Monday, July 25, 2016

Today, Not Tomorrow

It has happened again, and this time in my own backyard.  A mass shooting.  The details, as I write this, are sketchy, but the basics are clear:  two teenagers lie dead, and sixteen more folks (between the ages of twelve and twenty-seven) were injured, because bullets flew last night at a local club in Fort Myers.  The boys were fourteen and sixteen, and attending a birthday party.  A birthday party.  Three suspects have been apprehended, but as of now no motive has been identified.

I realize that the issues may be very, very complicated.  I've said as much on this very blog.  But one fact is clear:  guns were involved.  Guns.  I really want to be objective here.  I really want to avoid sounding like someone who thinks the 2nd Amendment should be repealed.  I really want to support the rights of hunters to engage in their sport.  I really want to find compromises that will work.  But the fact remains.  Once again, guns--not knives, not bows and arrows, not fists, not bombs, not poison, not slingshots--but guns were involved.  And frankly, there are just too many of them out there.  Too many guns which are too readily accessible. 

On average, 297 people are shot everyday in America.  Every single day.  On average, 89 people die because of gun violence.  In America.  In places like Baton Rouge and Dallas and Newtown and Orlando and Chicago and Fort Myers. (News-Press, 7-3-16, 5B)  And we have got to do something about it. We've got to have the courage to stand up to the gun lobby and say "Enough!  Fourteen and sixteen year olds shouldn't be dying because of gunfire.  Twelve year olds should be able to go to a birthday party and not be injured by bullets."

It is not hopeless.  It is not inevitable.  It doesn't have to happen.  But it will unless we do something.  Of course we need to do address race relations.  Yes, we need to address the poor state of our mental health system.  Yes we need to address the problems of police relations with minority communities. But we also need to address the reality that there are just too many guns in America.  Too many guns and too many ways to get hold of them.

Today, not tomorrow, today, each and every one of us who are concerned need to write to our representatives in government and say stop dithering.  Have the courage to stand up for what's right.  Because tomorrow it will be too late for 89 more people.  And some of them may be only fourteen

Monday, July 18, 2016

God in the Knick Knacks

Propped up against my computer screen are four prayer cards--one that has a reproduction of Rembrandt's The Prodigal, another with a detail from Sassetta's, The Ecstasy of St., Francis, yet another with an icon of St. Francis and finally, a card that has a stylized version of the Beatitudes on it.  In front of the cards stand two little figurines.  One is an angel, playing an accordion.  It was given to me by the wife of a woman named Marge who died a number of years ago from cancer.  The other is a clown that my Dad gave to me long, long ago.

I have all these things in front of the monitor to remind me of why I spend my life the way that I do.  For each in its own way, reminds me of things that are truly important.  And on this particular day, as I reflect on the ongoing violence that has captured our nation's attention, in some strange way, they anchor me in my faith.

The Rembrandt reminds me of the simple reality that so many times in my life, I have been like the prodigal, needing to be embraced and accepted, forgiven and loved, by God--and by so many others.  I too have squandered some of the precious things of life.  But like the prodigal, I am given a second chance--time and again!  It also reminds me that I am called to also be like the father in the painting.  I am to be loving and accepting and forgiving, even of those who have harmed me.

And why?  Well, in part, as the Beatitudes card points out, such an approach to life leads to blessing.  Blessing for me, blessing for others.

St. Francis, as is the case with many people, is my favorite "official" saint.  I share so many of his values, and like Francis am devoted to working for the health and well-being of the church and the world.  I often fall short.  And I have nowhere near the courage that he had when it comes to confronting those in power.  But that's why we have saints--to hold out an ideal--to give us something to which we can inspire.

The little angel with the accordion?  I hate accordion music!  But I sure loved the woman it represents.  Marge was a spirit-filled soul, who faced death with great integrity.  And her wife, the one who gave me the figurine, stood by her to the very end, with great, great love.  The angel reminds me every day, that being faithful to my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my m
other and the rest of my family, is indeed, a lifelong commitment.

And the clown.  I really loved my Dad.  So very, very much.  And I think he gave me the clown because he and I both sometimes wore masks--in front of each other, and as we faced into the world.  But beneath those masks, he and I were much the same.  Two souls, trying to work for a better world, a more peaceful world, a more just world, a more faithful world. 

None of that is very profound, but it does serve to keep some pretty important things before me every time I sit down at my desk.  And after all, sometimes God is found in the details--even in the knick knacks.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Let's Not Merely Mourn

Let's talk about Dallas.  And St. Paul.  And Baton Rouge as well.  I mean, let's really talk.  Let's move past the simplistic statements about race and policing and violence and guns.  Let's, for once, acknowledge that we are facing some very, very serious problems.  Problems that are complex.  Problems that can't be solved by everybody holding hands and singing kumbayah.  Problems that can't be solved by cracking down on one religious or racial group.  Problems that can't be solved by building walls, or eliminating all guns or any of the other so-called solutions that have been offered up.  Let's really talk about the fact that Dallas and St. Paul and Baton Rouge, not to mention Orlando and Newtown and so many other incidents, show us that we have failed on many fronts to really address some of the serious issues we are facing today.  Let us take time to sort out those issues and recognize that while they are closely interrelated, focusing on just one or another of them will not bring about the peaceful society for which many Americans long.

First racism and the things that grow out of it.  Things like white privilege.  Things like ongoing poverty in certain sectors of the population. "But I'm not a racist," many will say.  And that may indeed be true, but our very institutions perpetuate racial divides in many ways.  I'm not pretending to unravel all that here--I'm just pointing out the reality as I see it.  We need to go deeper, we need to really wrestle with the issue of race in America.

Second, violence.  We live in a culture permeated by violence. It is laced throughout our media.  Video games.  Books.  Movies.  The internet.  So what is violence really all about?  Why do we so often feel the need to resort to violence?  I know, these questions are as old as humankind--but we need to discuss them and at least be honest about the answers.

Third, guns.  There are a lot of guns in America.  A lot.  In fact, there is basically one gun for every man, woman and child in America.  (  It only makes sense: the more guns you have available to people, the greater the chance they will be used. But simply making all guns illegal won't solve the problems associated with gun violence.  Our conversations about guns need to be nuanced, thoughtful--but also honest.  Can we for once get away from the all or nothing thinking that seems to dominate this particular debate?

Fourth policing.  Obviously, police policy and practices are impacted by all of the above.  But there are other issues as well.  The importance of recruitment and training.  The importance of providing real support for law enforcement officials (including adequate funding and salaries).  The need to move away from the "us versus them" approach. Law enforcement officials are public servants--and that means the whole public.

On this particular Monday there are families in Dallas and St. Paul and Baton Rouge that are mourning the deaths of their loved ones.  We join them in their grief.  It is right that we do so.  But let us do more than merely mourn.  Let us have the courage to confess that as a nation we have failed to live up to the ideals we profess.  And then, let us work together, across party lines, across ideological lines, across racial and religious lines, to find solutions that work.  Educate yourself about the issues at hand.  Write your representatives in government and share your frustrations, and your hopes.  Join a local group working on one or another of these problems.  Yes, pray about them.  Yes, hold the victims in your thoughts.  But let's not merely mourn. Let's act. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


Binge drinking.  Binge shopping.   Binge eating.  All things one should definitely avoid.  Binge drinking can lead to all sorts of problems ranging from drunk driving to sexual assault.  Binge shopping can lead to a closet full of stuff you just don't need--more pairs of shoes than you could wear in a lifetime, more suits than any single human being ever needs.  And binge eating can lead to stomach aches, obesity, heart burn, high blood pressure--the list of ailments is almost unlimited!  No, those kinds of binging are clearly troublesome.  Indeed they can be the result of specific diseases like alcoholism or compulsive eating disorder--and they can be lethal.

But what about binge reading?  And binge watching?

I have always been a binge reader.  When I find an author I like, I tend to proceed to read everything he or she has written. It started in high school, when I read The grapes of Wrath, and was enamored with John Steinbeck.  I still have many of the paperbacks I bought and read over the next few months, devouring the well-know Steinbeck books, like East of Eden and Of Mice and Men, and also the lesser know works, like The Wayward Bus

Today, some forty-five years alter, f I find a topic that particularly concerns or interests me, I focus much of my reading on unearthing every volume I can find on the subject.  I've shared in this blog before about my current presidential project, reading a biography of every one of our presidents (I'm up to Coolidge, by the way!)  What binge reading does for me is it allows me to really immerse myself in a style, or a genre, or a topic, and learn, learn learn!

Binge watching is for me something rather new--all made possible by things like streaming services and my trusty DVR.  Last week my wife Linda and I binge watched the remake of Roots that I had recorded when it was broadcast earlier this year.  Over three nights we watched the eight hours of Alex Haley's family story.  It was, at times, very brutal and graphic, but it was, after all, about slavery.  And that is a story that cannot really be told without violence.  My mind was reeling after the last episode faded from the screen--but, even as the first version of it which I saw while I was in seminary many years ago did, it gave me a much deeper appreciation of the impact of slavery on the history of our country, and on the daily lives of Americans, especially black Americans, to this very day.  I could have watched it piece meal, but the binge watching allowed me to really get caught up in the story.  And it was an important way to mark the 4th of July.

So there you have it.  My take on binging.  Like most words, it has a number of potential uses. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


When I graduated from seminary I had to assemble a professional profile--if you will, and overgrown resume.  The profile had to include eight written references.  One of mine was written by the president of my seminary.  In it he kindly offered up some kind words about my potential as a pastor, but he also wrote this:  "John will need to learn, and I am certain he will learn, that patience also is a virtue.  He is very anxious--in some ways a laudable quality--to get everything done immediately.  Without losing that edge, he needs to learn that there are seasons for certain efforts, and seasons for waiting."   In so many ways, President Glick's assessment of my potential, sums up Kent Annan's insightful, helpful book.  Without losing the edge, those who seek after peace and justice, need to be patient, for the kingdom of God will come--but it will often seem to be taking a very long time!

Annan's book focuses on five practices Christians (and others) can engage in as they seek to cooperate with God's work:  Attention, Confession, Respect, Partnering and Truthing.  Each of these, Annan argues, can aid one as he or she attempts to engage in social .  "The same love that calls us to work for a more just world," writes Anna, "also calls our inner lives to be shaped by justice.  Who we are determines how we act . . . ."  (26)  Engaging in the practices, Anna contends, can help shape us from the inside out.

Annan uses many examples, some drawn from his own experiences, to illustrate his various points.  He does not shy away from negative examples (this is what not to do) but more often he focuses on positive examples, success stories if you will.  Always, though, casting them in the light of the "slow kingdom coming."

Anna's website includes some helpful resources and study tools to augment the book.

I am recommending it to the mission committee at my own church.  It is that good.

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, June 20, 2016

Thinking about Race

I'm participating this week in a webinair on white privilege.  The webinair is an orientation to a new curriculum being introduced by the United Church of Christ, our denomination.  It is designed to help folks explore what it means to be white in America.  The course will be focusing on issues like education, incarceration and economics, and how being white in America confers certain often unrealized privileges.

I'm taking the webinair to learn more not only about the issue, but also about the curriculum.  I am hoping to use it here at the church in the coming year.  While I know folks in my congregation will be open to discussing the issues, I wonder how they will respond to the basic premise?  Like most UCC congregations, we are overwhelmingly white (as is Sanibel in general.)  Our county, Lee County, is not--there are large numbers of African-Americans, Hispanics, and others.  But for the most part, aside from their presence during the day as part of the minimum wage work force, they are not on the island.

During the webinair's first session today there were two or three instant polls of participants asking a variety of questions.  One of them had to do with how I had experienced white privilege.  Had it given me any advantages in things like employment, housing or education?  Had it bettered my chances of receiving a loan?  I suspect the answer to all of these is yes, but I could not truthfully say I had been aware of any advantage in most of the areas listed.  And that, I imagine, is the problem.  Those of us who are privileged, don't even realize it most of the time.  It is so "baked in" to our culture, that we think the way we are able to live is the norm for all. 

I imagine I will learn much over these next few days as I think about the issue.  I am glad that the last session is something of a "where to from here" session..  How can I,
as a white person, be a part of bringing about change. I suspect that's the biggest issue of all.  Clearly, awareness is the first step--but what next?

Monday, June 13, 2016

Heaven or Hell? Love or Hate?

Saturday, June 11th at Noon, at Copley Square, thousands of folks gathered to join in Boston's annual Pride Parade.  Black and white folks, young and old, gay, bisexual, transgendered, lesbian and straight, people of many religious persuasions, and some of none--all sorts of folks, joining in a festive celebration.  Among them, my granddaughter pictured above on the right, chatting away with one of her friends.  She and one of her moms, my daughter Liz's partner Erica, had a grand time.  It was like heaven on earth.
Not much more than twelve hours later in Orlando, where two more of my granddaughters live, a man bent on terror and hate, blasted his way into a gay nightclub, filled with more folks celebrating life, dancing into the wee hours, and killed fifty, while injuring fifty-three more.  Blood and weeping soon spread into the night.  It was like hell on earth.
As a grandfather, it all scares me.  What if that hatred had spewed out over the parade in Boston?  What if . . . .

But then I stop, and realize I'm thinking exactly the way hatemongers and terrorists want me to think.  I am succumbing to fear.  And that can only get in the way.  For fear breeds all sorts of distorted thinking, distorted responses. 

I can't help but wonder, for instance, what sort of fears prompted Pastor Stephen Anderson in Tempe, Arizona, to record a video message saying in reference to the Orlando shooting, "The good news is that there's 50 less pedophiles in this world, because you l know, these homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts and pedophiles.  That's who was a victim here, a bunch of, just disgusting homosexuals at a gay bar, okay?"  (  Well, no, Pastor Anderson, it is not okay.  It is no more okay than the shootings in Sandy Hook or Blacksburg.  It is no more okay than the shootings in Charleston or Aurora.  The folks killed in Orlando, were all sons and daughters, grandchildren, of those who now grieve.  And more than that, they were, and are, sons and daughters of God.  And God also weeps.

The first report I read after the incident, said officials were trying to determine if this was a hate crime.  I realize there is a technical definition of a hate crime.  But make no mistake.  This was, in every sense of the word, a hate crime. But hate mustn't be allowed to prevail.  Fear must not be allowed to grip our hearts.  There are many things we must say and do in response I am sure. I am not sure what all the answers are to assuring the safety of my children, and yours as well, but of this I am sure:  whatever we do, must grow out of love, for hatred only breeds more hatred.  Love alone can change us.  Love alone can save.  But love takes work.  Hard work, complicated work. 

I say all this as a grandfather who wants only the best for his family and yours as well.  I say it as a Christian pastor.  I say this knowing we can choose--heaven or hell.  Love or hate.

(Photo Credit:  Erica Edwards)