Tuesday, December 28, 2010

So here we are in the last week of the year. Where has the time gone? To mark the end of the year I thought about making one of those ten most important stories of 2010 lists that you see everywhere. You know, the Top Ten Religion Stories of 2010. Or the Top Ten Enviromental Stories of 2010. Or the Top Ten Sanibel Stories of 2010. But its all so subjective. What's important to me may not be important to you. And simply by virtue of writing this blog week after week I get to share with you stories and ideas that I think merit your consideration.

So instead of my creating a Top Ten list this week, I've decided to invite you to take some time to create your own list. What have been the Top Ten most important stories in your life this year? Maybe some of them impacted all of us--like the oil spill. Maybe some of them were local--like the comings and goings here on Sanibel. And maybe some of them were very personal--stories about your children, or your career or your spouse. Whatever the case, ultimately your Top Ten Stories of 2010 will more than likely continue to resonate in the months and years ahead. That's how stories work. And the best of them will deserve being retold.

So here's to stories from the past, and stories of the present, and stories of years to come.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 20, 2010

This week before Christmas is filled with preparations for the two Christmas Eve Candlelight Services we hold here. One will be a traditional service in our sanctuary, but the other will be held at Lighthouse Beach, at the eastern end of the island. Sand and surf and palm trees will be the order of the night! A far cry from the snow and cold and pine trees of my past!

When I was a boy I never saw the Christmas tree until Christmas morning. My Dad would always get it at the last moment and tuck it away somewhere until after we'd all gone to bed. Then despite having presided at the midnight candlelight service (he was also a pastor) he and my mother would put it up, decorate it, and carefully place the brightly colored packages undernearth its branches. My mother once told me it was how his father had done it, and Dad wanted to pass on to us the excitement he'd felt as a youngster on Christmas morning. And it worked. For the next morning when we all got up, there, as if by magic, was a wondrous sight: lights twinkling, tinsel glittering and gifts for each one of us. I don't know who enjoyed the tradition more: my father or us kids.

One year, though, there was a change. I was in fourth grade, as I remember, and a devoted student of my teacher Miss Barrett. Like most all classrooms in that time, our was decorated for most of December with snowflakes we'd cut out ourselves, chains of red and green construction paper rings, and a 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 our class Christmas party.

I'm 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.

"Could I have it?" I asked. Imagine, I thought, how pleased Dad will be to get a free tree. He was a real penny pincher, and in retrospect, that may have been part of his reason for waiting so long each year before buying our tree.

But in the fourth grade I didn't think of that. I just thought about how pleased he'd be at his oldest son's ingenuity.

Having been in a warm classroom for three weeks, it was already pretty bedraggled. In my excitement I didn't even notice the the needles I was leaving behind in the snow as I dragged it home. Dad 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 much 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!"

For me it was one of the best Christmases ever--and tyhe memory of it almost fifty years later, still warms my heart!

I'll not be dragging home any trees this year--palm or pine--we've long since resigned ourselves to artificial trees. And I don't need to worry about snow, not here on Sanibel. Parts of Christmas celberations from the past, are now simply part of the past. But the love of that fourth grade Christmas, even though my father is no longer with us, lives on. For the promise of St. Paul is true: "Love never ends."

Might your Christmas, on or off-island, north or south, be truly blessed!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A couple of days ago my wife Linda and I were out for a walk when we passed by one of our neighbors hard at work in his yard. He was taking bedsheets and draping them over his beautiful flower beds. It wasn't that he was trying to hide them from view, rather he was seeking to protect them from the cold weather that was expected overnight. Cold, of course, is relative, but over the past week or so it has gotten down into the forties and even the thirties over night, and without the sheets, the flowers could be killed by the cold temperatures.

I am not a gardener, but I certainly enjoy the beauty that surrounds me because of folks who take the time to plant and weed and fertilize and protect bushes and flowers and trees in our neighborhood. I appreciate the fact that they are good stewards of their own plots of land.

I am also grateful, in these December days, for the many folks here on Sanibel who work to protect this island. They may not literally cover things up with sheets, but their efforts made to preserve the beauty around us is evident all over Sanibel. But it's not just about beauty--its also about survival. The various organizations dedicated to the environment here on island help us work together at the task of being good stewards of this plot of land. And just as those bedsheets make it possible for my neighbor's flowers to make it through the cold nights, so our collective efforts can make it possible for our island to survive. And beyond that, our planet.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Are you afraid of the dark? Lots of children are--and so too many adults. Yet I think in reality, what people are usually afraid of is what might be lurking in the dark. What people are afraid of is what they can't see. Which I suppose is another way of saying, they are afraid of the unknown.

I thought about that a bit this past weekend as Sanibel celebrated Luminary Night. Annually, the main road here on the Island, Periwinkle Way, is lined with luminaries. And businesses, churches, and individuals, deck their buildings, bushes and trees with thousands and thousands of twinkling lights. It really is quite a sight--like something out of a fairy tale!

This year we dedicated a new addition to our courtyard here at the church on Luminary Night. It is a lovely glass cylinder, handsomely engraved by artist Luc Centruy with waving sea oats, and lit from within by a solar-powered lamp. It is called The Eternal Light and was created in honor of our congregation's relationship with Bat Yam, Temple of the Islands, a Jewish Reform congregation that meets here for worship.

One of the joys of our relationship with Bat Yam is occasionally sharing in worship and educational events so that we might come to know one another and our respective traditions and beliefs a bit better. The Eternal Light reminds us of our common belief in the God who created light. But as I've thought about it, I realize it also symbolizes the fact that in sharing life together as we do, we transform the unknown into the known. What may have been shrouded in the darkness of our differences, is revealed by the light of our common commitment and willingness to work and learn and worship together.

Even here in Florida, the days grow shorter, the nights longer and the darkness deeper as we move into December. But Hanukkah and Advent both remind us that we can, in the words of an old proverb, make a choice. We can be afraid of the unknown, and "curse the darkness." Or we can choose to light the candles of knowledge, commitment and hope.
(Photo Credit: Edwin Neitzke)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Last week my wife and I took our two grandsons to the circus. It was really a rather rundown affair. The big top was set up on an old field in neighboring Cape Coral. You could see the dried up and matted down grass in the aisles. The seats were old metal folding chairs that looked like they'd been bnought at a church rummage sale and then painted red and yellow to match the circus decor.

The circus workers and performers looked almost as tired as the chairs. Ticket takers doubled as dancers and acrobats. Elephants not only performed their tricks, but, for an extra fee, also gave rides to children. Some of the acts were rather tepid--a few were actually fairly good. My grandsons really liked the Globe of Death ( a motocycle act), and the Human Cannonball (moving at 65 miles per hour, according to the ringmaster.) The tigers, though, looked like they'd really rather be in the jungle. And the clowns tried hard--but there were no budding Emmet Kelly's among them. And even as we were walking out of the big top, I noticed workers tearing it down, getting ready to move on to their next stop.

But here's the thing: we had a good time. All of us. And we didn't spend a fortune. In fact, we got out of the evening for well under one hundred dollars--and that included our nutritionally impoverished meal under the Golden Arches! OK, it's true, as soon as we walked in the front door at home, my wife insisted that we all go and wash our hands--but we'd had a good time, germs and all!

I'm not the first to see a metaphor for life in the circus, but I saw it afresh that night. And while sometimes we just go through the paces, and like those tigers would really rather be someplace else, in the end, there we are. Needing to put one foot (or paw) ahead of the other, and do our bit to help make it all work. Even if it means jumping through hoops of fire. And though it often seems that we barely finish up one part of life and we need to get moving on to the next--so be it. Such is life. And, yes, we may need to wash our hands, but we life can still be good, it can be very good, or as my youngest grandson might put it, "Awesome!"

I don't know when the circus will come our way again. I don't know if I'll go back. But I'm glad I caught it this time around for it reminded me again that what makes for a good night out--not to mention a good life--is sharing it with those you love.

Monday, November 22, 2010

This past weekend I presented a monologue at our three Sunday morning services and then in the evening at the Sanibel Community Thanksgiving Celebration. I spoke as a Pilgrim, and retold the story of their long and difficult journey as well as that of the first Thanksgiving. Preparing to deliver the monologue which I had written, meant immersing myself in the words of the monologue for days. It also meant procuring a costume.

When the costume arrived via FedEx, I must say I was not too pleased. It was rather flimsy looking, and had been all scrunched up to fit into the shipping container. It looked like some ancient Pilgrim has slept in it for weeks! In that regard, it may have actually been somewhat authentic, but still, I wanted a crisper look for my presentations. So I took it to the dry cleaner here on island and asked if they could spruce it up. They did, and when I picked it up a few days later, I was told there would be "no charge". I was both pleased and surprised. But in retrospect, I shouldn't have been. They probably knew I'd be using it for the community celebration, and it was their way of contributing to the larger good. It's just one of the advantages of living in a relatively small community!

This Thanksgiving, my first here on Sanibel, I've been giving a lot of thought to the things for which I am thankful. There are a large number of items on my list: my wonderful wife and family, the beauty of this place, the organizations and people dedicated to caring for the environment who make Sanibel their home, the pelicans, a good job (no small matter in this day and age!), religious freedom, Sanibel sunrises, a fine church, enough to eat, a roof over my head, music, books, the New York Times, good health and insurance to pay for my health care . . . . There are so many things on my list, including you--the good folks who read this blog week in and week out. I thank you for the opportunity you afford me to share my thoughts about matters large and small.

Yes, I have a very long list of blessings. But I never thought to add the local dry cleaners to the list. At least, not until this past weekend!
(Photo Credit: Mary Bondurant)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Please don't misunderstand what I am about to say for I am a big fan of the Ten Commandments. They provide a concise statement of how to live a moral life. But they don't belong on the walls of city hall. You might wonder what brought that on--especially if you don't live here in southwest Florida. So let me bring you up to speed.

Cape Coral is the biggest city in our neck of the woods (or our corner of the swamp!) During the boom years it grew like topsy. And then during the recession it experienced an inordinate amount of economic difficulty. It is a city on its heels. In the interest of helping Cape Coral flourish once again, one of its citizens has proposed that the Ten Commandments should be hung in city hall. According to the city's daily paper, he believes there are no religious issues at stake. "It's not a political or religious issue," he said. "Cape Coral needs to be revitalized and to begin that process there needs to be a moral foundation." (Cape Coral Daily Breeze, 11-20-2010) Apparently the mayor of the city agrees it would be good to post them.

There is no question that the Ten Commandments can provide a moral foundation for life, but they are most certainly religious! The first commandment alone makes them so--"You shall have no other gods before me." (Exodus 20:2) Again, don't misunderstand. I believe that to be true. And my morality is firmly rooted in my belief that I should bow to no other gods but the one I call Lord. But it is a matter of faith--not a matter of civic conviction! The Qur'an has some powerful moral truths in it as well. So do the teachings of the Buddha. And some of the most moral and ethical people I know are agnostics! To be moral one doesn't have to subscribe to Jewish or Christian theology!

If you and I are going to be free to live out of our religious convictions, if you and I are going to be free to speak and worship the truth as we understand it, then we must, absolutely must, protect the rights of others to do the same. That is why we must protect the separation of church (or any other religious organization) and state. Which means various branches of government must avoid endorsing any particular religious beliefs. Even those as noble and as important as the Ten Commandments.

I hope Cape Coral is revitalized--in every way possible. And if more people would live by the dictates of the Ten Commandments, I'm sure it would help. I am sure it would help any city, thriving or not! But as a Christian who believes in their truth, I need to make sure my own life is in order rather than trying to impose my faith on others.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

No doubt you know about the just concluded trial of Steven Hayes in Connecticut. Three years ago, on July 23, 2007, Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky invaded the home of William and Jennifer Petit. After beating William, raping and strangling Jennifer, and molesting one of their two daughters they set the house on fire and ultimately caused the deaths of all but William. It was one of the most violent and horrific crimes in Connecticut history. It is hard to imagine the sheer terror of it all--and one can only empathize with William and his family and friends.

It took the jury just five hours to find Hayes guilty of the crimes. But then, in the penalty phase, they took three full days to determine whether or not he should receive the death penalty. In the end, they voted to do just that.

In an recent television interview on NBC's Today Show with several of the jurors they spoke about the difficulty of sitting through such a graphic trial. It challenged each and every one of them. But even though their deliberations prolonged things, when it came to their decision around the death penalty they were determined to explore the pros and cons and review the facts in as rational a manner as possible. Free of emotion. Everyone was given time to speak his or her mind. They wanted to do they could to make a decision that was within the parameters of the law.

Personally, I do not support the death penalty. But I was impressed with the seriousness with which they took their charge to administer justice in a fair and reasoned manner. And as I have thought about the way they went about their work, I couldn't help but think they were onto something. Wouldn't our public discourse about controversial matters be so much more productive if we allowed all people to speak their minds without fear of ridicule or personally destructive criticism? Wouldn't we have a better chance of coming to compromise on important matters if we worked with the facts and set aside emotionality? Wouldn't the quality of such discussions be improved by giving them the time they deserve instead of being satisfied with sound-bites? And while I may not agree with their decision, I can't help but admire the jury's approach. It would serve us well to follow their example.

In fact, maybe we could start by discussing capital punishment itself in such a manner. It is, after all, a matter of life and death. Doesn't that deserve our very best?

Monday, November 1, 2010

In my faith tradition folks don't generally respond in the midst of a sermon. Folks don't usually shout "Amen!" or "Preach it, brother!" You'll rarely hear a "Praise the Lord!" or "Hallelujah!" But yesterday, two days before Election Day, near the beginning of my sermon, folks broke into applause. I don't think I'd said anything theologically astute. I wouldn't say the applause was prompted by the Spirit. Rather, I think I hit a nerve. It was my stewardship sermon, and I was illustrating the point that how we spend our money reflects our core beliefs and values, as demonstrated by the tremendous amount of money spent on this year's political campaigns. In particular, I voiced my dismay at the negative character of the various television attack ads. "I am a self-admitted political junkie," I said, "But like many other people, I will be very glad when Tuesday has come and gone." That's when they started to clap. One fellow told me later, "I've been here fifteen years, and I've never heard spontaneous applause during a sermon."

I have a very active and involved congregation. Many, many of my parishioners are involved in volunteer work at a number of agencies in our area--ranging from environmental organizations to those working to stave off hunger. They are well-educated, and extremely well-informed. I suspect a very high percentage of them vote. But some of them, at least, are obviously worn down by aspects of the political process. Understandably. So too are many other Americans. All of which is rather disturbing. For the truth is, our system of government depends on citizens being willing to participate in the process. Not just by voting, which is so important, but also by being willing to engage in a civil conversation about the important issues that confront us in this day and age.

Mind you, I have faith in my congregation. I don't think folks here will give up on excercising their responsibility as citizens. But I do worry about the nation as a whole. I hope, and pray, that in the months and years ahead, we can move beyond the negativity and find ways to engage in healthy dialogue about the issues. Not just in Congress, but also in the everyday places common folks like us gather. It is the only way we can begin to address the real concerns we all face in the early part of the twenty-first century.

Monday, October 25, 2010

I grew up in northern New England, on the short but beautiful coastline of New Hampshire. We lived about two miles inland, but regularly we made trips to the beach to go swimming, to picnic,and later, when we were in high school, to work at the restaurants and tourist traps that lined the boardwalk. There are two things that always bring back memories of my childhood by the Atlantic: the smell of salt air, and the cry of seagulls. I know, lots of folks think they are a nuisance. They are, after all, scavengers, garbage collectors if you will. I've never seen a thrown out bit of food gulls wouldn't eat. It's part of why they are such a common sight at landfills as well! But still, they can be beautiful as they glide across the sky or bob up and down on a wave. I for one, would be most saddened indeed if there were no more gulls!

There are many types of seagulls, and the ones that I grew up with are different than the ones that frequent Sanibel. But still, they have much in common, including their rowdy cry! One of the gulls that is native to the Gulf Coast is the Laughing Gull--so called because it's cry sounds like your Uncle Marvin laughing at the movies!

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster we read a lot about pelicans--Brown Pelicans in particular. Indeed, one of my first posts was about the fate of a few dozen pelicans who had been relocated to Sanibel. And the truth is that as of October 20 at least 766 Brown Pelicans have been impacted by the spill. But as tragic as that is, it pales in comparison to the Laughing Gulls. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reports that 2815 of the little scavengers have been impacted--and about 2/3 of that number were found dead. Despite their name, it's clearly no laughing matter!

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) ranks species according to how threatened they are. The scale ranges from "Least Concern" to "Vulnerable" to "Extinct" with a few stages in between. Laughing Gulls are ranked as being of "Least Concern". And relatively speaking, I guess that's true. A couple thousand Laughing Gulls isn't going to make or break their survival. But I keep thinking about creatures like the bison, who probably would have been ranked as being of "Least Concern" in days long gone by. I just don't like the nomenclature., for ultimately, we should be concerned about all of God's creatures--commonplace like Laughing Gulls, or beautiful and majestic, like Brown Pelicans. They all count. They all matter. "Not one of them is forgotten in God's sight." (Luke 12:6) Sure, Jesus was talking about sparrows at the time, but I suspect his words cover Laughing Gulls as well.

(To hear a recording of the cry of a Laughing Gull visit the All About Birds website created by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/laughing_Gull/sounds)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Crossing the Causeway onto Sanibel recently you couldn't help but see the roadside sign that said "Ding" Darling Days, October 17-23. If you don't know the island, you may not realize that "Ding" Darling is the name of the National Wildlife Refuge that occupies a significant portion of Sanibel. But even if you do know that, you may not know who "Ding" Darling was.

Born in Iowa in 1867, John Norwood Darling grew up to be a prominent editorial cartoonist. He signed his cartoons "Ding"--a contraction of his last name. He was published in over 150 newspapers, and in time won two Pulitzers for his work.
Over the years Darling developed a strong interest in conservation, which led to his appointment in the thirties to the Bureau of Biological Survey (know today as the Fish and Wildlife Service. Later he was instrumental in a number of other environmentally related efforts, including the Federal Duck Stamp program. He wrote prolifically, and was often involved in conservation education. He was direct and to the point. In one essay, written in 1935, he said: "We have invaded all the national ranges, the homes of our wild life species. We have evicted them and spread ourselves out with all our paraphernalia . . . . In fact, we have thrown nature's cradle out the window and made our home where nature used to cradle its wild life species." ("Conserving Our Wildlife," Recreation, 1935)

Darling's vacationed on Captiva, Sanibel's neighboring island to the north. When an attempt was made in the forties to sell off land on Sanibel owned by Florida, Darling was a key player in seeing that it was kept for conservation purposes. The refuge that now bears his name, started with that land and other parcels added over the years. Until his death in 1962, Darling was vitally interested and involved in the effort to carve out part of Sanibel for wildlife. The refuge was officially named for him in 1967. An appropriate tribute for the man who talked about nature's cradle!

"Ding Darling Days is a week long celebration of National Wildlife Week. There are activities and educational opportunities for the whole family. For more information check out http://www.dingdarlingdays.com/. And to learn more about the refuge's namesake, visit the website of the "Ding" Darling Foundation at http://www.dingdarling.org/.

(Photo Credit: FWS, NCTC/The Des Moines Register)

Monday, October 11, 2010

A friend sent me a note today wishing me a "Happy Thanksgiving!" While at first glance one might wonder if my friend is a little confused, the truth is today is Thanksgiving in Canada. Established by the Canadian Parliament in 1957, the holiday is celebrated on the second Monday of October. It is a harvest festival, designed to offer God thanks for the bounty of autumn's crops.

Though a recent incarnation in its present form, Canadians have been observing Thanksgiving in one way or another for centuries. One earlier celebration goes back to 1578, when Martin Frobisher marked a safe Atlantic crossing which ended in modern-day Newfoundland. And Canada's native population, the First Nation peoples, have held harvest celebrations and days of thanksgiving long before any Europeans set foot on Canadian soil.

My Masters thesis was a theological history of the Shaker Community at Sabbathday Lake in Maine. Well-known for their gorgeous furniture and their plaintive chants and songs, the Shakers were a profoundly grateful people. I had access to the daily logs that had been kept for almost two centuries by various clerks of the community, and shall never forget an entry made by Otis Sawyer on Thanksgiving Day (US) in 1880: "The good Shakers," he wrote, "need no president nor Governor to remind them of the duty of Thanksgiving, for not only one but everyday of the year their first breath in the morning is prayer and thanksfulness for many blessings everyday enjoyed."

He is so right! I think about my own life here on Sanibel. We're blessed with the beauty of the Gulf. We're blessed with spectacular night-time views of the stars and the moon. We're blessed by intriguing flora and fauna. There is so much for which to give thanks! So why wait until the second Monday in October, or the fourth Thursday in November? Why wait for Parliament or the President to declare a day of thanksgiving? Why not make it a daily celebration?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I lived in metropolitan New York for eighteen years, and crossed the George Washington Bridge more times than I can begin to count. Often when I traveled into the city it was to visit one parishioner or another at one of New York's many fine hospitals. For them the George (as it's often called by locals) was a bridge to health and hope. Other times I was going into the city to see a play or concert, and the George became a bridge to culture and fine art. But this past week the George became a bridge to death for a young man named Tyler Clementi.

I'm sure you've read about it, or heard about it on television. Clementi was a promising young violinist and a freshman at Rutgers. He was by most accounts rather shy and retiring. And he was gay. His roommate and another student thought it would be fun to film Clementi in a romantic encounter and then broadcast it on the Internet. This invasion of privacy, this act of cyberbullying, was more than Clementi could bear. And so, after leaving a message that reportedly said simply "jumping off the gw bridge sorry" he traveled to the city, leapt off the George, and met his death in the cold waters of the Hudson River.

Studies indicate that gay and lesbian young men and women are four times more likely to commit suicide than those who are not. Often because of the torment of bullies. Regardless of where you stand on various gay rights issues, the right to live a life free of harassment seems to be one of those basic rights all people should be able to expect. But on many fronts we are a long way from realizing that goal. Bullying and harassment are part of the lives of too many people, young and old. Race, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability--there are so many differences in our society. The day must come when we can rise above our differences and live in peace. But for that to happen we'll need to build bridges of understanding. We'll need to take time to learn about our neighbors so that we can better appreciate who they are.

I don't cross the George much these days--it's a bit out of my way here in Florida. But I do cross the causeway from the mainland to Sanibel several times a week. It's a beautiful ride--almost four miles of Gulf Coast beauty. I think the next time I cross it, I'll use it as a time to pray. Don't worry--I'll keep my eyes open. But still I'll pray. I'll pray for Tyler's family, and for all people who are so harassed that they consider taking such a leap. I'll pray for the day bullying comes to an end. And I'll pray for the courage to speak up whenever I am privy to such behaviour. I may not build a whole bridge in doing so, but at least I'll add another plank in the ongoing effort.

Monday, September 27, 2010

This is my first autumn living in the South. I keep getting e-mails from folks up North talking about how the leaves are turning and beginning to show off their fall colors. And with each one I feel a little twinge of nostalgia. When we moved here I knew I'd struggle a bit with the heat and humidity of summer , and I suspected I'd not really miss the ice and snow. And I was right on both counts. But fall . . . geez Louise! It's my favorite season of the year! And when it's late in September and still getting into the nineties most every day . . . well, I'm sorry, but that just doesn't feel like fall to this New Englander!

But when I'm honest, I have to admit I have also discovered I was wrong on a very important front: things DO change. There are seasonal variations. January is not the same as June, and June is not the same as September! The trouble is, I've not been here long enough yet to really recognize those changes when I see them. But that will come in time.

Meanwhile, I remind myself that I live on one of the most beautiful islands in the world! I am blessed by Florida skies. The colors in the morning and then again in the evening, as the sun makes its entrance and exit each day, are incredible! The cloud formations are simply astounding! And the variety of breezes are beyond counting. And over the last few nights we have been treated to the most exquisite lunar views I may have ever encountered.

I do miss the maple trees with their scarlet and gold leaves. And I do miss the nip in the air that comes at this time of year. But I'm not in Connecticut, or Vermont or Maine. I'm in Florida. And I can sit around bemoaning the lack of fall leaves--or I can celebrate the beauty right here on Sanibel. It's my choice. And it's your choice as well, wherever you live! Will you wax nostalgic about how things were somewhere else--or will you find the beauty in your own backyard?

(Photo Credit: Linda Bradbury-Danner)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I just finished a book that should be on every environmentalist or practitioner of religion's reading list. It's not the latest biological treatise; it's not a book of science at all. It's not a book of profound theological arguments. In fact, it's what might be called science fiction. But like a lot of good science fiction, it's frighteningly close to the tr uh. It's called The Year of the Flood, and it is written by Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood.

The novel paints a picture of the future that is bleak at best, and would be described by some as dystopian. Webster defines a dystopia as "an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives". Classic dystopian novels include George Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451. Orwell warned against the dangers of governmental encroachment on individual freedoms. Bradbury spoke out against the dumbing down of culture. Atwood challenges the assumptions made in an increasingly materialistic and consumeristic world.

What makes Atwood's novel so compelling is the way she uses theological and liturgical language to pull together her story. Central to her tale is a religious cult known as God's Gardeners. The Gardeners seek to promote a counter-cultural lifestyle which promotes vegetarianism, recycling, organic farming, animal rights and a host of other ideals. And it is cast in religious terms. The book is organized around the liturgical calendar of the Gardeners, which includes saints' days devoted to the like of "St." Euell Gibbons (a naturalist in the last century), "St." Rachel Carson (of Silent Spring fame) and "St. Dian Fossey (the zoologist known for her work with mountain gorillas). Sprinkled through the book are hymns said to be taken from The God's Gardeners Oral Hymnbook. One, dedicated to Fossey, ends:
Among the green and misty hills,
Where once shy Gorillas gathered,
Your kindly Spirit wanders still,
In watchfulness, forever.
(The Year of the Flood, 314)
The Year of the Flood is not without humor, but it is also not for the faint hearted. Atwood holds nothing back. But in the almost brutal approach she takes, Atwood, like Orwell and Bradbury before her, causes the reader to ask him or herself some very hard questions, including the basic question every practitioner of religion must ultimately confront: Am I putting into action the values and principals I espouse, or, am I merely mouthing the words, echoing the doctrine and going through the motions?

The Year of the Flood may be fiction, but in many ways, it is still profoundly true.
(Photo Credit: Julian Weane, www.flickr.com/photos/ikaink/4887822303/)

Monday, September 13, 2010

There is a proverb, from the Buddhist tradition I think, that says, "You can never step into the same river twice." It is ultimately a commentary on the human condition--how are lives are constantly changing. How the context of our lives is constantly changing. Yet, like many analogies, it can also be understood literally. Literal rivers are always changing, and the water you step into today will not be the same tomorrow. I was reminded of all this while reading a page one article in yesterday's local Sunday paper The News Press. (Being a bit of a news junkie I always read two Sunday papers, the other being the New York Times.) The article, titled "Troubled Waters," described some of the problems being faced by those attempting to keep the Caloosahatchee River alive and well.

The Caloosahatchee runs east to west 75 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico. Over the years the Caloosahatchee has been dammed and straightened and dredged and manipulated over and over again. As reported Amy Beth Williams notes: "[T]he Caloosahatchee as we know it was never meant to be, at least geologically." (The News-Press, 9-12-10, A-8)

I don't live on the river, though I cross it with some frequency, and even stand on its banks once in a while. And so I don't think about it. And I've never even seen Lake Okeechobee. What do they say, out of sight, out of mind? But the truth of the matter is, both of them impact my life. What impacts Lake Okeechobee impacts the Calossahatchee and ulitmatley impacts Sanibel. When pollutants are dumped into the river, when the confluence of salt and fresh water is tampered with by dams and the like, when runoff pours into the lake, ultimately, Sanibel pays.

Its a lesson--an environmental lesson in miniature. Its a reminder that whatever I do, has consequences that reach far beyond the shores of our little island. For good or for ill.

Its true, literally and figuratively, you can never step in the same river twice. But unless we take some responsibility for the Calooshatchees of the world, or at least those in our own backyards, there may not be any rivers to step into at all.

For more information about the Caloosahatchee, check out the ongoing coverage of the issue at www.news-press.com/river. To get involved in helping preserve the Caloosahatchee, contact the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation at river@sccf.org
(Photo Credit: B. K. Bennett, http://flic.kr/p/6djQs1 )

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sometimes here on Sanibel--this beautiful island oasis--it is easy to forget about the problems of the world. Sometimes immersing oneself in a book at the beach or riding a bike along the many paths that weave there way across the island can lead one to think all is well on Planet Earth. But even here we are not untouched by the news of the day, and so it is that a story has reached our shores from another spot in Florida that sends shivers up my spine, even though its been in the nineties here for days!

Later this week we will mark the 9th anniversary of the tragedy commonly known as 9-11. Once again we will be reminded of how on that beautiful September morning, four planes were flown into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, changing forever our own sense of security and peace. The perpetrators of the attacks were Islamist extremists, men hellbent on death and destruction. I lived in metropolitan New York at the time and had the sad task of officiating at three funerals for victims of those attacks. That time shall be forever seared in my memory.

Every year the question comes up, how should we remember, how should we commemorate that day? This year, in particular, there seems to have been more than the usual amount of controversy around it all: the debate in New York about the proposed Islamic center and mosque, the appropriateness of the memorial that is under construction at ground zero. These projects have people of good faith arguing on all sides of the issues. But another proposal, the one that emanates from Florida, is, in my mind, indefensible. It is just plain wrong.

The pastor of a small church in Gainesville (the Dove World Outreach Center) is urging folks to to burn a Qu'ran, the scriptures of Islam, on September 11th. He is calling it "International Burn a Koran Day." If you visit the church's website you will discover that they claim "it is neither an act of love nor of hate"--but rather a way to warn people about the dangers of Islam. The church's pastor, Terry Jones, has even published a book titled Islam is of the Devil.

I am the first person to defend the freedoms of religion and speech. And Pastor Jones and his flock have the right to hold whatever opinion of Islam they believe to be true. They even have the right to express that opinion. (Even though I radically disagree with them.) But book burning, especially when the book in question is considered holy scripture by millions of Americans, and many millions more around the world, is an act of intellectual and theological cowardice. The strength, the power, the beauty of the gospel speaks for itself. The uplifting message of Jesus is not dependent on tearing down others. In fact, when his followers vilify other people, they are only undermining the very core of his message: Love God with your all, he preached, and love your neighbor as yourself. Burning a neighbor's book of holy scriptures doesn't strike me as an act of love. It strikes me as an act of hate.

9-11 demonstrated that there is already more than enough hatred in the world--perhaps the best way to commemorate it is to find some concrete way to add some love to the mix. Teaching a child to read. Volunteering at your local library. Reading to someone who's blind. I think any one of those beats burning a book. Any day of the week.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

First I need to be clear about something. There is nothing wrong with being a tourist. I just got back from a lovely three-week vacation and spent much of the time being just that. I ambled along the board walk on the Jersey shore, went to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Massachussetts, enjoyed a wonderful concert at Tanglewood and even sailed on the Schooner Manitou on one of the bays off Lake Michigan. They even let me man the helm for a few seconds! I was a tourist through and through.

As a tourist you sample a bit of this and a bit of that, and then you move on. You never really delve deeply into anything. You skim the surface, never really committing to anything. It may be a fine way to take a vacation--but it's no way to live life!

For me one of the joys of vacation is having time to read. One of the books I read on this trip was Warren Richey's Without a Paddle. It is a beautifully written memoir, which recounts his participation in the Ultimate Florida Challenge, a twelve-hundred mile water race around Florida. (In addition to the coastlines, it involves a couple of rivers and some portaging along the northern border of the state.) All entrants must circumnavigate the state in a self-powered or wind-powered boat--Richey uses a kayak.

The book is full of descriptions of Florida's flora and fauna. And woven throughout his story, are Richey's reflections on his divorce and his blossoming relationship with a woman named Linda. Both the race and his reflections are full of high points and low. Several times he faces life threatening situations as he paddles through the night.

At one point Richey writes: "A famous British explorer once said that no journey is ever truly an adventure unless you face the distinct possibility of death. Everything else is just tourism . . . . I don't have a death wish . . . . It is the exact opposite. I want to live. I want to travel to the heart, to the precipice, to the depths . . . When I push my way to the edge of that strange and distant place, I may be called many things, but tourist is not one of them." (324)

Most of us may never be involved in something like the Ultimate Florida Challenge. But all of us are involved in the Ultimate LIFE Challenge. And we do indeed face the "distinct possibility of death." We can try to navigate the waters of existence as tourists--or we can commit ourselves to this place called Planet Earth and live life with a real sense of adventure--and purpose! The choice is ours.
(Photo Credit: Robert Danner--with thanks for a great time on the Manitou!)

Monday, August 9, 2010

This past week there was a fair amount of good news out of the Gulf. The oil well appears to have been successfully capped, the oil spill itself seems to have largely dissipated and we are told 75% of the oil has been cleaned up. If any or all of that is true it is good news indeed.

But there are many skeptics. A friend recently traveled to Louisiana and reports that many of the fishermen, restaurant owners and others there are very doubtful about it all. Certainly the marshes are still polluted, many of the shrimp boats aren't fishing and the tourists haven't come back.

So what are we to make of it all? What am I to make of it all? I certainly want to celebrate any good news and progress in the clean-up. Thousands have invested their time and energy in the effort. I want to acknowledge their commitment and hard work. It is worthy of praise! Gratitude is important!

But I don't want to lose sight of what has happened here. I don't want it to be swept under the rug--I want it to be remembered so that we can work to prevent it from happening again! There are things to be lamented! Human and animal lives lost. Ecosystems destroyed. Oil wasted. Jobs gone. It is worthy of tears! Mourning is important!

I am reminded in all this of the Book of Psalms--that collection of ancient Hebrew poetry that has songs of thanksgiving nestled cheek-by-jowl with the wailings of those who have lost much! It is uncomfortable having seemingly contradictory emotions at one and the same time. But life often works that way. And the Psalms provide a way to express those thoughts, those emotions. The psalms provide a template for prayer in times such as these. As scholar Walter Bruggemann writes: "In season and out of season, generation after generation, faithful women and men turn to the Psalms as a most helpful resource for conversation with God about things that matter most." (The Message of the Psalms, 15)

In times like these I am grateful for Psalm 30, that promises God will turn "mourning into dancing." And I take great comfort in the many extremes of emotion expressed in Psalm 139. I can be angry and hopeful at the same time. I can be simultaneously happy and sad. And God will be there. For, as the psalmist says, "even if I take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me."

Yes, these are days filled with environmental highs and lows, but through it all, God travels with us. Such is the promise of the Book of Psalms.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Last week I attended one of the orientation sessions for those of us here on Sanibel who signed up to be part of the Coastal Watch program. The program was established by the City of Sanibel to create a group of trained volunteers to monitor the beaches for tarballs and other signs of oil.

Everyone who signed up had to first pass an online course which provided basic information about the oil spill in the Gulf and safety concerns. Then following the orientation we each received our official "uniforms"--a bright chartreuse t-shirt emblazoned with VOLUNTEER on the back, and a white baseball cap with the Coastal Watch symbol.

The reality is we may never have to wear either of them. As of last week the oil was 300 miles from our shoreline, and Coastal Watchers won't be pressed into service unless the oil comes within 75 miles of Sanibel. Still, it is good to be prepared. And better yet, it is good to be reminded that we can make a difference as individuals.

The panel of local environmental and safety experts who presented the orientation shared many intriguing facts and figures. One told us about sea turtles, another warned against dehydration, one spoke of how Sanibel fits in the larger picture and yet another took up the subject of dealing with the public. There were other topics as well--but the thing I wrote down on my notepad--the remark I found most important was made by a fellow connected with the wildlife refuge. "Your role," he told us, "is to provide the eyes and ears for us as a community." In some ways, it was to state the obvious. After all, it is called Coastal Watch! But the reality is the job of being the eyes and ears of the community when it comes to environmental issues can't be restricted to a group of volunteers. Here on Sanibel, and around the world, we all need understand that watching out for the environment is one of our responsibilities as human beings!

Theologian Sallie McFague puts it well: "Never before have people had to think about the well-being of the entire planet--we did not ask for the task, but it is one being demanded of us. We Christians must participate in the agenda the planet has set before us--in public and prophetic ways--as our God 'who so loved the world' would have us do." (Life Abundant, 210)

I am truly pleased and impressed that 200 folks on our island of a little over 6,000 signed up for the Coastal Watch. But I pray the day comes when we human beings are all part of a concerted effort to watch over not just the coast, but the entire planet.

Monday, July 26, 2010

I've been doing some reading to prepare for a course on environmental theology and ethics that I'll be teaching here at the Sanibel church this fall. I just finished a really fine essay by Jurgen Moltmann from his book Creating a Just Future. It dates back to 1989, but it feels very contemporary. He sees things in relational terms, and at one point observes: "The living relationship between a human society and its natural environment is determined by the techniques by which human beings extract what they need to eat and live from nature and return their waste products to it." (52)

Clearly, in the current crisis here on the Gulf, there have been techniques which have failed. I don't have the technical expertise to determine if they are good techniques gone awry, or if they were faulty from the start. Indeed, that is a question that bis being asked about deep water drilling in general. Here in Florida, as we enter this election cycle, it's a hot topic. To drill or not to drill? Should Florida's coastline be open to drilling? Or is drilling a technique which is fundametally harmful to the relationship?

While I can't judge the technical merits of drilling, I do have a bit of training in the realm of relationships. And in human relationships, technique does matter. I've spent many, many hours working with men who abuse their wives and lovers. Often, part of that counseling is all about technique--learning new ways of communicating that don't tear at the heart of the relationship.
But there is more to it than technique. For ultimately such men need to learn a whole new way of thinking about the women in their lives. Ultimately they need to come to see them as partners, as equals, as people deserving of their love and respect. And while good technique can be helpful, in the end, it needs to grow out of a transformed attitude, and a transformed understanding. Without that transformation, things never change.

Drilling may or may not be a good technique. We need to figure that out. We also may need to invent some new techniques. But more than that, we need to change our attitude about the earth itself. We need to see the natural world as a partner, deserving of our care and respect.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Like so many others, I've been holding my breath this past weekend, hoping and praying that the cap will hold on the Deepwater Horizon well. Despite all the oil that has already spilled into the Gulf, there is a measure of relief to be found in the fact that for the most part it has been stopped. Who knows how long it will take to clean up what's already polluting the waters, the beaches and the marshlands? But at least the end of the spillage appears to be in sight. This time.
I suppose that's a rather pessimistic view. And certainly, it is my fervent prayer that this never happens again. But it will take more than prayer to change things. It will take concerted effort on the part of individuals, corporations and government. It will mean changing our personal habits of energy consumption. It will mean putting safety and environmental concern ahead of profit. It will mean fully enforcing existing regulations and creating new ones as needed. And all that is a tall order. A very tall order.

Sunday, my two grandsons were here on island with their Mom and Dad to help us celebrate my wife Linda's birthday.. They arrived in the afternoon, and we spent time at the pool just being a family. Then, Linda and my daughter-in-law and Zach, our oldest grandson, went down to the beach for an hour or so while I cooked dinner. While they were there, Zach dug a big hole in the sand. Little boys (and girls) have probably been doing the same since the dawn of time! This morning though, when I walked the beach, I saw no sign of the hole. It had been smoothed down and filled in by the tide.

It will take more than a night and a change of tide to undo the hole dug in the environment by the oil spill. It will take many nights, and many tides. Years of them, I suspect. I just hope that if and when we are done, we don't forget the hole. I hope we carry away from all of this a new understanding of just how much work it will take for us to make sure other little boys and girls will be able to dig holes in the sand and jump in the waves and collect shells on the shore.
(PHOTO CREDIT: Linda Bradbury-Danner)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

As you cross over the causeway that connects Sanibel Island to the mainland (or "the continent", as some locals call it) one of the most magnificent sights is watching as brown pelicans skim over the water's surface. They are big birds-- their wingspan can reach seventy inches across--and yet they seem to fly effortlessly, gliding through the air with great ease.

Yesterday, twenty-one brown pelicans and eleven northern gannets were released here on the island in hopes that they might find a safer place to live. They had been covered with oil when they were found along the Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi coastlines. After being cleaned up and rehabilitated they were transported by plane to the area and then set free. According to the local newspaper, they are among the 1085 birds that had been rescued as of yesterday.

No one knows for sure if they will stay here, or fly back home. Brown pelicans it seems have a tendency to return to the place where they first took flight. One can only hope they will avoid getting re-entangled with the oil spill!

Pelicans, of course, are only following their instincts. And if they do return to familiar territory it can hardly be called a matter of poor judgement. Not so we human beings. True, sometimes we just act on instinct, but the reality is we are capable of making choices, for we have God-given free will.

So what choices will we make today? Will we learn from this disaster and choose to live in a different, more environmentally aware way? Will we change some of our wasteful habits? Or, will we simply return to the familiar?

The new pelican residents here on Sanibel may not have a real choice, but we do. Just a few months ago, in November 2009, brown pelicans, which had been threatened back in the first part of the twentieth century by the use of DDT, were finally taken off the endangered species list. Our choices will help determine whether or not they stay off .

(Photo Credit: Mike Baird, www.flikr.com/photos/mikebaird/66530017/)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Last week our congregation hosted a middle school youth group from the Windemere (FL) United Church of Christ. We provided floor space for their sleeping bags; helped them make arrangements for showers with the local Rec Center; fed them pancakes one morning for breakfast. Nothing extraordinary--just one church helping out another.

The kids and their chaperones worked with a city official and a representative from one of the environmental groups here on the island, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. SCCF, as its known locally, has been instrumental in helping Sanibel be a sanctuary island. It manages over 1300 acres of wild lands here on Sanibel, runs a marine laboratory and a superb nature center with trails, a touch tank and a butterfly house!

The youth group helped plant sea oats. In all they planted nineteen-hundred seedlings. Nineteen-hundred! That's a lot of sea oats! While they may sound rather innocuous, sea oats (uniola paniculata) are actually a very important part of our ecosystem. They can grow to six feet in height, and provide natural protection against the ravages of tropical storms. Their long root systems help to stabilize the loose soils of barrier islands and coastal environments. Unfortunately, they can be fairly easily destroyed by pollutants. As strong as they are--and they are strong in many ways--they can be wiped out by human carelessness.

In the courtyard of our church we have an eternal light created by one of our local artists, a very gifted fellow named Luc Century. It was erected in partnership with the Jewish congregation that shares our facility. It is a beautiful glass cylinder, etched with sea oats. The light itself is powered by a solar panel. It is a constant reminder that even as the sea oats literally help to hold our island together, so the light and love of God holds our world together.

Sea oats may seem rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things. So too things like providing hospitality, creating art, and partnering with folks from other places and other religious backgrounds. But I am convinced such things count for much. I am convinced that every time we stop, as those kids from Windemere did, to tend to the earth, we are making God's love a bit more real in our fragile world. Every time we provide hospitality, every time we partner with folks of differing faith backgrounds, every time we pause to observe something beautiful, we are making God's light a bit more visible in a sometimes darkened world.

Sea oats--who would have imagined?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I got a rather disturbing e-mail the other day from our Regional Conference Minister (RCM). Our church is part of the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ, and our region covers the Gulf Coast of Florida. Our RCM had just spent some time in Pensacola Beach and she reported on the conditions there as the oil from Deepwater Horizon finds its way to the Panhandle. She spoke about the specially trained workers who are cleaning up the beaches. She mentioned the drop in tourism. She spoke of shells picked up from the sand, coated with oil. And she talked about how at her hotel "there were tubs of soap, water and scrub brushes because no matter what you did to avoid the stuff it was on your feet."

Here on Sanibel we haven't been hit yet by the slick. We are preparing for it. My wife and I signed up to be part of the Community Coastal Watch effort last week. This is a community where most everybody volunteers. But our watching over the coastline, and the much more rigorous efforts of those who are engaged in the clean up efforts, won't, in the end, save everything. The reality is clear: some things will be lost in all of this. Marshlands. Birds. Fish. Jobs. And they may never be replaced. The effects of the oil spill can't be simply washed off with soap and water.

But for all that, I'm not willing to give in to despair. I am concerned, of course. But I hold out hope that we can learn some valuable lessons from all this. I hold out hope that we can finally come to realize that the earth's resources are not limitless, but rather need to be handled as the fragile gifts that they are.

I take a measure of comfort in something William Sloane Coffin once wrote: "If you believe, as many believers do, in a politically engaged spirituality, and you are trying to save the environment . . . you're bound at times to feel like quitting. But if Jesus never allowed his soul to be cornered into despair . . . who then are we to quit 'fighting the good fight of faith.'" (Credo, 114)

Let's keep fighting the good fight. Let's keep washing one another's feet--but let's also keep marching, praying, working for that day when we all realize what a precious gift we've been given!