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,

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 To get involved in helping preserve the Caloosahatchee, contact the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation at
(Photo Credit: B. K. Bennett, )

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!)