Monday, November 20, 2017

A Thanksgiving Reminder

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of thank you notes and e-mails.  I like sending them.  I like receiving them.  I even keep a file of thank you notes I've received over the years.

One of my all-time favorites came for a former parishioner named Rose when I was serving the Saugatuck Congregational Church in Westport, CT.  I had spoken at the board meeting of a local social service agency.  It was one of the agencies the church's mission board  supported and Rose served on the agency's board for many years.  She was writing to thank me for taking the time to meet with them, and offered some very kind words about a brief meditation about gratitude that I had offered.  In the note she also expressed her appreciation for the church.

"It's so easy," she wrote, "to take our many blessings for granted as you pointed out.  Yesterday I stopped to think about some of the things I have to be thankful for.  Thanks for reminding me."

I suppose we all need to be reminded from time to time.  Like children caught up in the excitement of new toys at Christmas, sometimes we need to be prodded into offering up our words of thanksgiving.

So consider this a prod--a reminder.  As we move into this week of formal thanksgiving, what is it that you consider among your blessings?  And who do you need to thank?  God? After all, God is the Source of Life itself!   Your family?  A treasured teacher, friend or clergy person?  Maybe the neighbor who takes care of your cat when you are out of town.  Or the cashier at your grocery store who always remembers you like your groceries' packed just so.  Maybe it's the doctor who performed your hip surgery.  Whatever--whoever--now is a good time to say thank you.  Write a note.  Send an e-mail.  Make a phone call.  Just do it!

PS:  And thank you, my faithful blog readers!  I truly appreciate your visiting this site week after week!  Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Empty White Chairs

Among my favorite musicals is Les Miserables.  One of the most poignant moments in the show occurs after the failed uprising intended to overthrow the corrupt government.  One of the student revolutionaries, Marius, survives an attack by the government which has killed most of his friends.  As he revisits the place where they had met to dream about a future of freedom, he looks over the empty chairs and tables, and mourns.
There's a grief that can't be spoken,
There's a pain goes on and on,
Empty chairs at empty tables
Now my friends are dead and gone.
I couldn't help but think of that song as I read the news about the memorial that has been established in Sutherland Springs.  The sanctuary at First Baptist Church where the mass shooting happened a week ago Sunday, has been cleaned and emptied of the bloody remnants of that attack.  It has been painted a pristine white, and white chairs, twenty-six of them, one for each victim, have been placed in the exact spots where each of the murdered men, women and children fell.  On the back of each chair each victim's name has been painted in gold. And on each, a rose. Empty chairs representing
 friends who are dead and gone.  It is a powerful set of symbols. 
"Here they sang of tomorrow," intones Maurius in Les Miserables, "And tomorrow never came."
But there is a difference for the people of First Baptist Church.  And not because those who died were far from being French revolutionaries.  For the people of First Baptist Church believe that while a tomorrow on this earth never came, a new tomorrow did indeed dawn for each one of the slain.  A new tomorrow beyond pain, beyond grief.  As their pastor said on the following Sunday, the folks at Frist Baptist Church believe that their loved ones are "dancing with Jesus."
 Make no mistake, there is certainly grief here and now for the survivors, pain and grief that will go on and on.  And while empty white chairs may help ease the sorrow, it will not eliminate.  No more than the genuine hope in the life to come will erase the hurt, the ager and even the guilt.  No doubt some of those good folks can sing with Maurius, "Oh my friends, my friends, forgive me, that I live and you are gone."  But there is also faith, and hope and love.
Yes, empty white chairs and empty hearts.  But hearts touched with a measure of hope.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Armed Guards at the Door

Monday afternoon I got a phone call from a colleague checking on a rumor one of her parishioners had heard that my congregation has posted an armed guard at the entrance to our sanctuary. "If they've got one there at the Congregational Church," the parishioner had apparently said, "we should have one too."   I assured my colleague we did not have any guards at the door. Armed or otherwise.  Some well trained head ushers.  An officer directing traffic in the roadway in front of our driveway.  But no armed guards.

No doubt the mass shooting in at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, stirred up the question.  And it does, once again, raise the issue of security for houses of worship.  It is an issue that needs to be taken seriously, no doubt about it.  Indeed, our local police department even offers a special one hour training program on such matters for church staff members.  But an armed guard?

Maybe I am na├»ve.  Maybe my biases about guns in general is showing.  But frankly, I think such a move would be contrary to everything that happens beyond the church entrance and inside the sanctuary itself.  We gather to proclaim our trust in the way of God, not our trust in firepower.  Yes we need to be vigilant. Yes
, we need to be alert to the reality that if it happened in Charleston at a Bible study, or in Texas at a Sunday worship service, it could happen here. At our church.  But that does not mean we need to take up arms.

But there are issues we as the church can help lead the way.  The pervasiveness of violence in our culture.  The paucity of mental health services.  The failure to adequately address domestic violence.  The sheer number of guns in America and the ease with which they can often be procured.  Yes, the church needs to respond to the mass shooting in Texas.  But there are far more constructive things we can do than simply post an armed guard at the door and hide behind our fears.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Semper reforma!

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther's posting his ninety-five theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg.  It is often considered to be the beginning of the Reformation--though truth be told there were several so-called pre-reformers (like Hus and Wycliffe) who came long before Luther).

Five hundred years.  A lot can happen in five hundred years, and so it has!  I am not sure Luther would recognize the Protestant churches of today as heirs to his work and tradition.  Even in his own time, there were other thinkers approaching the matter of reform in different ways.  That is why some historians insist that we should be talking about the reformations, plural, as opposed to The Reformation.

However we describe it, however we label it, what happened in Wittenberg, and across much of Europe in 1517 and the years that followed, did indeed change the church in the West.  It was never quite the same after that.  Some bemoan that fact.  Some bemoan the reality that the church is so splintered and divided.  Honestly, it bothers me as well. But then I remember one of the key principles of that period in time:  semper reforma.  Not semper fidelis--that's the Marines.  But rather semper reforma, always reforming.  And when we are always reforming, that means of necessity, that there will be differences of perspective and opinion.  We can hope--and pray--for a big enough tent to contain them all.  But sometimes that just doesn't always happen.

Semper reforma--it's a bit unsettling, and it's a bit hopeful.  Most of all, it is where we can find God at work.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Pleading for the Widows

One of the great pop anthems of the sixties was Aretha Franklin's rendering of "Respect."  Most anyone raised in that decade can sing along when it comes on the radio, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T!  Find out what it means to me . . . "  It was written by the great Otis Redding, who died much too young.
The song popped into my head today as I was reading an account of the current dispute between our president and the widow of La David Johnson  --one of the soldiers killed last week in Niger. 

I don't know what happened in that phone call.  Some of it seems to boil down to a he said, she said, debate.  I really don't have the information I would need to determine the truth of the matter.  But I do know this, from a biblical perspective, widows are supposed to be treated with respect.  Most especially those who have been widowed by acts of war or violence.  In the many laws of Judaism, widows are often singled out for special care and attention.  But often in the biblical narrative they were neglected or worse. And when that happened the prophets would rail against their contemporaries reminding them of their obligations. "Learn to good," writes Isaiah, "Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (1:17)

I guess that's what I'm doing here.  I'm pleading for the widow.  Indeed for all widows, especially those widowed by warfare or violence.  And widowers too, for that matter.  They deserve our respect.  They deserve our love and care.  They deserve to be treated as we would want to be treated in a time of great grief.

This is not a political statement.  This isn't about one party or the other. It's not even about the president.   This is about basic decency.  This is about respect, something that seems to be in low supply these days, not just in Washington, but all across this land of ours.  Respect for the fallen, respect for their families.  Respect for one another as fellow human beings.  That's always
a good place to start in any conversation.  Always a good place to start if we want to move towards a more civil society.

Monday, October 16, 2017

On Being the Church in a Broken World

This past weekend I attended the annual meeting of the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ.  Delegates from around the state joined together for worship, workshops and business.  Before you decided you're not interested in any of this church stuff, hear me out.  Because I witnessed somethings that I think tells us not only a lot about the state of the church, but also the state of the world.

On Saturday morning John Vertigan,  our Conference Minster (for you non-United Church of Christ readers, that's something like a bishop without the power) gave his annual address to the gathered.  It was powerful, and spoke not only about parochial matters, but also about our role as a denomination in the work of justice in the wider world.

After he was done speaking John and the planning committee had scheduled a town hall style time for folks to offer comments, ask questions or promote their own concerns.  The variety of issues brought up reflected the very eclectic nature of our denomination.  But two of the speakers stood out from the rest.

One was a young black man, who was attending with his teenaged son.  When he was called on, he stood up, introduced himself, and indicated he was relatively new to the Untied Church of Christ.  He then asked his son to stand up with him.  I paraphrase, here, but this is the gist of his comments.

It's hard, he said, to know where you are safe when you're a black man in our society.  Even harder if you're a very young man.  You don't know what the other person is thinking.  You don't know if they are discounting you because of your race, or if they are frightened, or if they are accepting of differences.  I have been so relieved to find this church, because here I know I am loved and so is my son.  He was in tears when he sat down.  And so were most of the rest of us.

A speaker or two after that, a woman in the rear of the sanctuary stood up.  You know, she said, I'm angry.  I'm angry that more people don't know about our church.  I'm tired of being lumped together with folks who call themselves Christian, but who hate gay people and transgendered people and so many others.  I am tired of having to defend myself every time I tell someone I'm a Christian.  She had a hard time speaking, at one point, for she too was in tears.

I don't know about you, but I share her frustration.  And I am continually saddened by the truth spoken by the young black father.  I am grateful to be part of a church that speaks up about racism, the environment, the rights of LGBTQ people and so on.  But I am also very aware that we need to do a better job getting out our message.  Because the world shouldn't be so dangerous for a fourteen year old black teenager and his dad. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Greatest of These . . . .

The Imperial River wends its way through Bonita Springs, and after many more inches of rain than normal in August, and a hurricane in September, the river jumped its banks, and flooded many nearby homes.  The damage was and is devastating.

This past Saturday, as part of a larger effort mounted by the Rotary Clubs in this part of Florida, eight members of my club here on Sanibel ventured down to Bonita Springs to help out.  We were assigned to do debris removal and preliminary demolition of a home that had suffered extreme water damage.  Our task was to cart out all the ruined furniture, clothing, curtains and personal effects, and pile them by the side of the road for pick-up and removal.  And then, under the guidance of a volunteer crew chief, we were to remove the baseboards and all the no-longer drywall in the house up tot he four-foot mark. "Be careful," said the crew chief, "especially if you have thin soles.  There are bound to be nails."

The owner of the house, who we will call Maria, and her young adult daughter, were present to salvage what they could and to give us guidance as to what we should or should not throw out.  As Maria watched, often in tears, we hauled out most of her belongings, now ruined by mold and mildew.  We were told to set aside a few items that had been especially high up.  The almost new refrigerator and stove were still being paid for, so those were kept because Home Depot need to see them.  Hopefully to replace them with new ones. Ironically, one of the damaged books that went into the trash was called The Elements of Feng Shui.  Another was a Spanish language New Testament.

As we neared the end of the time removing household items, I noticed mounted near the top of the door frame going out of the house, a small hanging, with a tribute to Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe)--and hanging from the same nail, a rosary.  I went to find Maria, and brought her into the house and asked if she wanted to keep the hanging and the rosary.

"Oh yes," she said, as she started to tear up.  I took down the rosary, and as I handed it to her, she looked at me and said, "My granddaughter got this for me in . . . ."  She hesitated and turned to her daughter.  "Jerusalem," said her daughter.  "Yes," said Maria, "Jerusalem.  I love it."  Then turning to the crucifix, hanging on the other side of the door frame, she said, "I really love Jesus."

Having lost almost everything she owns, Maria reminded me with her simple words, that there are some things no flood can wash away; there are some things that no hurricane can destroy, that faith, and hope and love, do indeed abide.

We had been warned by our crew chief to be careful if we had thin soles.  What he didn't say, was "Be careful if you have thin souls."

Thank you fellow Rotarians, for being love in action.  Thank you Maria, for granting us the privilege of learning from you in a most powerful way.

(Photo:  Sanibel-Captiva Rotarians in front of Maria's home)