Monday, December 24, 2012

Saying Merry Christmas

It's Christmas Eve, 2012, and there is much bad news from around the world.  Syria is engulfed in civil war--civilians were bombed over the weekend waiting in line for bread.  Congress and the President have all left Washington without an agreement to prevent us from falling off the fiscal cliff.  A Navy Seal in Afghanistan committed suicide.  More children were buried over the weekend after the shootings in Newtown, CT, while the NRA calls for armed guards in schools.  How can we even consider thinking, much less saying, "Merry Christmas!"

Yet none of this is new, indeed the first Christmas was a rather bleak time for the people like Mary and Joseph.  An unexpected pregnancy, poverty all around, their nation occupied by foreign troops . . . no, it wasn't a merry time back then either.  But still, when Mary ahd learned she would give birth to the Messiah, she sang a song of praise:  "My soul magnifies the Lord!"  And she held out hope that in and through him, things would get better.

The world is still full of evil and wrong.  Greed and corruption are real.  Hatred hasn't gone away.  But what the one born on that day so long ago taught us is that we can either give in to the bad or claim the good.  We can either break down and cry, or we can stand up and rejoice.  For the good news this and every Christmas, is that the bad news isn't going to win.  And even as Mary was mother to the Christ child, so we can give birth to the Holy One with every act of trust and kindness and love.  And bit by bit, act by act, the good news will triumph over the bad.

Saying "Merry Christmas" isn't naive--but it most certainly is an act of faith!  Faith that ultimately must lead to action.  So, "Merry Christmas!"  Might it be filled with promise as you move into the new year.

(Photo:  The Sanibel Congregational UCC sanctuary--Bruce Findley, photographer)

Monday, December 17, 2012

For Newtown: Songs and Sorrow

Our oldest grandson Zachary, who is now twelve, has taken up singing.  For much of the past year he has been taking voice lessons at a small studio in Fort Myers and this past Sunday he participated in his first recital.

Our local hospital has a spacious lobby, equppied with a baby grand, and from time to time they host such events.  So there in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a busy hospital, complete with PA announcements, Zachary and his fellow students sang and played a variety of Chrsitmas songs and carols.

Each of the young performers were dressed in their holiday best.  Lots of red velvet and satin dresses and bows for the girls, white shirts and ties for the boys.  Zachary wore his first suit--a handsom three piece number!  Some of the students played the piano, some sang, and some did both.  The selections ranged from simplified classics to traditional carols.  Zachary sang two pieces, "Deck the Halls" and the song Alvin and the Chipmunks sing at Christmas time.  He handled himself well.

All this happened on the Sunday following the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.  And it was hard to watch and listen to the children sing and play without thinking of parents and grandparents who would never hear their little ones sing again.  One little girl, just about the age of the children at at Sandy Hook Elementary, couldn't pronounce the word "ride" and so it was "fun to wide on a one horse open sleigh."  She was adorable--and when she was done, she ran into her proud mother's arms.  How empty other arms in Connecticut must feel right now.

Much has been made of what we need to do to protect our chidlren in the future.  Much has been said about intorducing new gun control measures and improvements in our system of care for the mentally ill.  People have bemoned the violence in our culture, especially in video games.  Others have talked about better security in our schools.  And that's all well and good.  But we need to do more than just talk about it.  We who are parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and caring adults, need to be willing to work for the changes. For our children need to be in hospital lobbies singing their songs of the season, not in hospital ERs being treated for gun shot wounds.

Near the end of the concert "Brahms Lullaby" was played over the PA system, our hospital's way of announcing a baby had been born in the delivery room.  In a few days, like preachers around the world, I will also be announcing the birth of a baby, a baby we claim to be the Prince of Peace.  Might we work for the day when all children can sing in peace.  Might we work for the day when all children can grow into the fullness of their potential.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Luminary Night on Sanibel, Light for the World

Here on Sanibel one of the most cherished traditions of the season is Luminary Night.  It is a time of celebration as islanders join together to create a magical atmosphere on Periwinkle Way, our "Main Street."  The highlight of the evening is the placing and lighting of what I'm told is over 1700 luminaria (paper bags, filled with sand and a candle.)  It is a beautiful sight!

As a member of the Sanibel-Captiva Rotary Club I helped put out the luminaria this year.  Two city trucks were loaded up with boxes of candles, white paper bags like you get at a bakery and sand.  lots of sand.  Then four Rotarians hopped in the back and started filling bags as we went down the street.  A fifth Rotarian (me) strategically (or so I hoped) dropped the bags along the the side of the road, about eight feet apart, and then, three other Rotarians followed behind straightening out the candles.  One such truck can from the East End of the island, the other from the west, until we met in the middle. Later a group of Kiwanians lit all the candles, and then, at the end of the evening, the local Lions Club cleaned them all up.

Meanwhile, many, many other folks (like my wife Linda at the Community House where she works) were singing along the way, selling goodies, offering up special treats--hundreds of Sanibelians were involved in the event.  It was beautiful.  A symbol of light in an often dark world.  But for it to happen, we all had to work together.  As I said to my fellow Rotarians as we sweated and strained putting out the bags, "The Chamber of Commerce could have a new motto:  'Luminary Night:  It doesn't just happen!'"

As we move further into this Advent season I pray that you will be one of those who help bring the light of love into the world.  I hope you will work for peace and justice.  I hope you will work to help make this a better world.  Remember:  it doesn't just happen.  It takes all of us doing our part--small as that may seem.  After all, who would have thought a babe born in a manger would make such a difference?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Middleton, Mary and Motherhood

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant.  Despite the challenging bout of morning sickness she has faced, she has been looking forward to this.  She has wanted to be a mother, to have a family.

I wouldn't mention it except for the fact that this is Advent--that season in the Christian year when all eyes are on the pregnant mother of Jesus. No doubt preachers around the world will be pointing out the contrast between the situation faced by Kate Middleton and the one encountered by Mary of Nazareth. Privilege versus poverty. Fame versus obscurity.  Acclaim versus scandal.

But all that said, I can't help but wonder about the similarities. Did Mary suffer morning sickness?  Did she, despite divine instructions, consider a variety of names?  Did she look forward to motherhood--or did she face it with a measure of anxiety and concern?

I am teaching a course right now about Mary and reviewing her various titles over the years, including Queen of Heaven.  Kate Middleton may never reach those heights, but she is most likely bearing the future King or Queen of Great Britain. And all that is well and good.  But midst all the pomp and ceremony let us not forget that pregnant is pregnant, and motherhood, in the end, is far more about commonalities than differences.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Bit of Green, A Bit of Wisdom

Wisdom is not restricted to those more advanced in years, yet I find that often older women and men do have a certain level of understanding that is sometimes missing in the young.  So it is that one of the great joys of pastoring a congregation with so many folks in their eighties and nineties means being gifted with their astute observations.

This past week, for instance, I had a conversation with a parishioner who was celebrating her eighty-ninth birthday.  It was a gorgeous day and as she talked about her love of Sanibel and Captiva she mentioned sunsets in particular.  "I even saw the green flash once off of Captiva."  (For those who are unfamiliar with the term "green flash" it refers to a sudden appearance of the color green in the sky at sunrise or sunset which usually lasts only one or two seconds.)

"I've seen it too," I said.

"Lots of people never see it," she went on.  "They're too busy telling their children to pick up their towels and things like that."

I chuckled.

"My son is an artist, " she went on, "and he's always telling his students all they have to do is look if they really want to see beauty."

It made my day.  All you have to do is look if you really want to see!  How wise!  How profoundly true!

Might there be a green flash in your future!

(Photo Credit:  Mila Zinkova, taken off the Pacific Coast Highway)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Gobble, Gobble, Gobble

My daughter Elizabeth lives in Somerville, Massachussetts, just outside of Boston.  She's a children's librarian in Cambridge and a deacon at her church.  She travels to Mexico once a year to volunteer at an orphanage and she and her partner Erica are in the process of becoming adoptive parents.  She loves her cat Rocky, enjoys the Beatles (and a host of musical groups I've never heard of), she's fond of odd sorts of craft beers (like Blueberry Ale) and is a tofu aficionado (she's a vegetarian!)  Liz is just a little bit of a thing.  She barely measures 4'10" tall, and weighs in at a real feather weight.

This week on Thanksgiving she's going to be running in a 4 mile race called the Gobble, Gobble Gobble.  Thanksgiving Day races always have cutesy names, the Turkey Trot being one of the more common of them.  Normally she runs 5K races.  "But," she told me on the phone,  "I can always walk the last part of it if I run out of steam."

Since she and I talked about her race this past weekend, I've been reflecting on the fact that her participation is something of a miracle in and of itself.  You see when Liz was born she had serious gross motor control issues and hyper-extended knees.  She was in a brace that bundled up half her body for the first six months of her life.  She didn't even sit up on her own for many, many months.  She then underwent all sorts of physical therapy and adaptive physical education through most of her growing years.  And now she's running in the Gobble, Gobble, Gobble.

I have much for which to be thankful this year.  My wonderful wife Linda, my three kids, my in-law children, my grandkids, my Mom, my friends, my work, my church, my co-workers, my freedoms as an American, food, shelter, music, books . . .  the list is almost endless.  But I am also grateful for things in my past, and at this moment, most especially, the doctors and nurses and therapists and teachers and others who helped my daughter grow into a young woman who can run a race on Thanksgiving--even if she ends up walking the last mile.

Thanksgiving blessings one and all!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Worth the Wait

OK--the bad news is that Florida really botched up the election process this year.  Folks had to wait in line sometimes as long as six or seven hours to cast their ballots.  At almost every turn officials messed things up.  The number of early voting days were cut short.  Polling places were eliminated.  There weren't enough machines for tabulating the votes on hand at the polls.  It was a mess.

But here's the good news--people really did wait in line for six or seven hours to vote!  People cared enough to stick with it, even when it was uncomfortable.  Here on Sanibel a whole slew of voters got caught in a downpour as they waited outside.  Lunch time came and went for many.  Stomachs growled, but for the most part, people didn't.  They read books, they chatted with their neighbors.  A local pizza place brought some pies to those who were in line.

There is no question, Florida needs to get this straightened out.  Being the laughingstock of the nation is not very pleasant!  Our elected and appointed officials need to figure out what went wrong and then they need to correct it.  No ifs, ands or buts about it!

But in the meantime we can celebrate the sense of civic responsibility evidenced by so many Floridians!  I'm not proud to be from Florida right at the moment--but I am proud of my fellow Floridians who decided that voting was and is worth the hassle.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Lessons on Love

Today, in a chilly graveyard in upstate New York we buried my thirty-eight year old niece Tonya.   She outlived the doctor's expectations by over two decades.  And despite being profoundly developmentally disabled, she lived a life with real meaning and purpose.  She couldn't walk, she was non-verbal, she had a host of medical issues.  But she was a special young woman, dearly loved by many.

At her service we read from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians.  "Love," he famously writes, "is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude....It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends."  (13:4-5a, 7-8a) 

Tonya's presence in the lives of those of us who knew her meant we all needed to learn how best to love, how best to care for her needs, which were many, while still preserving her dignity.  We had to learn about patience and kindness and above all endurance.  In caring for her we also learned how to better care for one another.  We learned how best to love.

Tonya never earned a paycheck.  Never wrote a book or even learned how to talk, much less how to read.  She didn't run a marathon or even walk.  She didn't make much of a mark on history. But Tonya did make a mark on those who knew her.  For time and time again, she brought out the very best in people.  The very best in her parents (folks I deeply admire).  The very best in her sister and the rest of her family.  The very best in the folks in her group home who cared for her, loved her, watched over her.  And the best in me, her uncle.

The world may not remember Tonya--but we who knew her will.  Might we also remember the lessons about love she taught us along the way.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Patience of Job

This past month I preached from the book of Job twice in a row.  I've never done that before--even though it shows up in the lectionary (a three-year cycle of scripture readings for Sunday worship) on a regular basis.  Once was always enough.  It is, in so many ways, such a distressing story!  Who wants to have to wrestle with it any more than necessary?  Yet somehow, this year, it seemed to invite a closer examination.  Maybe it is the a sign of these trying times--I don't know.

Whatever the case, I am newly impressed by Job's tenacity.  He loses his home, his wealth, his family, even his health, yet he soldiers on.  We routinely speak of someone having "the patience of Job," but when you look at the text closely, you realize that doesn't mean he's quiet or uncomplaining.  What it does mean is that he stays in the fight.  He doesn't give up on God, he doesn't even really give up on himself.  As they used to say about watches, "he takes a licking and keeps on ticking!"

Job is said to be a folktale.  And I would agree with that scholarly assessment.  But not because it is unbelievable.  In fact, I know a few Jobs.  I know some men and women who have faced a multitude of challenges and losses in life and yet who have kept moving on, one step, one day, at a time.  And even as Job inspires me to persevere in the midst of strife and difficulty, so too these Job-like folks who I know personally.  The way they handle life gives me hope.

This morning we received a phone call from my sister-in-law, whose thirty-eight year old developmentally-disabled daughter died overnight.  When she was first diagnosed the doctors said she wouldn't live past puberty.  As my wife said, "She sure made fools of those doctors!"  She was non-verbal, and had a host of medical issues.  But my sister-in-law, and her late husband, refused to give up on her.  And though they faced challenge after challenge as they companioned her through life, they never gave up.  Never. 

My late brother-in-law often compared himself to Job--and he could complain with the best of them.  But he and my sister-in-law refused to abandon their daughter.  Together they taught so many of us what it means to really love.  And unlike the Book of Job, that is no folktale.  Rather, it is a profound truth born out of reality.

Monday, October 22, 2012

For Malala

She was outspoken.  She was brave.  She was fourteen.  Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl attacked recently by the Taliban while coming home from school, was shot because she was willing to speak out about the need for girls to be educated.

The outcry has been widespread.  From outraged Pakistanis to politicians in this country, folks have let it be known that this is just plain wrong.  Yet, as several folks have noted, the reality is that education is the greatest threat that the Taliban and other terrorists face.  For when people have knowledge, when they understand the truth, they are less likely to be taken in by the promises of those who would rule the world by violence.

Apparently Malala is going to recover from her attack.  The bullets just missed killing her.  And for that we can be grateful.  But what is to come of the whole incident?  Will the story simply fade away, as so many do--or will we recommit ourselves to working for universal access to education?  All children deserve the chance to learn.  All children deserve the chance to be educated.  Boy children and girl children.  All children.  Here in the United States and around the world.

The future is scary enough--let's not compound the threats that seem to loom ahead with ignorance.  Let us work together to help secure that the next generation be an informed and educated generation.  Volunteer at your local school.  Support the efforts of UNICEF.  Read to your children, your grandchildren.  Write letters to your representatives in government urging that education be a priority here and abroad. 

Malala wasn't willing to keep silent--neither should we.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Oranges and Origins

Here in Florida we are mighty proud of our oranges.  They feature prominently on our license plates, they provide names for some of our cities, one of our counties, and at least two of our sports arenas.  And one of the most important products produced here in Florida is orange juice.

If you haven't purchased OJ lately you may not know you can choose your "pulp-level".  Do you like your juice smooth?  Then go for No Pulp.  Do you like it filled with bits of orange?  Then go for Lots of Pulp!  And there are usually two or three gradations of pulp.  Little Pulp, Medium Pulp--it sounds like a citrus version of the Three Bears.

Recently I learned something about the OJ process that really surprised me.  When they process the breakfast treat, they don't filter out various amounts of pulp, rather, all versions of OJ start as the basic smooth variety. Then they add the pulp at whatever level is required!

I got to thinking about that, and in addition to getting thirsty, I realized that's a lot like the way we human beings are put together.  We all start out as the basic smooth variety, so to speak, and then various distinguishing elements are added as we go along.  Religious beliefs, nationality, ethnic backgrounds, language skills . . . lots of variations.  But we all start out fundamentally the same.

Why is that so hard for us to remember?  Think how much better this world would be if we could see past the differences and recognize the basic similarities?

I'd drink to that--OJ of course!

Monday, October 8, 2012

What's On YOUR Ballot?

Sometimes reading the newspaper or watching television or surfing the Internet you come away thinking the only matter being decided in our upcoming election is the presidency.  But of course, that is not true.  We will all be electing (or re-electing) representatives to congress, and in many states, US senators, governors, state representatives and all manner of local officials, from mayors to dog catchers.  People in many states and localities will also be weighing on various judgeships.  (I have a friend who is running for City Judge in a small city in upstate New York.  Some folks there don't even know what the City Judge does!)

In some states, including Florida, we will be doing more than electing governmental officials.  We will also be voting on various questions of law, including, in some instances, constitutional amendments.  There are eleven such questions on the Florida ballot.  And it worries me.  Many people don't even bother to read them, much less vote on them.  And often they are worded in such a way as to be confusing unless you've done your civic homework and researched them in advance.

Here in Florida two of those constitutional amendments have a lot to do with issues about which most people have a very strong opinion--yet they will fail to register their opinion in the most powerful way possible.  They will fail to vote.  Item number 6 on the Florida ballot has to do with public financing of abortions.  In essence, it would amend the constitution in such a fashion as to prohibit any use of public funds for abortions.  Period.  That would mean all public employees, from bureaucrats to highway workers, would be barred from having abortions paid for by their employee-provided health care plans.  (There are exceptions allowed for in the case of rape, incest or endangerment of the mother's life.)

A second amendment, item number 8 on the Florida ballot, would prohibit denying governmental monies being paid directly to institutions due to their religious beliefs.  This amendment is being called by it's supporters the religious freedom amendment, but it does raise serious questions about church-state relations.  Yet many, many folks will fail to weigh in on it!

So what's on your ballot?  Have you taken time to find out?  If not, I urge you to become an educated voter, and then to use your right to vote to register your opinion not just on those at the top of the ballot, but on all the candidates and all the issues.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Concealed Coupons

Like most everybody I know, I love a bargain.  I love getting a real deal!  That's why I'm signed up for not one but two of the e-mail coupon services that provide a daily e-mail with the chance to purchase a really good coupon.  Usually it amounts to 50%--sometimes in the form of a two-for-one offer. 

I've gotten several good meals this way from local restaurants wanting to lure me in.  I've saved money on coffee at Starbucks.  And the best deal of all was the coupon that provided $200 off a mattress just when we were looking for a new one for our guest room!  We got a $400 mattress for half-price!  You have to be careful, and only buy what you really need--but that's always true with coupons!

I must say though that I was a bit surprised, and somewhat upset, by the e-mail that arrived yesterday offering a deal on a concealed weapons permit class.  For only $29 I could purchase a $64 two-hour class, that according to the e-mail, would "qualify [me] to apply for a state CWP/CCW* permit."  I would be trained in an air-conditioned facility, the e-mail said, and would even have the application forms provided for me.  I would also need a passport photo (not included) and I would have to be fingerprinted at "a local law enforcement agency."  (Groupon, 10-2-12)

Maybe I just don't get it--but it seems to me there ought to be a whole lot more to it than that.  I don't really understand the need to carry a concealed weapon in the first place--I can't see that it really makes for a greater degree of safety in society.  But if we are going to have such permits available, shouldn't it involve more than a $29 class and a two-hour training session?  Apparently others disagree--the last time I checked, 340 people had ordered the coupon.  I'm sorry, that just doesn't make me feel safer.

*Concealed Weapon Permit/Carrying a Concealed Weapon

Monday, September 24, 2012

Was Jesus Married?

Karen King is a respected Harvard scholar, an expert in Coptic literature among other things.  And, like any good scholar, she is very careful in her work to clearly articulate the boundaries of her research.  So when she revealed that she held in her possession a scrap of papyrus, probably dating back to the fourth century, that had inscribed on it the words "Jesus said to them, "My wife . . . " she was made certain folks knew that if it was indeed genuine, all it proved was that folks were talking about the issue of Jesus' marital status in ancient times.  It doesn't answer the question "Was Jesus married?"  Rather it demonstrates that modern authors like Dan Brown and Nikos Kazanzatkis weren't the first folks to be intrigued by the possibility.

It does provide some interesting possibilities.  Married life is different from single life.  And it certainly challenges any clerical system built on the idea that celibacy and singlehood are essential for ordination because "that was how Jesus himself did it".  But in the end, I wonder is it really all that crucial to our faith, or rather, is talking about it yet another way to avoid dealing with the matters that really energized the ministry of the man of Nazareth?

Those who aren't Christian themselves must scratch their heads and wonder each time we come up with some other intellectual diversion.  They must wonder why we don't just get down to the business of following the one we call Lord and Savior.  They must wonder why we don't do a better job of tending to the sick, the poor, the disadvantaged and the oppressed.  Jesus never said, "Figure out my marital status!"  Jesus never said, "Develop a lavish set of doctrines."  No, Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."  Jesus said, "As you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters so you do to me." 

Was Jesus married?  Two thousand years later I don't really think it matters very much.  What really matters is whether or not we follow his way.  Whether we are married or single, gay or straight, male or female, all of us who claim to be his followers ought to spend more of our time caring for the sheep, and less time worrying about the marital status of the shepherd.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Much Ado About Movies

Back in 1988 Martin Scorsese released a film based on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel The Last Temptation of Christ.  It proved to be a very controversial film that offered up a fictional account of the life of Jesus.  It was laced with very human emotions like doubt and lust, and portrayed Jesus as having a relationship with Mary Magdalene. 

Even though Scorsese clearly stated he was not presenting a gospel account, he was roundly criticized by folks on the right.  Many a preacher warned against seeing this "blasphemous" film.  I did not.  In fact, I went to see it--partly out of curiosity, and partly out of my love for the writing of Kazantzakis.  When I arrived at the little art house cinema in Albany, New York, however, I had to cross a picket line.  I was urged by the picketers to reconsider buying a ticket.  I was offered tracts which told the gospel story from their perspective.  But that said, nobody hit me.  Nobody threatened to kill me.  And nobody burned down the theatre. And at its best, that is the American way.  You can make a film that deals with even the most sacred of subjects in what some might see as a blasphemous manner, but you can also protest the making of such a film.  Freedom of expression, in the end, must cut both ways!

I thought about that experience as I was pondering the current situation in the Middle East.  And I was reminded how precious free speech truly is.  Throughout most of human history, including most of American history, folks have been constrained in their legal right to speak their minds.  And, sadly, it has often been Christians who have tried to squelch free speech.  Think Inquisition.  Think Puritans.  Think the Klan.  But today, in America, we do have that right, that privilege--and it is largely respected.

But with privilege, my father used to say, there always comes responsibility.  Or as someone else once noted, free speech isn't always free.  Nor should it be! 

The making of Innocence of Muslims, the film behind much of the current unrest, was and is a misguided use of free speech.  Not necessarily an illegal use of it, but misguided, even immoral.  But the undisciplined protests against that film are also a misguided use of free expression.  And when they turn violent, not just misguided, but wrong.

My father also used to say, "Two wrongs don't make a right."  The current controversy is a real case in point.

Monday, September 10, 2012


I don't know about anybody else, but I have started to turn a deaf ear, so to speak, to much of the political jabbering that is going on all around me.  On television, in the newspapers, online . . . we are being constantly assaulted by the noise of the campaigns.  Everybody is talking all at once, making it very hard to hear!

In her later years my grandmother became very hard of hearing.  Indeed it bordered on deafness.  She wore two hearing aids (the old fashioned kind, very bulky, very visible) and she hated them.  They never seemed to work quite right.  She also wore a button on her jacket which read "SPEAK UP I'M HARD OF HEARING!"  Still, much of the time she found it very difficult to understand what was said by others.  And the thing that bothered and confused her most was background noise.

Whenever we went to visit Grandma, we would take her out to eat.  She really enjoyed going to restaurants, except for one thing:  there's nothing noisier than a crowded dining room.  First there's the chatter of staff and patrons, then you add the clatter of dishes and silverware, and, of course, that curse of modern times, Muzak.  To make our meals with my grandmother enjoyable for all of us, we always had to insist on a corner booth.  And then, Grandma had to sit in the corner itself.  That way much of the background noise was blocked out and she could focus on what we were saying.  For Grandma to be able to hear the conversation, she really had to focus and listen.

And so it is in this campaign season--to really hear what the candidates are saying, we have to  listen.  We have to block out all the chatter and jabbering and nonsense, and really focus on the issues.  It's not easy--it never was easy for Grandma, even in the corner booth. But in the end, even though she was almost deaf, she could still hear because she was willing to focus and listen.  Maybe we can also really hear in this campaign season if we are willing to do the same.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

On Getting Out the Vote--Your Own That Is!

I recently visited Philadelphia.  It was a short stay, barely twenty-four hours.  So I didn't get to the Museum of Art.  I didn't run up and down the "Rocky" steps.  And I didn't have a cheese steak.  (My doctor would approve!)  But I did spend some time in the Historic District.

Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell are always a real thrill--but the highlight of the visit for me was the National Constitution Center.  In the main exhibit hall, the Center has a masterful display called the Chronology Wall. In many different parts, it traces the history of our nation, and the ongoing struggle for the various rights we enjoy as Americans.  One especially intriguing part of the exhibit were several interactive stations where you could answer a series of questions, hit a button, and discover if you would have been eligible to vote at that particular time in history.  The questions included things like "Are you male?"   "Are you a property owner?"  "Are you white?"

As I explored the exhibit there were two children just ahead of me, a little boy and a little girl.  As they stood in front of a display marking the late nineteenth century, the little girl, who was probably six or seven, entered answers in the interactive part of the exhibit.  When the results came up, she placed her little hands on her hips and said, rather indignantly, "What?  Women can't vote yet?"

We tend to forget that the right to vote was not granted all adult Americans right from the start.  We tend to forget that it has taken many, many struggles to extend the franchise to most of our citizens.  It is a hard won right and honor to vote.  Yet in any given election, a significant number of us fail to go to the polls, fail to exercise that right.  Sometimes only a tiny minority of voters pull a lever or mark a ballot.

In this time of conventions, in this season of campaigning, one can easily fall into a sense of despair and frustration about politics and parties and politicians.  But if you don't vote, you can't change anything.  That's how the system works--but only if you are willing to work it!

I have a suggestion:  this year, let's make it a rule, if you don't vote, you can't complain.  Either way it strikes me that it would make the world a bit better!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

All's NOT Fair in Love and War

As a general rule I don't criticize books, movies, television programs and other such things before I've seen, heard or read them.  But I need to make an exception when it comes to the new NBC reality show called Stars Earn Stripes. In case you've missed it, the format involves training non-military folks like Dean Cain, Laila Ali and Picabo Street in basic military skills and then engaging them in a contest utilizing those same skills.  To give it an air of respectability General Wesley Clark hosts the program, and real members of the military train with the cast.

The show has been criticized by a group of Nobel Peace Prize winners in a beautifully crafted letter that states "Preparing for war is neither amusing nor entertaining."  The writers of the letter, including Desmond Tutu, express their concern that the show glorifies war and violence.  NBC, in a statement released in defense of the program, stated that the show isn't "a glorification of war, but a glorification of service."

Not having seen it, I don't know if it glorifies war or not.  But it's very existence does trivialize war.  It's very existence trivializes military service.  War is deadly.  Military service involves tremendous commitment and risk.  Unlike this program, warfare is not a game.  Losers can't come back for a finale show at the end.

(I have the same basic problem with other reality shows as well.  The Bachelor, for instance,  takes the enormously important rituals of courtship and love and turns them into a contest.  Yes, The Dating Game in earlier times did much the same thing--but nobody pretended it was reality!) 

They say all's fair in love and war--but this kind of trivialization is anything but fair.  It does a grave injustice to all those who've ever served in the military, all those who've ever lost their lives or limbs in the midst of bombings and battle, all those whose reality has truly been changed by war.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Too Important for Chicken Fights

Make no mistake, I like chicken sandwiches. And I think the pickle chip is a nifty touch! But I really think the current debate over same-sex marriage is too important for chicken fights. Really. I think both sides have turned what should be a considered and thoughtful debate into a real circus. Since when is my preference in fast food (probably a poor choice to begin with) indicative of my stand on such a significant issue? And a Kiss In? I’m sorry, it just doesn’t work for me!

If you want to have a day set aside to appreciate the poultry at Chick-fil-A, well then go for it! But people should be willing to be more straightforward (pardon the pun) about their views on same sex marriage than simply standing in line at the take out counter. And if you really oppose Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s views on the matter, then write him a letter, write the editor a letter, or, better yet, volunteer to work with and for any of the organizations working around the country to make sam-sex marriage legal.

I took time to actually look up the article about Cathy and his business that started the whole conflagration. It’s an interesting piece about a man who seeks to run his business based on his values. And some of what he says is really right on the money. “Jesus,” he told a Baptist Press reporter, “had a lot of things to say about people who work and live in the business community.” (Baptist Press, 7-16-12) And so he did! But none of it, as I remember, had anything to do with same-sex marriage. It had to do with treating workers fairly and reaching out to the poor, and a variety of other issues. The article also noted how Chick-fil-A restaurants are closed on Sundays, that too is part of Cathy’s value-based approach. It’s a real way of honoring the sabbath. Sure, it’s a counter-cultural move, but I find it to be rather refreshing!

But when it comes to the same-sex marriage issue, I think Cathy’s got it wrong. He told that same reporter, "We are very much supportive of the family—the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give thanks to God for that.” As they should—we should be willing to thank God for all the things we perceive to be blessings in our lives. But to assume there is just one model for marriage in the Bible is just poor exegesis. Even worse to imply there is only one way to be a family!  Better scholars than I have pointed out that there are a variety of models in scripture—including polygamy!

Cathy has invested a great deal of his own money in the movement to stop same-sex marriage. And he has strongly enunciated his views. Rather than wrangling about chicken, I think his supporters and his detractors, if they feel strongly about the issue, should be willing to do the same. I don’t agree with Dan Cathy. I don’t support his perspective on the matter. But he has a right to his opinion.  So do his opponents.

Let’s stop playing chicken. Let’s really work on the issue in a way that reflects the dignity and importance of marriage.  There's a lot more at stake here than where to go for lunch.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Lessons from Beyond

I recently had a lovely conversation with the children of a deceased parishioner.  Their dad had been a very thoughtful man--a seeker in the truest sense of the word.  Despite being well advanced in years he made a real effort to attend my weekly seminars on subjects ranging from the History of Mormonism to The Religous and Political History of Haiti.  Apparently he had shared some of that experience with his children, neither of whom live close at hand.  In phone conversations he would relay some of what he had learned in class, and it would serve as fodder for discussion. 

One of the courses that particularly intrigued my late parishioner had been the one on life after death.  In that class I presented the various ways different religious groups view the matter.  I spoke about resurrection, reincarnation, the immortality of the soul, annihilation and other theological and philosophical understandings.  One night on the phone he told his daughter about the course.

"So, Dad," she said, "What do you think?  What's your view of life after death?"

"I don't know," he said.  "We haven't had the last class yet!"

I chuckled when his daughter told me the story.  It sounded just like him!  But the truth, of course, is that while we may have any number of theological understandings of life beyond the grave, in reality, we won't really know until after the last class, will we.  I suppose that's why they call it faith.  I can't prove that there is life after death.  I can't prove resurrection is real.  But I can have faith, I can trust that the God who has loved me throughout my life, will love me after my death as well.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Colorado Shooting: A Response

And so the debate heats up once again.  As more than one pundit has observed, it happens every time there is a mass shooting like the one this past weekend in Aurora, Colorado.  Gun control proponents and those who are opposed to any suppression of gun rights trot out all the arguments, pro and con, and we hear anew how we need to get rid of guns or we need to keep them.  And, we don't really get anywhere.  And things quiet down.  And we wait for the next time.

I am reminded of the abortion debate, and how it often falls into the same pattern of all or nothing.  But the truth is there is a middle ground in both debates. 

While I can't personally imagine owning any sort of gun myself, I can get behind the right of folks to own a shot gun for hunting.  I can even understand why some people might want or even need a handgun for personal protection.  But an assault rifle?  One designed for killing many people in an incredibly short amount of time?  One capable of firing off one hundred rounds of ammunition in no time at all?  No one needs such a weapons. 

Even a gun proponent like Cameron Hopkins, former editor-in-chief of American Handgunner, acknowledges there are limits.  "If zombies were coming over the horizon, and I wanted to massacre thousands of zombies, I still would not use a 100-round magazine," he told Bloomsberg Businessweek reporters (  Such magazines, he said are bulky and unreliable.  (He does say he'd rather use 30 round magazines. We're not exactly on the same page, but still . . . . there are limits even for him.)

Here's the bottom line.  In Colorado, carrying a loaded assault rifle is legal.  In Colorado, requiring gun registration is illegal.  Something's wrong with this picture!  If you are law-abiding citizen, a hunter or a homeowner, how does carrying a loaded assault weapon advance your cause?  And how does registration hinder it? 

It's time to recognize that the context of the adoption of the Second Amendment is a vastly different context than that of our day and age.  It's time to let go of the polarized positions.  It is time to recognize that while it is true "Guns don't kill people, people do"--it is just as true that the more guns (loaded or otherwise) that you have circulating in society, the more likely they will be used for ill. 

I, for one, am tired of waiting until next time.  How many more lives need to be lost before we do something?  Let's get serious about gun control and responsible gun ownership.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Summer Camp and Sweet Sixteen

It was 1969.  The year I turned sixteen.  It was one of the longest summers of my life.  From the time I was twelve, I had been required to work part time jobs during the school year, and once I hit fourteen, full time in the summer.  I'd done a lot of babysitting and lawn mowing, paper delivering and dish washing, and I was determined to do something more interesting that summer.  So, when I saw an ad recruiting counselors for Camp Lincoln, I decided to apply.

Camp Lincoln was a YMCA sleep away camp.  It was very rustic.  And I wasn't really the outdoorsy type.  But when they offered me a job as a junior counselor I quickly jumped at the chance to be on my own for a whole summer.  I imagined it would be heavenly to be out from under my parents for most of eight weeks.  And on top of that, I got free room and board, all the bug juice I could drink, and at the end of the summer, the promise of one hundred dollars.

Little did I know the term junior counselor really meant indentured servant.  If there was scut work to be done, it fell to me and my peers.  And my overseer that summer was a wise guy college freshman who we'll call Bud.  Bud hated my guts.  Truth be told, I was probably a handful.  I'm sure I felt I knew everything there was to know about camp and our eight year old charges.  After all, I'd been one more recently than Bud had!  Still, in retrospect, it seems he went out of his way to make my life miserable.  Latrine duty,staying back in the cabin when a kid got sick, and whatever other tortures he could devise seemed to always be the order of the day.  By week two I was ready to go home, but I couldn't.  I'd signed a contract. 

There was one promise of respite though, for between weeks four and five, there were no campers in camp for a whole weekend, and we were allowed to leave the premises.  We could even go home if we wanted, so long as we were back by a certain time on Sunday morning.

Back then it was still safe to hitchhike, so the minute the last camper left, I was out on the road, thumbing my way home.  I really missed my girlfriend, looked forward to seeing my folks, and even felt a bit of love for my little brothers and sister.  And to top it off, it was the weekend of my sixteenth birthday.

I got home that Friday night, and was surprised no one mentioned my birthday was coming up the next day.  And so I went to bed a little disgruntled.  The next morning my mother came into my bedroom and woke me up.  "John," she said, "put one some clothes and come to the front room.  A somebody's here to see you."  So I dressed.  I have a picture from that day. I'm standing there in my dark framed glasses, with long hair, wearing jeans and a blue and red striped t-shirt.

When I walked into the front room, I was suddenly surrounded by a whole gang of my friends!  It was a surprise birthday breakfast!  All my best buddies were there, and of course, my girlfriend.  We had a great breakfast.  Bacon and eggs as I remember, and cake, of course--teenaged boys will eat anything at anytime!There were presents and lots of joking around.  Whatever sense of disgruntlement I had felt the night before, simply disappeared!  All the woes of life at camp melted away.  I felt renewed and energized.  I felt embraced by love and acceptance.  And though I was sorry to leave the next day, I knew I could finish out the summer.  I knew I could handle whatever got thrown my way.

That was a long time ago.  I turn fifty-nine later this week.  I don't imagine I'll have cake for breakfast.  But I know I'm loved--and I'll never forget the lesson I learned that summer.  Like a pop song of that era once said, "Love will see you through." 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Curses--Foiled Again!

"Whoever having arrived at the age of discretion accosts or addresses another person with profane or obscene language in a street or other public place, may be punished by a fine of not more than $20.00."
Article 8, Section 5, Bylaws of Middleborough, MA

The bylaw above was originally adopted by the good people of Middleborough in 1968.  Apparently it didn't work very well, and was rarely enforced.  And in recent years the use of profanity has been on the rise in certain parts of town.  So at a town meeting held on June 11 local police were given authority to treat public cursing as a civil offense.  And the power to write out tickets for offenders.  The fine, despite inflation, remains $20.00.  The vote was 180-53.  Will it make a difference?  Who knows.  I guess its OK to cuss out Uncle Murray in your living room, but not at the supermarket.  Maybe cops should just carry bars of soap and take care of things on the spot!

I suppose one could get upset about the new regulation. (In fact some folks did--and they held a rally on June 24, attended by under one hundred folks, many from out of town.  An anti-anti-profanity rally.) It certainly calls into question certain constitutional issues, like first amendment rights to free speech.  But laws and regulations aren't going to curb the tongues of folks inclined to curse. And what really upsets me about this isn't the fact folks are cursing up a blue steak in Puritan country, or that government is horning in on free speech.  What upsets me is the vote itself.

Middleborough has 23,000 residents.  I don't know how many of them are registered voters, but its got to be a lot more than the 233 who put the new regulation into effect!  Talk about low voter turnout!  If this were an isolated incident, if Middleborough was an anomaly, I wouldn't be concerned.  But it is happening all over America.  More and more people are saying, "To hell with voting!  What difference does it make anyway?"  (Or as law abiding people say in Middleborough, "The heck with voting!")

I hope that folks will clean up their language in Middleborough--and anywhere else its getting too rough.  But more than that, I hope folks will start taking the franchise seriously.  Democracy only works if we are all willing to participate.  Not voting?  Now that's a real civil offense!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Free to Believe

Freedom of religion--at least as we understand it today--was not part of the plan for the first European settlers here in the New World.  The Puritans and others fully expected that there would be an established church, an official church, supported by the government.  But Baptist preacher Roger Williams, who was run out of what is now Massachusssetts, had other ideas.  And in 1636 he founded the Colony of Rhode Island.  There men and women could worship as they pleased.

Many groups flocked to the new colony in hopes opf finding refuge from relgious persecution--including fifteen Jewish familes who settled in Newport.  By 1763 they had grown in numbers sufficient to support a rabbi and the first Jewish meetinghouse, the first syangogue, in what is now the United States. 

During the Revolutionary War Touro Synagogue had hosted an important meeting of generals, which included George Washington.  Later, when Washington became president, the members of the synagogue sent him a letter of congragtulations.  Washington, in turn, sent them a letter that is considered by many to be one of the most important letters ever written in our country.  In that letter he noted his appreciation of their earlier hospitality.  And then he assured the good people of Touro Synagogue that he understood the importance of religous liberty.  "[T]he governement of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires that they who live under its protection should demean themselves good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."  (Letter from George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, August, 1790)

Like those early Jewish Americans in Rhode Island, we are grateful for the liberties and freedoms we enjoy in our nation.  We are grateful for the rights we have to worship and believe as we wish.  There is much about America to love and we want to be loyal citizens.  But we also want to be true to our beliefs as people of faith--and sometimes those things seem to be in conflict.  Does being a loyal Christian, or Jew, or Muslim or Buddhist or whatever, completely compromise ones ability to be a loyal citizen?

I think not--as long as democracy exists, as long as we have voice, as long as outrs is a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" we can still be good citizens and, in Washington's words, give our nation "effectual support."  For in a democracy, good citizens are those who qyuestion, those who participate, those who think.  If we see our nation going astray, if we feel our governemtn if failing to do that which is right and good, the most loyal thing we can do is speak up and speak out.

Does that mean jamming one's views down other folks' throats?  Does it mean legislating secular laws for religous reasons?  No.  But uit does mean working out of ones religous convictions to identify and address important concerns.  It means finding common ground with others and identifying secularly based reasons for advocating for particular concerns.  The laws of the land must be bulit on secular reasons, not theological doctrine. 

We must not try to impose our religous convictions on others.  But we must bring them to bear on our own actions, our own opinions.  We can be people of faith, while at the same time recognizing that there are other people of other faiths all around us.

Have a grand Fourth!

(Picture:  Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Where There's a Will . . . .

Recently my wife Linda and I met with our lawyer to update our wills.  Having moved to Florida over two years ago, we decided to make sure our wills conformed to Florida state law.  While we were in his office, we reviewed the details of the documents:  who will serve as executor, who gets what, where a special painting will go if our children don't want it, how we will remember the church.  The usual details.  We also considered our living wills and made sure our health concerns would be properly addressed.

Even when I do premarital counseling with very young couples, I recommend that they have wills drawn up.  For dying intestate, dying without your wishes being made known in a will, can lead to all kinds of confusion and heartache. 

But while it is certainly sad when someones tangible possessions get passed on to the wrong people, or worse yet, not passed on at all but taken by the state, it is even more of a tragedy if the intangibles are lost.  We all have certain values, traditions and priorities that we hope will be carried on after we are gone.  We all have beliefs that we hope will not die with us, but rather will continue to strengthen humanity long after our demise.  If we die without a will, our possessions may end up in the wrong hands, but at least they will not disappear from the face of the earth.  But if we have not seen to it that that our values, beliefs and traditions are transmitted to those who survive us, then we do run the real risk that those intangibles will fade into history.

Obviously, one of the ways we assure that such intangibles are preserved for the future is in and through the institutions we support--our faith communities, our schools, our civic clubs and community organizations.  But on a more personal level, we may feel a bit stymied.  How can we make sure that our children, and their children, our friends and others, will know and understand what's important to us?  We can tell them personally, but sometimes things hold more weight, and are better remembered, if they are in writing.  That's where something called an ethical will comes into play.

An ethical will is a document that records the stories, the sayings, the explanations of who we are and what we have learned about life.  An ethical will shares your most cherished values with those who survive you.  I don't have an ethical will, but I've decided I need to create one.  Maybe you do too.  A helpful website if you decide to take on the task can be found at

There are many ways we can make certain that we avoid dying intestate, but this may be the most important way of all.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Framing Faith

Sometimes I forget that there are people who have never been to church or synagogue or mosque or temple. Sometimes I forget some people have absolutely nothing to do with organized religion.  But this past weekend I was reminded of that by a chance encounter at a local store.

About ten years ago a friend did a lovely charcoal drawing of me.  I was dressed in my robes and had on a stole.  The drawing needed to be matted and framed, so Linda and I took it to a shop that does such work.  A very nice and helpful clerk--probably in her early fifties--waited on us.  As she helped us pick out a frame she looked at the drawing and then at me, and finally asked: "That's you, right?"
"Yes,"I said, "with a little more hair."  "What does that signify?" she asked, pointing to the stole.  "Oh, I'm a pastor, that's my stole."

She looked at me rather puzzled.  "What's a stole?"  I launched into a full explanation of the scarf-like liturgical accessory that many pastors wear. "Do you know the story about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples?"  I asked.  (The stole is a symbol of his towel around his neck, and is designed to remind pastors that they are servants to the congregation.)  "No," she said, "I don't know much about church.  My parents were rebels of a sort--we went to the beach on Sundays.  And I never have gotten to church as an adult.  I probably should one of these days."

I told her she'd be more than welcome at our church.  My wife assured her you can worship anywhere, even on the beach.  She smiled, wrote up our sale, and we were on our way.

I've thought a lot about that conversation.  I wonder if she has as well?

Sometimes I really do forget--but Saturday I was reminded yet again.  Some folks have never been to church . . . .

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Chameleons and Context

The approach of Father's  Day has caused me to stop to reconsider the lessons I learned over the years from my late father, Howard Danner.  Actually, Howard Swineford Danner, Jr.  (I was his oldest son, and have always very grateful I wasn't named Howard the Third!)  Even after his own Dad's death, my father kept the junior after his name.  It was, for him, a sign of respect.

Dad was a preacher too.  And one of the most important things I learned from him had to do with the power of words.  I have never forgotten a sermon he preached some five decades ago, in which he compared words to chameleons.  "Words," he said, "are like chameleons.  For just as a chameleon is said to change its color depending on its background and setting, so words change their meaning in different contexts."  As a preacher, discussing ancient texts in postmodern settings, you soon learn how powerfully true that is!

I 've thought about that as I've been seeing more and more politcal ads in which opponent's words are quoted without any real attention being paid to the original context of those words.  Sound bites they are called.  Both parties are guilty of the same loose behavior.  I guess I need to get used to it.  Florida is, after all, a so-called battleground state, so we'll be exposed to more of it than folks in some other parts of the country.  But frankly, such ads treat us like morons!  They are an insult to voters! 

Dad and I belonged to different political parties.  We had pretty divergent views on a number of significant issues.  But we both agreed when it came to words.  They are like chameleons.  Context does count.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Zoo Story

I once read a newspaper story that recounted the tale of a Midwestern zoo's groundskeeper who had been arrested by the local police.  It seems he was caught field-dressing one the the zoo's captive deer that he had shot and killed.  When things were more closely investigated it was discovered that the groundskeeper had also set traps in certain areas of the zoo--and furthermore, had built a smokehouse next to the zoo's maintenance shed.

Unfortunately when some folks read in Genesis that God gave human beings dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26), that's what they think it means--squeezing out of the planet everything we can for ourselves.  Don't worry about the future--eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you shall die.  We are in charge around here and we can do any damn thing we want.  But that's not good stewardship--it's not even stewardship at all.  It's blatant abuse.  It's the kind of thinking that leads to zoo groundskeepers killing deer and building smokehouses--and it's the kind of thinking that leads to nations ignoring international environmental agreements.

We don't have to take the creation story in Genesis literally to learn from it the profound truth that we are called to take care of the earth.  We are called to love the earth.  And loving the earth means nurturing it, treating it respectfully, seeking to bring it to full flower.  With the privilege of being God's stewards on earth comes responsibility, for the good steward protects that with which he or she has been entrusted.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sanibel, Tomatoes and Global Warming

It's hurricane season here on Sanibel.  So far this year there have been two named storms--Alberto and Beryl--both no more than Tropical Storms.  Neither has come anywhere close to our island home.  Still, the local daily newspaper has issued its annual Hurricane Guide, and the City of Sanibel is distributing Hurricane Passes--tags that will allow the bearer to return to the island if it is evacuated due to a pending storm.

Hurricanes have a way of changing things--sometimes permanently.  We are seeing that today as New Orleans is still wrestling with the aftermath of Katrina.  And here on Sanibel, one hurricane in particular forever changed life here.  Not so much Charley, the hurricane of 2004 which altered the landscape in some dramatic ways, but rather an unnamed hurricane back in 1926.  That storm and its surge, completely altered life here.

In its early days Sanibel had been an agricultural community.  It was well-known for its tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelons, among other produce items.  In her history of Sanibel Marya Repko quotes from a 19th century magazine article which tells of Sanibel's claim to fame at the time:  "There are weeks or days or hours every winter . . . when cucumbers sell for a dollar in new York City . . . winter cucumbers and tomatoes bring fabulous prices sometimes, and at all times enough to make the business of growing very lucrative on the shell mounds south of the Caloosa."  (A Brief History of Sanibel Island, 14)

The hurricane of '26 changed all that, however, in a rather startling way.  So much salt residue was left after the storm passed, that the soil was no longer usable for agricultural purposes.  No more tomatoes.  No more cucumbers.  No more watermelons.  Eventually, Sanibel would be discovered by tourists and ecologists, but for a time, it seemed doomed.

This, of course, is all fascinating history.  And we always live with the threat of hurricanes hanging over our heads here on Sanibel.  But I mention it not as a bit of historical trivia, but rather to remind us just how easily and quickly things can change.  Maybe, if we remember the story of Sanibel's failed agricultural efforts, we will take more seriously the threat of global warming.  After all, hurricanes come and go, but a permanent raising of sea levels . . . that's another matter.  Where would the tomatoes come from then?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Underneath Your Cap and Gown

Our local daily newspaper has been full of stories lately about high school and college graduations.  It's that time of year, after all.  Recently a whole section of the paper was devoted to pictures and brief descriptions of all the high school valedictorians in the area.  What a diverse bunch!

I couldn't help but think back well over a decade ago when our oldest son Matt graduated from high school.  It was a hot day and the sun was beating down on our heads at the outdoor ceremony.  As the graduating class came marching in, they all looked sharp in their robes:  white for the girls, maroon for the boys.  These kids, some of whom Matt had known since they were in diapers, suddenly looked very, very mature.  That is until you looked a bit closer, and realized that underneath their gowns, a number of boys, including our son, were wearing shorts and sneakers with no socks!

We weren't really surprised.  These kids had always done things a bit differently!  Those maroon and white caps and gowns were supposed to symbolize that they were all alike:  each one a graduating high school senior.  But underneath their caps and gowns, they were all unique individuals.  Some were headed for Ivy League colleges, others were just glad to get out of high school.  Some were athletic scholarship recipients, others had hated every minute of every gym class they'd ever taken.  Some sang the class song with gusto and great beauty, others couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.  Some were active Christians, others practicing Jews, and still others only mentioned God when they cursed.  Shorts and sneakers, or skirts and leather shoes, these kids exhibited a host of differences.  And so it is with every graduating class.

The great 19th century educator Horace Mann once said, "Education . . . is the great equalizer . . . ."  He meant, of course, that education creates equal opportunities for people, he did not mean we all come out of school exactly the same.  Thank God! 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Civil Rights and Cradles

I'm at a preaching conference this week in Atlanta.  Several of the country's best preachers are present to share their thoughts and sermons with the hundreds of pastors gathered here.  Last night we were privileged to be addressed by Andrew Young.

Young, best known perhaps as the former Mayor of Atlanta, and as a former U.N. Ambassador, was one of the key players in the Civil Rights Movement.  He is also an ordained pastor in my denomination, the United Church of Christ. We're proud to claim him as one of our own!

Young shared with us a number of stories from his time working with Martin Luther King, Jr.  It was very inspiring.  He reminded us how far we've come, how much progress has been made.  But he also reminded us that we still have a way to go when it comes to equal rights for all Americans.

This past week there was a lot of conversation about same-sex marriage.  Coincidentally, a young woman who I helped mentor as she prepared for ordination, just posted pictures of her new baby on Facebook.  One of them featured a cradle made by her father out of her grandmother's old sewing cabinet.  Talk about family values!  She and her same-sex spouse are overjoyed!   Fortunately for them and the baby, they live in New York--for now.  But what happens to this lovely young family--I use the word intentionally--when they move to another state? 

Andrew Young is right.  There is work to be done.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Stand Your Ground or Not?

This past weekend I attended our denomination's annual meeting.  One of the items on the agenda was a resolution dealing with the "Stand Your Ground" law.  It called on church members to "express their concerns" about the law to those working on the governor's task force reviewing the legislation.  The resolution passed unanimously.

More than half of the states in the nation have so-called Castle Laws, which allow folks to defend their homes using deadly force if necessary, against intruders.  Stand Your Ground laws, which exist in twenty-four states, go a step further. I looked up the Florida statute.  In part it reads:  "A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so . . . ."  (Florida Statute 776.013)

Florida is a fairly religious state.  There are churches everywhere.  Big churches.  Mega churches.  Churches that preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Not everyone in Florida is a Christian.  Not every Christian goes to church.  But the reality is 82% of Floridians self-identify as Christian.  (  So it would seems reasonable to me that such folks might be impacted in their opinions by the teachings of Jesus.  So what might Jesus say about Stand Your Ground ?

Well, as it turns out, we don't have to guess.  In one sense he does support the notion of standing your ground, if by that one means not leaving, not retreating.  But he doesn't advocate returning violence for violence.  In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount he says, "Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also . . . ."  (Matthew 5:39a)  Now, I am aware that many scholars see this passage as suggesting a form of protest and defiance against Roman authority.  And it may indeed be just that.  But it is not meeting force with force!  It is not using deadly force!  And it turns out to be more than mere good preaching.  When he is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and one of his followers pulls out a sword to fight back, Jesus tells him to put it away.  (Matthew 26:52)  In fact, he says, "All who take the sword will perish by the sword."  I suspect you could substitute "handgun" for "sword" and not really alter the meaning of the proverb!

Don't misunderstand.  I am not suggesting Florida laws should follow the dictates of the Bible.  I am grateful that we are a nation dedicated to separation of church and state!  But Christians who are serious about following the way of Jesus might want to think twice about supporting Stand Your Ground. 

I, for one, think the Stand Your Ground Law is not only flawed and dangerous in general, from a faith perspective, I think it goes contrary to the teachings of Jesus.  And that is ground on which I am willing to stand!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Flags and Girders and the Little Things in Life

This past week builders passed an important milestone as construction continued on One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower, in New York.  With the erection of a steel girder atop the hundredth floor, the Center passed the Empire State Building to become the tallest building in New York.  For many this was seen as an important step in the continuing recovery from the aftereffects of 9/11.  Not so much in economic terms, as in emotional terms.  One construction worker being interviewed about the milestone was near tears as he spoke of its significance for him personally.  He had been part of the cleanup after the attack.  Who would have thought a steel girder could mean so much?  Yet that is often how it is in times of grief and loss.  It is the little things that bring us the biggest comfort.

Just a week or so after 9/11 my wife Linda';s Uncle Jimmy died after a long, long bout with emphysema and cancer.  He lived in upstate New York most of his life, but a couple of months before his death his daughter had taken him to her Midwest home to take care of him.

Jimmy was an interesting guy--friendly enough, but never a joiner.  He wasn't a church goer.  Didn't belong to clubs.  But he had been in the Navy during World War II--and he was a very proud American.

As a sign of that pride Jimmy had a flagpole on his lawn, with a flag that was always up--he even had it lit at night.  He was always very careful to follow appropriate rituals for national holidays and the like.

But Jimmy was in Wisconsin on September 11th--on the verge of death himself.  And so, despite the national period of mourning that had been ordered following the attacks, his flag stayed at the top of the pole--that is until a neighbor, remembering how important such things were to the old sailor, came over to his house and lowered Old Glory to half staff.

A girder up, a flag taken down--yes, it's the little things that bring us the biggest comfort. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

More Than a Hut--A Powerful Symbol!

While it's true that Sanibel has an international reputation and that folks from all across the country and around the world flock here in the winter to enjoy our beaches, collect shells, watch birds and soak up the cultural offerings, the reality is we're really just a small town.  Year round less than 6,000 of us call this island home, and over time you come to recognize most everybody.  You go to a restaurant for dinner, and you always see folks you know.  You stand in line in the grocery store, and you very well may meet up with a neighbor.

Small towns don't always do community very well.  And Sanibel has it's shortcomings on that front, I'm sure.  But this past weekend a new Welcome Center for cyclists and others exploring the island was dedicated on Periwinkle Way that exemplifies community at its best. 

Because of the almost twenty-three miles of bike paths (called shared use paths here on Sanibel) we host a lot of cyclists.  The Welcome Center is not only a place to get out of the sun and get a drink of water, but also sports a fair amount of helpful information.  And that's all well and good.  But what made it an example of the power of community was how it was built, how it was funded, how it was planned.  The land was donated by a private citizen.  Many of the supplies were donated by local businesses.  Much of the labor and oversight were provided by the local bike club and a volunteer group of builders known as the Hammerheads (don't you just love it?).  The civic groups in town chipped in.  The garden club helped with the landscaping.  Professionals helped create the signs.  Local environmental groups lent their expertise.  The city provided all sorts of mulch for the grounds.  And the list goes on!  The public sector helped out.  Private citizens participated. Not-for-profit groups were a part of it.  And commercial enterprises pitched in as well.  And as a result there is now a spot for those who visit Sanibel to be informed and refreshed.

OK, you're saying, it's just a Welcome Center--just a hut beside the road.   And so it is.  But it is also a powerful symbol of what can be accomplished if all of us are willing to be responsible, participating members of the community.  Imagine what else could be done if this public, private, not-for-profit, commercial model were used to address some of the bigger issues and concerns we all face? 

Well done Sanibel!  So what's next? 

(Photo Credit:  Tom Sharbaugh)