Friday, December 30, 2011

Shine On, Friends, Shine On!

Two days before Christmas I had the pleasure of speaking before my Rotary Club here on Sanibel about various holiday traditions. I titled my talk "The Season of Lights" and focused on Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa.

Hanukkah, I reminded my listeners, is all about the ancient story of the Maccabees and their struggle to free Jerusalem from religious oppression. I told the story of the oil that miraculously lasted for eight days. I pointed out the history behind the Hanukkah game known as dreidel (it served as a decoy when children were studying the scriptures their oppressors had outlawed.) And I sang the wonderful Peter Yarrow song, "Light One Candle."

Christmas, the most familiar of the three to my listeners, also focuses on light. It was, afterall, set during December due to winter solstice! I spoke of the use of Advent candles, and the traditional Christian notion that Jesus is the Light of the World. I closed that section with one of my favorite carols, "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella."

Kwanzaa, the most recent of the celebrations, is a cultural festival, rather than a religious festival, and came into existence out of a desire on the part of African-American leaders to reinstill a sense of identity and roots. The seven candles of the Kwanzaa celebration emphasize virtues like unity and self-determination. I sang the old spiritual "This Little Light of Mine" to finish my presentation.

"Each of these celebrations," I told my audience,"reminds us that we can bring light into a dark world. Each reminds us to keep the lights of freedom, love and heritage burning. When ever we reach out to one another we do just that!"

Later I happened to be driving behind a car from Virginia. It had one of those specialty license plates. This one was dedicated to preserving old lighthouses. It said "Keep the Lights Shining." That, in a nutshell, was my message to my civic club. And it is my wish for you as the year draws to a close. Keep the lights shining!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Beaches, Breakfasts and Angels Day and Night

Every church has its revered traditions during the Advent and Christmas seasons. Here at Sanibel Congregational UCC those traditions reflect the fact that the weather is warm at this time of year. The subropical weather means we can hold a lovely Christmas Eve Beach Service at Lighthouse Beach. It is very stirring to watch hundreds and hundreds of candles being lit as the sun goes down over the Gulf of Mexico!

In one of my former churches, one of the traditions was the annual Angel Breakfast. The congregation's social hall was turned into a little bit of heaven every year. Golden stars were hung from the ceiling, tables were covered with white linens and decorated with shining candles and sprays of gold, and at the front of the room, the stage was festooned with puffy clouds and rays of starlight.

All the children in the third grade and under were invited to come with their parents on a Sunday morning before worship for a special breakfast. Carols were sung, sometimes there was a craft, and the highlight of the event was a visit by a band of angels.

The angels, of course, were the young folks of the parish, middle and high school students, dressed in white robes with golden halos. Most years, it was just girls. But one year, in recognition of the fact that biblically speaking angels are usually depicted as male, the boys were also actively recruited. That year, two young men rose to the occasion, they they did want to be known as guardian angels. Their role in the festivities was to stand watch on either side of the curtain as the girl angels first sang and then descended down from the stage and out into the audience.

The loveliest part of the whole affair came when the angels spread out and one -by-one, whispered special messages into the ear of each of the children at the breakfast.

One year one of the Dads who was at the breakfast told me that his youngest child, Jane, who was just three at the time, was spellbound, and very pleased when the angel whispered in her ear, "Jesus is coming!"

As things would happen, just as the angel left their table, Jane needed to go to the bathroom. So Dad took her by the hand and out they went to the restroom down the hall. A few minutes later when they returned and came back into0 the social hall, Jane stood at the door, surveyed the whole scene, and then, looking up at her Dad, asked, "So where's Jesus? Where is he? Where is he?"

It is the question we ask ourselves every year, isn't it? Where's Jesus? Where is he? When we survey the world around us, when we look at all the economic difficulties so many face, when we hear about a terminally ill child, when we read reports about the war in Afghanistan, we too wonder, "Where is Jesus? Where is God?"

Yet, then we hear about the many ways folks do reach out to one another, especially this time of year, and we realize anew that Jesus is right in our midst. We realize that the Christ Child is born anew every time we give of ourselves to our neighbors in need. And that, in the end, the self-giving love that can and does mark this Holy Season, is the greatest Advent and Christmas tradition of them all! Have a blessed Christmas! (And if you happen to be near Sanibel, join us at Lighthouse Beach at 5:30 on Christmas Eve, or here in the sanctuary at 9:00 PM)

(Photo Credit: Ed Neitzke)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

On Line or On Point?

Last Saturday I engaged in two quintessential holiday traditions: I went shopping and I attended a performance of The Nutcracker. The first was actually quite depressing. The second, was a sheer joy. And not just because I love Tchaikovsky (though I do!)

My shopping expedition involved going to a chain store devoted to video games and the paraphernalia needed to play them. It was a relatively small space, jammed with shelf after shelf of video games. Games for Playstation. Games for Wii. Games for Xbox. There were games for little kids, games for adults, and all manner of games in between. Most of them very expensive, and many of them very violent.

There was a rather long line wending its way to the cash registers, and one of the folks standing there was a very overweight boy of about thirteen and his mom. He was clutching three games to his chest, very pleased to be making the purchase. I imagine he spends much of his time after school plopped in front of a monitor, chasing down virtual bad guys and the like.

Later that night I attended Nutcracker. It was a modified version of the full-length ballet, presented by a local ballet school. Dozens of girls, ranging in age from four or five to the mid teens, and one little boy, danced their hearts out. One kid danced wearing a cast on her arm. Another little girl slipped and fell, and like a real trouper got on and finished out her number as if nothing had happened. The smallest children were adorable, if a bit uncoordinated. The oldest demonstrated that years of training and practice really do pay off.

This end of semester presentation involved hours and hours of practice. It involved real teamwork and learning new skills. It tested both body and mind in real and significant ways. There was nothing virtual about it! And while soldiers did chase down bad guys, they were just make-believe mice!

I worry about kids today--I worry about the hours and hours of time that they are "connected" to screens and all things virtual. I worry that they aren't sufficiently connected to other people and to their own bodies! I'm not opposed to video games in general, but all things in moderation! The game store only reinforced my fears, but the ballet gave me hope.

Along the walls in the game store were hundred if not thousands of games marked "preowned," games that had been traded in by previous owners who grew bored with them, or who wanted to have the newest thing. At the ballet we were told it there have performances of it all around the world for the last 119 years. You be the judge!

(Photo Credit: Milissa Sprecher aka "Proud Mom")

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

God, the Mall and Jersey

My wife is going to be away this coming weekend and she asked me to use the time to finish up some of our Christmas shopping. Horrors! It's not that I don't like giving people gifts. I actually enjoy that part of it. But facing the malls and the shops . . . that's another matter! All the commercialism seems so contrary to the true meaning of Christmas. Then again, there is the Jersey story. Let me explain.

Several years back now, there was a young woman from my parish while I was in New Jersey who was facing a difficult pregnancy. And she was far from home. At one point she was rushed to a specialty unit in a Philadelphia hospital Her unborn baby had developed serious problems, and treating the fetus would have put the mother at some real risk.

Meanwhile, the young woman's mother-in-law was many miles away. She was able to pray. She did her best to support her son and her daughter-in-law with visits and phone calls. Still, she worried. More than that, she was afraid.

But Christmas was coming, and she had things that needed to be done, including some last minute shopping. So with a heavy heart she headed off to the mall. She wrestled the traffic, found a parking spot, and was exhausted before she even got inside.

As she passed through the mall hallways, she came across a group of school children singing in one of the mall courts. She sat down to listen, and soon the poignancy of their Christmas carols just washed over her, and she began to weep.

One of the school children's moms was seated next to her. She reached over and gently touched her arm. "Are you all right," she asked.

With that, it all came flooding out: my friend's fears, her worries, and her tears. The singer's mother turned out to be a woman of faith, and within seconds she gathered up three of her friends, and right there in the middle of the largest shopping mall in New Jersey, they prayed for a woman they had just met, her daughter-in-law a hundred miles away, and a baby not yet even born.

After my friend finished telling me the story she said, "John, I'm sure God sent those young mothers to tell me, 'You know where I am, and you know you're what you're doing, so just keep doing it.'"

At Christmas Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, the one known as Emmanuel. It means, "God with us." I guess if God can show up in a shopping mall in New Jersey, God can show up anywhere! So I'll go look for presents this weekend--but maybe it will be a better experience if I also look for God.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

One-and-a-Half Planets

Black Friday has come and gone. And by all accounts it was an economic success. Record breaking amounts of money were spent by American consumers stocking up on gifts for the holiday gift-giving season and, no doubt, spending a bit on themselves as well. And, from one important perspective, that's a good thing. More spending means more producing, and more producing means more jobs. And heaven knows, we need more jobs!

But in the interest of creating jobs, there are some who are suggesting that we set aside various environmental goals and standards. This, though, is exceptionally short-sighted. It is the sort of attitude that got us into the environemental mess we are experiencing in the first place! Why is it that some folks are so quick to pit the creation of jobs against the environment, why not seek to create jobs that will help repair and sustain the environment? Our economic interests and our environemental interests can--and should--be in sync.

I have not researched Patagonia, the apparel manufacturer and retailer, but it appears they are trying to do just that. I was impressed by a full page add that ran in the New York Times on Black Friday. It featured a picture of a Patagonia jacket, headlined, "Don't Buy This Jacket." The ad copy opened with a rather startling statement: "It's Black Friday, the day in the year retail turns from red to black and starts to make real money. But Black Friday and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red. We're now using the resources of one-and-a-half planets on our one and only planet." The ad then went on to encourage consumers to reduce, repair, reuse and recycle. It included a promise by Patagonia to take back any of their clothing that is worn out and then to recycle it. "Don't buy what you don't need," the copy continues later, "Think twice before buying anything."

One thing the ad doesn't say, but that I will: we can't buy a new planet. Limiting our consumption to the resources of just one planet will take a concerted effort, and it will need to include all the players, governments, non-profits, corporations, individuals, labor and religious groups.

Monday, November 21, 2011

For Saugatuck

We clergy types are fond of reminding people that a church is not a building, but rather the people. And that is profoundly true. Yet, those buildings, meeting houses in the parlance of New England, do shape who we are as a people. The church I serve here on Sanibel has a facility that is surrounded by wooden decks, with many doors that open onto the outdoors. The grounds are filled with beautiful, lush sub-tropical vegetation. The sanctuary is decorated in soft greens, and features many, many clear windows, bathing worshippers in Florida sunshine. The building is very much a part of the environs, and helps us to remember the commitment we have made in our church covenant to "protect in every way we can, the land God gave us here on Sanibel." Our building both reflects and shapes our very life as a church.

The church I served before coming here is in Connecticut. By New England standards it is not a very old congregation--it only dates back to 1832. Its building, though, has long been admired as a superb example of New England church architecture. Its steeple rises above the town of Westport, reminding all of the good news of God's love. Over the years the meetinghouse has been moved (literally across the street!) and added to in a variety of ways. And the church has used its building to benefit the wider community. Some fifty twelve step groups (like AA and Al-Anon) have met each week in its classrooms. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and Red Cross Blood Drives and a fine Nursery School have all called the Saugatuck Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) home. And twice a year, the church has thrown open its doors for magnificent feasts at Thanksgiving and Christmas for any and all in need of a good meal and company. The building, the meetinghouse, has helped shape that church and its relationship to the community, in so many, many ways.

But last night disaster struck--a fire ripped through a major part of the building. Brave firefighters were able to save the sanctuary and the steeple, the oldest parts of the building, but much of the rear part of the complex, where many of those community groups met, were ruined by the flames, the smoke and the water. The pictures and videos of the fire are heart wrenching.

But Saugatuck Congregational Church, the people of God who gather on Post Road in Westport, is a resilient church. They have dealt with challenges before. They have risen above calamity and proven time and again that they can and will live out Christ's command to love God and serve neighbor. They have had a building that reflects that commitment, and their life together has, in tune, been shaped by the building itself. And so I have no doubt they will rise up from this tragedy, much like a phoenix, so that they might continue being, as their vision statement says, "A Community of Christ--Welcoming All People--Learning to Love and Serve God and Neighbor."

My heart, and my prayers, go out this week to my brothers and sisters in Westport. I invite your prayers as well for Saugatuck Congregational Church.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Is Religion Important--Or Not?

When you are a pastor, parishioners frequently pass on articles, books and websites that they think you might find interesting. Sometimes they are interesting in terms of content, but they are always interesting in terms of what they tell me about my congregation. For every article, every book, every website, points to some area of concern for those who pass them on.

I recently received a clipping from an out-of-state newspaper that a parishioner who spends much of his time "up north" (as we say here on Sanibel) passed along. It came from the "Living" section of the York (PA) Daily Record. And it had a very provocative headline. "Religion: How important is it?" The article quoted from some survey material out of Duke University that suggests so called "organized religion" is increasingly irrelevant in many peoples' lives. According to a survey taken in 2008, 20% of Americans said they had "no religion" as opposed to only 3% in 1957. Mark Chavas, the director of the survey work, and a professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke, is quoted in the article: "It used to be that even the most marginally active people wouldn't say they have no religion, they'd say I'm Catholic, or I'm Baptist, or I'm Methodist or whatever. . . . That's not the case today." (York Daily Record, 9-15-11, B-1)

That fewer folks are interested in organized religion is, of course, of great concern to most anyone who sees institutional expressions of faith as important. It can, and does, lead to a lot of soul-searching in churches and synagogues and mosques across the country. What can we do to be more relevant? How can we better address the needs of those we are failing to reach? But maybe the answer is as close as the articles, the books and the websites that get passed on to folks like me.

It is said that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth once advised preachers in training to "take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both." But Karl Barth died in 1968. And while the thrust of his comment remains quite true, today he would need to amend it. "Go the Internet and go to your Bible, and read both." Will organized religion survive? I hope so--but only if we who practice our faith in community are willing to listen to what folks around us are saying--online and off!

Monday, November 7, 2011

I love to read. Always have. When I was a very small child I'd take my little red wagon and trundle down to the public library and load it up with picture books. Later, as a middle school student, I'd sneak out of my room after I'd gone to bed, and read by the hall light until I heard my parents coming up the stairs. I would read three or four books a week. Science fiction. Biographies. Classics like The Grapes of Wrath. My tastes were quite eclectic.

They still are. While my schedule doesn't usually allow me to read at my childhood pace. I often have two or three books going at once--often a novel, a professional book and something devotional. Right now I'm reading Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life, a volume on Mormonism and Michael Card's book on the Gospel of Luke.

On our coffee table at home, and on the credenza behind my desk here at the office are two stacks of books waiting to be read. Some of them that make their way onto my stack are ones I buy myself. Some are library books. Others were gifts. Still otehrs have been lent to me by folks who think I'll enjoy them.

The challenge, when you are a reader, is not only choosing what to read, but recognizing you'll never read it all. That, can be a cause for frustration, or a cause for rejoicing! You can get depressed about all that you are missing--or you can celebrate all you have found!

Come to think of it, life often works that way, doesn't it.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Autumn Leaves and Other Observations

I am writing this week from Columbia Theological Seminary in northern Georgia. I am here as a Guthrie Scholar, spending time considering the relationship between sabbath and retirement. In particular, I am exploring what it means to take sabbath rest in retirement. After all, many folks would say retirement is a 24/7 sabbath!

Some of my time is being spent in independent study. But I am also afforded the chance to sit in on several presentations by Wayne Muller, the author of several books, including Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives.

One of the exercises Wayne asked us to engage in involved what he called a "twenty minute sabbath". Its a beautiful, cool fall day here--and so he asked us to go outside and take a slow walk simply observing the world around us. We weren't supposed to be going anywhere or doing anything--we were just being present to that which was all around us.

Since I moved to Florida two years ago, I've been telling folks the only thing I really miss about being up north is autumn. Sunday, when I arrived here in Decatur and saw the trees I realized most of them are oaks, and therefore various shades of brown and yellow. Not the vibrant hues of maples in Vermont or Connecticut! So I dismissed the whole scene as somehow a sub par version of fall.

This morning though, as I wandered the campus during our twenty minute sabbath, I took time to really look--to really see. And I realized I had been wrong. While the trees were not the maples of Vermont, they were beautiful. Indeed, autumn at its glorious best! Here I had been presented with a chance to experience fall, and I almost missed it. I almost went back home to Florida without enjoying the seasonal splendour I so love! Just because I had narrowed my range of vision. Just because I wasn't really seeing what was right in front of me all along.

Kind of scary, really. Makes me wonder what else I'm missing in life!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

All In Favor

Being citizens of a democracy we like to vote on all sorts of matters. We vote for candidates for political office. We vote for singers and dancers on reality shows. We vote for our favorite movies and television shows and bedtime snacks. And some of us, in faith communities with congregational polity, even vote for our spiritual leaders. So I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when I read in yesterday's New York Times (10-26-11) that there is now a movement afoot to vote on amendments to various state constitutions that would establish the legal definition of the beginning of human life.

Called the personhood movement, it appears to be most advanced in Mississippi, where anti-abortion forces have banded together to place a proposition on the ballot that amends the constitution of that state to read "the term 'person' or 'persons' shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent." This amendment, presented as Proposition 26, would thereby criminalize all abortions. Even those involving rape or incest. Even those involving ectopic pregnancies. One of the ironies of the amendment, according to scientist Randall Hines, who is cited in the Times article, is the simple fact that, in his words, "the majority of fertilized eggs don't become people" because they never implant in the uterus! (New York Times, 10-26-11, A-16)

I was alarmed, though not really surprised, to read in the same article that there is an attempt here in Florida to introduce similar legislation. I will need to follow up on it.

The whole personhood movement strikes me, however, as rather illogical. After all, those who are promoting such measures as Proposition 26 are opposed to women exercising any choice when it comes to abortion. And most who are opposed to abortion would argue that we have no right to choose, because to do so interferes with divine prerogative. Yet in the very method they are using, voting, they are relying on voters making choices about when life begins. They are suggesting it is a matter not of divine prerogative, but rather majority rule.

If anti-abortion folks believe God has said abortion is wrong, then for them it is wrong. It doesn't matter what voters might say. But protecting their right to believe that way and to act on such beliefs requires protecting the rights of others to believe and act else wise.

There are some things that just shouldn't be subject to a vote. There are some things that must remain a matter of personal choice. And in our nation, those things must include those matter rooted in religious convictions.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Calculating Costs in a Time of War

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. Three of my four grandchildren have been born during that time span--and even my oldest, who is almost eleven, can't remember a time when we weren't fighting in that far off land.

Many people have claimed that our current fiscal mess, is at least in part, attributable to the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It makes sense to me, but I thought I'd do a little poking around to see what I could find out in terms of raw statistics.

It seems that the cost to date of the war in Afghanistan runs to something over $465 billion dollars ( In an article published last fall, it was noted that the cost per year per soldier is estimated (depending on source) to be anything ranging from $425,000 to $1,000,000. (Wall Street Journal, 9-8-10) That, of course, includes far, far more than a soldier's salary--still it's interesting to note that the median salary of a teacher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ranged from $47,100 to $51, 180 in May of 2008, and for fire fighters in the same year, the median salary stood at $44,260. How many teachers and firefighters might still have their jobs if we had not been at war? The costs of war are not just financial!

Of course the ultimate cost of the war in Afghanistan, is measured not in dollars, but rather in lives. As of October 10, 1,788 U.S. service members have been killed in the war. (New York Times, 10-11-11) In addition, close to 1,000 Coalition troops from over two dozen countries have also died. ( And then there are the much harder to count Afghan deaths, both civilian and military.

Has it been worth it? The experts claim it is far from over, by the way. Many, many more dollars will be spent. There will be more deaths. We rightly honor those who serve, and especially those who have given even their lives to the cause. But does that mean we continue on? On this tenth anniversary, I leave that to you to judge for yourself. I just hope there does come a time when my grandchildren can experience our nation in a time of peace.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mormons, Catholics and Me

Over the weekend a candidate's introduction made at the Values Voter Summit by the Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress, raised two questions that have dominated the news for the last couple of days: "Are Mormons Christians?" and "Is Mormonism a cult?" While these are controversial questions, I was even more taken by another question that surfaced in the Texas pastor's remarks. "Do we want a candidate," he asked his audience, "who is a good, moral person--or one who is a born again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?" Jeffress obviously assumes that a born again follower of Christ is a good moral person. And considering his audience, it was intended to be a rhetorical question. But here's the problem: such a question runs contrary to the spirit, though not the letter, of the law.

I looked it up to be sure I remembered it correctly. And I did. The last part of Article VI of the Constitution of the United States clearly reads "no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." In other words, no law or regulation can require any office holder to be of a particular religious persuasion. I realize that doesn't rule out bringing personal preferences to bear on ones decisions as a voter. Still, in a pluralistic democracy such as ours, the wise voter recognizes that the best woman or man for the job may or may not be a coreligionist! Being a good Christian doesn't necessarily mean one would make a good president.

Maybe its time to revisit the speech John Kennedy made to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston who were challenging his candidacy based on the fact that he was a Roman Catholic. In that stirring defense of the separation of church and state, Kennedy spoke of the presidency as "a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group . . . ." Protecting the right of Roman Catholics and Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses to hold office protects the right of all to hold office. To do otherwise would be a great tragedy. Speaking of his fellow Roman Catholics, Kennedy went on to say "if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser . . . ." What was true in 1960 is still true today--for Catholics, Mormons and Protestants like me.

(The full text of Kennedy's speech can be found at:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Of Dulcimers and Mothers

Its time for the Daniel Boone Festival in Knox County, Kentucky. That's where my mother lives--and its one of her favorite times of year. The week-long celebration features all manner of down home festivities and treats, including a good dose of folk music. Not the Peter, Paul and Mary kind of folk music (much as I love it!) but real, home-made, folk music.

My mother cared for my disabled father for seventeen years before he died back in 2009. Two years before then she decided, at the age of seventy-four, to try something new. She's always been touched by the plaintive sound of the dulcimer, a stringed instrument which figures prominently in Appalachian music. So she took a few lessons. Then she had a dulcimer made for her by a man named Lloyd Graham. It's a lovely piece of work--its cheery wood fairly sparkles! She calls it Anna.

In time mother joined a dulcimer group called, I'm not making this up, the Knox County Porch Pickers. They'll be playing at a quilt exhibit this week at the festival.

The day after my father's Memorial Service, mother assembled us all, my brothers and sister and our families, in her living room for a bit of a recital. She started by playing "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need," Isaac Watts paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm. "I always start with that when I practice," she said. It is, I am sure, her musical prayer. Then she played "Red River Valley" and "Spotted Pony" and "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny." Finally, she wound up playing a piece called "Southwind." It's called that," she said, "because of the way you play it, like this." And then she demonstrated a strumming of the strings that, indeed, sounded like the wind. She almost seemed in another world as she played it.

As her fingers ran across the strings, emitting their lovely tones, I couldn't help but think how those same fingers had tended my father's aches and pains and over the decades, had prepared his favorite meals. How those same fingers caressed his cheek, even when he could do nothing to respond. And how for over fifty-six years, those fingers had been entwined with his in alove that reflected the very love of God.

All that from a little concert on the dulcimer! Amazing! Amazing grace indeed.

Happy Daniel Boone Week, Mom! Might you strum for years to come!

(Photo Credit: Doreen Birdsell)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Just a Nice, Lazy Story

This blog isn't intended to be a travelogue, but I just can't help but write about the visit my wife and I made this past Saturday with another couple to Cabbage Key. It's a small, mostly undeveloped island in Pine Island Sound, not far from Sanibel, and it is only accessible by boat. It is home to the Cabbage Key Inn where, according to local legend, Jimmy Buffett was inspired to write "Cheeseburger in Paradise." I had a burger (though without the cheese) while we were there. It was quite good, if not inspiring!

We had a very pleasant trip over to the island on one of the local island-hopping tour boats. We were regaled along the way with a plethora of facts and figures related to our journey, including the tale of the Dollar Bill Bar.

The Dollar Bill Bar is located at the Inn, and is noteworthy for the thousands and thousands of dollar bills tacked to the walls and the ceilings. Each one has been signed by a tourist, a fisherman, or some other customer (including the aforementioned Jimmy Buffett--his warrants a frame!) Apparently back in the early days of the bar (which was opened in 1944) a fisherman signed a dollar bill and affixed it to the wall to make certain he had money for a drink when he returned. Today the owners estimate that as many as 70,000 bills adorn the bar. And each year, about 10,000 fall off the ceiling and the walls and are donated to charity.

When I heard that story, I said, "Now there's a sermon illustration!" And maybe it is. But then again, maybe not Maybe it's just a nice story. One that should be allowed to stand on its own. No real moral, no real point. Just a nice, lazy story about a nice, lazy island off Florida's Gulf Coast. How perfect! For as the gentle breezes washed over our faces on the boat ride back home, I realized we'd had a nice, lazy day.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Matter of Right and Wrong

When it comes to the death penalty, the polls conducted annually by the Gallup organization suggest I am in a minority. While I am opposed to capital punishment, last fall 64% of those surveyed answered yes to the question "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" ( I suspect that won't change dramatically when Gallup releases the results of their crime-related poll this fall. It's been like that for many years now. And while I disagree with the majority opinion, I respect that others may feel differently. But I do not respect cheering for executions, which is exactly what happened last week at a presidential debate held at the Ronald Reagan Library in California.

The moderator of the debate, Brian Williams, asked one of the candidates, Texas governor Rick Perry, a question related to the 234 executions that have happened in that state. The question itself, prompted applause from the the audience. The governor then responded and very somberly said that if you come into Texas and commit certain murders, "you will face ultimate justice . . . you will be executed." This time the crowd not only applauded, but some whistled and others cheered. I was appalled. I felt like we'd ended up back at a hanging in the old West!

When is it ever appropriate to cheer someone being killed? Taking a human life, even if you feel it is justified, which proponents of the death penalty do, is still a sad and sickening thing. When someone is executed it is society's way of saying that the precious gift of life has been wasted on evil actions. It is not a moment for cheering, it is a time for reflection.

It is interesting to note that in a 1981 speech given by then President Reagan, he spoke at some length about the death penalty. Make no mistake, he was a supporter of capital punishment, and I for one disagree with some of his conclusions in that speech. But at least one thing he said is well worth remembering today: "Right and wrong matters." (Public Papers of the Presidents, Reagan, 1981) I agree. And murder is clearly wrong. No question. And those who commit it must be punished. But cheering someone's death, no matter how heinous their crimes, is also wrong.

Monday, September 12, 2011

2012 and Beyond

My oldest grandson, Zak, who's ten had been hearing some of the talk about 2012. Not the national elections, but rather the predictions based on the Mayan calendar that the apocalypse will come at that time. (I realize some folks think that, depending on the outcome, those two things may be one and the same!) Anyway, Zak asked his grandmother if she thought the world was going to end next year.

"Oh no, honey, I really don't think so," she said.

"Oh, that's a relief," he said.

"Why do you say that?" asked his grandmother.

"I really want to get my license!"

Zak is only ten--so we can excuse his narrow focus! But as I've thought about that exchange, I realize, there are a whole lot of us older folks, so-called adults, who operate in much the same way. Indeed we only seem to worry about things when they impact us in a very personal way.

Only when we lose our jobs do we consider the flaws in our economic system. Only when we are without health care do we think about the ineffectiveness of our patchwork of methods for paying for it. Only when we have a son or daughter or spouse in the military do we consider the real costs of our long term wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I suppose it is, to some extent, simply human nature. But ultimately, we need to move past our narrow self-interested foci and address the many issues before us collectively. We need to rise above our differences and work together for the common good. For ultimately, what's good for all is that which will be best for each of us as individuals.

Zak's not due to get his license for a few years yet. Maybe by then, assuming the Mayans are wrong, we will have begun to work on some of these issues.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Thank God for Work!

Labor Day has come and gone. But I'm still thinking about work.

When I was a youngster--and to this day--almost every meal began with our saying grace. Usually we would all recite a memorized prayer together. But once in a while one of us children would say grace. Our prayers were all quite simple and were usually a list of thank yous. Thank you God for this day. Thank you God for the sun. And so on.

I have been told of a grace I said when I was very young in which, looking over the Thanksgiving table spread with the bounty of the feast, I proceeded to pray: "Thank you God for the olives, the pickles, the turkey, the cranberries, the potatoes, the stuffing, the gravy, the peas, the knives the forks, the glasses and the plates. Amen." Indeed, It was a pretty inclusive prayer! But I don't think, in my youthful zeal, I ever thought to thank God for work. Indeed, only as an adult have I realized how grateful I am for gainful and meaningful employment.

I guess Labor Day got me thinking about it. With high unemployment rates, you have to be grateful for any work, I suppose. But when you have work that is fulfilling, meaningful, purposeful, you can't help but feel doubly blessed! I guess that's what people mean when they say I have a calling.

But it's not just preachers who have a calling. I believe we all have a calling. I believe God has a purpose for each and every person. And when we discover that calling, and act on it, then we become a part of God's ongoing act of creation. We share in God's good work. And when we see ourselves as co-workers with the Creator, we have a real sense of self-worth and identity.

I realize, not everyone is as fortunate as I am. Not everyone has work--much less a sense of calling. Sometimes societal and economic barriers stand in the way. But I am convinced we can

break down those barriers. I am convinced that we can move towards full employment and meaningful employment for all. If we only are willing to make it a priority. That just might make Labor Day more than just another Monday holiday.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Chasing Irene

OK--so Linda and I go on vacation and head north. Places like Michigan, New York and Massachusetts. We figure we'll escape some of Florida's summer heat and humidity for a little while, and we won't be looking over our shoulders for hurricanes.
Well, it has been cooler! But as for the hurricanes . . . .
When I first heard reports about a tropical storm named Irene heading for our shores, I began to worry about the folks back home in Fort Myers and Sanibel. Little did I imagine we'd get caught in the middle of it! But so it was. As we hunkered down at our daughter's home outside of Boston, we watched and waited as the winds and rains grew in intensity. It wasn't quite a hurricane when it reached us, but it still knocked down some nearby tree limbs, and flooded the floor of the passenger side of our car. The city transportation system was closed down for the day. Many churches canceled their services. And we ended up altering our plans to go to Martha's Vineyard.
All that said, though, it wasn't much more (for us) than a major inconvenience.
But others were not so fortunate. According to the Boston Globe, 650,000 customers in Massachusetts lost power. And many, many more along the East Coast. Experts estimate that the storm caused over 7 billion dollars in damage. And worst of all 21 folks lost their lives.
On this sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, things seem to pale in comparison. Yet, if you lost power, if you lost property, if your loved one lost his or her life, comparisons don't really matter, do they? And to those who complain we "over prepared" I say, thank God you are still able to complain!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Collecting Billboards

My wife Linda and I are on a road trip, and part of the drive took us right through the heart of Dixie: northern Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky . . . and all along the way there were billboards. Lots and lots of billboards. Despite television and the Internet, there are many folks, apparently, who still want to get their message across the old-fashioned way!
There are, of course, all sorts of billboards advertising services for travelers: fast-food joints, motels, and so on. My favorite motel billboard along the way promoted a "midnight rate" available after 9:00 PM. Why not call it the nine o'clock rate?
I was surprised, considering the part of the country through which we were traveling, at the number of billboards advertising so-called adult bookstores, video stores and so on. There were several signs for Cafe Risque, a few for the Lion's Den Adult Superstore, and one for a club with strippers "as featured on the Jerry Springer show!" Now there's an endorsement I'd want to avoid! And would someone please explain to me why anyone would promote a liquor store with a drive-thru?
I saw lots of billboards for medical services. There was one offering hair transplants for "$2 a graft" (it would cost me a small fortune!) Then there was the Georgia Dental Center that had a sale going on with "half-price implants." (I just don't think I'd ever buy discounted teeth!) And in an example of extremely poor taste (I'm not making this up) there was a billboard for the Amputee Prosthetic Clinic with a over sized picture of Captain Hook!
Religion is also present on these roadside signs. I spotted many anti-abortion billboards. But there was an occasional liberal message. One I especially liked suggested using Desmond Tutu as a model for living. There was a sign that simply said, "The Way, the Truth, the Life . . . Jesus Christ." And then one designed to provoke the viewer. "HELL" it said in large letters. Then, in a smaller font: " I haven't thought about that lately . . . ."
I'm not sure what all these billboards say about the south, or America for that matter. But while they make for some interesting reading, the best billboards ended up being the ones that weren't there. For America, despite being spoiled in spots by too much signage, is indeed, a beautiful country!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Deep in the Soul of Texas

I am deeply troubled by last Saturday's prayer rally called The Response held at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Not because of the rally itself. Not that it reflected my own theology. It didn't. But that's not a real problem. After all, as they say, this is America and, thank God, we are free to believe as we choose. So while I cannot subscribe to the idea that a significant part of the population is consigned to damnation--one of the tenets in the statement of faith posted by The Response on their website--I defend the right of others to hold such beliefs.

No, what bothered me about the rally was the fact that it was initiated and basically hosted by a sitting governor, Rick Perry of Texas. Don't misunderstand. I have no issue with the fact that the Governor is a man of faith. I have no issue with his letting his religious views be known by others. And I would assume as he makes various decisions he will consider things in light of his own beliefs, religious or otherwise. But using his bully pulpit as a literal pulpit crosses the line.

I looked over the website for The Response. There is no question, it was a Christian event--and a very narrowly defined version of Christian at that. The home page of the website even has a virtual altar call. "The call to repentance and a lifestyle of worship," it reads, "does not end with an event, but rather begins with that moment when we say 'yes' to Jesus." ( Viewers of the site are then invited to click further if they want to make a commitment. In the opposite column on the homepage, one finds the prayer that Governor Perry offered at the rally.

Listen, I'm a Christian. I love Jesus. Really! I pray every day. My staff and I pray every weekday morning for our nation. And I would suggest all Christians are called to do the same! Including the Governor of Texas! But Rick Perry isn't just the governor of Texans who consider themselves to be Christians--no more than I'm just the pastor of those parishioners who hold my political views. Its bigger than that for both of us. I'm the pastor of Republicans and Democrats and Independents and folks who've give up on the system all together. And Rick Perry is the Governor of Roman Catholics and Muslims and Buddhists and whether he likes it or not atheists as well. As such, he needs to bend over backwards to make room for all people in his vision of Texas--and of America. Frankly, I don't think that happened on Saturday. And that's what bothered me about the rally.

Monday, August 1, 2011

August Weeds--August Flowers

When I think of August, one of the images that comes to mind is that of Queen Anne's Lace. Daucus carota. Wild carrot. As a boy, our family vacations always happened in August, and the fields and roadways of Vermont where we spent the month were covered with the feathery white weed. I didn't suffer from allergies back then, so they were a pure joy. My brother and I would pick handfuls of them and present them to my Mother, who always received them with the same acclaim she welcomed roses delivered by the florist for her birthday.

I looked up Queen Anne's Lace on the internet (don't you just love Wikipedia?) and discovered it is considered a beneficial weed. Apparently, at least in some settings, it provides an alternative target for predatory wasps, thus protecting the other plants. It can also create shade and a bit of cooling for other crops.

I really like that idea--a beneficial weed. Usually we think of weeds as useless at best, a a menace at worst. Weeds are for pulling out. Weeds are for throwing in the compost heap, or the backyard burning barrel. But who's to say what's a weed and what's not? As a boy, I thought Queen Anne's Lace was one of the most beautiful flowers on God's planet--or at least in Vermont. Truth be told, I still do!

We are often quick to label people as weeds as well. We relegate them to the scrap heaps of life without giving them a second thought or a second look. The physically disabled, the mentally challenged, those of differing sexual orientations, people of other races, other religions, other nationalities. But when we do so, our lives are made poorer for it. And we miss out on gifts, benefits such souls they have to offer to offer society.

I'm traveling up north later this month--I'll even have a day or two in Vermont. I'll be watching for the Queen Anne's Lace. But you needn't go to New England to find beneficial weeds!

(Photo Credit: Jason Parker-Burlingame,

Monday, July 25, 2011

Reaching for the Stars

Last Thursday, at approximately 5:50 AM I was awoken by a loud boom--actually, a double boom, as the last space shuttle, the Atlantis, passed over Southwest Florida on it's way to landing on the East Coast. My wife Linda and I immediately got out of bed, turned on the television and watched the picture perfect touchdown. I must admit, I shed a tear or two as the shuttle taxied to a stop. "This is it," I thought to myself, "the end of an era." (Hey, who's very original at 6:15 in the morning?) But, truly, it was the end of an era--and the end of many jobs here in Florida, in Texas and elsewhere I'm sure.

Over the years I have heard many of my fellow liberals complain about the space program. "Why can't we spend that money feeding the hungry? Why can't we use it to house the homeless and provide medicine for the sick? Shouldn't we take care of things here on earth before we worry about outer space?" And, a part of me, of course, agrees. Our priorities are out of whack. We are letting the poor and the destitute slip through the cracks. But, personally, I'd rather see us look elsewhere for the money. Rather than dismantling the space program, I like to see us stop spending billions and billions of dollars fighting wars that seem to have no purpose and no end. I'd rather see those dollars go to feeding the hungry and tending to the sick.

I know it's not as simple as that. But then again, maybe it is. Maybe it is as simple as saying we want to place an emphasis as a nation on those things that will help us be better people. And, as cliched as it is to say the space program helped us reach for the stars, it is also true. Literally and figuratively.

I understand that we're thinking about traveling to asteroids or Mars or maybe the moon again. And I hope we do. I hope we recapture the wonder of exploring the heavens. But more than that, I hope the end of the shuttle program causes us to stop and rethink our priorities as a nation. Maybe, if we had a better handle on that which is truly important, the wrangling over budgets and debt ceilings that we're witnessing in Washington these days would come to an end. Call me star struck if you must--but I refuse to give up hope!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Sanibel Rebellion

The City of Sanibel started with a rebellion. OK--not an armed overthrow or anything like that. Nobody dumped boxes of tea in Tarpon Bay. But back in the early seventies Sanibel was still an unincorporated part of Lee County, and it appeared the island was headed for the kind of development that is seen all up and down the Gulf Coast. Hi-rise condos along the beaches, heavy traffic, sprawling resorts, fast-food franchises and so on.

But the residents of Sanibel wanted to preserve not only the character of the island, but also the ecology of the island. They didn't want hi-rises. They didn't want to be swamped with the projected 90,000 residents. Rather, they wanted to protect the wildlife and natural habitats that make this place so special. So they rebelled--in a manner of speaking, and mounted a campaign to become in independent municipality. As one of the founding mothers of Sanibel, Grace Whitehead, once said, "The county considered the citizens of Sanibel to be like the colonists who revolted against Mother England."

After much effort, it happened. In 1974, Sanibel became a legal entity. A city. A self-governed municipality capable of laying out its own rules and regulations for how land was or was not to be used. And it worked. Today, over 65% of Sanibel is undeveloped, protected land. Just this winter the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Fund raised over five million dollars to add another 28.3 acres to that total.

But none of this would have happened without a plan. A city plan. A well-thought out approach to how the properties of the island would be used, managed and protected. It is, sometimes, a rather contentious plan. Public meetings on Sanibel are just that, public. And a concerned and well-educated population isn't afraid to voice its opinions! But it is a plan that works. And Sanibel, this island of ecological wonders, remains just that!

So, with great gratitude to all those who dreamed of the plan, all those who continue to refine the plan, and all those who fight to maintain the character of the plan, Happy Anniversary! In its original form, the plan was first adopted July 19, 1976--two years after the "rebellion"!

Monday, July 11, 2011

First, Last and Only Words About the Anthony Trial

I'm not sure why I'm allowing myself to be sucked into the Casey Anthony stuff--but here goes.

There are far more important issues for us to be tending to these days. The national debt ceiling, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the unemployment rate, global warming--the list is endless of problems and concerns that should be the focus of our attention. But they are not. For some reason, this summer we Americans have been caught up in the trial of a woman accused of killing her daughter. Perhaps it is pure escapism. Perhaps it is a way for us to set aside the real issues of the day.

Don't misunderstand. It is truly tragic that this family has been rent asunder by this event, by charges and counter-charges. And it is even more tragic that a young life was cut short. But it happens all the time. Children die every day. And some of them at the hands of their parents. If I thought the Anthony trial would help us to recognize the need to address issues like domestic violence I might not feel the way I do about it all. It is probably good that many states are looking at laws mandating the reporting of missing children, but often that is too little, too late.

So many people have taken aim at the jury, blaming them for the outcome of the trial. But those on the jury appear to have done what they were charged with doing. They appear to have given a verdict based on the evidence presented to them--and not their emotional response to the case. Still, people have expressed real anger about the not guilty verdict, and have laid the blame for it at the jury's feet.

But I wonder if the anger and frustration aimed at the jury is misdirected. I wonder if it is really pent up anger and frustration with ourselves. Why can't we solve the problems that confront us as a society? Why can't we elect officials who will cooperate and do what's best for all concerned? Why can't we truly live as a nation dedicated to liberty and justice for all?

That's it. That's all I'll say. These are my first, last and only words about the Anthony trial. Now let's move on. America, indeed the world, needs are energy and attention for other things.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Technology and the Church

This weekend my denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC), held it's bienniel national gathering called General Synod. Delegates from all across the country gathered in Tampa, Florida, about 2 1/2 hours north of here, to worship and study, as well as to debate and vote on a variety of issues including a major effort to restructure the governance of the denomination at the national level. I attended part of the gathering, and enjoyed it immensly!

Like most of these gatherings though, the most important part of of it turned out to be the kind of stuff that doesn't show up on official agendas. I had lunch with a friend from Japan who I hadn't seen in two or three years; dinner with a young clergyperson from New York I had mentored, and chance meetings with folks from many different parts of my life. Call it what you will, fellowship, networking, reconnecting, it all amounts to a very tangible reminder that that nothing can really take the place of face-to-face encounters!

This General Synod there was an even greater emphasis on virtual connections. The denominations website was used extensively before the event to orient delegates. Local churches were encouraged to have a Facebook presence. At one worship service we were even asked to look up a candle app on our smart phones and wave those in the air like we used to wave real candles.

Obviously, as a blogger, I have no major issue with using technology to help advance the cause! And, frankly, things like Facebook and e-mail, allow me to stay in touch with younger members of my family, nieces and nephews, in a much better ways than in the past. And being the pastor of a church with literally hundreds of snowbirds, it does allow me to stay better connected with folks who travel north for the summer. Still . . . it's not the same as being with them in person. I don't know about you, but I find it hard to laptop!

I'm glad the United Church of Christ encourages its members to use virtual technology. I only hope we never forget that we have an incarnational theology. Incarnation--in the flesh. We can text, e-mail, blog, tweet and blog, and Facebook (yes, it has become verb!) all we want. But let's never forget, the importance, of looking someone in the eye, the beauty of wiping away another's tears and the simple value of the holding hands and walking together along life's road!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Grandkids and Turtles and Oil

It was exactly one year ago this week that I posted the first of these blog notes. I was inspired to start the blog by the oil spill in the Gulf. At that time the oil well was still pouring the slick brown fluid into the ocean, with little sign of relief. It was a pretty frightening moment for many, many people. Jobs were lost, beaches closed, marshes ruined. And no one knew when the crisis might end.

Well, it did, later last summer. And while many things have returned to normal, there are still those who are struggling to get back on their feet. And while the Gulf seems to be doing much, much better, there are those who wonder if we just can't see ongoing damage.

I was struck by the lead article in the Sarasota newspaper this past Friday, that reported greatly increased bookings at resorts and hotels on Siesta Key, another coastal island to the north of us on the Gulf. The beach had been named the #1 beach in the country by Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman in May, and the article suggested that the publicity resulted in the increase in business. "Last summer," the reported noted, "Siesta and other SW Florida beaches suffered from significant tourism losses amid incorrect perceptions that the area had been tainted by BP Deepwater Horizon oil." (Herald Tribune, 6-24-11)

Here on Sanibel business has also improved this spring. And that is well and good. Truly! But I worry a bit that a return to normalcy will bring with it new apathy. This past weekend the Hands Across the Sand event was held, protesting offshore drilling, and it drew a very small number of folks. Do people no longer care--or have they been lulled into complacency?

Last year in that initial post I wrote, "I hold out hope that we can learn some valuable lessons from all this." And I still do. I still hold out hope. But in this day and age of short news cycles, I also worry a bit. I worry for my children's children, and their children as well.

Saturday, my oldest son took his two boys on a beach walk hosted by a naturalist from the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota. They all learned much as the naturalist showed them a turtle nest, measured eggs, and instructed them in how important it is to be careful of their cordoned off nests. The turtles are here on Sanibel as well. And we also have their nests cordoned off.

Unfortunately we can't cordon off the whole Gulf--but we can do a better job of taking care of it.
And we must. For the turtles, and the dolphins, and the mangroves, and the pelicans and the children. All of them.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The ABC's of Life

My wife Linda and I were looking at some old pictures this weekend, when we came across some things her mother had saved from Linda's days in elementary school. Among them were her report card from kindergarten, and a certificate she received in first grade. It was complete with a gold star, and it acknowledged that she had successfully learned her ABC's.

"Isn't it amazing," I said, "today most children know their alphabet by the time they get into kindergarten! Kids learn so much more so much earlier these days!"

"I know," said Linda, "we didn't study much in kindergarten we just played and learned to share."

Later I went back and looked at that kindergarten report card again--and discovered she was right! The various things she was graded on were all listed in the first person. Things like: "I sing well with the group." "I enjoy stories." "I use materials with care." "I work and play well with others." "I keep my hands off others."

As I looked over that report card from over fifty years ago, I was reminded of an essay Robert Fulgham wrote many years ago called "All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." And I couldn't help but wonder if it might be a good idea to step back and reexamine our growing emphasis on academics in the earliest of years--after all, you can only do so much in the course of a day.

Maybe before children learn to recite the alphabet and count numbers and identify shapes and colors, maybe before they learn to write their names we need to make sure they are learning some of the basics needed for getting along in society and in the world. After all children who sing well with a group and who use materials with care and who keep their hands off others may just grow up to be concerned about things like living with others in peace, and caring for our planet.

And maybe, if we were to choose just one of the old categories to make certain is included in kindergarten lesson plans today, we'd do well to consider "I listen when others speak." Come to think of it, most of us adults would do well to take a refresher course in that one.

(Photo: Linda Bradbury-Danner on her fifth birthday, just before starting kindergarten.)

Monday, June 13, 2011

No More Cards

I was in the card store recently and I suddenly realized I don't need to buy any Father's Day cards this year. My grandfathers have been gone for many years now; my father-in-law almost three, and my own Dad died a year ago last September. It was a funny feeling as I stood in the aisle realizing that as the oldest son I'm the patriarch in my family.

I didn't know either of my grandfathers very well, but I suspect they were pretty special. My mother's Dad loved Dickens, he even owned a set of his complete works. I have it now, onn the top shelf of one of my bookcases. I love Dickens--and I love to read. Something got through to me!

My father's Dad was a bit of an enigma to me. I only met him two or three times over the years. He lived in Florida all his life--but on the other coast. Mostly in West Palm Beach. I've lived in the Northeast most all of my life. Heavens, I was born in Bangor, Maine and have degrees from places like Boston University. You don't get more yankee than that! Still, moving here does feel like something of a homecoming!

My father-in-law was a lovely guy. He was kind and quietly supportive. He loved a cup of coffee with a donut, and ate candy like it was going out of style! He was a hard worker throughout his life, holding down a job well past retirement. And he volunteered at his church, with the Boy Scouts and for the local meals-on-wheels program where he lived. And the man knew how to hug! I was privileged to have him in my life for almost twenty-five years.

And then there was my own Dad. He was a preacher too. And while we often disagreed about theology, and sometimes about politics, he always really listened to what I had to say. He didn't just blow me off. Other than a few conversations in my teen years, our discussions were always marked by real civility and mutual respect. And I never once doubted if he loved me. He loved God, my mother, his four children, the church, ice cream, Scotland and licorice, probably in that order. Some days I miss him so much I almost cry. Some days I do.

No, I won't have to buy any cards for Father's Day this year. But as the family patriarch, I can make sure I pass on some of the things I learned from Dad and the others to my children and their children as well. I can pass on a love of reading, a sense of home, a good hug and a reminder that they are truly loved.

(Photo: John Danner and his father, Howard, circa 1987)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dr. Death Is Dead

Dr. Death is dead. (It sounds like something out of an Ingmar Bergman movie.) He is said to have helped over one hundred folks commit suicide, and was eventually imprisoned as a result. Apparently, though, his own demise was unassisted. And so one of the more controversial figures of the last few decades, Jack Kevorkian, has breathed his last.

The controversy he sparked, however, is far from over. And the basic question his actions prompted is as old as humankind. Do we have the right to take a life--even if it is our own? In some traditions, suicide is viewed as a mortal sin. Others see it as the result of some mental imbalance. Kevorkian asked us to see it as a viable option when life becomes fraught with incurable pain. But what if, as some contend, pain is a great teacher?

And should doctors, those sworn to preserve life, ever be involved in actively ending it? Is physician assisted suicide totally contrary to the role doctors play in our lives--or an extension of their efforts to help people cope with the physical and psychological challenges that come along the way?

I know a man who helped his father commit suicide. His father was in his late eighties at the time. He had terminal cancer and wanted to be free of the pain that wracked his body. He wanted to die with a measure of dignity. My friend loved his Dad deeply, and when he begged his son to help him die, he reluctantly agreed. He said it was the hardest thing he ever did--but he knew it was right.

Whenever my friend brings up the subject, I'm never been sure how to respond. Part of me is horrified. Part of me knows what it means to love a father so dearly you'd do most anything to help him out. Part of me says, "You shall not kill." Part of me says, "Honor your father and your mother." I just don't know. And as the various opinions and laws around the country demonstrate, neither do a lot of other folks.

Dr. Death is dead. But the controversy he engendered is, indeed, far from over.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

And Miles to Go . . . .

Thirty years ago this month in June of 1981 the Center for Disease Control issued a report about five young men in Los Angeles who had contracted a very rare form of pneumonia, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). This turned out to be the beginning of public awareness of what would in time be called AIDS.

Initially, it appeared to be an illness restricted to gay men, but it soon become clear that others could and did contract it as well. At the time, rumors, half-truths and even vicious lies were spread about the disease--and those who had it. No doubt, it was fueled by homophobia. I had one friend who was evicted from his apartment when his landlord discovered he was sick. And there were all sorts of reports of others who met the same fate or worse.

Over the years, like any preacher who takes on controversial issues, I have been criticized for taking this or that position. But I've only been publicly heckled once. I was the president of a group forming a hospice in upstate New York, and one of our board members had just lost a son to AIDS. The situation had been made all the more difficult because of the stereotypes and prejudices that faced him and his family. So I decided to speak to the issue in my keynote address at our annual meeting.

I didn't say anything that I thought was all that radical. "God doesn't punish us with heart disease," I told the audience of hospice supporters, "and gays do not 'deserve' to get AIDS." Suddenly there was some rustling at a back table in the dining room. "That's not true!" I heard someone say. "A major piece of the solution to the AIDS crisis," I went on to say, "rests in setting aside our moral judgement of gay persons." At that, the couple in the back of the room stood up. Muttering to folks as they made their way to the door, and throwing a glare in my general direction, they stormed out.

That was the late-eighties--and things have improved since that time in terms of our knowledge of and ability to treat HIV/AIDS. And homophobia, while still very real, does seem to be less rampant. Still, some one million people in this country alone have the disease--and 56,000 more contract it every year. And in other parts of the world, it is still seen in pandemic proportions.

The mother of that young man whose death prompted my speech, once told me that what bothered her most about the whole situation was the ignorance people displayed in the face of such tragedy. It bothered me too. That's why I spoke out. That's why we need to continue to speak out until the day comes when HIV/AIDS is a thing of the past.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Second Coming--Again (and Again and Again)

You've got to give Harold Camping a lot of credit. He's the radio preacher who predicted that the rapture would occur somewhere around 6:00 PM last Saturday. In the end, of course, he turned out to have been wrong--but still, he got us all talking about theology, and that, in my estimation is a good thing!

The doctrine of the rapture, a hotly debated theological concept, basically states that before the world is brought to a cataclysmic end, believers (variously defined) will be caught up into heaven and saved from the onslaught of disasters ranging from earthquakes to wars that will ensue. Frankly, I have a bit of difficulty believing in such a doctrine, it doesn't really fit into my understandings of how God works in this world. I certainly would defend the right of Camping and others to believe in it. I just can't buy it myself. But the Second Coming of Christ, that's another matter altogether. Let me explain.

Camping wants to pin it all down to a particular moment in time, but I'm more inclined to think it happens all the time! Jesus just keeps coming back again and again and again. One of his best known parables (found in Matthew 25) speaks about Judgement Day. And in that highly metaphorical account, he talks about those who are hungry or thirsty or or sick in need of clothing. Those who are judged righteous are those who provide help for those in need. In fact, he says, "Every time you did it to one of the least of these . . . you did it to me."

You see, I believe Jesus shows up in those we meet every day. The bratty kid who lives next door who needs someone to care about him. The crotchety old woman down the street who is in need of a friend. The hungry beggar on the corner who holds out a cardboard coffee cup looking for spare change. The woman with Alzheimer's who can't remember how to dress herself anymore. I believe if you see someone in need the Second Coming has happened once again.

The rapture, I suppose, is all about bringing some from earth to heaven. But I'm more inclined to believe that Christians are called to bring heaven to earth. And that doesn't involve any complicated chronological computations. Rather it means acting as if each person we encounter is Jesus.

So thanks, Mr. Camping, I might not have said all that if you hadn't started the conversation! Thanks for giving me cause to think and write about the Second Coming, even if I do believe it happens all the time!

Monday, May 16, 2011

What's in Your Mailbox?

Members of our confirmation class and their mentors volunteered this past weekend to help out with the Stamp Out Hunger project. Its prompted me to think a bit about partnerships. Every year the Post Office spearheads an effort to collect food for food pantries all across the country, and they often invite others to help them in the work of gathering and sorting the food. The food itself comes from folks in the community who leave a box or bag of groceries by their mail box to be picked up by mail carriers or other volunteers, like our confirmands. There is a corporate sponsor, the letter carriers union supports the effort. Its really a pretty good example of partnership: private citizens, a quasi-governmental organization, not-for-profit service providers, labor unions, businesses and even church groups like ours, all working together to feed the hungry. Last year, according to the Stamp Out Hunger website, over 77.1 million pounds of food were collected. That's a lot of groceries!

My question is pretty simple. Why do we have so much difficulty forming such coalitions? Why do we find it so hard to work across the various lines that divide us? We need to get our collective act together and work together to eliminate the need for food drives and food pantries and Stamp Out Hunger Day. We need take advantage of the various strengths each sector of society brings to the table to address the pressing issues of the day. For clearly, when we do, we can accomplish great things!

I'd love to hear from you about other such partnerships. Maybe with more examples of such successes, folks will find the courage to step out of the comfort zone of their own ideas and organizations, and into the greater arena of cooperation!

(Photo Credit: Patti Sousa)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Hidden in the Heart

There was a terrible accident here this past weekend. A cyclist crossing the causeway was hit by a truck that had veered into the opposite lane. She was an experienced cyclist, riding a familiar rote. But the blow was too great to handle, and she flew off her bike and over the railing into the water. She was pronounced dead on the scene.

When it happened Saturday morning, traffic was shut down in both directions for about two hours. No one could get on the island, no one could get off. Finally, when officials were done with their investigation, things opened back up, and soon, traffic patterns returned to normal. But for those involved in the accident, and for their families, things may never return to normal.

As we move through life, we often forget that those we encounter along life's way may be caught in the midst of one tragedy or another. How many people who we meet each day are quietly, even at times secretly, grieving one loss or another? Yet, they find themselves caught up in the flow of of so-called normal life! And so, go unrecognized and unsupported in their grief.

I have a therapist friend who once said, "You know John, 'normal' is just a setting on washing machines." He was right. There isn't really any such thing as normal. Every life is full of its own particularities. I suspect if we remembered that simple fact we'd all be better off. We'd all be a bit more patient with those around us.

Today, as one who has ridden on his bike across the causeway many times, I can't help but feel real sadness for the cyclist and her family. And, as one who has driven across the causeway even more times, I feel real sadness for the driver as well. And then there are the EMTs and the police officers and those who witnessed the accident. So many lives touched and changed in an instant. So many folks who will carry its scars for years to come. And that's just one accident.

If nothing else, might it remind us all to be a bit more patient, a bit more gentle, a bit more kind with those we meet--for who knows what lies hidden in their hearts?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Thinking of Jennifer

All morning I've been thinking about Jennifer. She was a young friend and parishioner of mine who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11. She was an extraordinary young woman, with a bright future. She was in her late twenties, and had survived a life threatening bout with cancer. She was newly in love, and looking forward to a life filled with adventure.

Jennifer was also a deeply spiritual soul. I met with her often during the time she dealt with her illness. I shall never forget the day she looked at me with real conviction in her eyes and said, "If I should die from cancer, just let everyone know I don't blame God." It was such a mature remark from one so young!

Of course, it wasn't cancer that took her life, but rather hatred and violence.

I've been thinking about Jennifer, because I'm not sure how to think about Osama bin Laden. I don't know how to respond to his death. I ended up conducting three funerals for victims of the 9/11 attacks. And, living in metropolitan New York, I experienced first hand the chaos, confusion and fear that was rampant in those first months after the airplanes hit the towers. And like all Americans, I know how those actions have forever changed our way of living.

Like a 9/11 victim's family member I heard interviewed on television this morning, I am relieved that Osama bin Laden has been taken out of the picture. I am grateful to those who risked their lives to do so. Justice has been served, and that is good. But I don't see any of this as cause for celebration.

When it finally became clear that Jennifer had indeed died in the conflagration on 9/11, we had a Memorial Service and celebrated her life. That was appropriate. Her life was well worth celebrating. But Osama bin Laden's death is no cause for celebration. Rather, it is a cause for deep sadness. For it reminds us once again of the violence that is so real and present in our world. It reminds us of the hatred that is so much a part of life on planet Earth.

So I'm relieved. I'm grateful. I'm glad justice has been served. But I'm not celebrating today. Rather I am renewing my commitment to working for peace in our world. I think that's what Jennifer would have done.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

No More Yellow Stars

This coming Sunday is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a time set aside to recall the horror of the Holocaust so that we might work to see that it is not repeated.

Hitler and his cronies managed to convince many, many people that Jews were somehow less than fully human--that they threatened the well-being of the state. The way, the Nazis argued, to protect the state was to isolate the Jews. So over a period of only a few years, various laws were passed which created a very clearly second-class citizenship for Jews. And to make certain everyone knew who the Jews were, each and every Jewish individual was required to wear a yellow star of David.

A yellow star may seem a little thing, but it led, eventually to Auschwitz. And so the question we must ask, if we are to learn anything from all this, is where are the yellow stars in our lives? Where and how are we labeling and branding people? What divides us one from the other.

One of the many films that documents part of the story of the Holocaust is The Hiding Place. It is the story of a Christian Dutch family named ten Boom that hid Jews during World War II and helped them escape from Nazi persecution.

The early part of the film documents the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands and shows how the anti-Semitic policies of Hitler were put in place. In one scene the camera zooms in on a line of people waiting to receive their yellow star. Standing in the line is Papa ten Boom--but he is a Christian. Standing beside him is one of his Jewish neighbors. He turns to Papa ten Boom and says, "You shouldn't be here."

Ten Boom replies, "I've come for my star."

"They are for Jews," says his neighbor, "You don't have a J on your card."

"You could get it for me," replies ten Boom, "If we all wear them they won't know a Gentile from a Jew."

Ten Boom did get a star--and he wore it. And, in time, he was caught rescuing Jews, and was shipped off to one of the camps where he died.

We may not be called to, as Papa ten Boom was, to risk our lives. But we are called to make meaningless the yellow stars that exist in our own day. We are called to work towards a time when all people are treated fairly and equally. Not just on Yom HaShoah, but every day.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A little over a week ago, at about 4:30 PM, my wife Linda and I were in Tampa, and on our way out of the city, traveling south. We crossed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, part of the magnificent series of bridges and causeways that cuts across Tampa Bay. As we approached the bridge, traffic was backed up, and as we drew closer we realized that there was a driver pulled over into the breakdown lane, obviously experiencing car trouble. There was very little space between his car and those of us passing to the south.

"Boy, that's a tough place to break down," I said.

"Yes," said Linda, "but its a great place to see the sunset!"

What a perfect illustration of the old adage about cups being half empty or half full! I trust the poor fellow got help fairly quickly, and didn't actually have to stay on the bridge until sunset (some three hours after we saw him!) But, if he did, I hope he was able to enjoy the beautiful view!

There are a lot of broken down cars along the road of life, a lot of times we are stranded in traffic. But the sun still rises and sets each day. The stars come out at night. The waves lap against the shore and the winds whistle in the treetops. Sometimes we are so caught up in the difficulties of life that we forget the beauty all around us. Maybe just for today, you can take a few moments to stop and look and listen. Yes, its a troubled world--but it is also a blessed world. The challenge every day is in deciding where to focus our attention!

(Photo courtesy of the City of St. Petersburg, Florida)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Fallout from the Nuclear Crisis in Japan

Back in 2004, Stanford economist Paul Romer addressed a group of venture-capitalists. In his speech he noted the increased level of competition the US is facing in the world market due to the fact that education levels are rising in many countries around the world. Referring to the situation Romer said, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste." Since then its been quoted by many, and paraphrased by others.

Well, today, in 2011, we've got another we've got a crisis on our hands, this time in Japan. The dangers presented by the problems with the nuclear reactors damaged by the earthquake there haven't even been fully calculated. No one knows for sure the extent of the damage, nor the future impact. While villages may need to be closed down. The water supply may be permanently poisoned. More people may yet die. What more needs to happen for us to realize that now, not tomorrow, is the time for us to take a serious look at the whole question of nuclear power, which in turn means, getting serious about addressing the energy issue. Yet the skeptic in me suspects this will be just one more news item that eventually gets replaced by another crisis. Like last summer's oil spill, we'll worry about it for a while, and then move on to something else.

I've been told that the Chinese word for "crisis" is made up of two characters, one that represents the word "danger"--and the other which represents "opportunity." The question is how do we view a crisis? Do we cower in the fear of danger? Do we close our eyes and pretend it isn't really happening? Or do we see a crisis an an opportunity to move in a new way? To create a new thing? Maybe its time to really embrace the fact that this is a global problem--one that ultimately can only be solved by a truly international effort.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. It can turn into even greater problems--but it can also cause you to stop and to think and to find the courage to move in a new direction. I pray that's what happens with this crisis. I hope that's the fallout.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Yogi's Aches, Pains & Lessons

I am a yoga practitioner. (I guess that makes me a yogi--though whenever I hear that I think of a bear from Jellystone Park .) Whatever the case, I usually take time each day to roll out my mat and engage in a variety of asanas (poses) with names like Downward Dog and Half Moon.

Recently though, I've been caught up in all the hustle and bustle of "the season"--that time of year here on Sanibel when we have more things to do than can possibly be accomplished! Our population swells to five times more than usual and things like class sizes for adult education and worship attendance follow suit. The height of season is February and March. And I've been really busy. Which brings me back to yoga.

I hadn't engaged in my daily practice for about three weeks when last Friday I decided I needed to get back to my mat. And so I did. And it felt good. Until the next morning! I woke up with a bit of stiffness here, and a measure of discomfort there. My body was telling me that I'd twisted and bent it in some ways that it wasn't used to anymore. And it had only been three weeks! The good news is that now that I'm back in the swing of it, the stiffness has disappeared. I'm readjusting. But still, there's an obvious lesson here about the need for regularity in yoga.

But I think there is another lesson as well. For I am not the first person to let go of a healthy and necessary discipline because I was "too busy". I suspect it happens often! But when are we ever truly "too busy" to take care of ourselves? The sad truth is it catches up with us pretty quickly if we don't. And getting back in the habit of good self-care can take much more time and effort than maintaining it! Let's hope that I'm smart enough to put my own theory into practice (literally!)

Or, in the words of that other Yogi (as in Berra): "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."