Monday, December 10, 2018

Lessons Learned from Dad and a Dried Out Tree

My Christmas tree is already up at home.  I spoke about it in my sermon this past Sunday.  And it made me think of a Christmas long ago, when I was just nine.

I was in the fourth grade, and a devoted student of my teacher, Miss Barrett.  Like most all classrooms in that time, ours was decorated for most of December with snowflakes we'd cut out of white paper, and chains of red and green construction paper rings.  And, of course, a decorated tree.  Not a plastic tree, mind you, but a real live pine.  It stood in the corner of the classroom for two or three weeks before Christmas.  Then, on the last day of school before our vacation, we had a class Christmas party.  We exchanged our no-more-than-one-dollar-a piece grab bag gifts , sang some Christmas songs and then ate the cupcakes our room mother had made that left us with green lips and red tongues.

I am not sure what possessed me to ask, but as we filed out after the last bell, midst shouts of "Merry Christmas," I asked Miss Barrett what would happen to the tree.  

"Oh," she said, "The custodian will put it out in the trash."

Suddenly I had a nine-year old's flash of inspiration.  We never got our tree at home until the last minute on Christmas Eve, maybe . . . .

"Could I have it?" I asked.  Imagine, I thought, how pleased Dad will be to get a free tree.  He was, I must admit, a real penny pincher, and in retrospect I am sure that was part of his reason for waiting so long each year before buying one.  But in fourth grade I didn't think of that.  I just though how pleased he would be at his oldest son's ingenuity.

It also didn't occur to me that the tree was already pretty dried out.  In my excitement I didn't even notice all the needles I was leaving behind me as I dragged it home through the snow.  And it never occurred to me--not even once--that I might be upsetting my Dad's own enjoyment of our longstanding tradition.  But that Christmas was not destined to be quite as Dad had planned.

He could have laughed at my Charlie Brown tree, I suppose.  Or he could have gotten angry.  Or he could have simply said, "No thanks!"  But to his credit, he treated my tree as a real prize and made me feel like a million bucks!

"That's great, John," he said when I showed him the tree.  "Good thinking!"  And best of all, I overheard him telling another adult how clever I had been.  For me it was one of the best Christmases ever.  All because my father--not known as a flexible soul--had been able to deal with the unexpected--and not just deal with it, but embrace it as well.  But that's certainly appropriate, for the Christmas story itself is all about the unexpected turns in life, and how ordinary folks like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, not only dealt with those turns, but like my Dad, embraced them as well.

Thanks Dad--what a great way of showing me a profound truth!

Monday, December 3, 2018

George H. W. Bush: A Point of Light

All across the nation yesterday morning Christians gathered to observe the first Sunday in Advent.  It is a season of preparation for Christmas.  The Advent season is marked by lighting an additional candle each of the four Sundays before Christmas, an ever growing light as we draw closer to the birth of Christ.

Last night many other Americans, Jewish Americans, gathered to observe the first night of Hanukkah.  It is an eight-day celebration of religious freedom, also marked by the lighting of candles, one for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.  With each passing night the light grows brighter and brighter.

It struck me as somehow appropriate that George H. W. Bush died over the course of this past weekend when so many candles were being lit on Advent wreaths and Hanukkah hanukiah.
For it was Bush who famously compared the work of volunteers to "a thousand points of light."

I looked up his acceptance speech from 1988 in which he first used that analogy.  He spoke of the importance of community, and then he said, "This is America: the Knights of Columbus, the Grange, Hadassah, the Disabled American veterans, the Order of Ahepa, the Business and Professional Women of America, the union hall, the Bible study group, LULAC, 'Holy Name" . . . a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky."

It is a wonderful image, a wonderful reminder that despite our many differences, each and every one of us brings a bit of light into the world.  A bit of light we have a responsibility to share with others.

And George H. W. Bush did just that.  While you may not have agreed with everything he said, nor everything he did, while you may never have voted for him, it is hard to argue with the fact that over the course of his lifetime, a lifetime devoted to serving others, he did indeed share his bit of light with the world.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Arms Control, Then and Now

When I was in junior high school, back in the late sixties, I took a required first aid course.  The premise of the course was built around the notion that if one was prepared, one could survive a nuclear war.  The course included training on what to do for the sickness induced by radioactive fallout, how to bandage compound fractures caused by falling debris, what sorts of supplies to keep in a basic survival kit, and so on.

The course was designed to augment the drills we periodical had.  Sometimes we were required to take cover under our desks, at other times we were marched down to the school basement to spend a few minutes in the school's fallout shelter.  It was dark, and dank, and stocked with many boxes of dried foods, bottled water, and the first aid kits we were learning how to use.

I suppose such training was worthwhile at one level.  After all, knowing some first aid skills can come in handy under a wide array of circumstances.  But the notion that we could survive a nuclear attack, when my town was less than twelve miles from a large Air Force Base and a large Naval Shipyard, was ludicrous. Fortunately, the powers that be came to realize that in the interest of saving lives it was far more effective to work towards scaling down the number of nuclear weapons scattered around the globe.  Far more effective, and far more realistic.  That work, of course, is not complete.  But the shift in strategy has made the world a bit safer.

I thought about all that when I heard about the introduction of the Stop the Bleed campaign being introduced in Florida's schools.  The basic idea is to teach teachers and students how to deal with gunshot wounds, how to minimize the blood loss from such injuries.  This, of course, coupled with ongoing mass shooter drills that are being held in our schools as well.

Teaching such skills may indeed have some real value, and it might save some lives.  And that is worthwhile.  But I can't hep but wonder if it is also a way to avoid the real issue.  Just as there were (and are) too many nuclear weapons, so too there are too many guns, especially automatic weapons.  And until we get the proliferation of such weaponry under control, we will be finding ourselves bandaging more and more wounds, losing more and more lives, living with more and more fear.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Praying Like a Pilgrim

Did you know that when the Pilgrims prayed they did so with their eyes open?  Their Pastor, John Robinson, once said, "The eyes of the mind are lifted towards God, why not the eyes of the body also?"

I don't know about you, but I pray with my eyes shut.  It helps me to focus, it helps me avoid visual distractions.  But praying with ones eyes wide open is nothing unique to the Pilgrims.  I think, for instance, of praying with icons, a practice in Eastern Orthodox churches.  Or focusing on a candle's flame, or a particular object, as practiced in a variety of traditions.

I am reminded of the an old story in my family that recounts how as a very young child, I clearly must have had my eyes open, as I prayed for every single item on the dinner table.  Asparagus, turkey, potatoes, and so on.

Maybe the Pilgrims were on to something though.  Maybe praying with our eyes wide open provides us with an opportunity to see God not in the skies above, but rather in the faces of those around us.  Try it some time!

And then, if that is helpful, move on to another Pilgrim approach to prayer.  At every meal they prayed twice--once before they ate, and once afterward.  Makes sense to me!  If the meal was extra delicious, you can offer up special words of thanks.  And if it wasn't?  You can offer up a word of gratitude that at least you had something to eat, unlike so many others around the world.

Have a blessed and prayerful Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 12, 2018

25,000 Meals--and a Whole Lot of Fun!

This past Saturday the Sanibel-Captiva Rotary Club and the Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ joined together to package 25,000 meals.  Meals that will be used in food pantries here in Southwest Florida, and well beyond, including those parts of the country ravaged by Hurricanes Florence and Michael.

Close to 100 volunteers of all ages gathered to do the necessary work.  One eight-year old was so short that he had to stand on a chair to complete his task of pouring pasta into a funnel to fill plastic bags.  Some of the older folks in their seventies and eighties, had to sit down to do their work.  Everybody worked hard to reach the common goal of helping folks who needed something to eat get a good, nutritious meal.

And here's the kicker.  Several people, kids and adults, told me, "It was so much fun!"  How often we think of providing for the needs of others as a duty, as drudgery, as anything but fun.  But this work was so well organized by church and club volunteer leaders, and the staff of Meals of Hope, that it proved to be anything but dull!  As cases were loaded up and filled with plastic bags of food, cheers would go up from the team responsible for that unit.  When milestones like 5,000 meals or 10,000 meals packed were announced, the whole room would erupt in hoorahs!  

The work of volunteers helping those in need isn't always fun.  But maybe it would be more often if we approached it as a joy and not as a duty.  Three cheers for the volunteers this past Saturday!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018


Here's what may strike you as a radical thought:  prayer is not about results.  If it were, it would be as simple as one of my grandchildren's making a Christmas Wish List (which they are already doing, I'm sure!)  No prayer is about our relationship with God.  It is about recognizing that we are not self-sufficient.  It is about aligning my will with that of the Holy One.

I don't understand all its implications.  I don't understand how it works.  But despite my intellectual dilemma, I continue to pray, everyday.  For my needs and for a very long list of others.

I take comfort in a true story I once encountered by Elisa Morgan.

One evening as she was putting her then eleven-year old daughter Eva to bed she was distracted.  Kids pick up on such things, and so Eva asked her mother what was wrong.

Elisa told Eva that she had just learned that Amy, the teenaged daughter of one of her friends, was suffering unexplained hair loss.  Later, when young Eva said her bedtime prayers with her mother, shge made a simple request:  "Jesus," she prayed, "Please hold Amy's hair on her head."

But Amy's hair kept falling out./  And several different treatments failed to stop it.  In time she was diagnosed with a rare disease called alopecia, which can result in total and permanent hair loss.

Elisa finally shared this news with her daughter Eva, and that night as she held her mother's hand, and closed her eyes, she p[rayed a different prayer.  "Dear Jesus," she said, "If you won't hold Amy's hair on her hear, would you please hold Amy?"

I do not understand the economy of prayer.  I don't begin to comprehend its inner workings.  But I do know the heart of God.  And in that heart56 there is room for every Amy.  For in the end, God is not Santa Claus.  In the end, God is love.  All encompassing, never-ending love.  Love made known in Jesus.  Love made available to you and me each and every time we pray.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Eating Us Up Alive

One of the victims this past weekend at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was a dentist nearing retirement, Dr. Richard Gottfried.  He was brought up with three sisters, and on Monday two of them were interviewed by Susannah Guthrie on NBC's Today Show, his twin sister, Debi Salvin, and his older sister, Bonni Huffman.  Though they were still numb, even shaking, they wanted to let people know who their brother was, because, as Debi said, "He touched a lot of people."

There's so much hate in our country," said Debi, and it's got to stop."  Are you afraid, they were asked.  I can't live that way, and I can't hate him," said Bonni.  The shooter.  Because if I do it will eat me up alive, inside out."

Such a brave observation.  Such a wise observation.  Hate eats you alive, from the inside out.  And in many ways, that is what's happening to our nation.  The kind of hate on display in Pittsburgh this weekend, the kind of hate that was exhibited in Charlottesville and Charleston, it will eat us alive!  It is eating us alive!  And it will continue to do so until we collectively rise up and say, no more.  No more demonization of people because of their race or religion or sexual orientation.  No more labeling, no more stereotyping.  Rather, we need to have a willingness to really come to know one another as fellow human beings.  In theological terms, as children of God.

There are many issues that feed the gun violence that permeates our culture as a nation, many concerns that need to be addressed,  but what we ultimately need is something akin to a heart transplant.  We need to allow tolerance and acceptance to replace hate and fear.  Otherwise, Bonni Huffman is right:  it will just eat us up alive, inside out.

With his sisters, we mourn the death of Richard Gottfried and all those whose lives were lost in Pittsburgh.  Yes, the perpetrator must be brought to justice.  But we best honor Richard Gottfried and all those whose lives were lost by working for the day when hate and fear are replaced by tolerance, acceptance and love.