Monday, October 24, 2016

What I Learned from Dolphins

OK--so anyone who knows me understands that patience is not one of my long suits!  In fact, truth be told, I can be very impatient!  In one of my first letters of reference the president of my seminary praised my work as a budding preacher, but ended his letter by noting "John will need to learn that patience is a virtue."  That was almost forty years ago!  I'm still learning!

Right at the moment we are getting my mother prepared to move down here to Florida from the town she has called home for almost three decades.  There are a ton of details, and many things to be arranged financially, legally, medically, logistically . . . and some of the details can't be rushed.  They just have to unfold in their own time. 

Last week I was particularly caught up in some of those details, and I found myself getting rather irritable.  I am delighted Mother is moving here, but I just wanted things to happen more quickly.  I didn't want to wait for this person or that person to make a decision, or to take an action.  I wanted it all to happen NOW! 

Late in the week my brother Bob was here for a very short visit.  He lives in Marquette, Michigan, and while he had been to Florida before, it had been quite some time ago, and, needless to say, its a rather different world down here from the Frozen North!

My wife Linda and I decided to take him out for a tour of Sanibel and Captiva on a boat called "The Thriller!"  While there are no guarantees, the Thriller prides itself on finding dolphins at play in  the Gulf.  It was a two hour trip, and as we went along, no dolphins.  Forty-five minutes, and all the way up the Gulf side of the islands, no dolphins.  Across the pass, and down into San Carlos Bay.  One hour.  No dolphins.  I was getting pretty antsy.  We'd  promised Bob some dolphins.  It would be a long cold winter in Marquette without them! 

Seventy-five minutes in, still no dolphins. 

Suddenly, the captain slowed down the engines, usually a sign that dolphins have been spotted.  We circled slowly, when without much warning, a dolphin's fin was seen on the surface, and then another, and another.  And then one of them breached--practically flew into the air!  Soon a pod of seven or eight dolphins, including two adorable juveniles, were frolicking in the boat's wake.  More dolphins than I had ever seen at one time.  It was amazing!  Incredible!  breathtaking!  And brother Bob was spellbound.

And it was right then and there on the boat that I realized while the details of Mother's move may still take some time to iron out, the old saying is true:  Good things do come to those who wait.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Giant Meteors and the Right to Vote

Recently I saw a post on Facebook that read:  "Clinton and Trump are like two divorced parents fighting over who gets custody off us--and we just want to go to Grandmas!" 

On the side of the road on my way to work I saw a lawn sign that looked like your standard political campaign sign, but where it would normally say a candidates name, it said "Giant Meteor 2016" and then in smaller letters a "campaign" slogan:  "Let's just end it all now!"

Talk about dark humor!  Still, such things illustrate that while there are indeed ardent supporters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as well as third party candidates Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, many, many Americans aren't very happy with any of them.  Again and again polls show a very high percentage of voters feel unfavorably about the candidates.  All of them.

So for many voters, there is a dilemma. For whom should I cast my ballot?  Do I pick a candidate simply to keep the others from winning?  Do I opt for the lesser of two (or three or four) evils?  Do I stick with my party--even if I don't like my party's nominee?  Do I vote based on the Vice Presidential nominees, and ignore the choices for President?   Or maybe, only vote for folks "down ballot"--candidates for the Senate, Congress, state and local offices, leaving the top spots blank?  Or--and for many I suspect this is an attractive option--do I just skip voting altogether this year. 

I've already made up my mind how I'm going to vote--but it's not mine to tell you how you should cast your ballot.  However, as a pastor, as a person of faith, it is mine to suggest we are called to be good stewards of every gift we have been granted.  And for those of us fortunate enough to live in a democracy, one of the greatest gifts we've been given is the right to vote.  I won't be coy and say I don't care HOW you vote.  That wouldn't be true.  But what I care about even more is IF you vote. 

I know for many it feels like a Hobson's choice.  I know for many it feels like being between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  But such is life.  Life's choices are often less than ideal.  But still we must make them.  And while that giant meteor may come crashing down on us before November 8, I really doubt it.  So vote.  Whatever else you do on the second Tuesday of November, use that precious gift and vote!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Camelot--Never Really Was, Never Really Should Be!

All weekend I kept thinking of a song from the 1960 musical Camelot.  Based on T. H. White's The Once and Future King the musical recounts the story of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and the knights of the Round Table, most particularly Sir Lancelot.  The 1960 production of the Lerner and Lowe classic featured several outstanding performers, including Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and in his Broadway debut, Robert Goulet.  It is a tale of political intrigue and sexual attraction, class divisions and warfare, and the wistful dreams of a world imagined but never fully realized.

The song running through my mind all weekend is sung by King Arthur in the first act as he puzzles his way through his relationship to the Queen.  "How to handle a woman," he sings, " . . .   Do I flatter her . . . do I threaten or cajole or plea, do I brood or play the gay romancer?"

See why it has been running through my mind?  Clearly, it is a question many have been asking over the last few days as we have endured political shenanigans unlike any we've seen in our own lifetimes.  But no matter what your answer to the question (which in the play is the rather charming "merely love her") there is a basic problem.  For it is a flawed question!  A question which grows out of a patriarchal culture.  After all, the marriage between Arthur and Guinevere was an arranged marriage!  The question assumes that women need to be handled. But the reality is women need to be respected and treated with dignity.  Women need to be seen as full human beings, with all the rights and privileges of society. Turning a woman into a sexual object isn't respecting her.  It is denigrating her. And assuming a woman's life only finds meaning if she stands in relationship to a man--her father, her husband, her son--fails to recognize her unique worth as an individual.

How to handle a woman?  Don't!  Don't handle her.  Rather, respect her.  Deal with her as an equal.  It may not make for much of a musical, but it will make for a better world.  For all women and men--not to mention girls and boys.  For it is only when we truly respect one another that we can even begin to merely love. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Why There Is No School--for Some

Yesterday my wife Linda and I joined my oldest son and his family to celebrate the fourteenth birthday of one of our grandchildren.  Actually, it was a day ahead of schedule, her actual birthday is today. October 3, which this year falls on Rosh Hashanah,  She attends a public school here in Lee County, and so has today off from classes due to the Jewish New Year.  She was delighted.

My oldest grandson though was not.  He attends a Roman Catholic high school, which is not closed today.  "That's not fair," he said, "We should have it off too!  After all, Jesus was Jewish!"  We all chuckled, and agreed, what he said made perfect sense.

Reflecting on  it though, I was reminded that despite all the work that has been done in recent years to "recover" the Jewishness of Jesus, work that has been done by both Jewish and Christian scholars, many people forget, and some, sadly, do not even know, that Jesus was indeed a Jew.  A practicing Jew. 

One of the scholars who has been at the forefront of this movement is Amy-Jill Levine, of Vanderbilt.  In her book The Misunderstood Jew she reminds readers of the importance of understanding Jesus in his first-century Jewish context.  "By seeing Jesus as a Jew with regard to both belief and practice, Christians can develop a deeper appreciation for the teachings of the church."

I agree.  And while I understand why my oldest grandson is in school today, despite his wishes, I wonder if any of his Christian teachers are taking advantage of this "teachable moment" and helping him and his fellow students better understand Jesus as a Jew?

For all my Jewish friends, Shavnah Tovah--Happy New Year!  And for those of us who are Christian, let us find in the High Holidays a reminder of our Jewish roots.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Hearing God in Conversation: A Review

For the past dozen years my denomination, the United Church of Christ, has used the motto "God is still speaking . . . "  So it makes sense that I might be drawn to a book titled Hearing God in Conversation.  After all, if it's true, if God is indeed still speaking, who wouldn't want to hear what God is saying?

I wouldn't characterize Samuel Williamson's book as a how-to manual, despite it's half-title (How to Recognize His Voice Everywhere).  He is very careful throughout the book to offer up caveats.  For instance, in a chapter on learning how to recognize God's voice, Williamson warns that we need to remember that "it isn't always God's voice" that we hear.  And that we need to learn "to distinguish the voice of God from the voices of sleep-depravation, stress, or fleshly desires."  (53)  He even echoes Charles Dickens at one point when he writes that what we think comes from God may really come "from a poorly digested potato . . . ." (Ibid)

The book is well-written, and exhibits a real sense of humor at times, even a bit of self-deprecation now and then.  And while it is clear discerning God's voice is a very serious matter for Williamson, he does not take himself too seriously.  In a chapter called "Brainstorming with God" he ends his description of this process of divine-human interaction with a cautionary note:  "don't get hung up on trifles.  Not all decisions in life call for divine consultation."  (85)

All that said, though, I did find myself rather annoyed by Williamson's exclusivistic God language.  He, him, his . . . never once does God get referred to using feminine pronouns.  Even gender-neutral words are seldom employed for the Holy One.  Reading Williamson's book leaves one with the distinct impression that hearing God's voice is like listening to a loving and wise grandfather.  In fairness, Williamson does elaborate on a wide variety of channels through which God communicates.  But in general, the male imagery dominates.

As a progressive Christian I also would note that I have some issue with Williamson's approach to the scriptures.  "It is only in Scripture," he writes at one juncture," that we can be sure, absolutely certain, that we have real truth, from God's lips to our ears."  (54)  That is not how I understand the Bible--not at all.  Williamson also suggests that God wrote the Bible.  I realize he doesn't mean that the Holy One literally took pen in  hand and scratched out Genesis, but still, this does not jive with my understanding (which of course, could be wrong) that the scriptures were written by human beings, inspired by their encounters with God.

Still, for all our differences of theology--and some of them are significant-I did find Williamson's book helpful.  I especially appreciated his emphasis on prayer needing to grow out of our relationship with God.  "In seeking to hear God," he writes, "we are seeking to know [God]--not just to know about God but to meet [God] and to know [God] as [God] really is."  (131)

Williamson's book is not for everyone.  Some folks sharing my basic theological positions, will be so put off by the exclusive language and the approach to scriptures that Williamson takes, that they will be unable to find any of the nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout this work.  For me, it proved to be a reminder that I should never close myself off to listening to those with very different views and understandings, for sometimes they have important things for me to hear and to learn.  Sometimes they may even convey a word from God--who is, after all, still speaking.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Where's the Other Sock?

One sock, left stranded on Summerlin Road in Fort Myers, just a matter of yards from the Sanibel Causeway.  Who knows where the other one went--I have a picture of someone, suddenly looking down at his feet and saying, "My sock!  Where's my sock!"  Unfortunately, it was just one of many items of clothing, including a couple of hats, and amazingly, even a bathing suit, that my Rotary Club's cleanup crew found strewn along the one-mile stretch of road that we are responsible for tending to once a month.  And that, of course, does not even take into account the several large bags of papers, candy bar wrappers, plastic water bottles and empty beer cans that were cast out windows by thoughtless travelers.

We do it every third Saturday.  You'll see our club's name on one of those "Adopt-a-Highway" signs.  Its a messy job at times, one gets rather hot and sticky whilst doing it.  I noticed one of my compatriots slapping his calves, brushing away about twenty ants that were making their way up his leg. 

As it turns out, this month's clean-up occurred on the same day as the nationwide coastal clean-up day, when thousands of folks took to the beaches and byways to pick up trash and litter.  A fine, fine effort.

I'm proud of my club's dedication to this task--and it always feels good to be a part of it.  But it also makes me very sad--and even a bit angry.  When will we learn to recycle, reuse and reduce?  Ladybird Johnson, way back in the sixties, emphasized keeping America beautiful.  And, yes, that's an important part of efforts such as ours.  But today we realize litter has a far greater impact on the environment than mere aesthetics.

Sometime before I joined the club, our monthly effort was dubbed "roadkill"--someone's slightly twisted bit of humor!  (We like to laugh in my Rotary Club--it's part of what keeps me active in it!)  But that moniker is also a reminder that our treatment of the roadsides and beaches can kill if we don't, pardon the pun, clean-up our act!

Let me know if you'd like to join us some Saturday.  Or better yet, invite your congregation, civic group, Scout troop or bridge club to take on a section of highway themselves!  And, if you see someone limping along with just one sock, let me know!

Monday, September 12, 2016

The "E" Word

I just finished reading a book written by Dan Kimball.  Kimball is a leader in the emerging church movement, and has written extensively about the millennial generation and their relationship (or lack thereof) with the church.  The book in question is titled, They Like Jesus, But Not the Church.  Essentially the book is based on what can best be described as anecdotal research.  Kimball interviewed (rather extensively) a number of millennials who are not churchgoers.

I read the book, in part, because I like and trust the parishioner who gave it to me--and value her opinion.  She thought it was a worthwhile read.  And it was.  And though one cannot say conclusively that Kimball has figured out what's going on in terms of the lack of twenty-somethings in our pews, I think he has put his finger on a number of issues.

Basically, it boils down to this.  While some of his interviewees had some experience with churches, most of that proved to be negative.  Others were speaking strictly as outsiders, with opinions of the church largely shaped by the media and the Internet. 

So what were their complaints, their issues, their concerns?  Well, here's the list as summarized by Kimball:  the church is . . . an organized religion with a political agenda; judgmental and negative; dominated by males and oppressive of females; homophobic; arrogantly claiming all other religions are wrong, and full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally.

Obviously, his subjects haven't been involved with my congregation.  While I think there are reasons
why younger people aren't filling our pews, few if any of the concerns articulated by Kimball are true of this particular faith community.  But that doesn't mean we aren't tarred by the same brush.  And if the truth be told, we know it.  I suspect some of my parishioners hesitate to identify themselves as Christians, or as active churchgoers, precisely because they don't want to be mistaken for misogynistic fundamentalists who hate gay people.  Even more may say something like, "I go to church, but it is not one of those fundamentalist churches, you know?"

I guess, in the end, those of us who are a part of progressive, mainline congregations and denominations need to do a better job of getting out our story.  People need to know there are alternatives to what they may see portrayed on television or online. 

Here's part of the message we print on the cover of our bulletin every week:  "If you are looking for a friendly church . . . where you will be loved and accepted regardless of age, class, race, ethnicity or orientation . . . where you will be challenged to reflect on your beliefs, acknowledge your doubts, ask your questions and grow in your faith . . . where God's desire for compassion, healing, reconciliation, justice and joy is preached . . .where you are given the opportunity to put your faith into action through effective outreach ministries . . . then we hope to get to know you as a new friend."

There's just one problem, of course, people have to come through the doors to get a bulletin to see the message.  Ultimately, though we do post such messages on Facebook, on our website, and through this blog, ultimately, it falls to each of us here on Sanibel, and wherever progressive Christians are found, to have the courage to share that message.

There's an old-fashioned word for it.  One we progressives tend to shy away from.  It's evangelism--which after all means sharing the Good News.  And part of the good news is that not every church is like those you see on television!