Monday, April 24, 2017

Canadian Silence

I spent this past weekend with three-hundred and fifty spiritual directors--women and men from many faith traditions who help folks navigate the life of the spirit.  We had all gathered in Toronto for the annual conference of Spiritual Directors International.

It was a well-organized event, with the usual mix of workshops and plenary sessions, keynote presentations and even a bit of music.  But what makes these gatherings relatively unique is the silence, for several times over the course of the gathering we were called into intentional times of silence, intentional times of making space for the Holy.

One of the workshop leaders distributed copies of a poem by May Sarton titled "Beyond Questions."  It is a lovely extended metaphor, drawing a comparison between a nesting bird and the practice of silence (or at least that's how I read it!)  Despite it's title, one stanza asks a powerful question:       
                                                            Can I weave a nest for silence
                                                            Weave it of listening
                                                            Listening layer upon layer?

I bring many things home from my Canadian sojourn, many leanings, but perhaps the most important thing I carried back across the border is a reminder of the role silence can and does play in my work as a pastor, in my work as as a spiritual director, and beyond that, in my very life.

Enough said.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Shedding Blood: Thoughts on Good Friday

Last Friday after I left our midday Good Friday worship service I went to the local blood donation center and gave a pint.  It was just a coincidence of timing.  I am a regular donor, and it was time for my every other month donation.  But as I left the donation center, I couldn't help but think of the words I had spoken the night before at our Maundy Thursday communion service:  "This is my blood," Jesus told his disciples, "shed for you."

Now make no mistake, I don't have some sort of a messiah complex.  I realize it was my blood, not the blood of Christ that I left behind at the blood bank.  But still, in a strange sort of way, it was Christ's blood--after all, the church is called the body of Christ.

Bear with me, here, and let me play this out a bit.  What better way for us to mark the holiest days of the year than by giving of ourselves in such a potentially life-saving fashion?  That pint of A positive blood, may go to someone who is undergoing surgery, or chronically in need of transfusions, or something else altogether.  But whatever, it may indeed help save a life.

I'm not trying to be the hero of my own story here.  All I did was spend twenty minutes or so giving some blood.  I even go a free t-shirt out of it.  (Bright red, by the way.  It has a watermark of the flag, and it says, "All American Donor."  I guess that's what's meant by being a red-blooded American.)
But seriously--this is something I can do every Good Friday if I'm medically able to do so.  And it is something you can do as well. 

Don't know where to go?  Just click on and find a donation center near you!

In the name of Christ.  In service to unknown strangers.  How much more holy does it get than that!

Happy Easter!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Etta and Easter: A Tale of Resurrection

Often when I think about resurrection I remember Etta Simpson.  I met her several years ago when I took a group of teenagers and adults from my then congregation to Mound Bayou, Mississippi.  Mound Bayou was the first community founded in this nation by former slaves.  It's located in Bolivar County--one of the poorest counties in the nation.  We'd gone there work on helping restore and old run-down building that was going to be used by the local chapter of the National Council of Negro Women for an afterschool program and day-care center.

Etta Simpson was the President of the Council at the time.  Miss Simpson, as everyone called her, was a retired schoolteacher.  She walked with a cane.  She could have just rested on her laurels and enjoyed her pension, but instead she put in dozens of hours a week to help the children of Mound Bayou.

The old building was an absolute disaster, and we worked hard.  We carried off huge trailer loads of trash and broken furniture.  We ripped down ceilings and painted walls.  We scrubbed and cleaned.  We were pleased with what we has accomplished--but secretly, I wondered if our beginnings would ever get finished.

I should have known better!  For Etta Simpson was a woman of faith.  She knew the truth of resurrection!  And she was determined to see to it that that old building rose up from the rubble!

About nine months after we left Mound Bayou I received a package from there.  With a letter from Miss Simpson.  It seems that since we left, her own life had taken on a measure of uncertainty.

"Dear Pastor Danner," the letter began, "I hope that everything has been going well with you and your congregation and family.  The next week after you left my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer . . . ."  That would seem to be enough to stop most of us in our tracks.  But not Miss Simpson.  Her letter went on: ". . . but he is doing very well at this time.  I want you to know that we members of the National Council do not have enough words to express our gratefulness for the unforgettable gesture that you and our congregation did for us last summer.  It has taken quite a while for us to get the building in shape for use.  We have now completed the restrooms, the reading room, the fellowship hall and the kitchen . . . Give my love to all and may the Lord continue to bestow his wonderful blessing on you and your church family.  With love and thanksgiving, Etta T. Simpson."

I shall always remember Miss Simpson--and what better time to do so than at Easter?

Monday, April 3, 2017

Pondering Palm Sunday--Or At Least the Palms

We recently placed an order for palm fronds to use during worship on Palm Sunday.  I'm not sure why we order them.  It's like taking coals to Newcastle!  I mean, we live in Florida!  We could go outside and cut them for ourselves.  But we order them, and they get shipped to us from who knows where!  We do cut our own palm branches--the ones the children of the congregation will use to parade around the sanctuary at the beginning of worship.  But the fronds that we hand out to worshippers as they leave the service, those will have come from somewhere far away.

Ordering our palm fronds is a practice that predates my time here on Sanibel.  I think we use the same supplier that was used years ago before my arrival in 2010.  I didn't start the tradition--I'm just following in the footsteps of those who've gone before me.

Now in the overall scheme of things I'm not sure it makes much difference whether we get our palm fronds through the mail or out the back door.  But I think there is something here to be learned about the power of tradition, and the ease of habit.  How often do we inherit a way of thinking, a way of doing, a way of being, without giving it much thought?  How often do we simply do things the way they've always been done?  Tradition has its value--no question.  And habits can make life easier is good ways as well.  I'm glad I don't have to think twice about brushing my teeth or taking a shower.  But unquestioned, unchallenged, habits and traditions are often anachronistic, and sometimes even dangerous.

Maybe next year we'll cut our own palm fronds.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Hyacinths and Hope

OK--everybody who has heard of Nowruz, put your hand up.  Anybody?  I realize, unless you are Iranian, or a Zoroastrian, or a reader (like me) of the Sunday New York Times, you probably didn't raise your hand.  But I must say, I was very taken with an article describing this Iranian holiday a week ago Sunday.  It's official flower is hyacinth, and some of its delicacies include chickpea cookies and sprouted lentils

It's a springtime celebration--a recognition of the hope that is in the air this time of year.  Apparently, while rooted in Zoroastrianism, it is not a specifically religious holiday.  I got a kick out of the way Firoozeh Dumas, the author of the Times article, put it:  "Here is a holiday that asks only one thing of you--to have hope. . . . There is no controversy associated with Nowruz.  No indigenous people were displaced, no wars were fought, no one died.  Unless winter comes up with some sordid revelation about spring, we are in the clear."  ("Your New Iranian Holiday,"  New York Times, 3-19-17, Review-2)

To have hope.  That's not a very tall order, or at least not most days.  Granted, in light of the mess in Washington right now, and the poor relations Iran itself has with some of its neighbors, and the threat posed by North Korea, and the fact that some folks still deny climate change, one could say hope's in short supply.  But of course, the minute we say that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So here's to spring--and here's to hope.  The hope that we human beings will get our act together and stop dividing ourselves over every little difference we can find.  Here's to the hope that we can open ourselves up to that Love that permeates the universe, and worry less about labels and the names we use for the Holy.  Here's to spring--and to the hope it holds out every year that we can begin again, that we can start fresh, that we can be renewed.  Here's to hyacinths and Nowruz and hope.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Healthcare: Right or Responsibility?

The debate in this country about healthcare insurance has been going on for decades.  And recently it has come to my attention that for many people it boils down to a simple binary.  Healthcare is seen by some as a responsibility, and by others as a right. 

On one side, it is said that each and every person should take primary responsibility for his or her own healthcare and the necessary financial provisions that make that possible.  Most folks on that side of the debate are willing to exempt children, although they would, most likely, argue that each child's parents are responsible for the care of their own child.

On the other side there are those who say, healthcare should be the right of every citizen.  Each and every citizen in this country should be able to expect high quality healthcare, provided for by the government.  Many on this side of the argument would even extend that right to those who are not citizens of our nation, but merely residents.

Like most binaries, I think such black and white thinking tends to polarize rather than clarify.  The answer to our nation's healthcare dilemma must lie somewhere between the two.  Or maybe, even better, in a combination of the two.  Does seeing something as a right automatically rule out personal responsibility?  Of course not!  I have the right to vote, but I also have the responsibility to exercise that right.  I have the right to speak freely about any subject I wish, but I also have the responsibility to use that right in ways that advance the common good.

Rights and responsibility are not mutually exclusive!  So how can we craft a system that makes quality healthcare accessible to all, and yet which encourages, fosters, personal responsibility?  The answer to that question, I suspect, is the answer to our dilemma.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Poem a Day

I've taken up a new discipline to go along with my Bible reading, and prayer and meditation.  I am reading a poem a day.  Right at the moment I am working my way through
a volume of poems by Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States.

It all happened because one day in doing some research for a sermon I came across an exquisite poem, which really prompted me to stop and think about its meaning--and ultimately about meaning in general.  I realized, as much as a love poetry (I have quite a few volumes of it), as much as I enjoy writing poetry (I've even had a poem or two published), I just don't read enough of it.  So I vowed to begin.  I'd always wanted to read some more Collins--so I went out and purchased one of his books, and began to read through it.  A poem a day.

I suspect we would all do well to read a poem a day.  I know, some people just don't like poetry.  And others feel they never "get it".  But I'm not sure most poets want you to "get it".  I suspect most poets want you to simply experience their poems.  Live into them, so to speak.   After all, good poems invite the reader to engage with the words, the ideas, even the implied silences.  Good poems invite you to pause . . . to think . . . to feel . . . to be.

Here's the wonderful irony of it all for me at the moment.  I am co-teaching a course which includes a look at Emily Dickinson.  And I just discovered Collins has a poem called "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes."  It is something of an inside joke--while at the same time, offering some wonderful images.  And when Collins writes, "What I can tell you is/it was terribly quiet in Amherst/that Sabbath afternoon . . ." you can hear a pin drop!  A hair pin that is.