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.  (www.florida.to-go.biz)  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.