Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Responding to the Crisis

Every year my congregation joins with four other congregations on Sanibel and Captiva, to sponsor the Annual Shared Scholar Lecture and Seminar.  This year our scholar is Mary Evelyn Tucker.  Dr. Tucker teaches at Yale University in the Religious Studies Department, the Divinity School and the School of Forestry.  Her work focuses around the interface between spirituality and environmental concerns.

Much of Dr. Tucker's work has focused around the life and work of Thomas Berry.  Berry was raised in a Roman Catholic family, and entered the Passionist Order as an adult.  Trained as scholar in Western history and world religions, he devoted much of his time to examining Asian religions, becoming especially well versed in Confucianism.

In a collection of writings by Berry that Dr. Tucker and her husband Dr. John Grim edited, Dr. Tucker writes of Berry:  "His commitment to Christianity is clear, yet his wide reading on ecological issues led him to ponder why Christians weren't responding [to the ecological crisis]."  (Thomas Berry:  Selected Writings on the Earth Community, 103)

Berry's question is a good one-=-not just for Christians to ponder, but Jews as well.  Why are we not responding more fully to the environmental crises at hand?  The Shared Scholar Lecture is open to the public, and will be held at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ, 2050 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, Sunday, January 26 at 4:00 PM.  Join us as we explore together how we as people of faith might better, more fully, respond to the needs of our environment!

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Hearing the Voice of God

One of the joys of being on Sanibel is getting to meet people from all over the country, indeed, all over the world!  That said, there does seem to be a real concentration of folks from the upper Midwest, especially Minnesota--the land of ten thousand lakes--all of which are usually iced over this time of year.  It is also the land of Oli and Lena jokes.

One day Oli decides he wants to go ice fishing.  So he heads out and starts to drill a hole in the ice with his augur.  Suddenly he hears a voice:  "Oli, there's no fish under the ice."  At first he shrugs it off and continues to drill.  But then he hears it again, "Oli!"  Maybe it's God, he thinks to himself.

"Lord," he says, "is that you?"

"No Oli it's me--the skating rink manager!"

Ah yes, hearing the voice of God.  Just what does that mean?  There's an old saying that goes something like, if you talk to God, it's called prayer.  If God talks to you, it's schizophrenia.  But clearly, over the centuries, many, many intelligent and same people have claimed to hear the voice of the Holy One.  Maybe not literally, maybe not in audible tones.  But nonetheless, many claim to have heard God speaking.

A few years back, in a meeting with my spiritual director, I spoke of some of the real challenges I was facing at the time.  The details are unimportant, but after going through my list of concerns, she looked at me and asked:  "So where is God in all of this?  Where have you experienced God lately?"

I knew she'd ask me that question.  Directors often do.  Still I hadn't really thought about it much.  I was so focused on my issues that i had failed to listen for the Holy.  We sat in silence for a bit, and then I remembered something that had happened that morning, how in talking about one of our recently deceased parishioners I had been moved to tears as I recalled the wonderful way his adult children had cared for him in the last year of his life.  In that moment, I had felt the presence of God; in that moment I had heard the voice of the Holy One speaking in and through the memory of children who had truly honored their father.  Busy professionals, scattered around the country, they had given much time and other resources as well, to be with their Dad.  To stay by his side during some difficult days,  Indeed, as I had watched them in action it had been something of a divine call, for it had reminded me of the importance of honoring my own mother as she continues to move through the aging process.

Amazing, isn't it?  God does in deed speak to us in so, many, many ways!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Traveling Light

My father was one of the best packers I’ve ever met.  Whether it was a domestic car trip, or an international journey, Dad always kept things to a minimum.  I remember well the suitcase he used for years.  It was a brown leather, modest-sized bag.  It had a number of pockets—and when Dad packed everything had its own place.  He never took things like bottles of shampoo or boxes of Q-tips—he always had little plastic bags and tiny bottles so that he only took what he needed.  He wasn’t afraid of washing out his socks in the bathroom sink to get another day’s use out of them.  And when it came to the return trip—well, he was very frugal, so he wasn’t weighed down by bags of souvenirs and trinkets—he just didn’t buy them! 

 When I was thirteen, Dad and I traveled to Scotland, and lived there for a semester.  That brown leather suitcase was the only piece of luggage he took with him.  And I was allowed only one bag myself.  My Dad personified traveling light.

That trip wasn’t some tourist junket.  Dad, an ordained pastor, felt called by God to go to Scotland and preach.  He tried to get a leave of absence from his work, but when he couldn’t he resigned to follow the call.  He and my mother simplified their lives as much as they could.  The six of us moved into a one-bedroom apartment.  They sold some of their stuff, stored the rest.  Made a tight budget.  Then Dad packed that brown leather suitcase, and off we went.  Dad didn’t even know how long it would be—a month, a year?  Whatever God wanted.  Things would be close, but trusting in God, he and mother knew they would manage.  And so they did.  So we all did.  That trip was probably the best thing that ever happened in my young life.   It taught me about living as a stranger in a strange land.  It taught me about the importance of simplification.  It taught me how to trust in God.

Not that I always remember the lesson.  Truth be told, sometimes my back pack is overloaded.  Sometimes I’ve got too much stuff in my suitcase--not just material stuff, but emotional baggage as well.   Sometimes I don’t trust in God.  But I know it can be done.  And when I do simplify, when I do trust in the Holy One, I am always the better for it. 
Traveling light.  It really is the only way to go!

(Photo:  Rev. Howard Danner, Jr.)

Monday, December 30, 2019

Still Truckin' at 87

My mother turned eighty-seven today.  Like most folks her age she has some medical issues she has to deal with on a daily basis.  But for all that, she's still truckin'.  Not literally--despite the picture above taken last summer.  A friend offered to take her for a ride in the friend's pickup--and with a bit of help Mom got up into the cab and took off.  But most of the time she gets driven around in her tiny Toyota Yaris.

Which, of course, is the point.  She may not drive anymore--hasn't for three or four years--but she still gets around.  She goes to Bible study on Tuesdays, takes communion at the neighboring Episcopalian church every Wednesday (we Congregationalists don't serve it often enough for her!), and then attends a class I teach most weeks.  Thursday she rests--but the Friday we pay her bills and then I take her to the bank and out to lunch at Marco's--a wonderful little family run diner near us.  She always orders two eggs over easy, a pancake and coffee. Mom told me she's love to have a mug from Marco's for Christmas.  So when I was there a couple of weeks back with my sister, I asked "Mama" Marco if I could buy a mug for my mother.  "No, no," she said, as she reached under the counter, "You and your Mom are in here all the time.  These are on the house.  Merry Christmas!"

Today I took Mom to the bank to do some year-end banking, a bit more complicated than the usual check cashing on Friday's.  I had to explain things a couple of times before Mom got it.  mild Alzheimer's will do that to a person.  The teller, who we've dealt with many times, looked at me and said, "You know, we all really appreciate how patient you are with her.  It means a lot."  

"He is patient," said my mother, "I think we'll keep him."

I quietly thanked the teller for her kind words, and patted my mother on the back.  

Later as I got to thinking about it though, I remembered the many years Mom had to be patient with me.  Years in infancy and toddlerhood that I don't even remember, when I am sure I kept her awake many nights.  Years in grammar school when I didn't finish my supper or do my homework or finish my chores.  Years in high school when--well, let's just leave it at that.  All those years of patience that helped shape me into the man I've become.  How can I be anything but patient with her now?

Happy birthday, Mom.  May you keep on truckin'!

Monday, December 23, 2019

A Few Words about Hanuakkah, Two Days before Christmas

OK--so tomorrow is Christmas Eve.  And I imagine many of you are expecting me to write about the annual celebration of Christ's birth.  And in a way, I am.  But I am also writing about Hanukkah which started last night.  In particular, I want to offer a few words about my friend, Rabbi Myra Soifer.

Myra was the rabbi here on Sanibel for three years, at Bat Yam--Temple of the Islands, the Reform Jewish congregation that shares our building, and much of our life.  I have had the good fortune of working closely with all three of the rabbis that have served here over the ten years I have been pastor here.  And just this year, as you may recall, my colleague and good friend, Rabbi Fuchs, the current rabbi at Bat Yam, co-led an amazing trip to Israel for both our congregations.

But this post is about Myra.  After she finished up here and re-retired, she decided that the next stop on her journey would be as a Peace Corps volunteer.  It took a while to finally happen, but two years ago she was assigned to serve in a small town in Panama, helping school children there learn English.  First though, she had to learn some Spanish!  And so she did.

Myra has a blog of her own, "Where in the World is Myra," and frequently posts about her adventures in Panama.  Several times she has written about the challenges of being Jewish in a decidedly Christian place.  But she has persevered, maintaining her spiritual life midst all the festivals and holy days celebrating this Christian holiday or that one.

Yesterday, on the first night of Hanukkah, she posted yet again about those challenges.  "You can take the Rabbi out of her synagogue community," she writes, "even plunk her in the middle of a town named for the Christian savior in the middle of a country that is constitutionally Catholic--but . . . ."  And then she goes on to share a piece written by Sarah Hurwitz called "Eight Nights, Eight Jewish Values:  reflections for Chanukah on the Jewish Obligation to Build a Better World."  Myra writes, "I am using her reflections, one at a time, for each night of Hanukkah as I light candles in my menorah."

The piece itself is very moving, and while they reflect, as Myra writes, "a very particular Jewish perspective," I would suggest they offer up values we can all emulate.  They begin with "tikkun Olam"--the idea of repairing the world, and end with "caring for the stranger."  Reading through the list, I have no doubt that the One whose birth I, as a Christian, am about to celebrate, would say, Amen!  After all, Jesus was a Jew, why not?

So, Rabbi Myra, Rabbi Steve, Cantor Murray, and all my many friends who are part of Bat Yam, as well as others who celebrate Hanukkah, like my dear friend Rabbi Bob Orkand, have a most blessed Hanukkah.  To my many, many Christian friends, parishioners and others, might you have a most blessed Christmas!  Might we all work together to repair the world and care for the strangers in our midst.

Thanks Myra, for the reminder!

(Photo:  Myra's Menorah in Panama!  Her blog can be found at hhttps://whereintheworldismyra.wordpress.com)

Monday, December 16, 2019

Sandy Hook Seven Years Later: A Christmas Reflection

This past weekend the news was full of stories marking the seventh anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  The church I served in Connecticut was twenty miles or so from Newtown.  Former parishioners of mine in Westport had grandchildren in that school system.  The sister of a close friend was the principal at Sandy Hook, and one of those killed in the shooting.  While I was here in Florida, hundreds of miles  away, it still hit close to home.

When I heard the news, I couldn't help but think of my own grandchildren.  Three of them at the time were attending grade schools much like Sandy Hook Elementary.  In fact, just the night before I had attended the Annual Holiday Concert at St. Michael's School in Fort Myers, where my then eight and twelve year old grandsons were students.

It was a typical school concert as youngsters just learning how to play their trumpets and clarinets struggled their way through a variety of selections ranging from "Jingle Bells" to a medley of songs from Grease.  The fourth grade band squeaked and squealed their way through four blessedly short numbers--all in unison.  It was hard on the ears, but what a delight to know that they were learning how to make music, open of God's greatest gifts!

when it came to the vocal part of the concert--always much easier for grade schoolers than playing instruments--their childish voices combined to creat6e real beauty as they stood their school uniforms with ties that were too long and shirts that refused to stay tucked in!  When our oldest, on the verge of adolescence, went to school that morning he was worried he would be the only one in a white shirt and tie.  He was so relived, my daughter-in-law had told us, when they pulled into the school parking lot and saw all the other kids in similar attire.

And that is how children should be able to live.  Worried about nothing more taxing than whether or not anyone else is wearing a time.  Worried about nothing more serious than the test they have to take, or the homework project they have to case.  But such is not the case, and seven years later the worries have only grown as so many other schools have experienced similar incidents.

Maybe this Christmas, we can give the children of our world, a lasting gift.  Maybe we can take time to rededicate ourselves to making this a safe and secure place for all of God's children.  Those whose ties fit well, and those whose ties are too long.  Those who are well-fed, and those who go hungry.  Those who have grandparents to shower them with gifts, and those who are orphaned.  All of them deserve to go to school in the morning without having to worry if they will come home at night.

Monday, December 9, 2019

A Little Bit Big Bird, A Little Bit Grouch

Folks of all ages are mourning today that passing of Carroll Spinney, the puppeteer to brought to life two of Jim Henson's most memorable Muppets, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.  Spinney was eighty-five, and he had just retired in 2018.  Up until 2015 he provided both the voices for Big Bird and Oscar, as well as the physical movements.  Recently, though, due primarily to the effects of aging, he only voiced the characters.

Spinney started puppeteering at the age of eight, when he built a home puppet theater.  Years later, when he retired, he said that the Big Bird character helped him find his purpose.  And for five decades, he helped small children learn about life on the fictional Sesame Street.  He also delighted his older fans as well!

Big Bird embodied innocence, and Oscar, well, what can you say about a green monster who lives in a garbage can?  He was far from innocent--and always complaining about one thing or another.

It struck me, as I heard the reports of Spinney's death, that in some symbolic way his two characters represented all of us.  After all, aren't there moments in your life when you are filled with the wonder of an innocent child, and other times when you seem to do nothing but grumble?  I know both are certainly true of me!  Deep in my soul there is a big, somewhat clumsy yellow bird who moves through life always finding something new to explore, something new in which to take delight.  But there is also a grouchy green monster that never seems to be satisfied, who wallows in the garbage of life.

Obviously, we can't move through life na├»ve to the realities of this world.  Yet, how sad if all we did was grumble and complain.  There must be a sweet spot between the two.  For we can, and must, acknowledge the negative things in life, yet still hope for, look for, the good.  A little bit of Big Bird, a little bit of Grouch.

Maybe we should call that place the Spinney Spot