with violent intent can be intercepted instead of simply issuing them more weapons and ammo.  Schools need to be more places of collaboration to impart knowledge, and while some of that knowledge unfortunately needs to be in the form of what to do in active shooter drills, a great majority of the time needs to be spent in how to build friendships, how to work with others in work and play, and team sports have a role in all of this.  Members of team sports tend to learn ways to get along.  It ought to be a requirement, because the lessons my kids learned on the soccer, volleyball, and lacrosse fields and gyms are things they carry forth in each day of their lives.  They are lessons every child can gain, perhaps especially the loners who often go off on these killing sprees.

Eleven years later,  I use this platform to grieve again for all those lost at Virginia Tech…but also for those lost in school massacres over the past 11 years…and pray that our country will come together to not only pray and mourn, but also to find better ways of getting along with each other, and reaching out to positively touch each other with a word of kindness and compassion, and hope that will help in turning hardened hearts of stone into hearts of love and respect.

What it Means to Win

What it Means to Win

We live in an extremely competitive society.  It has been said that second place is “the first loser.”  I beg to differ.  Let me tell you a story about a woman who finished last in a race with over 3000 walkers and runners, and I dare you to tell me she is not a winner.

On March 6th this woman decided that she had enough of being overweight, tired, with back problems so severe she could not walk too far without being in pain.  On Thanksgiving Day, this same woman, having lost 100 pounds in a little more than 7 months, walked in the 5K Tallahassee Turkey Trot to benefit Second Harvest Food Bank and two women’s abuse shelters in Tallahassee.  She is the kind to raise money and awareness for needed causes, so when she asked if I wanted to join her, I said yes, that would be fun.  “You sure YOU want to do it?”  I asked.  But she was determined that she would do the entire 3.1 miles, in addition to the almost one mile to and one mile from the parking lot for the race.  There were a lot of people there warming up on this cool, wet and chilly morning.  Some were serious runners, some joggers, some walkers, and some were children only 4 or 5 years old, who after they got tired, got carried by their parents or wheeled in strollers.  So they finished ahead of the lady who finished last.  Which is okay, because those parents were teaching their children the value of family time together and finishing a race no matter how long it takes, and hopefully, the value of exercise, which can not only make you stronger, but give you the desire to get into even better shape.

The last place finisher had in the past several months not only lost all that weight, but gave up the need for all medications, was no longer borderline Type 2 diabetic, and the back pain went away.  She felt well enough to take a little 3+ mile walk over hills and dales.  So I went along with her to make sure we could track her progress.  The volunteers were starting to pack up the medals, the bananas and water, and even the timing mechanism at the finish line.  But the woman finished the race, and the tears of joy she shed when she crossed the finish line for all the determination and hard work and discipline she endured this year made it all worth while.  That woman is my wife–Janet Balanoff.  She has been a great wife, then Mom and now Grandma…a leader in the community, an award winning administrator at the University of Central Florida and now associate vice president at Seminole State College.  She has paved the way for so many people to reach their goals.  She does it without fanfare, self-serving propaganda, or ego.  In a time when if you aren’t self-promoting, you are not seen to be trying, she serves as a quiet inspiration for so many.  But I hope that now a few more of you will see the hero in this woman…a woman strong enough to take on seemingly insurmountable odds to do something just for herself.

And oh, by the way, the next time the job gets a little tough for you, or you give up on your diet, or your exercise, or hopes for a new job or a better education or way of life…I want you to stop for a moment, and look at the inspiration that Janet Balanoff provides to us all.  And if nothing else, maybe you will take a kinder look on those who finish last, and realize the joy and fulfillment and peace that comes with finishing…at all!  I am so grateful to have the chance to spend my life with this great woman, but let her inspire you to fulfill your unrealized dreams.  On this Thanksgiving weekend 2017, I wish you the courage to follow her inspiration and your own.  Peace.

 

Customer Service in America–Take 20

I attended an event on Friday at the Loew’s Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Studios in Orlando.  I parked for a few hours, and when I left, I entered my credit card for the parking lot, and when I pulled the receipt, I was very surprised to find I had been charged $47.92.  The equivalent of finding you are paying $5.70 a gallon for gas, I called the next business day to talk with the staff there, and they directed me to a very nice young man in parking who apologized for the mistake but said he would be happy to correct if I gave him my credit card number so they could match it up and issue the proper refund of $47.92.

Imagine my surprise when I gave it a day, checked on my credit card account, only to find they had indeed charged me $6.39 (the correct amount) but still no refund for the $47.92.

So I called again, and after several minutes of waiting on hold while they told me about the fabulous vacation that would await me at any of the Loew’s resorts.  Finally because my business means so much to them, a manager got on the phone and assured me that I would be receiving the credit but the system that charges is not the same one that credits, so expect to see the erroneous charge credited back to my account in a few days.  “Could you send me something in writing to that effect?”  “No, but expect that charge to be credited back soon, and sorry for your inconvenience.”

Let me tell you something, Loew’s Pacific, that 7 minute ad for all your resorts just started making me madder and madder because it is clear that your “systems” that take money erroneously immediately, and return it grudgingly and slowly, is not appreciated.  I am pretty sure Loew’s is not the only company that has this oh-so-slow refund policy, but am appalled that they charge so quickly, but refund….very….slowly.  I will now be checking daily…and posting to update all of you when they do make it right.  But this certainly leaves a bad taste in my mouth about their “system” and their company.

This as opposed to the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel.  We stayed there for a night during the Florida Realtors convention and got extraordinary service, dining, everyone went out of their way to make our stay enjoyable.  My wife was so impressed she sent a letter praising one chef in particular who went out of her way to have a dining experience that was A+.  She did not expect anything in return, but a few days later, Harris Rosen himself sent a personal letter of thanks to appreciate the comments and assure her that was exactly the kind of experience they want to create each and every day.

Wow!  The contrast between extraordinary and inexcusable is pretty vast.  Two hotels…same city…one is an A+ experience we will be repeating, and one, well, let’s just say if there was a rating lower than F, Loew’s would have “earned” it.

Little things do make a difference, and I am convinced that the way of judging between companies providing service is not so difficult because excellence is a way of life and training for some…and for many, they apparently do not have any reason to WANT to do better, because they are furiously buying each other up in the effort to create a monopoly.

As always, your thoughts are encouraged.

Hurricanes Bring Out Best…and Worst

Thankfully most of you are returning more to normal as the new week dawns after the howling winds and drenching downpours of Irma throughout the state of Florida.  We need only to be reminded of the terrible damage and loss of life in the struggling Caribbean islands, beautiful tropical oases levelled by Category 4 and 5 storms.  Here in Central Florida, we have the best of human instincts and answered prayers–donating blood, neighbors lending a hand in chopping up fallen trees, providing generators, and generally making sure life could be restored as quickly as possible.  One of our associates was out there last Friday doing just that, trying to help a client, after having given blood, and started feeling dehydrated and woozy, and had to get medical assistance.  While others would applaud her selflessness and try to get her help, one young woman videotaped the episode, laughing, and taping as our associate was rushed to the hospital.  I am not aware of any local law that would prevent such behavior, which I believe not only borders on sociopathic, but perhaps rams through that border.  She actually had the nerve to curse her and criticize instead of helping.  But she made sure she had the video.

I would call on each of you to bring an attitude of help to a struggling piece of the world right now.  Again, 95% of you are the kind of individuals who help in times of struggle, and even in normal times.  We cannot always turn around the lives of those who need our help.  But we most certainly should find a soft spot in our hearts to offer the kinds of helping hands that will heal and assist.   I would call for stronger laws to frankly punish those who laugh at those in trouble and seek to videotape times of disaster rather than lend a hand.   Helpers–you are gratefully acknowledged and thanked from the bottom of my heart.  Those who seek to humiliate and dishonor–my words will never be enough to condemn what you do.  But I will continue to point out the good and the heinous in the hopes that we all lean toward good with a strong faith that it will prevail.  Your comments, as always, are welcomed.

Why Can’t We Get Along in America?

I shed a tear today for our nation.  And not because we did not get a full view here in stormy Florida  of yesterday’s solar eclipse.  Political comments are flying around coffee shops, workplaces, organizational meetings, parties, churches, basically everywhere people meet.  And when you compound that with tweets, Facebook posts and emails…well…it can get pretty ugly.    We have seen a lot of this on all sides. We are going through turbulent times in so many ways.  I always refer to myself as a radical moderate. I vote for Republicans, I vote for Democrats, I support causes like our church, the education of our children and now grandchildren with the best methods and tools possible, support peace in our world, support the business community of which I am a part.  Thus, I have many constituencies.  Unfortunately, we have gotten to the point where in the effort to follow our First Amendment, we feel empowered to say whatever we want to whoever we want.  I am not worried about the radical right or the radical left, for they are in the minority.   It is the people who sit silently until they leave the church, their job, their community and potentially go crazy pulling away from various groups where they no longer feel welcome. 

I also hear some of our most vocal citizens say “if they can’t take it, I guess they need to leave.”  And others who believe their right to be wrong is so ingrained in the Constitution that they frankly do not care what others think. I guess you could say political correctness is not saying what we think other people would appreciate us saying, but instead to think before we speak as to how an insensitive statement could harm someone else’s sense of well being, which is already being threatened by a horrible job, an unhappy home life, illness, or mental instability.

It is not about being politically correct, because there is no such thing—someone will take offense to almost anything we say.  But it is about welcoming the differences around us instead of condemning those who do not think like we think…and walking away when someone says something they do not agree with.  I will continue to pray for all who join us at my church, Epiphany Lutheran in Oviedo, and other places of worship around our great nation.  I will continue to pray for those who have not found God (and that appears to be the gentleman now inhabiting the White House, who appears to worship himself more than his Creator)  and that those searchers who cannot find peace in a troubled world find a spiritual place to call home, and work for peace, justice, and the pursuit of what our Founding Fathers called for–“the pursuit of happiness.”  Think about that for a moment.  We are GUARANTEED the right to worship, assemble, speak, and pursue happiness.  Readers, I thank you for your leadership towards understanding.  God bless you, God bless our churches, and God bless our country with the heart to serve without condemnation.  

One Year Later

On anniversaries of great events and tragic ones, it is always interesting to think back and remember what was happening.  365 days ago, I was at church when I saw one of our members, an executive in the Orlando United Way, leave in a hurry to attend to pressing matters because something was happening near downtown that would shake the very foundations of who we are.

It was only later that morning as the news reports started rolling in that “several people” and then more than a dozen…and finally 49 of our fellow residents were gunned down in cold blood at the Pulse nightclub, more than 50 wounded, some severely enough to require long term hospitalization.  Yes, the worst mass murder in our nation’s history right here in sunny Orlando, home of Mickey Mouse,  Fantasyland, dancing dolphins, and Harry Potter.

Today, our church, Epiphany Lutheran, joined with churches all over the world in tolling our bells 49 times in recognition of all those who perished.  The outpouring of love from the community told the world a lot about who we are as a community.  We pulled together in the face of hatred and tragedy and printed shirts with a simple message of love:  #OrlandoStrong.  There were tributes, memorials, people lined up to donate blood to the wounded who would need it.  The killing had multiple layers of hatred…prompted by hatred of LGBT residents, many of whom had gathered at Pulse to dance, listen to music and forget some of the taunts, bullying, and ostracism over the years.  Just to enjoy for a moment in time…only to be gunned down in a hail of hatred.  The fact that the gunman was earlier to have pledged his allegiance to followers of radical Islam made the crime even worse, because it was hard to separate the contempt of all Americans from the contempt of LGBT Americans and Hispanics, many of whom gathered for Latin night at the club.  “Layered hatred” is what I call it.

Yet over the past year, our community has labored to restore love and reject hatred. Our church, for 25 years a bastion of largely conservative Lutheran theology, has taken up and passed a message of being Reconciled in Christ.  That means ALL are welcome who believe in Christ.  Whether white, Latino, black, lesbian, gay, transgender, Asian, wealthy or poor, baby Christian or long time follower.  ALL who believe in forgiveness, and the redeeming power of Christ to blunt all hatred, light the candle of  God’s love for us all.  We are all His children, and no matter your background, color or political inclination, you are welcome to worship with us, and be treated with the same kind of love and concern and comfort that you deserve as such a child.  RIC churches are not that common, but I am pleased to be part of such a congregation.

Today, I also attended a wonderful ceremony at Seminole State College celebrating the life of young Luis Vielma, a student who died at Pulse last year.  “Not forgotten,” was the message.  For lives of promise and vigor and love to be cut short by an angry madman is becoming all too common in our society.  But to be remembered is all any of us can do.  And when memorial flowers fade, candles burn out, and memories themselves fade, we must remind ourselves of what needs to be done to overcome hate and transform our lives.

Today, I also spoke with a woman entering our profession, and when I mentioned I was headed to the memorial, she said she had a friend who was injured at Pulse, remembering the moment the gunman shot multiple times into the woman he killed immediately at his side, and survived a gunshot wound to the leg that temporarily paralyzed him.  Imagine the trauma of that moment.

The same God of all creation worshipped since the beginning of time teaches that love overcomes hatred…that peace is to be sought even in the midst of war…and that seeking to understand is much more important than being understood.  So, as we wrap up one year following Pulse, my advice to all is this:  Orlando is a great home, a largely peaceful place to raise a family, to work, play, and go to school.  We have things to work on, and one of them is to accept our neighbors, especially the ones who do not look like us, talk like us, or think like us…with a spirit of love and seeking to understand free of condemnation and judgment.  Seek to understand, my friends.  Seek to accept.  Seek to love.  You will sometimes be disappointed, as the folks who lost their lives in the Pulse tragedy were.  But through seeking to accept, understand and love comes great power, wisdom and truth.   The truth will indeed make you free.