Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Look at Inside the Freemasons

A Look at Inside the Freemasons
Inside the TV series that goes inside the United Grand Lodge of England

By Steven L. Harrison, 33°, FMLR

Sitting with me at lunch as we were planning a Masonic project, a Brother pulled something out of his briefcase and handed it to me, “Here… take a look at this and tell me what you think of it.” I took it and found myself looking at a DVD case — Inside the Freemasons. I almost felt as if I was holding contraband; and in a sense I was. This was the much-ballyhooed Sky TV production about the United Grand Lodge of England not intended, initially at least, to air in the US.

Sky TV billed the series as a documentary to “discover the truth behind the ancient rituals and closely-guarded practices of the world’s oldest social network, taking viewers exclusively behind the scenes in the run up to its 300th anniversary in 2017.”

Excited about the prospect of possessing this forbidden fruit, I scampered back home and popped it in my DVD player only to get the message, “Can’t Operate Disc.” Uh-oh. Not only is it not meant to play in the US, it’s coded so it won’t play here. Contraband, indeed. Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. When I tried this in my computer’s DVD drive, it played (caveat emptor – in case you’re thinking of purchasing the DVD, this doesn’t always work).

Well, problem solved, popcorn popped, easy chair reclined, I was ready for the adventure.

The pre-release buzz about this five-part series indicated it was going to be a classier, more accurate assessment of Freemasonry than the run-of-the-mill sensationalism we usually see about the Brotherhood. Unquestionably, it was. However, the producers still could not resist claiming they would “lift the veil of secrecy” and “reveal what really goes on behind closed doors.” Not so much — If anything the producers went out of their way to respect the privacy of the degrees, visibly closing the doors on the viewer more than once. I’m no expert on UGLE Freemasonry but for ceremonies they show – installations, dinners and other meetings – corresponding events are open or not considered “secret” in my jurisdiction.

The show also promises “to reveal what it means to be a modern day Freemason.” In this vein as we watch Brothers in pursuit of various aspects of Freemasonry, from being initiated to attaining high office, we also see them interacting with their families, jobs and hobbies. The show contrasts the “stuffed shirt” aspect of Freemasonry with Brothers engaged in farming, sky-diving, motorcycling, boxing and such. We even see the consecration of a Lodge exclusively for footballers (you know, the thing we in the US call “soccer”) — again, an open ceremony over here.

Mainly recorded at Freemasons Hall in London (Covent Garden), headquarters of UGLE and the “spiritual home of Freemasonry,” the series is peppered with Masonic tidbits, mostly light-hearted, where a narrator asks something about the fraternity and a Brother responds. As an example, in one of these scenes (which almost look like outtakes) the narrator asks, “Tell me a surprising Masonic fact.” A chuckling Brother responds, “There are no goats involved.”

There are poignant moments as well. In one such scene a Brother shows a picture of himself and his wife smiling arm-in-arm at a Masonic function. Just seconds after the photographer snapped the picture, his wife collapsed and died of a heart-attack. The Brother talks about the support he and his daughter have received from the Masons after the devastating event.

While watching, US Brothers can’t help but compare US customs to those in the UGLE. Most notable to some may be the formality of dress in England compared to the ultra-casual attire one finds in the US. The impeccably-dressed UGLE Masons somehow exude an air of courtesy and respect for each other that jeans and T-shirts can’t match. To others, the biggest contrast may be the free-flowing alcohol at UGLE Lodge functions.

A scene that is sure to send many US Brethren reeling is one in which a Mason explains expenses to a prospective candidate. “So,” he explains, “our subscription per year is £215. There is also a Provencal Grand Lodge Registration fee of £25, and then there’s a Grand Lodge Fee which will be £31. There is a one-off fee of £111 plus the subscription of £190. As a Mason we expect some monetary contribution to our charities and also then the dining cost; We don’t eat for free, unfortunately… so the dining meal is generally £24… £23… depends on the menu. If you want wine on top, that’s generally about £5 or £6;” And all this was said to a prospect who, as a student, was getting a discount. So just to get in, not counting meals and donations, that’s a total of £572 or about $750. It is unclear if the £190 subscription is annual but the subscription of £215 amounts to a minimum annual dues of $282. My Lodge dues are $46 and that comes with the right to gripe about them being too high.

Viewers will also notice scenes where some Brother’s faces are blurred so they will not be recognized as Masons. Things aren’t so open in England as they are in the US.

Throughout the five parts the viewer follows Brothers in their various Masonic and non-Masonic activities as they prepare for and complete initiations, dinners, meetings and fundraisers. All of it leads to “Annual Investiture,” the most important meeting of the year, with the Duke of Kent, Grand Master of the UGLE, presiding.

For the record, here is a brief description of what is in each episode:

Episode 1: A Quarterly Communication; a candidate preparing for his initiation and Brothers practicing for the degree; installation of a Provincial Grand Master; a festive board.

Episode 2: A candidate preparing for the Fellowcraft Degree; snippets of the candidate being questioned in the Second Degree (something akin to our proficiencies), with the unprepared candidate stumbling through his responses; a Lodge-sponsored boxing event which raises £8,000 ($10,500) for charity.

Episode 3: Planning for a Quarterly Communication; a candidate preparing for his Master Mason Degree; a Masonic Ladies’ Night including a traditional “grand march”; a look at the Widow’s Sons motorcycle club led by Peter Younger, whose wife recently passed away at a Masonic event; a Quarterly Communication and festive board.

Episode 4: On-the-street interviews garnering public comments such as, “I can’t imagine what crazy things happen behind those doors”; the issue of Freemasonry as a men-only fraternity; a Masonic ladies’ event with the Lodge’s “First Lady” as the featured speaker; scenes from a well-known rapper’s second degree at Chelsea Lodge for entertainers; the Consecration of a new music-themed Lodge.

Episode 5: Freemasonry’s “battle plan” to attract younger members; preparation for and the Annual Investiture; events leading up to the consecration of a Lodge themed for football players and enthusiasts; the grand entrance of the Grand Master (Duke of Kent) at the Annual Investiture for which doors are closed “out of respect for the Duke of Kent.”

There is much more to see in this series which, in my opinion, will be enjoyable and educational for Masons and non-Masons alike. Freemasons will find many of the scenes familiar and very much like Masonic activities in the US. Other scenes will be a learning opportunity as we experience the light by which other Brothers work.

If you’re interested in purchasing the two-DVD set, it’s available for about $20 (US) here: http://bit.ly/2v4ejbL (Don’t forget, if you purchase it the discs may not work in your DVD player). If you live in a region eligible for Sky TV and are a subscriber, you may watch online here: http://bit.ly/2teEhMs .

Friday, July 7, 2017

The "Babe Ruth" of Table Tennis


I have a vivid memory of the first time I went into a Masonic Lodge. I was 15 years old and had arrived with my dad for my DeMolay initiation. The room, a magnificent leather-chair filled lounge, was bustling with activity. In the back were a pool and a billiards table in full use. To one side was a table tennis table with a match going on and a big crowd watching. I worked my way over to the table tennis match and joined the crowd. A wiry man, the Chapter Dad, was playing one of the older DeMolay boys. The DeMolay youth was a tall, thin, athletic type. He was quick and clearly good at the game. But the older man was, as they say, cleaning his clock. "Wow," I recall thinking, "that older guy is pretty good." Oh, he was pretty good all right. In fact, as I later learned, he was... and remains... the best US table tennis player ever, known, in fact, as "The Babe Ruth of Table Tennis." His name was Jimmy McClure.

Born September 28, 1916, Jimmy was a superstar right out of the gate. He was a quick learner and a great dancer. So good, in fact, he occasionally performed with the likes of Dick Powell — without ever having had a single dance lesson.

As a youngster, he began playing tennis and at age 12, and won many championships over the next few years.

Likely on his way to a budding tennis career, a rainy day in 1932 changed things for him. That day, Jimmy's tennis game with friends was rained out. About to call it quits, one of the boys suggested they all come over to his house where he had what he called a "ping-pong" table in the basement. Jimmy and the others followed their friend downstairs, where they found the table. Jimmy picked up one of the strange looking paddles. It was the first time he had ever seen one. In a sense, he would never put it down again.

Only a year later, he stood in another venue holding something just as unfamiliar – the US Open Championship trophy. In practically a single step, he had advanced from a complete beginner to being the best table tennis player in the country.

Jimmy's first US championship was no fluke. His slight build, extraordinary coordination and lightning quickness were ideal for the sport. Up until the time World War II interrupted his career, Jimmy won no less than six additional major championships. He was a legitimate superstar.

To top it all off, in 1937, Jimmy was selected for the US Swaythling Cup team. The Swaythling Cup is roughly the table tennis equivalent of golf’s Davis Cup, given to the world championship team each year. With Jimmy as its anchor and best player, that 1937 team won the United States' first and only Swaythling cup.

As with so many other athletes of the era, World War II put an end to the fun. Jimmy put his career on hold and enlisted in the Navy, serving as a radioman in the South Pacific.

When the war was over, 29-year old McClure resumed his career. Aging by table tennis standards, Jimmy competed for ten more years, winning his final championship in 1956. By the end of his playing career, Jimmy had six national titles and five world championships to his credit. Without the war, there would certainly have been more.

Once settled back home after the war, McClure opened a sports and trophy shop, and then looked back to that seminal year of 1932. That was not only the year he first played table tennis, but it was also the year his uncle, James Hodgson, introduced him to the Masonic fraternity. At his uncle's suggestion, Jimmy joined Indianapolis Chapter, Order of DeMolay, where he eventually served as Master Councilor.

After WWII, given his positive experience in DeMolay, he decided to join the Masons. Together with his father he joined Oriental Lodge #500, the Indianapolis Scottish Rite and Murat Shrine. In 1966, he became Oriental’s Worshipful Master.

After his playing career was over, Brother Jimmy served as a sports administrator at the highest levels, including the board of directors of the US Olympic Committee, where he single-handedly mounted a successful campaign to distribute the money equally among large and small sports

Jimmy passed away in February, 2005. He remains the only United States player in the Table Tennis Hall of Fame.

The years Brother Jimmy McClure spent traveling the world representing the US Olympic Committee, his country and, indeed, Masonry, earned respect all around the globe. He is recognized throughout the world for his efforts on behalf of sports, but remains relatively unknown in his own country. Still, for those who know table tennis, his legacy remains intact as the United States' greatest player.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

UGLE 300th Anniversary Celebration


Years ago I had a job which required frequent trips to Washington, DC. I became familiar with the area and bit by bit pretty much saw everything there was to see; and believe me, there is a lot to see. I soon learned you never need to rent a car; you just use the Metro. I soon learned you never want to rent a car because the traffic there will break the spirit of even the most seasoned commuter. I became an expert on the District of Columbia’s geography. I recall once I even gave directions to someone to the Russian Embassy, a building I called “the porcupine” because it had so many antennas sticking out of it… hmmm…

On one occasion a business associate gave me a tour of Old Town Alexandria. As we strolled down King Street he probably pointed out a massive 300 foot tall building to the west and he probably told me what it was. The fact is, though, I have no recollection of that.

I know I saw it because if you’re in Alexandria, you’d have to be blind to miss it. That building, I’m sure you can guess, was the The George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Didn’t go there; didn’t care.

You see, for all those places I saw in the DC area, I missed two of the most important: that Memorial building in Alexandria and the Scottish Rite House of the Temple. The thing is, back then, I was not a member of this fraternity.

Fast forward to 2017, the 300th anniversary of the founding of the United Grand Lodge of England. A group of young, dynamic, hard-working Brothers decided the US should celebrate the tricentennial along with the UGLE. From that idea that started out as nothing more than a brainstorm, those Brothers assembled a program that was one of the best Masonic forums I have attended.

Meeting on June 23rd and 24th, the celebration, held at that venerable George Washington Masonic National Memorial included a special tour of the Scottish Rite House of the Temple in DC; and there I was, able to tour those two important places I neglected to see all those years ago. For me personally, that alone would have made it, in a sense, the trip of a lifetime.

But wait, there’s more. In addition to the presentations throughout the day, the Brothers were insistent on giving every attendee a chance to speak and contribute. One of the most interesting parts of the event was a plenary forum where we discussed and debated topics important to the fraternity. Everyone had a chance to voice an opinion on proficiencies, dues and other issues. What’s more, the attendees themselves, not the moderators, chose the topics.

Of course, one of the things that makes any such gathering great is the ability to see old friends and make new ones. As my friend and Brother Greg Knott from Illinois put it in his essay on the Midnight Freemasons blog, “At any of these type of events, my favorite part is meeting and talking with Brothers from all over the world. I was particularly pleased to meet a brother from the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Washington DC. We had both lunch and dinner together and had some great conversations.” I had similar experiences.

Most agreed another highlight was Brother John Ruark’s assessment of statistics he has assembled on the fraternity. Sounds dry, doesn’t it? Quite the contrary. In a word, Brother Ruark gave us some amazing information on exactly who we are.

Brother Ruark is a member of the group behind this event. In addition to John, these Brothers, known for their podcast, “The Masonic Roundtable,” are Jason Richards, Juan Sepulveda, the newest member Mike “The Intern” Hambrecht and the host of this podcast, Robert Johnson. These are names you would do well to remember and The Masonic Roundtable is the Internet equivalent of “must see TV.”

Well, as Steve Jobs used to say, “there’s one more thing.” According to Brother Mark Tabbert, Keynote speaker for the event, that date — 1717 — may be in error. He thinks the correct date for the founding of the UGLE may be 1721. Hey, we’re Freemasons. There has to be some controversy. I say, let’s have another party in four years.

The members of the Masonic Roundtable put together an event that would be the envy of any Grand Lodge. Ironically, it was a celebration of Freemasonry’s past that may have revealed more about Freemasonry’s future.For the Whence Came You podcast, this is Steve Harrison with the Masonic Minute.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

His Luck Ran Out


Noblesville, Indiana, population about 60,000 and growing, is the Seat of Hamilton County, located about 25 miles north of Indianapolis.  It’s sort of a special place to me since I was born there.  My father, Robert, was a member of the town’s Masonic Lodge, Noblesville 57.  But this isn’t about my father or me; it’s about another member of Noblesville 57, a man named Earl Teter.

Better known as “Lucky”,  Earl Teter was born in Noblesville in 1901.  He was president of his high school class for 3 years, captain of the basketball team, a football player and a champion boxer.  Influenced by the world-famous race held just a few miles south of his home, the Indianapolis 500, Teter was always attracted to thrills and action.  So in 1934, he recruited a group of drivers and put an automobile show of “thrills and spills” on the road. 

He called this group of daredevils “Lucky Teter’s Hell Drivers,” the first use of the phrase many have used since.  For the next several years, Lucky and his band of stunt drivers toured the country, playing to massive crowds with their ever-increasingly dangerous show.

Teter’s fame and success mounted until everything changed on December 7, 1941.  With the United States entering World War II, Teter decided to close his show to help with the war effort.  He planned one final performance, fittingly, on July 4, 1942. 

Wanting a “grand finale,” Lucky vowed to break the world record by jumping his car over a panel truck at a distance of 135 feet.  In front of an excited sellout crowd at the Indianapolis Fairgrounds, he got in his car, jammed his foot on the accelerator, hit the launch ramp at full speed and made the jump, setting the world record.  Knowing this was a special day and his final performance before the war, Teter had the ramps moved back to 140 feet, made another attempt and set another world record.  Ever the showman, he repeated the stunt at 145 feet.

Having set three world records he stepped to a microphone and told the crowd he would set one final record to honor the servicemen who now had the very future of the country in their hands. “I want,” he said, “to thank the officers and soldiers… I’m dedicating this last stunt not only to the soldiers here, but to all those in Uncle Sam’s armed forces throughout the world.”

With that, he had the distance set at 150 feet.  Attempting his 4th world record of the day, he got into his car, fired the engine and headed full-tilt toward the launch ramp.  Spectators reported they heard Teter’s birght yellow 1938 Plymouth misfire as he sped toward the jump.  He didn’t have nearly enough speed.  Earl Teter’s luck ran out as his jump fell short and he lost his life.

Today, Lucky Teter remains one of Noblesville’s favorite sons.  Each year in August, the town hosts the “Lucky Teter Rebel Run.  Proceeds go to, what else, the Noblesville Masonic Angel Fund in memory of a courageous Brother whose final act was dedicated to the soldiers of World War II.

For the Whence Came You podcast, this is Steve Harrison with the Masonic Minute.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Wisdom, Power and Goodness


"Geometry, the first and noblest of sciences is the basis on which the superstructure of Freemasonry is erected. By Geometry, we may curiously trace nature through her various windings to her most concealed recesses. By it, we discover the wisdom, power and goodness of the Grand Architect of the Universe and view with delight the proportions which connect this vast machine. By it we discover how the planets move in their respective orbits and demonstrate their various revolutions."

I recall sitting in a science class in high school. Our teacher, Mr. Mohr, dropped a chunk of sodium into a beaker of water. The sodium instantly fizzed up and zooped around the beaker like an out of control power boat. Then it burst into flames and finally exploded as the students oohed and aahed. When the rumbling subsided, the diabolical Mr. Mohr called on an unfortunate student, "Henry, what made it do that?"

Henry beamed, "God."

The class thought it was funny. Mr. Mohr, who had the sense of humor of a wounded gorilla, didn't. In his own gruff and unsympathetic way he explained that just because we don't understand something doesn't mean it's a direct result of God's action.

True, but in fact the Masonic ritual teaches there is a relationship between God and the physical universe. From that relationship, as we learn in the Second Degree lecture, we can not only observe the magnificence of the Creator, but also draw moral symbolism from metaphors we see in His physical creation.

God and science are not at war. They can't be. Think about that… they can't be. It is we humans, who don't have all the answers when it comes to understanding either God or science, who somehow perceive there is a war. As Henry discovered, it's a slippery slope to take something we don't understand, stop research, and conclude it's God's work; in that event, what happens when we discover the scientific principle behind it? Historically, many have taken the stance that the research is wrong in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is, in fact, right.

In the 17th century, for example, humans did not understand the solar system. It was taken as scientific and religious fact that the sun circled the earth (Psalm 104 tells us: "He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved." ~Psalm 104:5, NIV)." When scientists proved the earth, in fact, did orbit the sun, rather than being inconsistent with God's design, it revealed it. The church, however, still didn't warm up to the concept right away. Today, scientists and virtually all religious establishments know it to be an incontrovertible fact.

Today's hot buttons include evolution, the "Big Bang Theory" and a few more points of contention. Regardless of your point of view on these issues, the facts for each are overwhelming; and with some religious groups challenging scientific evidence we are, on some level, back in the 17th century. Scientific discoveries are not political, not vindictive and not anti-God. They are based on fact. (Not, by the way, just on observation — any idiot can observe daily that the sun circles the earth). These discoveries don't offer proof of God one way or the other. They prove we have learned more about God's universe and, as we are admonished, should "view with delight" all such revelations.

What these scientific discoveries do prove is that God is bigger and more complex than we can ever comprehend. So complex, in fact, that when asked to prove God exists, famed theologian and Freemason Peter Marshall responded, "How could my tiny mind prove God?"

The Reverend Marshall went further. He turned the tables and asked his questioners to prove they existed. Fact is, he was onto something. Any legitimate, credible scientist today will tell you, your body is nothing but energy. Your house, everything inside it, the trees outside, the very ground you walk on is nothing but energy. This is not some kind of New Age folderol; it's scientific fact. Sounds kind of spiritual, doesn't it? Or, as Dr. Wayne Dyer put it, "You are not a body with a soul. You are a soul with a body"

If what you personally believe about God seems inconsistent with scientific facts, consider this: scientists have already observed the world of relativity and the quantum world appear completely incompatible. Yet, they coexist! Can't God coexist along with them even with perceived inconsistencies? And don't we know on some level all those inconsistencies have to iron themselves out, even if that process is beyond our human capability to figure out?

So many concepts still baffle our best scientists: dark matter and dark energy; the nature of time and matter inside black holes — the "singularity"; a unified theory; the possibility of parallel universes; backwards time travel; dimensions beyond the three (four, if you count time) we live in; quantum entanglement, a phenomenon so strange and baffling that Einstein called it "spooky." To each of these, the best scientific minds around would say, "We just don't completely understand." Or, perhaps more accurately, "We just don't have all the facts."

Many, even some scientists, think there may be spiritual elements to these mysteries. The scientists, however, will not draw conclusions without proven facts — pesky hindrances that some outside the scientific community have the luxury of ignoring. In our lifetimes, we will most likely solve some of these mysteries. To many, those discoveries will not just reveal scientific facts. They will also give us greater insight into the wisdom, power and goodness of the Grand Architect of the Universe.

And I, for one, finding far more spirituality in science than science in spirituality, anticipate each new discovery with delight.

For the Whence Came You podcast, this is Steve Harrison with the Masonic Minute.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Christmas Flower

Brother Joel R. Poinsett (1779-1851) had a successful diplomatic career as US Secretary of War, US Congressman and Minister to Mexico.  Additionally, he was instrumental in the formation of the Grand Lodge of Mexico, served as Deputy General Grand High Priest of the General Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, Master of two of his Lodges, Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of South Carolina and Grand High Priest of the Grand Chapter of South Carolina.  Even with impressive credentials like that, however, he is best remembered for a plant he brought back from Mexico, the Mexican Fire Plant.  After cultivating it and introducing it in the US, the plant was named in his honor.  Today, the Poinsettia is the traditional Christmas flower. (Originally posted April 2, 2011)

Thursday, December 8, 2016


Brother John Glenn, Concord Lodge 688 Concord, Ohio, became the first American to orbit the earth on February 20, 1962. Immediately recognized as one of the greatest American heroes of the time, the ticker-tape parade in New York held in his honor equaled in size only that of Brother Charles Lindbergh. Afterward, the city reported it had picked up a record 3,474 tons of confetti! Brother Glenn never flew again during the early space program. Reports say officials grounded him because they felt in the event of a mishap, the loss of such a great American hero would irreparably damage the space program as well as the morale of the American public.