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!