Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Not So Far from Here . . .

Last week we were all stunned by yet another mass shooting.  A school shooting at that.  Not much more than one hundred miles from where I live in Florida.  We have been saddened, angered, frightened, frustrated and moved by stories of heroic action taken in Parkland.  But most of us have not been shocked, for it has become a seemingly regular occurrence.  The danger, of course, is that we slip into complacency, that we throw up our hands and say, "Well, that's America!"  But I, for one, don't believe that.  I believe we can do better, we can do more.  Yes, we need to keep survivors and victims in our thoughts.  Yes, we need to pray for them--indeed our whole nation.  But we also need to act.  And whether you think the problem us ready access to far too many guns, or an inadequate mental health system, or too much violence in the media, our under enforced laws and regulations, there is something you can do.  Because it will take all of us, working on all these issues, to bring about an end to the violence.

Do you think we need stricter gun safety regulations?  Then take time to write your representatives in sate and federal legislatures.  Support an organization like Everytown for Gun Safety.  Speak up about the problem!

Do you believe our mental health system needs to be improved, expanded?  Then join an organization like NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  Help build awareness of the issues and the needs of those who are mentally ill.

Do you feel there is too much violence in the media? Then change channels, go to life affirming movies, play video games other than Call of Duty and the like.  And then write to advertisers, networks, and producers and let them know why you are not supporting their products.

Are you convinced that we already have enough laws and regulations in place, but that they need to be properly enforced?  Then educate yourself so that you know exactly what those laws and regulations are, and then find ways to hold law enforcement accountable through the various governmental bodies that oversee their work/.

The point is this:  you can do something, no matter what you think about the larger causes of the problem.  And I for one, as a person of faith, believe you and I are called to pray, but we are also called to act.  For when we do, we are demonstrating love for our neighbor.

The time for finger pointing and blaming is long since past.  Now is the time to act.

Here are a few links that might help:

Contact information for U.S. Representatives: https://house.gov/representatives
Contact information for U.S. Senators:  https://www.senate.gov/senators/contact
National Alliance for Mental Illness:  https://www.nami.org
Everytown for Gun Safety:  https://everytown.org
League of Women Voters:  https://www.lwv.org

Monday, February 12, 2018

Why Don't We Like Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday.  Not right up there with Christmas or Easter or even Pentecost.  Not even for the most ardent Christians.  Some branches of the church don't even observe it, writing it off as "too Catholic".  Even among those who will come out for our annual Ash Wednesday Service in a couple of nights, there will be some who are uncomfortable receiving the imposition of ashes who will go home with clean foreheads.  (Don't misunderstand--I am grateful they come at all!)

I am not sure why this is one of our least "popular" holy days.  It may be connected, at least in my tradition, to the overall diminution of Lent.  Most of us Protestants don't do a whole lot of fasting--and the other aspects of Lent seem to be cast aside with that time honored practice.

I suspect some of Ash Wednesday's lack of appeal has to do with the fact that most folks are rather uncomfortable talking about, thinking about, their own mortality.  And having someone smear a few ashes on your forehead while saying something like "dust to dust, ashes to ashes" just strikes a bit too close to home.  We know we are going to die someday--why do we need to be reminded of it in the middle of winter?

Some churches have tried to address the Ash Wednesday issue with alternative ways of administering the rite.  One local church is holding drive-thru ashes in the church parking lot.  Drive up, roll down your window, receive the imposition of ashes and a prayer, and be on your way.  I have a friend who's congregation takes a big sign that says "Ashes to Go" and sets it up on a busy street corner downtown and does much the same thing.  More power to them both!  Bring a little penance to the people, I always say.  Well, not always, but during Lent at least . . . .

Maybe it's na├»ve of me to think continuing to hold a traditional service, with hymns, and scripture, and silence and a few brief words is worth the effort.  Because, Lent can be, should be, special.  Not birthday party special.  Not Valentine's Day special (though this year we are faced with that juxtaposition) but rather "looking deep into your soul to discover the truth about yourself and God" kind of special. 

I pray your Ash Wednesday, and your Lent, will be meaningful, fruitful and filled with the Spirit.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Peacemaking on Periwinkle Way

This past weekend my congregation shared a pulpit exchange with our sisters and brothers who are part of Bat Yam--Temple of the Islands.  I preached at the Friday night service held by Bat Yam, and their rabbi, my friend Stephen Fuchs, preached at our nine and eleven o'clock services on Sunday morning.  Such an exchange between Jewish and Christian rabbis and pastors is not unusual, but what makes this exchange somewhat unique is the simple fact that we don't actually exchange pulpits, at least not pieces of furniture.  For you see, Bat Yam shares our building, shares our sanctuary, shares much of our life.  We engage in joint outreach efforts, joint educational programs and joint fellowship activities.

I began my tenure here on Sanibel exactly eight years ago, and frankly, one of the key reasons I accepted this call was knowing of the unusual partnership that our two congregations had formed over the years.  Twenty-seven years ago, Bat Yam was formed, and then took up residence here--and they've never left!  We have lived together without benefit of marriage, so to speak.  And over that time we have grown evermore close in our work and our ministries, while still retaining our distinctly different ways of approaching the Divine.  Indeed, we celebrate the reality that we have serious differences, for that reminds us again and again that the Holy is beyond mere human capability to explain or define.  And our individual understandings are enriched by sharing those of others.  Indeed, being together as we are, helps us move past seeing one another as "the other" so that we might embrace one another as sisters and brothers, as children of the one same God.

These days I feel even more strongly that what we are doing, simply by sharing life together, is bearing witness in a world that needs to know people of faith, people of different faiths, can get along, can work together, can help repair the world, tikkun olom. 

For while we are of different faiths, we share a common faith, a common trust, in the Maker of the Universe.  And while we who are in the United Church of Christ, do not routinely begin any of our prayers with the words baruch atah Adonai eloheinu . . . we too join in praising the Lord, the Eternal One.

A wise Jewish teacher with whom I have more than a passing familiarity, once said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God."  It is my constant prayer that we are empowered to continue in our efforts at peacemaking right here on Periwinkle Way.
(Photo:  Rabbi Stephen Fuchs and Pastor John Danner, sharing a laugh while greeting worshippers.  Credit:  Bruce Findley) 


Monday, January 29, 2018

I Love a Parade!

Author Donald Miller talks about his friend Bob.  Bob’s a lawyer, who also has served in the diplomatic corps, serving in Uganda.  Over the years he has developed a real love for that African country, and has often helped in efforts to improve living conditions in that impoverished land.

Stateside, Bob and his family live in San Diego.  One New Year’s Day some of Bob’s kids complained that they were bored.  So they decided to figure out a way to spice up the day.  They kicked around several ideas, including buying a pony or building a rocket ship.  Leave it to kids to imagine such a thing!  But then one of the children suggested they have a parade.

While at first glance it seemed just as unlikely as the rocket ship, the more they thought about it the more they realized it might work!  It might be a lot of fun.

They decided they’d all make a costume, and get some balloons, and invite the neighbors to join in the fun.  The kids ran up and down the block, inviting their friends and neighbors to join them.  Not on the sidelines, oh no.  This wasn’t a parade for just watching.  No they invited folks to be in the parade.  They’d all march down the street together, with their costumes and balloons, and then they’d finish up at Bob’s and have a barbeque.

Everyone had a ball.  In fact they had so much fun they decided to do it again the following year.  And the next, and the next and the next.  It’s gotten so big now, that literally hundreds participate every year.  Some folks who’ve moved even fly back to San Diego to join in the fun.  One year the neighborhood mailman was the grand marshal—and as he led the parade, he threw envelopes in the air.  They always elect a parade queen—some have come from the local retirement home.  And the queen gives a speech at the brunch they have after the march.  And everybody marches.  Nobody’s left out.  Nobody sits on the curb.   (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, passim)

But that’s San Diego, that’s New Year’s Day.  What about the rest of the year, and the rest of the world?    For there have always been folks shut out of the parade.  But there have also been drum majors who ahve called a different tune.  When the poor were called unworthy of God’s love, Francis of Assisi took up the baton and made a place for them in the procession.  When women were excluded on the grounds of their gender, when the forces of apartheid in South Africa and racism in America said whites only, folks like Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King offered up a new song for marching.  When women were excluded on the basis of gender, when Irish Catholics were told they need not apply, when the Soviets tried to shut down the church, whenever there has been oppression, whenever there have been folks who’ve tried to keep the people on the curb, there have always been people of faith who have said, “No!  The parade is for one and all!”




Monday, January 22, 2018

It's OK to be White . . . But . . .

In last week's blog post I shared about the course being offered at nearby Florida Gulf Coast University  called "White Racism."  While the first day of classes went smoothly, posters, apparently in response to the course, have been placed around the campus that say, simply, "It's OK to be White."  The creator of the posters appears to have misunderstood both the intent of the course, and some of its philosophical underpinnings.  No one is saying there is anything wrong with being white per se.  It is a factor you can't control.  The color of your skin is determined by things outside of your scope of influence.  It is OK to be white, just as it is OK to be black or brown.

BUT, it is not OK to ignore the reality that in our society, in our culture, certain privileges adhere to being white.  Certain advantages come with being white.  And certain disadvantages come with being a part of a racial minority group.  Yes, many of those privileges, many of those advantages, are rooted in laws and practices that predate those now living--sometimes by decades, even centuries, but the effect of those laws and practices of the past mean the impact of things like slavery and Jim Crow are still being experienced today.

An example might help.  In the first part of the twentieth century, banks engaged in a practice called redlining.  Certain neighborhoods in large cities (and elsewhere) were sometimes literally circled or marked in red, indicating loans could not and should not be made for properties or projects in those areas.  More often than not those redlines coincided with neighborhoods made up largely of persons of color or certain ethnic backgrounds.  The effect of this was fairly straightforward:  no financing, no development, no property improvements, and so on.  Thanks to the Fair Housing Act of 1968 redlining is now illegal, but those neighborhoods that were impacted by these racist actions in the past, are still feeling the years of economic neglect.  And those who live in such neighborhoods, largely members of minority groups, are therefore at a distinct disadvantage.

It is OK to be white.  You are who you are--and your skin color is a part of who you are.  But being white does bring with it such often unspoken advantages, and being black or brown, often unspoken disadvantages.  That's what we need to pay attention too if we are white.  And as people of color work to rectify such matters, we need to be willing to be their allies in the effort.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Chill and Learn: A Few Words about Racism

This weekend we are marking Martin Luther King Day, and more than any other time of the year we are focused on recognizing the reality that our nation's history is often marked by prejudice and bias.  And this year it is at the fore of our conversation even more than in the past.  While we especially recognize the struggles of black folks, and the leadership proivided by Dr. King in the  civil rights movement,  we also pause to consider the many ways prejudice can and does seep into our lives today.  Sometimes it is blatant, and parades with torches or wears sheets and burns crosses.  But other times it is much more subtle, so engrained in our systems, so engrained is our ways of doing business and living life, that we don't even recognize it for what it is.

Hard as it is to hear, it is painfully true.  And it is this ongoing way that we live, often segregated by race, by religion, by gender, by sexual orientation, by ethnicity, that helps to foster continued prejudice and continued bias in our society.  It is no wonder that stereotypes and labels are still alive and well.   And they will only fall away if we are willing to discover one another. 

This past week a course being offered at Florida Gulf Coast University, our local campus of the Florida public university system, gained national attention due, perhaps in part, to it's somewhat provocative title, "White Racism."  It is being taught by Assistant Professor of Sociology, Ted Thornhill.  According to the course description, the class will  "interrogate the concept of race [and] examine racist ideologies, laws, policies, and practices that have operated for hundreds of years to maintain white racial domination."   Thornhill reports receiving some forty-six pages of e-mails  calling him by racial slurs, wishing cancer on him and his family, even making death threats.  The university was so concerned about his safety, and the safety of his students, that they posted two security guards at the doors of the classroom on the first day of classes.  Fortunately, things went smoothly, and the class was held without incident.  One student told a local reporter, "It was pretty cool.  Everybody was chill.  We are here to learn."  (News-Press, 1-10-18, 18A) 

Whether you think you agree with the underlying premise of the course or not, whether you think the course title is unnecessarily provocative or simply an expression of reality, whether you think it's fair to speak about the prejudices of one group without discussing the prejudices of another, the reality is the issues themselves need to be discussed.  And most of us would do well to be like that student, and be willing to simply chill and learn.  Learn about the issues, learn about other people.  We need to be willing to come and see.  For friends, it is as true now  as when your mother said in years gone by, "Don't judge a book--or a course--or a person--or an African country--or a Caribbean island--by its cover."


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Where's Jesus? Some Thoughts After Epiphany

One of the most enduring traditions in the Connecticut church I served before coming here, was called the Angel Breakfast.  Every year, a couple of weeks before Christmas, the members of the Board of Christian Education would turn the social hall into a little bit of heaven.  Golden stars were hung from the ceiling, tables were covered with white linens and decorated with shining candles and sprays of gold, and at the front of the room, the stage was festooned with puffy clouds and rays of starlight.

All the children in third grade and under were invited to come with their parents on Sunday morning before worship for a special breakfast.  Carols were sung, sometimes there would be a craft, and the highlight of the event was a visit by a band of angels.

The angels, of course, were make believe, young folks in middle and high school dressed in white robes with golden haloes.  Originally it was all girls, but the celestial ceiling was finally broken in 2005 by some brave young men who rose to the challenge.  Their role in the festivities was to stand watch on either side of the curtain as the girl angels first sang, and then descended down the stage steps and out into the audience.

The loveliest part of the whole affair came when the angels spread out and, one-by-one, whispered a special message into each child's ear telling them Christmas was on the way. 

One year one of the Dads told me how his youngest child Jane was spellbound by the event.  She was just three at the time, and was very pleased when the angel whispered in her ear, "Jesus is coming!"

As things would happen, just as the angel left their table, Jane needed to go to the bathroom.  So Dad took her by the hand, and out they went to the restroom down the hall.

A few minutes later when they came back into the social hall, Jane stood at the door, surveyed the whole scene, and then, looking up at her Dad asked, "So where's Jesus?  Where is he?"
Jane's question turns out to be the same as the one asked by the Magi, the wisemen,  in the familiar story from Matthew. 

I've thought about that question a lot over the years, and while
I don't know about you, but when I reconsidered the whole story--not just the sweetness and light of the beloved carol about three kings and  gifts, but the whole story--I suddenly came to realize, it contains an answer to Jane and the Magi's question.  Where's Jesus?  Right in the middle of this story of brave strangers,  a vicious ruler, political intrigue, untold violence and refugees far from home.  "Where's Jesus?"  Right in the middle of life--everyday life.  Life at its best, when it calls forth the courage and persistence of folks like the magi.  And life at its worst, when it flares up in the scheming and menace of the Herods of this world. For  Jesus can be found wherever life takes us.  The places we want to go, and the places we try desperately to avoid.  But we will miss seeing Jesus unless, like the Magi, we are looking for him.  For he can, and does, show up in the most unexpected places, and is at work in the most unexpected people.  Not just two-thousand years ago, but in our own time as well.