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!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

There's No Place Like Home . . .

Earlier this summer my wife Linda and I took four of our granddaughters to a stage production of The Wizard of Oz.  Following the same script as the revered 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, the cast sang and danced their way from Kansas to Oz and back again.

No doubt you'll remember that when Dorothy wants to return to Kansas near the end of the play she is instructed by Glinda, the Good Witch, to click the heels of her ruby red slippers together while chanting "There's no place like home, there's no place like home . . . ."

As I write this Linda and I are headed to our home, back to Southwest Florida, after a three week road trip.  It's been a good trip, despite a few bumps along the way including some sickness, a death in the family and a rearranged itinerary.  But still, we are both eager to get back to our house, our church, our friends, our cat and our Florida family.  There truly is no place like home.

But this trip has reminded me how very, very personal and particular home can be.  We've stayed with several friends and my mother.  We've visited with our daughter Elizabeth and her family, my brother Mark and his family, and many other family members and friends.  And in most instances we have been places folks considered their home.  Boston and Newburyport, MA.  Lincoln and David City, NE.  Barbourville, KY.  Andover, OH.  Gloversville and Broadalbin, NY.  And more.  All places called by somebody we love "home".

They say "home is where the heart is"--but I wonder, for there is a bit of my heart in all these places--and other places as well.  So maybe we've been home all along. 

Now, if somebody could do something about the hundreds and hundreds of miles on the highway . . .
say, maybe if I just click my heels together . . . .

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Traveling with Jesus

Middle America is different from the coasts--so is the Deep South.  Sometimes, as a life long Easterner, I forget that reality.  Folks in places like Tennessee and Kentucky are much more willing to wear their faith on their sleeves--or in some cases, as above, on their vehicles.  As I sat waiting for Linda in a parking lot in northern Georgia, I was amazed to see a white pick up truck a few rows away, with the words "Thank God I'm a Christian," emblazoned on the tailgate.

Later that same day, I was passed on the highway by a tractor trailer, decorated with a variety of Christian symbols and mottos, including "To God Be the Glory," again in red letters, this time on the side of a white cab, and, on the mud flaps, "Jesus Saves."  Somehow that seemed especially appropriate!

I am grateful to be a follower of Jesus, but I'm not sure I'd call it a point of pride.  Rather it means humbly recognizing that I can't do it on my own.  That I need guidance, that I need help.  Perhaps that is all the fellow with the pick up truck means as he proclaims he's a Christian.  But I'm not sure I would read it that way if I was not.  I might see it as a bit of braggadocio--as a boast.  I'm a Christian--I'm saved. 

Maybe that's why I like those mud flaps.  If you'll pardon the pun, they seem much more down to earth.  Jesus' wise words save me from the messes I might otherwise get into.  Indeed, the way of Jesus even saves me from myself!  But that said, I'm not about to get my car painted with a cross--nor am I about to get a set of mud flaps.   I'll just keep traveling with Jesus in my own way.  And hopefully, though that won't show up on my vehicle, it will show up in how I live.   

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Mother's Bucket List

Regular readers of this blog will remember that last summer I took my mother to Wichita, Kansas, to visit Eighth Day Books, a bookstore she has done business with for years over the phone and through the mail.  It was a great trip, and the first item on her bucket list. 

Earlier, my wife Linda had suggested she make such a list of trips she would like to take so that we could help make them happen.

"What's a bucket list?" asked Mother.

Fortunately, she is a pretty frank person, or else explaining the term to an eighty-three year old might have been something of a challenge.

"Well," we explained, "it means a list of things you want to do before you, well, you know . . . before you kick the bucket."

My retired English professor mother loves a good simile or metaphor, and so caught on I

She gave it some thought and came up with at least two other ideas.  First, she wanted to go to Red Cloud, Nebraska.  Red Cloud, you ask.  It is the childhood home of novelist Willa Cather, and Mother has her PhD from the University of Nebraska--but she'd never made it to Red Cloud.

So the wheels were set in motion, and this past weekend, Linda, Mother and I all set out for Nebraska.  While there we spent time with my youngest brother Mark and his family, and on Saturday, Mother and I, accompanied by my niece Jennie, hit the road and drove across 150 miles of prairie to Red Cloud.

More about the day itself in another post--for now, I'll simply say it was a big success.

The next day Mother was a little teary.  "Well," she said, "I guess that was end of my bucket list."

"No," I quickly reminded her, "there was another trip on the list.  You wanted to go to Boston one more time." 

Immediately she brightened up.  "Boston!" she said, "That's right!  You know it's like Jerusalem for me!"  And so it is.

So Lord willing, we'll make that trip to the city of baked beans, cod fish and the Red Sox in the coming year.

Bucket lists.  It's really never to early to make one--so what's on yours?  Dream big!  Dream wild!  But most importantly, dream now!

(Photo L to R:  Jennie, Mother and me on the porch of Willa Cather's childhood home in Red Cloud)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Going Solar

I will be on vacation at the time of the Florida primary for local and statewide offices, so I recently procured an absentee ballot.  I have a few choices to make in terms of the county school board and the supervisor of elections (a more hotly contested position here in Florida than in most places I suspect), as well as United States Senator.  There is also a proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution on the ballot.  It would mend Articles VII and XII of the Constitution and add language to provide tax exemptions around the installation of solar or renewable energy devices.

I'm a big fan of solar--especially here in the so-called Sunshine State.  It makes a lot of sense. And such an amendment would make it modestly more attractive from a financial perspective.  But still, I don't think folks are going to "go solar" for strictly financial reasons.  Indeed, some studies indicate a very long time is needed to recoup such investments.  No, I think the better argument is a moral argument. 

Solar (and other forms of renewable energy) is a gift for our children.  It is a gift for our planet.  And when one gives a gift, while budget does factor in, other considerations are more important.  And in the end, many gifts don't seem to make a lot of sense economically, at least not in the short run.  You give a gift out of love, or respect, or just because you care.  So it may have to be with solar installations, and all other environmental measures.  We do them out of love for our children and respect for the Earth.  We do them because we care.

I will vote "Yes" on the proposed amendment.  But what else do I need to do?  What do I need to do about solar?