Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Harriet: A Brief Review

"Slavery," Harriet Tubman once said, "is the next thing to hell."  And, clearly, in the recently released film Harriet, that is made perfectly clear, time and time again.

The title role is played by Cynthia Ervio, and it is a powerful performance.  She manages to capture the intensity of Tubman time and time again.

The story of her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad often raises a real measure of tension, and successfully demonstrates the risks taken by Tubman and those she led north.  Tubman necessarily worked in secret, and was named Moses both by detractors and those who relied on her skill to bring them to safety.  And that is far from the only religious or spiritual element in the film.  Indeed, through out there are scenes in church's, scenes involving Quakers, scenes showing the role of prayer and vision in her work.  After all, as Harriet says in one point in the film, "God don't mean people to own people."

One of the most effective aspects of the film is its use of music.  Often that music is presented in mere snatches, but several plot points turn on it.  The use of spirituals is augmented by modern composition as well, including the stirring anthem sung under the closing credits.

This is a film we all need to see.  This is a film that tells a story that we all need to hear.

This is a film that demonstrates why Harriet Tubman belongs on the twenty dollar bill.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Pueblo: Why We Went to Israel


This past spring my colleague and friend Steve Fuchs co-led a trip to Israel.  Steve is the rabbi of Bat Yam--Temple of the Islands, the Reform Jewish congregation that shares our building.  Steve and I decided sometime ago to invite our congregants to join us on this intentionally interfaith trip.  And they did.  Forty of them.  Twenty Jews, and twenty Christians.

Naturally we wanted to visit the various holy sites in that part of the world.  And we did.  And we wanted to meet some of the folks who live there--and we did, we met Jews, Christians and Muslims.  Ate with them, worshipped with them, learned from them.  We wanted to share prayers and meals and  meet new friends, and we did.

But more importantly, we wanted to witness to the reality that Christians and Jews can work, live and even travel together!  Because, as we were reminded once again by the arrest last night in Pueblo, Colorado of a white supremacist intent on blowing up a synagogue there, not all people believe that to be true.  Not all people believe God calls us to love one another.   "I hate [Jews] with a passion," the would be bomber told authorities, "They need to die."

We went to Israel together for all sorts of reasons, but one of them was because anti-Semitism is very much a real part of modern life in America.  And we just don't believe in it.  And neither does God.

(Photo:  Rabbi Stephen Fuchs and the Rev. Dr. John H. Danner, near the Mediterranean Sea in Israel.)


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Wildfires and Worries

Over the summer of 2013 my wife Linda and I took a trip out to the west coast.  While we were there we came close to wildfires burning in northern California and threatening redwoods.  I have thought of that trip more than once over the last few days, and remembered a poem I wrote at the time.  I share it with you this week.



WILD WOODS, WILD FIRES

I.

Ancient trees,
Planted before nation
Planted before Calvin and Muslims and Caesar Augustus,
Planted by wind or chance,
Older than dirt
That holds them up.

II.

"They're twenty-five miles away,"
The waitress says
Laying down our burgers and slaw.
"Somedays the smoke here's so thick
You have to put a hankie to your face."

And then she leaves to wait on others
As if burning forests
Were just one more way
To pass time with tourists.

You can tell, though,
She's worried.

--John H. Danner
(This poem originally appeared in the Island Sun)

A poem, and our prayers for the trees, the animals and the people
in the paths of the fires.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Saved on Boston Common


I've been thinking about some of the folks who have served as mentors to me over the years.  And one of them was Dr. Earl Kent Brown.  Kent was my First Reader on my PhD dissertation, and a very wise soul.  

I went to Boston University, and Kent lived just down the street from the main part of that massive urban campus.  He didn't own a car, and did a lot of walking all over that great city.  

In the heart of Boston one finds the Common.  Centuries back it was the grazing ground for cows and sheep owned by Bostonians.  Today, it is the gathering space for all sorts of people.  Clowns and musicians; business folk on lunch break; street people hoping for a scrap of lunch teenagers on skateboards, runners, sunbathers and just plain walkers, like my friend Kent.

One also finds there a wider assortment of religious and political views.  Hare Krishnas will invite you to a vegetarian dinner at a nearby ashram; conservatives will offer you a red hat; some local politician is bout to want to shake your hand and assure your vote; and often a clean-cut Christian young man or woman will approach you with the question, "Have you been saved?"

Now my friend Kent was as liberal as Methodists ever get.  He was also one of gentlest, kindest, most Christ-like folk I have ever known.  He devoted his life to being a teacher of the Church.  He stood about 6'6" and must have weighed close to 300 pounds.  Maybe he didn't look saved--whatever the case, more often than not, when Kent would walk through the Common one of those clean-cut kids would approach him and ask, "Have you been born again? Have you been saved?"

Inevitably the questioner had in mind a very particular understanding of what it means to be born again, to be saved.  No doubt exists in my mind that Kent Brown was a committed follower of Jesus.  But his understanding of what that means would probably be too loosely defined for his questioner.  And so, when asked, "Have you been saved," rather than get involved in a long debate, he would simply respond, "Yes, two thousand years ago."

I miss Kent--and am grateful he was a part of my life!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Thank You, Rex

A friend of mine died in the past few days.  Not a real close friend, but a friend nonetheless.  We would run into each other a couple of times a month, but we didn't socialize together.  I suppose some might even use the word acquaintance to describe our relationship to one another.

Whatever the case, the thing I most valued about my friend was his sense of humor, and his willingness to share that humor with others.  He was a big fan of puns, and on a daily basis he would post a cartoon on Facebook that usually involved some sort of wordplay.  One of his last postings showed two chickens standing in front of a barn.  One of them is wearing a kilt (quite the image!)  "Yes," says the kilt-wearing bird, "I went on Ancestry.com to do some research and discovered I'm Scottish.  In fact, my family is part of the McNugget clan."   When I saw that I literally laughed out loud.  And over the course of the next couple of days, shared it with a number of folks.

My friend will be missed by many people for all sorts of reasons.  Things far more important in some ways than cartons and puns.  But even those of us on the fringes of his life will miss the way he was able to bring a bit of light and a touch of humor to each day.  I will do well to not only remember that in the days ahead, but to emulate it as well.

So, did you hear the one about the chicken that crossed the road?

Monday, October 7, 2019

Is There Room for Mercy?

Do you remember the Tree of Life Synagogue shootings last year in Pittsburg?  Eleven Jews were killed by Robert Bowers in an act of pure anti-Semitism.  It was horrific.

The federal government, which is prosecuting the case as a hate crime, has declared that it will be seeking the death penalty for Bowers.  But two of the three congregations have issued statements declaring their opposition to the plan.  The third congregation has taken no stand on the matter.  It is not that any of the congregations feel Bowers should go unpunished, just that the penalty should be life in prison without the possibility of parole as opposed to the death penalty.

I thought of this as I was reflecting on the powerful scene from the closing moments of the Amber Guyger trial, as the brother of Botham Jean, the unarmed man she had murdered offered her very public words of forgiveness and an embrace, even as others outside the courtroom protested the ten-year prison sentence the former police officer was given as being too lenient.

Both stories prompt the same question:  what is the role of mercy in our society?  And how do we balance justice and mercy?  I have always considered justice to be getting what we deserve, and mercy as a granting of undeserved grace.  Bowers, it would seem, deserves to pay the highest price for his crime.  That would be just. Guyger deserves to be severely punished for her crime.  That too would be just.  But what part can, should, mercy play in a court of justice?  

The scriptures--Jewish, Christian and Islamic alike--speak of God as being both just and merciful.  If we are called to be reflect God's will and way, then we too should be both--but how do we do that?    

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Books, Glorious Books!

I got a text today from my daughter Elizabeth which included this picture.  "First day setting up my new digs," it read.  Her new "digs" is a newly constructed library in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It is part of the Cambridge Public Library System.  Three years ago the old building where the new library now stands was torn down in anticipation of the new structure.  So, over the last three years, some of its collection of books ahs been in storage, and Liz has been wandering, working in other branches.  But now, finally, she gets to go home.

Liz is a children's librarian, a graduate of Simmons University, from one of the country's finest library science (or as it is often now called information science) programs.  She is well-trained and well-experienced.  She knows all about the ins and outs of the Dewey decimal system and Google and computers and all that stuff.  But mostly she loves books.  Books and kids.  She loves to help a child discover a new author or dig more deeply into the oeuvre of an old  favorite.  She does story times, and summer reading programs and even slumber parties at the library (what a saint!)

I am so glad the children of Cambridge have Liz in their lives.  Because having Liz means  they will be exposed to the wondrous world of literature, and the joy of reading.

I just got back from vacation myself, and managed to work my way through a ton of reading while I was gone.  A presidential biography, a volume on meditation, a couple of novels, a book about maintaining boundaries, another on twelve-step spirituality and Barbara Brown Taylor's latest volume called Holy Envy.  All were terrific!  I didn't have a Liz when I was a kid, but I did have teachers and parents who encouraged me to read.  And for that I am so very grateful.

Good luck in your new digs, Liz!  And keep those kids reading!

(Photo:  Shelves in the children's section of the Valente Branch Library, Cambridge, MA)