Thursday, September 20, 2007

What is Freemasonry?

How often when talking about the Craft do we hear these words? What is the proper response to them? I have often thought about what Freemasonry means to me, and this has lead me to reflect on this topic. Is there any one correct answer?
In many Lodges, it seems the Brethren are divided into two camps. I like to call the first the "old guard". Generally, these Brethren are, as the name implies, older. Often they have been members of our Fraternity for 25 years or more. To them, Freemasonry is like a more dignified extension of a college fraternity. They are perfectly content to come to the Lodge, drink some coffee, and enjoy the fellowship of their Brothers. Throw in a meal now and again, and maybe some charity work on the side, and they feel fulfilled in their Masonic experience. To them, Freemasonry is like a more illustrious Lion's club, or maybe even a family tradition. Good men and true, they embody many of the virtues taught by the ritual, and are often very active in the community.
On the other hand, we have what I like to call the "youngsters". To them, Masonry can be all of the above, but even more. It is a repository of ancient, arcane wisdom hidden somewhere behind the symbols and degrees. Perhaps they view it as a continuance of the western mystery schools, and are not afraid of the terms "occult" or "esoteric". As a general rule, they are very enthusiastic, and often cause trouble in Lodges because they want to try something new or push the Lodge in a new direction. They are very internet savvy, and don't always fit the stereotypical picture of what a Mason should be. Many of these men came into our Fraternity after much individual study and not necessarily due to a family tradition. These men value the Craft every bit as much as the "old guard" but definitely see it in a much different light.
So, the question then becomes, who is right here, and can the two sides coexist peacefully in the same Lodge? I believe that the answer to the question is that they are both right and can coexist. The beauty of our Craft is that it can have different meaning for different people. Our ritual is written so that it can be interpreted in many ways. Some Brethren may be satisfied with what they find on the surface, while others may wish to delve deeper. Both are equally valid attitudes. Freemasonry teaches nothing, if not tolerance, and its practice should start in the Lodgeroom.
So, if you find yourself shaking your head at those "youngsters" and all their crazy ideas, just take a step back and remember that these men are the future of the Fraternity and love it as much as you do. Perhaps you might even learn from them. Alternately, if you find yourself the object of some not so subtle tut-tutting by the "old guard", remember that they have been around awhile and may be a surprising source of Masonic knowledge. With a little bit of work and understanding the two sides can come together to form "one sacred band, or society of friends and Brothers, among whom no contention should ever exist, but that noble contention, or rather emulation, of who best can work and best agree." So mote it be!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Dues, dues, dues

The Masonic blogosphere is all abuzz of late over the topic of today's dues and their inadequacy to provide any sort of meaningful program for the members of the Lodge. Before you read my own thoughts, I would suggest checking out this post over at Masonic Minute and this post at Freemasons for Dummies.
These ideas dovetail nicely with what I have said here in earlier posts . In order to make Freemasonry more attractive to potential members as well as retain those we already have, we need to attach value to membership. If all that our Craft can provide is a couple of boring business meetings a month coupled with some mediocre at best dinners, then frankly, we deserve to die off. But, I for one happen to think that that there is, and can be, more.
I won't bore you with why dues should be raised-if you have read the above posts, then anything I say will just be repetitive. While I don't necessarily agree with some of the solutions presented, the reasoning behind why dues should be raised is rock solid. Dues in most Lodges are criminally low. Just to provide an example, one Lodge I belong to in Georgia charges a bargain basement $40 a year, and frankly, it provides about $40 worth of value. My home Lodge has a flexible dues plan, which states that the dues will be a certain amount on top of the annual per capita charged by Grand Lodge. This adds up to about $80 this year, and while this might seem like at least a nominal improvement, it must be remembered that my home Lodge is located in Southern California where the cost of living is much higher. As a result, the $80 I pay for that Lodge is about the equivalent of the $40 I pay in Georgia. What is this saying about the value of membership in our Fraternity? Break it down to a per-month level ($3.33 and $6.66 respectively), and you can see that it's less than what might be spent on a single trip to Starbucks! A Lodge certainly can't do anything meaningful with such a paltry sum.
I definitely advocate a sharp increase in dues. This will be painful for many, but I think the benefits will far outweigh the cost. Furthermore, if a Brother can't afford an increase due to a "fixed income" or other reasons, fine, then remit his dues, or work out some way for him to pay. I also advocate looking at an alternate structure for the paying of dues. Perhaps a Lodge wants to raise its dues to $500 a year. For some, this may be a difficult amount to cough up all at once. But, again, if you break it down to a per-month level, then it is a much more manageable $41.66. Why not allow financially challenged Brethren to pay their dues on a quarterly, or in extreme cases, monthly basis? Sure, this will create all kinds of extra work for the secretary, as dues cards would have to be updated more often for some, but all in all the Lodges would be more financially stable, and better able to provide the type of value that will attract, retain, and activate members.
Along with this, however, I also advocate the Lodge doing more for its members. All this extra money will do no good if it all goes into a bank account somewhere and figuratively collects dust. The Lodges must begin to provide value to their members. One good place to start might be an upgrade of facilities. Many of our Temples are run down and unattractive, both inside and out. Many of the accoutrements of a properly furnished Lodge which are mentioned in the degree work are conspicuously absent. How about bringing degree presentations into the 21st century using the numerous multimedia resources available to us? Most Lodges' idea of a "multimedia" system usually consists of a 1980's era slide projector. Additionally, we could make the Lodge a place where the Brethren might want to come to and spend time in outside of meetings. To this end, Lodges could upgrade their furniture and decor, install TVs and home theatre systems, pool and ping pong tables, and countless other amenities for their members. One Lodge that seems to be doing a good job of this is Halcyon Lodge #498 in Cleveland, Ohio. Really, the possibilities of what can be done are endless, anything from upgrading Lodge libraries, to bringing in guest speakers, to professionally catering meals.
If we keep doing things the same way we always have, then of course we will achieve the same results. Our dues structure is ridiculously outdated and needs to be brought current with the times. Inevitably, there will be some squawking and complaining, but with a little bit of "outside the box" thinking and a whole lot of Brotherly Love, we can make the changes necessary.