Monday, December 23, 2013

Who Needs Christ During Christmas?

On the last Sunday in Advent, December 22,  the Sunday New York Times ran a story about how atheists move through this season of the year.  One group, the well-organized American Atheists, sponsored a video billboard near Penn Station that asked, "Who Needs Christ During Christmas?"  The billboard went on to answer it's own question.  "NOBODY" it proclaimed in large capital letters.
Well, I for one, would like to disagree.

First let me make a couple of things clear.  First, and foremost, I am a champion of religious liberty--which includes the right to have no religion.  Being an atheist is as protected a right in this country as being the most devout Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu or Wiccan!  Not only do atheists have the right to practice (or not practice) their beliefs, they have the right to talk about them, promote them, and encourage others to adopt them.  So I have no issue with the right to have such a sign--even if it is somewhat "in your face".

Second, I am well aware that while most atheists are not going to be so aggressive about their beliefs, there are a growing number of folks who don't believe in God and don't see a need for Christ in their lives.  Indeed, 20% of Americans, while not necessarily atheists, have no religious identity. (Fort-Myers News Press, 12-22-13, 7B)  Pollsters call them "nones".  Clearly, we who are religious, may need to do a better job of promoting the value of faith! 

All that notwithstanding, however, I for one do need Christ during Christmas.  I need Christ during Easter and Memorial Day and even on Tuesday next.  I need the strength and courage that comes from knowing God has come to us and, as one of our liturgies puts it, "shared our common lot".  I need Christ because in and through him I have learned that there is more to life than meeting my own needs.  I need to keep Christ in Christmas and in every season of the year because without him I am selfish and self-centered and, to use a word I rarely use, lost.  No in some metaphysical sense of the word--I'm not talking about my eternal destiny here.  I just mean I don't know the way to go.  Without the road to Bethlehem, I live as if my GPS were broken.

So Happy Holidays--whatever they are for you.  And Merry Christmas--that's what it is for me this time of year.  Christmas.  And you can go your way, and I can go mine, and we can choose to get along. But for me, the way is one set by Christ.  And that's why SOMEBODY does need Christ during Christmas.  And at least one of those somebodies is me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Hat's Off to Hazel!

This is Hazel.  Hazel Cole Bradbury.  My late mother-in-law.  Actually I've had two of them (mothers-in-law that is)--both of them top notch.  I consider it very good fortune to have shared part of my life with both Shirley and Hazel.  But this is about Hazel.

Hazel had what could only be described as a challenging childhood.  Her father left her mother and moved away when she was a very young child, and so she spent most of her early years living in poverty.  It was the Depression era, and while her mother worked, they often found themselves barely making ends meet.

She met and married my late father-in-law, a good man indeed.  And while there fortune improved a bit, they still faced difficulties.  Cyril contracted pleurisy and spent months away from work and home at what was then called a sanitarium.  In time he got better.  He always worked hard, but they lived very modestly in half of a duplex in Gloversville, New York--a small industrial city north of the Mohawk River.

Hazel never forgot the challenges of her childhood and as a result turned her talents into hats and mittens and scarves for the underprivileged children of the community.  She tried to teach my wife, Linda, how to knit, but for years Linda resisted.  That just wasn't her thing!  But then, when her Mom was advanced in years, Linda sat down with her and learned a few basic stiches.  And she started to knit a basic hat. She took anybody's unused yarn--in many different colors, and stitched them together into colorful hats--first solids and then stripe
s.  And she followed in Hazel's footsteps--she made them for kids in need.  Literally hundreds of them every year!

Today, Linda knits about 200 hats a year--and she has a team of "elves" as she calls them, who also knit.  They send hats to an Indian reservation in South Dakota, to an organization that distributes them to homeless folks in New York City, to organizations in her hometown and for the first time this year, to Boston, where two of our grandchildren will see to it that they go to the right place.

All this because of Hazel.  That's why she calls the program Hazel's Hats.  What a wonderful tribute to a wonderful woman.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

19 & 27: Numbers to Remember

History has much to teach us.  And sometimes it simply boils down to numbers.  In this case, 19 and 27.

19.  That was the number of years Teresa of Avila had a spiritual dry spell.  Teresa was  a sixteenth century nun who was later canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.  She wrote one of the most significant books in the spiritual history of the Christian church.  Called The Interior Castle, it lays out a beautiful description of the inner workings of the soul.  In a day and age when women were relegated to powerless roles, Teresa found a way to make her mark as she founded many convents and them helped keep them afloat.  But for nineteen long years her prayer life was barren.  She felt little or no connection to God.  yet she persevered.  "Let nothing trouble you," she once said, "All things are passing;  God never changes."  She kept at it.  She operated on faith and faith alone.

27.  That was the number of years Nelson Mandela was imprisoned--eighteen of them on Robben Island in South Africa.  Plenty of time to work up real anger.  And plenty of reason to come out hating the folks who had jailed him.  Plenty of time to turn bitter.  But Mandela did not.  He even befriended his jailer.  "As I walked out the door toward freedom," he commented when reflecting on his time of incarceration, "I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."  In the end, he not only helped liberate people of color in his native land, he also did it in such a way as to redeem the oppressors.

19 & 27.  Sometimes it really is all about the numbers. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Christmas Cards and Advent Candles

I don't know about you, but I sometimes find it difficult to know just when to get into the so-called "holiday spirit."  What with the media touting pre-Christmas sales even before Halloween, and the malls putting up decorations before Thanksgiving, I am always very tempted to delay my own thinking about the approach of Christmas as long as possible.

But there are two events that tend to wake me to the reality that Christmas is on the way.  One is the arrival of the first Sunday in Advent. Somehow the lighting of that first candle always sparks in me a sense of expectation.  The other event is far more mundane and rather secular in nature and that is the arrival of the first Christmas card of the season.

Yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent, and so we lit the first candle.  And Saturday we received our first card.  Sort of.  It came from our newspaper carrier--and included a self-addressed envelope in the hopes that we would send her a Christmas tip.  We will, of course.  She provides excellent service throughout the year and I rely on the two papers she brings us for news and information.

As I think about it, her card is an especially appropriate way to begin the season.  After all, while the news she brings isn't always good news, the Advent season itself is also
about news.  Good news.  Good news that the Messiah is coming!   And just as my paper carrier's card is designed to solicit a response on my part, so too the good news of the Advent season calls for action. 

As you prepare for Christmas, might you reflect on the good news that the Messiah is coming.  And might it prompt within you a renewed commitment to live in hope, work for peace, share the joy and to love God and neighbor.

(Photo Credit:  Bruce Findley)

Monday, November 25, 2013

ABC--Adoption, Balloons and Children


Last Thursday Linda and I flew up to Albany, New York, and then drove from there to Pittsfield, MA to help celebrate the newest additions to our family.  You see, Friday was National Adoption Day, and to mark the occasion the Berkshire County Department of Children and Families had scheduled thirteen adoptions for that day.  Including our two new granddaughters!  There were speeches and a choir singing Christmas songs and a buffet breakfast complete with a special cake and face painting and lots and lots of balloons and flowers!

The actual adoption ceremonies were held in the Juvenile Court.  Unlike normal days, I'm sure, it too was decked out in balloons and flowers.  The judge gently questioned the children and their prospective parents and then, with a big smile on her face, declared the adoptions final and irrevocable.  For our daughter Elizabeth and her partner Erica it was the culmination of a very long process that had involved much in the way of time, soul-searching and paper work.  And so begins a new adventure--they are now officially mothers.  It never would have happened in some states.  Despite the fact that they will provide a loving and nurturing home, they would have been ruled unacceptable simply because of their sexual orientation.  But Massachusetts wisely realizes that love makes a family.

All of which has given me a new image for the kingdom of God.  I can just see Jesus sharing one of his parables . . . .  The kingdom of God, he might say, is like two women who have made a home for themselves, and desiring to share their love they seek to adopt two little girls.  And when they arrive at court it is decked out with balloons and flowers.  And the judge greets them warmly and celebrates their willingness to become parents for two girls who need kindness and consistency.  And she even lets the little one bang the gavel and the mothers and daughters and even their grandparents all stand behind the bench and cry and laugh and sing.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Remembering JFK

Where were you when JFK was shot?  It is a question many folks are asking as we approach the 50th anniversary of his assassination.  And most Americans over the age of fifty-five or so can answer it.  I was at school.  I can picture the clock on the classroom wall (I must have been counting the minutes until class was over).  When the principal's voice came over the PA system announcing the sad news we all gasped.   We were sent home a little early.  My parents never let us watch very much television, but that week we were practically glued to the set much of the time.

My folks were staunch Republicans, and had been Nixon supporters in the election that brought Kennedy into office.  I think they had some real reservations about his ability to govern.  I don't know if they ever changed their mind about that.  But that didn't stop my Dad, also a pastor, from conducting a special prayer service at our church during the official mourning period.  We prayed for the Kennedy family, and we prayed for the nation in those uncertain times.

The service itself was held in the church basement--all our services were held there at the time because the sanctuary was undergoing renovations.  I remember how odd it felt getting on my Sunday clothes in the middle of the week (I was ten at the time) and going to church on what would have been a school day.  Life seemed off-kilter--and in many ways it was.

Some commentators over the last week or so have said that the assassination of Kennedy marked the end of an era of innocence for our nation.  And certainly the decades that followed have been full of major challenges, including wars that have been, for the most part, rather unpopular.  But I question whether or not we were truly innocent before that fateful time in 1963.  I was.  I was just a kid after all.  But as a nation?  In the 20th century alone we had experienced two brutal wars, the dropping of the A-bomb, the McCarthy era . . . and the list goes on.  I wonder if we as a nation were ever innocent. 

Historians are still weighing the importance and effectiveness of Kennedy's short tenure as President.  But whatever the final outcome of history's assessment, one thing he left behind was his stirring reminder that for a democracy to function fully and well, all of it's citizens must be willing to participate.  "Ask not," he famously said, "what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."  It is good to remember the convertible and the pink suit and the brave secret service agents.  It is better yet to remember the need to serve others.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Courage for Living

A true story for Veteran's Day.

On February 2, 1943, an Army transport ship called the Dorchester was steaming through the frigid waters of the north Atlantic, going from Newfoundland to Greenland, when a German U-boat fired a torpedo that hit dead-on.  The Dorchester's captain, Hans Danielson, had prepared those on board for the possibility of a strike, and they had been ordered to sleep fully clothed, with life-vests on.  But some had disobeyed orders because the lifejackets were uncomfortable.

Many men were killed by the torpedo blast, but hundreds were not.  Some were not.  Some were rescued by escort ships. But panic began to set in.  Lifeboats were overcrowded--and some sank.  Rubber rafts thrown into the ocean drifted away before they could be used.  Midst all the confusion and fear four men brought a measure of calm to the scene.  Four chaplains.  Two Protestant ministers, a Roman catholic priest and a rabbi.  George Fox, Clark Poling, John Washington and Alexander Goode.

Gently, yet firmly, the four chaplains worked their way around the deck.  They prayed for the dying; they offered words of assurance and hope to the frightened men trying to get off the sinking vessel.  One private who'd jumped overboard and was treading water midst floating dead bodies and oil slicks, later said, "I could hear men crying, pleading, praying.  I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage.  Their voices were the only thing that kept me going."

The chaplains didn't just preach it--they lived it.  One man, a petty officer named Mahoney, had forgotten his gloves when he left his cabin.  Trying but failing to get back to his berth, he met up with Rabbi Goode.  He told him where he was going, what he needed.  Quietly the rabbi told him that he had two pair--and handed gloves to Mahoney.  It was only later that Mahoney realized Goode had in fact given him his one and only pair of gloves.

The chaplains then opened a storage locker and began to hand out life vests to the men who had forgotten their or who had lost them in the melee.  And then, when the vests were all gone, the chaplains stripped off their own and gave them to four men who had none.

And then they gave up even more--for room on the lifeboats was limited.  Together, arms linked in solidarity, the four chaplains stood on the deck of the Dorchester as twenty minutes after it had been attacked, it slipped under the ice cold waves.  To the very end they continued to pray aloud for the safety and the well-being of the men they were charged with shepherding in their darkest hour.  All four died at sea.  (Quote from "The Saga of the Four Chaplains," www.fourchaplains.org)

On this day when we honor so many brave men and women, let us remember that such courage is not just for battles and warfare--courage is a gift for everyday life as well.  The chaplains focused on God and the needs of those around them, and in doing so found the courage to do the right thing.  Might we be so focused ourselves.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Thoughts on Missing Supper

Yesterday I missed supper.  My wife Linda and I were out visiting family, and the supper hour came and went without my eating.  Later in the evening, as we were driving home, I said, "I am really hungry!"  She offered to stop and get something at a burger joint, but in the end we waited and I had a bowl of cereal and milk before going to bed.

How often do we use such language without really thinking about it?  Yes, I wanted something to eat--but hungry?  Really hungry?  I don't know if I've ever been really hungry.  Certainly, I've never dealt with the uncertainty of not knowing where I was going to get my next meal.  And starved?  It's almost criminal the way we throw that word around.  "Boy, am I starved!" 

This past week millions of Americans learned anew what it means to be hungry as automatic cuts in the Food Stamp program went into effect.  The cuts mean that a family of four could lose up to $36 a month in their allotment.  That could mean a meal, or two or maybe a whole day's worth of meals.  According to Bread for the World, an anti-hunger advocacy group, 49 million Americans live day in  and day out at the risk of hunger--at the risk of literally being unsure of their next meal.  And that's just here in America.  We're not even talking about the billion or so folks around the world who suffer from hunger.

So what can you do?  Well, to begin with go the Bread for the World website at www.bread.org and read up on the issue for yourself.  Then, take some time to write a letter or two to your legislators.  Let them know hunger is a priority issue!  And then pry loose some of your own money and donate to a good hunger relief agency.  And those canned goods for the food pantry--or volunteering your time at a soup kitchen--those things are all good as well.

Yesterday I missed my supper.  For a few hours.  Some folks miss it altogether--along with breakfast and lunch.  We can do something to change that!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Angela Merkel, Privacy and Us

Of course Angela Merkel is upset.  I'd be upset too!  In fact, I am.  I'm upset to think that the government is listening in on her conversations, or, perhaps, yours and mine.  Is this any way to treat citizens and friends?  Don't misunderstand, I don't think Edward Snowden Angela did us any favors by leaking the information that he did.  But really--Angela Merkel?

None of this should take us by surprise, I suppose.  Any expectation of privacy has really disappeared--at least in terms of technology.  I remember when I was a boy, back in the day before we called land lines land lines.  My family had a private line.  Dad was a pastor, and felt it important to be able to speak with distraught parishioners over the phone without worrying about who was listening in to the conversation.  But most of my friends had party lines--phone lines shared by two or more households.  The number of rings let you know when the call was for your family--but lots and lots of folks listened in.  You never could be certain your conversation was confidential if you had a party line.  When party lines became a thing of the past, folks thought that was the end of our worries about privacy on the phone.

It's kind of funny.  Today, many people, young and old alike, are taking the next step getting rid of their land lines altogether. Instead, every member of the household has his or her own private cell phone and accompanying number.  My oldest son and his wife got rid of their land line quite some time ago.  They each have their own phone--as does their oldest son.  One household, three phones, three phone numbers.  You'd think that would guarantee privacy.  But it doesn't.  Just ask the German Chancellor.

I'm not sure where I'm going with all of this.  Maybe you should think of reading this as listening in on a conversation I'm having with myself.  Or maybe not!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Fall and Football and Prayer

Here in Southwest Florida they are predicting that a cold front will be coming through later in the week and that it will really begin to feel like fall.  Our temperatures will be going down to daytime highs in the low eighties!  I must admit, as a New Englander, it has taken some real adjustment.

It's a good thing we have sports to keep us on track when it comes to the seasons of the year!  After all, the Fall Classic starts this week, and this year features the Red Sox and the Cardinals.  Shades of 2004!  And of course there is football--the ultimate fall sport.  That's really big here in Florida.  Friday night high school games.  Saturday college games.  Sunday pro games.  All-season, all-weekend, all-football!

It is not uncommon to see teammates huddle up before a game begins for a team prayer.  The best of those prayers ask God to protect the players from injury and to help insure a good and fair game be played by all.  But I suspect many a player is praying for victory.

Several years ago the sports related comic strip Funky Winkerbean depicted a team prayer.  In the first frame the Coach says to his players, "Remove your helmets [men] and take a knee for the team prayer!"  Helmets are removed, heads are bowed, and the coah offers a silent prayer.  Then, as the players look up, one of them, gazing across the field, says, "It didn't work, Coach!  The other team is still there!"

That is often how prayer is viewed.  If we pray the right way, folks often say, if we pray hard enough, often enough, then we will get what we want.  But the truth is prayer isn't magic--rather it is how we relate to God."

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard lived before modern football was even invented.  And even if he did live when it was around he would have thought you were talking about soccer if you said football!  But when it came to prayer he knew what he was talking about, and was a contemporary as they come.  "Prayer, he once wrote, "doesn't change God; rather it changes the one who prays."  Wise words--in this season, or any season!

Monday, October 14, 2013

The R* Word--Or Why Names Matter

I'm not a jock. I never was. I'm something of a klutz and never met a ball I couldn't drop! I have found physical activities that I enjoy, yoga, walking and cycling in particular, but I am not into competitive sports. At least not as a participant. But I am a fan. Most ardently, a Red Sox fan. As I write this, in fact, I am a bit sleep deprived because I stayed up well past my bedtime to watch game 2 of the 2013 American league Championship Series. It was a thrilling game, complete with a grand slam and a walk-off run to end it in the bottom of the ninth. Of course if you don't follow baseball, that may seem like real gobbledygook. My brilliant mother, for instance, knows more about literature than I'll ever begin to imagine. But sports? That is just not in her purview! She's never said sports are unimportant, or a waste of time,she's not that judgemental--but I suspect that may be what she thinks. Along with many others, I'm sure.

Now baseball is called America's pastime, but the truth is football has outstripped it in popularity. In fact according to an Adweek/Harris Poll taken in 2011, 64% of Americans watch NFL Football. Among men, 73%, and among women, 55%. And that is just professional ball. It doesn't even take into account those who watch college football, or that ever popular Friday night activity, high school football. Clearly, lots and lots of Americans are exposed to football, follow football, enjoy football, consider it an important part of their lives. And so while many would say sports in general and football in particular trivial, the reality is, sports greatly shape our culture as a nation.

I mention all this because of the current controversy over the name of the Washington, DC based NFL team. The Redskins. There is a growing effort to see that the name be changed. Redskins, it has been noted, is the equivalent of the N* word or other ethnic slurs. Imagine calling the team the Washington N . . . well you get the idea. Redskins is an offensive term. According to an NBC poll a majority of Americans think is should not be changed. (Today Show, 10-14-13). Some, I am sure, feel it is a tempest in a teapot. Why worry about it? It's just a nickname, and it's been around forever, and gee whiz, it's just a football team. It's just sports! But sports are important to Americans, football in particular. And the words we use and the attitudes we foster in sports do matter because they influence how we speak, how we think, how we act.

Noted sportscaster Bob Costas weighed in on the matter this past weekend. In his remarks he called for changing the name. "It is an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present day intent." He's right. The name should be changed. Because like it or not, sports matter. And so do names.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Back in the Day

One of my parishioners recently did a major clean out of an old family cottage. Among other things, he and his wife had to weed through hundreds of books and journals. Many of them found their way to the local Goodwill. But one of the journals got passed on to me. It is a copy of the January 1970 volume of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. It passed into my hands not so much as an oddity, but because all the articles in it are focused around a theme near and dear to my heart: the Sixties. In particular, "The Sixties: Radical Change in American Religion."

Contained in the volume are articles about Vatican II, Black consciousness and the Black church, fundamentalism, the growth of interest in Eastern religions, and the growing battle over abortion and contraception. The authors are--at least for those of us schooled in the world of church history--some of the real rock stars of the era: Sydney E. Ahlstrom, James Gustafson, James Cone and Richard John Neuhaus among others. I have not read any of the articles yet. I'm hoping to find the time to sit down and read straight through the 140 pages or so of sixties related materials. I suspect it will be a trip down memory lane, after all, I'm a child of the sixties! But I also suspect I'll be amazed at how little we've moved on some of the issues.

One piece, for instance, discusses the matter of civil religion. I'm convinced we still haven't figured out the appropriate role of religion in the public square, we still don't have what Phyllis Tickle calls a good "theology of religion." And fundamentalism? Well, today most folks think Islam when they hear the word fundamentalist--but truth be told there is still a large contingent of such folks in Christian circles. How does that have bearing on society? One of the articles talks about Jewish-Christian dialogue in the light of the Six-Day War. Now there's a seeming bit of ancient history. Lots has changed in Israel-Palestine since then--yet nothing seems to have changed. How do we American Christians and Jews deal with the issue in our conversations?

I remember my PhD advisor, the very wise Earl Kent Brown of Boston University, once told me you can't write history until at least fifty years after the fact. The publishers of The Annals obviously hadn't heard that maxim--after all, they didn't even wait a month! Still, it should be fascinating--now that it is almost fifty years later, to take a peek and see if history does have anything to teach us.  I suspect it does!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Not Me!

When my children were younger something would occasionally get broken--a lamp that had been carelessly bumped during a footrace through the living room; a chair that fell apart because somebody sat on it with a sibling or friend in their lap . . . those sort of things.  Somehow whenever we tried to find out who was responsible we never seemed to get to the bottom of it.  "Not me," they'd all say one after another.  Sometimes they would blame one another.  "He did it!  I saw him running!"  "She did it!  I saw her horsing around!"  It was a game--the blame game.  And, unlike most other games, it was a game nobody ever really won--and in fact, if we got really exasperated, we'd send them all to their rooms.  And everybody lost.

Maybe that's what we ought to do.  Maybe we should send all our elected officials to their rooms.  I mean, government is broken, but nobody seems to be taking responsibility for it!  "He did it!"  "She did it!"  The Republicans are responsible!  The President is at fault!  The Tea Party's brought it on us!  The old blame game.  The one nobody wins--and in this case, the one where certain people really lose.  Elderly vets who want to see the World War II Memorial and remember their fallen comrades.  A lost hiker on federal lands.  The thousands of hard working public servants who've been furloughed.  The children who need the meager amount of fresh food supplied though their WIC stipends worth forty-five dollars a month.  Losers now--or soon enough.  And that's just a few of them.

Here's a thought.  Not only do we send them all to their rooms.  We also take away their desserts--or at least their paychecks.  Maybe we don't let them watch television or play video games for a week or two or at least until the debt ceiling is raised.  I don't believe in corporal punishment, so washing their mouths out with soap is out of the question.  But hey, it just might work!

I vote.  I write letters to my congressional representatives.  I pray for the President, the Governor and other elected officials most very day.  I keep abreast of politics and public policy.  I like democracy, and I'm willing to do my part--for free!  So why can't those we pay to make it work do their part? 

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Reality of Gun Violence


Is it my imagination, or is the news cycle getting shorter?  It used to be that a mass shooting, like the one in Washington last week, would lead to many days of coverage.  It would be at the top of the hour every hour.  It would be page one every day.  We would be given every detail, every little bit of information.  But somehow the shooting spree at the Washington Navy Yard which resulted in thirteen deaths (twelve victims and the shooter) has already begun to slip out of our consciousness.

I want to say it is because the attack on the mall in Kenya has taken it's place. And that, indeed, may be a part of it.  But what I really suspect is that we have dealt with so many of these gun violence events here at home that we are becoming hardened to them.  In the interest of our own mental well being, perhaps, we have decided to readjust our expectations of life in 21st century America.  Yes, it's awful, many folks may be thinking, but, hey, such is life!  Things happen. 

In his address at the Memorial Service for the victims, President Obama expressed similar concerns.  "Sometimes," he said, "I fear there's a creeping resignation that these tragedies are somehow the way it is, that this is somehow the new normal."  Frankly, that's very frightening.  While I have great issue with many of the stands taken by various gun rights advocates, and am concerned about how their positions impact things like legislation and culture in the United States, I am far more concerned about complacency!  If we begin to accept the violence that shattered the lives of so many in Aurora and Newtown and Washington as normal, or worse yet as inevitable, then we will be paralyzed when it comes to any effort to make a change.  Whether you think we need to address the problem through stricter gun control measures, or better enforcement of existing measures, or beefing up our mental health system, or even posting armed guards everywhere, nothing will happen until we own up to the problem in the first place.

Yes, the news comes and goes.  Yes, we will probably talk about the Washington shootings for a bit longer, but then we will forget.  The families of the victims, their co-workers, their friends, they won't forget.  And neither should we.

America the Beautiful does not have to be America the Violent.  But ignoring a problem, pretending it's just part of the routine, won't make it go away.  Never has--never will.

Monday, September 16, 2013

There She Is . . . Miss America!

For all the organizers protestations to the contrary, the Miss America pageant is still a beauty pageant.  Yes, I know, they conduct extensive interviews with the contestants.  Yes I know they have to have a talent they can demonstrate (though not archery we discovered this year.)  Yes, it's true, many if not most of the young women are actually very accomplished in a variety of ways, including academically.  This year's runner-up, for instance, already has both a Bachelor's and  Master's degree--from Stanford in fact.  But still, they march around in bikinis and evening gowns, and backstage talk about the importance of hairspray and, I couldn't believe it, butt glue.  I guess that holds the aforementioned bikinis in place. 

Obviously there are some valid feminist concerns about the pageant, for in some ways it does indeed seem to commodify women.  But the brouhaha about this year's winner, a bright, charming, talented and beautiful young woman of Indian descent, once again reminds us that many Americans are still bogged down in racist views. 

Nina Davulri, the new Miss America, is hoping to go to medical school.  She plans on using her $50,000 scholarship to help make that dream a reality.  I don't know enough about her academic history to know if she will be accepted into med school.  I do know that the admissions process for such schools is in many ways even more rigorous than the series of pageants one goes through on the way to being crowned Miss America. 

Here's what I hope.  I hope that she does make it into medical school.  I hope she gets licensed to practice.  I hope she becomes a super doctor and serves humanity in such a noble fashion.  That will ultimately show those who are trashing her because of  her ethnic background that America can be a place where, in Martin Luther King's words, people are "not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Monday, September 9, 2013

Twelve Years Later

Twelve years ago today I stood in the pulpit of the First Congregational Church in River Edge, New Jersey for what I assumed would be the last time as I preached my final sermon. It was a lovely late summer's day, and the congregation went all out in the efforts to bid me and my wife Linda a fond farewell. There were many tears, much laughter, some lovely gifts, a delicious meal, some very kind words, and then it was all over. Nothing left to do but drive up the road to our new home, and my new congregation, in Westport, Connecticut.

Little did I know that even as I was saying goodbye to people I had grown to lvoe very dearly over the ten years we had been together, final steps were being taken that would lead to the devastation that has come to be known simply by the date it happened: 9/11. Indeed, just two days later, as I was unpacking boxes of books in my new office, word came through that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. And then another, and another crashed in Washington, and yet a fourth in Pennsylvania.

Twelve years have come and gone since then. I now have five grandchildren instead of just one. I've moved again this time to Florida--and have actually been here for almost four years! So much has happened, so much has changed. And with each passing year, the memory of that day and its aftermath, grows a bit dimmer. I am beginning to understand how older Americans feel about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I desperately want to forget that it ever happened--yet how can I? It changed everything. It turned my world upside down--even as it did for millions and millions of others.

I've not seen a lot in the news about the anniversary of 9/11 this year. Even the internet has had little to say. But I know it is there just beneath the surface, informing our conversations about things like the crisis in Syria. In therapeutic circles we talk about the reality that you can't change the past. But that doesn't mean it should be forgotten. For it is always there. Always a part of the present. That's why every year our Jewish friends remind us to "never forget" in their annual holocaust remembrances. I can't turn back the calendar.

I can't go back to that final day in River Edge and play it forward in a new way. But I can remember. So can all of us.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Syria, Luke and Grandma

I usually preach from the lectionary, that three-year cycle of scripture readings used by millions of Christians around the world.  Due to some local programming here on Sanibel I am going "off-lectionary" this Sunday as we honor grandparents.  I just didn't want to try and unwind the words Jesus speaks in the assigned gospel reading from Luke.  "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters . . . cannot be my disciple."  (Luke 14:26)  Somehow I don't think grandparents are exempt--he just didn't think to mention them.  He doesn't mention cousins or aunts or uncles either, but they too are probably on the list.  I think I have some understanding of what he means here--essentially that God must come first above all others--but I just didn't want to tackle that.  Call me wimp, but so it goes.

Besides, if I did take on the text, I would probably have to focus on the second half of it.  The entire lesson as assigned runs from verse 25 through 33.  It is all about the cost of discipleship.  The cost of following Jesus.  And he uses an example which, as the say about the stories on Law and Order, is "ripped from the headlines."  In the New Revised Standard Version it reads, in part, as follows:  "What king going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand>  If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace."  (Luke 14:31-32)

Imagine the places a preacher could go this Sunday with such a text!  He or she could focus on any number of issues related to the current crisis over Syria!  The importance of careful debate and consultation.  The need to look at all the issues.  The value of diplomacy.  The dangers of war.  The desirability of peace.  But in the end, such foci would miss the point of the text.  For Jesus is very clearly saying, if you want to follow me, if you want to be a disciple, consider the consequences!  For such a choice will change your life in ways you may not even be able to comprehend. 

I don't think this or any other Biblical text can be used to answer the specific questions that have emerged in this or any other situation.  But I do think it can be used to remind those who claim to follow Christ that such a commitment means applying his way of life to all of life.  Including where one stands on issues of war and peace.  Radical?  You bet.  Difficult?  Are you kidding me?  The hardest thing of all!  Yet the one thing necessary.

Come to think of it, over the years that's something I've heard a grandparent or two say.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Inspired--Not Stumped

Psalm 8 is one of my very favorite passages in the Bible:
 
O Lord, my God,
How wonderful is your name in all the earth.
When I look to the heavens,
And see the stars that you have made,
I wonder, what are human beings that you care for them?
Yet you have made them little lower than the angels themselves!
 
I have had that experience more than once as I have gazed at the night time sky--and I had it again last week as my wife Linda and I visited the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in California
and experienced the redwoods.  What incredible trees!  Some are said to be up to two thousand years old!  Imagine, some of them were standing when Jesus walked the earth!
 
The Stout Grove in the Jedediah Smith Park was the gift of Clara Stout who wanted to honor her husband Frank and protect the beautiful 44 acre stand of redwoods.  It was donated in 1929 to the Save the Redwoods League.  Thank God for Clara--and the League!  Because of their efforts we can all be moved by their beauty!
 
Cathedrals are built to draw our attention heavenward--to help us consider the majesty of God. No wonder the term "cathedral-like" is often used to describe Stout Grove, for there the redwoods do just that.  Like the stars that inspired the psalmist, they too prompt us to consider the majesty of God.
 
 
 


Monday, August 19, 2013

It Ain't Dodgeball, Folks!

I love baseball.  I have ever since I was a boy.  And I'm an ardent fan of the Red Sox.  So I look forward to those occasions when a Red Sox game is broadcast on a national network.  And this weekend featured two such broadcasts.  Saturday afternoon's game featured a fine outing by pitcher John Lackey and some excellent fielding by Dustin Pedroia.  And they won! 

Sunday night we shifted over to ESPN--and a night game.  I settled in expecting another good game, and was sorely disappointed.  Not so much because of the outcome (the Yankees won, 9-6), but rather because of the showed baseball at its worst.

If you are not a baseball fan you may not know that Alex Rodriguez, A-Rod, has been found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs and then trying to cover it up.  He has been given a 211 game suspension.  But due to a technicality, he is allowed to still play while he goes through the appeals process.  There is a great deal of controversy about it among sports fans.  Even some Yankees fans feel it would be best if he did not play.  But he is playing.  And Sunday, at the top of the second inning, when he got up to bat, he faced four consecutive pitches thrown by Ryan Dempster that seemed designed to hit him.  The fourth one did.  Dempster claims he didn't do it on purpose, but many folks doubt that is the case, including the ESPN announcers for the game.

That's bad enough--but what disturbs me even more was (and is) the reaction of the fans at Fenway Park.  They cheered.  First they booed him when A-Rod when he got up to bat, and then when he got hit, they cheered.  I agree, A-Rod shouldn't be playing.  I am saddened that he and others have besmirched the game I love, but that doesn't excuse Dempster's behavior, if he did indeed hit him intentionally, nor does it excuse the behavior of the fans.

I don't normally address sports on this blog, but some things transcend the world of games and play.  For our games reflect larger societal attitudes.  As the cameras panned across the stands on Sunday night, I couldn't help but notice just how many children were in the crowd.  Which is great.  I remember well cheering at Fenway for one of my boyhood heroes, Carl Yazstremski.  And the Red Sox helped me learn some important lessons about perseverance and hope.  All those years of losing, yet still carrying on!  I can't help but wonder what lesson those children were learning as their Dads and Moms booed and cheered. 

We fans are fond of saying baseball needs to clean up its act.  And so it does.  But maybe we do too.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Diet Coke, Death and Caskets

BJ's, Sam's Club, Costco--they're all pretty much the same.  You don't get waited on, per se.  It's all do-it-yourself.  The decor is Spartan at best.  It's true, the prices are often a real steal, but the inventory is unpredictable at best.

They carry some of this and some of that.  Most of it in bulk.  Gallon jars of mayonnaise.  Number ten sized tins of cling peaches in heavy syrup.  Eighteen roll packages of toilet paper.  Sometimes they have electronics, tires and best-selling books.  Sometimes patio furniture, huge packages of t-shirts and cases of motor oil.  You never know for sure what's going to show up on the sales floor.  So no one should be really surprised to learn that among the items offered for sale at Costco are caskets.  That's right, caskets.  Oblong, metal coffins perfect for burial--and priced under a thousand dollars, considerably cheaper than most funeral parlors.

The "In God's Care Casket," as an example, is offered for $949--delivered!  That, of course, is standard shipping.  Expedited shipping costs you a bit more.  And, as the caskets are basically an on-line item, you need to place your order by 11:00 AM EST.  Death, and now it turns out Costco, waits for no man or woman!

Of course, you can buy it in advance, store it in your attic or garage until needed and be assured of today's price.  Truly a matter of being prepared!

Now the idea of picking up a coffin along with a case of Diet Coke and a jumbo pack of Twinkies (yes, they are back!) may repulse you--even if it is all on-line!  On the other hand, you may be thinking, "Well, it's about tiome!  Even caskets should be competively priced."  But either way, the reality is that it wasn't that long ago that such a thing would have been totally impossible.  Not because of any law or regulation preventing such sales, but rather because it was considered impolite to even talk about death and dying.  So the things of death--like caskets--were hidden away.

I probably won't place an advance order with Costco for a casket.  Partly due to the fact that I plan on being cremated.  (But fret not, they can take care of that as well.  Urns are also on sale, including the "American Pride Adult Urn," complete with an etched US flag and eagle for only $89.99!)  But I for one am glad that as a society we are more willing to talk openly about the end of life.  I am glad we have things like hospice, and advance directives.  The truth is, being open about death makes for a better life.  Before or after 11:00 AM EST.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Things I Learned on My Bike Ride

Well, I'm back in my office.  The only wheels under my feet are on my desk chair.  Feels a little strange not to be riding, but my congregants might get a little worried if I start scooting down the church deck in the chair!

I've had some time to reflect on the ride itself, and have realized that I learned some important truths.  Or, actually, relearned them.

1)  NEVER UNDERESTIMATE PEOPLE'S GENEROSITY
     When I set my initial fundraising goal for this Wheels for Wheels adventure I figured I'd be very fortunate to reach $6000--60 times the $100 needed for each wheelchair.  But from the moment I started to talk about it, folks were making pledges and writing checks.  When I approached the Rotary Board of Directors about sponsoring the ride, they immediately put up a $3500 challenge grant.  My friends and family came through with flying colors!  Almost every one of the 40 or so people I wrote to responded with kinds words and a donation.  And my congregation?  My word, what incredibly generous folks!
      All too often we forget the old fundraising maxim that people really do want to give if they have some worthy cause to support.  Buying a wheelchair for a kid in the third world who is dragging him or herself along the ground because he or she has no legs is a worthy cause!
      Never underestimate people's generosity!

2)  NEVER UNDERESTIMATE A KID'S DETERMINATION
     When we decided to have our grandson Zak come along and ride part of the way, I figured he'd be good for ten or so miles a day.  I didn't want him riding on day one because of the city traffic, so that left about twenty miles.  He rode twenty-seven.  And he could have ridden double that! 

3)  NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
     On the last day of the ride I was on a bike path on one of the lower Keys, when suddenly ahead of me I saw three construction workers.  They had a plank across the path, and a wheelbarrow right in front of it.  Before I could get off the path, they had whisked away the plank, moved the barrow and essentially apologized for being in the way.  Apologize?  No need gents!  You were just doing your work!  Thanks for being so kind!

4)  NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE LOVE OF A SPOUSE
     As much as I enjoyed the ride, as much as Zak did as well, poor Linda really got the short end of things.  There was a whole lot of waiting by the roadside, anxiety about connecting up at the right spot, and downright concern as she stared down the narrow passage called the Seven Mile Bridge and watched me take off.  But there she was, every step of the way.  Thanks Linda.  Thanks for helping me make a dream come true.

I learned lots of other things too--like the importance of hydration, and the benefits of cell phones and the reality that ours is a fragile planet.  I learned anew the importance of protecting the environment, and the beauty of the state where I live, and the sheer majesty of the setting sun.  And most importantly, I learned that God has given us a world that works well when we are willing to work together.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Wheels for Wheels--Day 3

Key West, FL

We're here!  It was 55 miles today from Marathon.  I lost count of the various Keys we passed through.  Some were smaller than the Causeway Islands going to Sanibel!  Grandson Zak was with me for about fifteen miles of the ride. 

My day started with a phone call to the Friday morning meeting of the Sanibel-Captiva Rotary.  Using a coupling of a speaker phone and a microphone, I was able to provide an update to my fellow Rotarians.  Imagine my surprise later in the day when we discovered the "Welcome to Key West" sign was provided by--you guessed it--the Key West Rotary Club!

The big challenge today was the Seven Mile Bridge.  Granted, it is a beautiful passage.  Water all around, turquoise and green.  Gorgeous.  But it is also a two lane road, with fairly narrow shoulders and no formal bike path.  And trucks traveling at fifty-five miles an hour!  So my attention was fully focused on riding and not on the view!  But, thank God, I made it safely across.

I learned today that the word "key" is a very poor translation of the Spanish word cayo, which basically means an island made of coral or sitting on coral.  Some suggest that our growing Hispanic population here in Florida is a new development, but the truth is Spanish has been part of our heritage of the last five hundred years (at least!)

This has been an amazing journey.  I am so very grateful to all of you, my congregation, my family, my friends, me fellow Rotarians, for your support, and most especially to my wife Linda.  She had to endure a fair amount of waiting for us to catch up. 

It looks like we will at least triple the original goal of 60 wheelchairs--we may even reach 200!  I feel so blessed to be able to help make life better for those who have great need.  God is good!


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Wheels for Wheels--Day 2

Marathon, Florida

We are half way down the Keys tonight.  I rode a total of 75 miles.  My grandson Zak was with me for about twelve on some very safe bike paths.  I started in Florida City, crossed the Everglades, then passed from Key to Key, beginning with Key Largo.  I even passed the bar where they made that terrific old movie by the same name!

Crossing the Everglades was a real chore--it was about twenty miles of sawgrass and stunted palms.  I was riding into the wind, and had to work harder than usual.  I was disappointed by all the litter.  I saw more empty water, soda and beer bottles than I could count.  I saw lots of shreds of blown out tires.  There were car parts, beer boxes, hardware, and empty paper cups.  The Glades are one of our great national treasures, and essential to our health and well being here in Florida.  We really need to take better care of them!

All along the road yesterday, and then again today, I saw roadside signs that I have never noticed before.  They were very low to the ground, and while presumably designed to be seen from a car, much more visible to folks like me on bicycles.  They were all white, round, and every one said "Drive Safely."  Then in smaller letters, "In memory of . . . "  Oh my, the list of names is long!  One per sign.  I saw Blake and Jason and Pauline and Martha and Anthony and many more.  All victims of auto accidents.  If each sign stops one driver from being reckless, it will indeed serve as a fine memorial.

Zak wanted to be sure that I told you all that he saw a gator and some iguanas.  He's a real wildlife buff (a fine trait for a young boy!)  Linda and I both enjoy him.  And she's not only been taking care of grandparent duties, she's also been a great support for the ride!

The best part of the the trip today was crossing from Long Key to Duck Key, where a beautiful bike path runs parallel to the US 1 bridge at that point.  Truly awesome--and Zak was with me!

Three things to share about some old friends.  One, who suffers from a leg injury, reminded she can't ride a bike, not even a stationary one.  How easily we forget the simple blessings of life!  This trip, with it's goal of raising funds for wheelchairs (she, fortunately, doesn't need one) is a constant reminder of what I often take for granted.

Another friend, an older friend, wished he could have joined me on the ride.  We've shared several long bike trips together over the years.  You would have loved this one, Jerry!

And finally, the friend I've known the longest.  Always a bit of a wise guy, Charlie sent a check to support the ride, with a note:  "I thought I'd keep the sixty theme going," he wrote.  The check was for $60.60!  I called him last night to wish him Happy Birthday (he too just turned sixty) and he noted I could change the name of the blog to "Pastoral Pedalings."  Love ya Charlie!

Thank you all for your prayers!

John

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Wheels for Wheels--Day 1

Florida City, FL


A good ride today--65 miles!  Started out in Hallandale, south of Fort Lauderdale, and made my way through Miami Beach, Miami, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, Cutler Ridge, Homestead and Florida City.  Some of the route was very urban (including downtown Miami!), some was suburban, including a lovely stretch called Pine Tree Drive in Miami Beach, lined with Australian pines, and a fair amount of rural territory  passed through tree farms (mostly palms of all varieties) and along drainage canals.

Linda and Zak headed off to the Miami Zoo for the day, never more than a cell phone call away should I need them.  Linda's a fan of elephants and giraffes--and Zak loved the faces the alpacas make.  We reconnected at the hotel late in the afternoon, and as I write they are playing a hot game  of cards!

I was delighted with all the landmarks I passed.  The Opera House in Miami.  The Fillmore Jackie Gleason Theater (ah, the Honeymooners, they still resonate!).  The NASCAR track in Homestead. The Air Force Base. I sometimes forget Miami is a real city--not just a winter getaway!

One of the things I took note of along the way were the various religious institutions.  I passed Temple Menorah, whose backyard was filled with laughing children, no doubt a preschool.  My daughter Liz went to a Jewish Preschool.  Around Hanukkah one year she informed me she wanted to be Jewish!  In Miami I passed a Christian Science Church with a sign out front announcing that there was simultaneous Spanish translation at their service.  I saw a Kingdom Hall (Jehovah's Witnesses) and a Lutheran Church, an Episcopalian Church that invited folks inside where it was "prayer conditioned," and even one of our own, Plymouth Congregational Church.  My favorite though was a United Methodist Church that was advertising it's current sermon series:  "Games People Play."  This week's game?  "Sorry!"  That could cover a multitude of sins!

Speaking of apologies, near the end of the ride I realized I hadn't prayed.  I rather sheepishly confessed the same to God, and offered up my excuses.  The urban part of the trip had required all my attention, later when the ride was simpler in the rural areas, I was tired . . . We really can turn anything into an excuse when it comes to prayer, can't we?  Whatever, my prayers tonight include prayers of thanksgiving for a safe ride today.  And despite a few achy parts, my sixty year old body seems to be holding up.

Your interest and support is much appreciated.

John

Monday, July 29, 2013

Wheels for Wheels/60 for 60, Part II

This is it--the week for Wheels for Wheels!  Starting Wednesday , July 31, I'll be making my three day, 180 mile trip from just south of Fort Lauderdale to Key West.  I'm excited, I'm nervous, I'm almost ready to roll!  I need to make my way to my local bike shop to pick up a spare tube or two.  I need to buy some Gatorade to make sure those electrolytes stay balanced.  And I need to review the maps one more time to make sure about the route.  Once I get past Miami it's pretty straightforward--US 1--the Overseas Highway--and adjacent bike paths all the way.  But things really twist and turn through Miami and its immediate environs.

So many people have helped make this trip a reality.  Not only the dozens and dozens of folks who have made donations for the Wheelchair Foundation, but others as well.  Our Office Manager here at church, Sandy Simmons, who's been keeping track of the donations.  Parishioner Dick Travas, who helped me figure out my new bike rack.  My fellow Rotarians, who have been cheering on the whole effort.  The members of our church who have not only made many contributions, but have also offered up their prayers for my safety. Rotarian John Carney, who gave me what amounts to a lifetime supply of sunscreen.  My grandson Zak, who will provide good company along the way.  And most especially, my wife Linda.  Having her as support on the route will make all the difference!

When I first conceived of this idea, I wasn't sure it would ever happen.  But it is coming to fruition!  And so a thank you in advance to all who have helped out as I've gone through the preparations.  If you check in here each of those three days in the evening, you'll find a post with some of that day's adventures!

What a great way to celebrate turning sixty!



Monday, July 22, 2013

Wheels for Wheels/60 for 60

Sixty years ago today, three weeks later than expected, my mother gave birth.  To me.  I am told I had to be induced.  Apparently I wasn't in any hurry to leave the warm comfort  . . . well, you get the point.  I was late.  And, as some who know me well will tell you, my birth set a precedent that I have followed most all of my life.  I'm often like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, rushing in at the last minute!

This year, though, knowing I would be hitting this major milestone in my life, I did a fair amount of advance planning.  I wanted to be sure that I marked the occasion in some way that would celebrate my good fortune when it comes to my health, and in a way that would be of some service to others.  So I decided to take a bike ride.  A long bike ride.  A ride that would stretch out for three days, cover 180 miles (sixty times three--very trinitarian, I suppose!) and cover some beautiful terrain.  And so next week, July 31 through August 2, I'll be riding from Fort Lauderdale here in Florida to the southernmost point in the continental United States, Key West.

Over the last six or seven weeks I have been soliciting financial pledges for the ride.  The cause I am supporting is the Wheelchair Foundation.  It is a favorite charity of my Rotary Club, and the club has put up a $3500 matching grant.  The Foundation purchases wheelchairs for those who have none.  They work domestically and around the world.  The recipients have often spent their whole lives being carried by others, or dragging their bodies across the ground.  The gift of wheelchair literally lifts them up from the ground.

Over twenty years ago my Dad was struck by a hit and run driver.  As a result he spent the last seventeen years of his life paralyzed from the waist down.  He had a wheelchair.  It allowed him to be moved around the house, so he wasn't confined to bed.  He could be wheeled to concerts and plays at the college where he had taught before the accident.  And perhaps most importantly, he could go to church on Sunday mornings.  A dear and faithful friend would come to the house and literally wheel him down the street  five or six blocks to get him there in time to sing hymns (despite brain damage from the accident, he could still sing!) and be present with his fellow parishioners.  It is because of Dad that I chose the Wheelchair Foundation.  I can't imagine how much poorer his life would have been had he not had his own personal chariot!

So Wheels for Wheels.  I had hoped to raise enough to buy sixty wheelchairs (hence, sixty for sixty)--but the generosity of my congregation, my fellow Rotarians and my family and friends, means that we should be able to purchase and distribute at least twice that number!  All I can say, is thank you!  What a nifty way to celebrate a birthday!

I got a call from the bike shop just a few minutes ago--I had to leave my bike with them so that they could look it over and make sure it is ready to go.  They found I had broken two spokes on my Saturday ride to San Carlos Boulevard.  But they'll get it up and running today, and I'll have another training ride tonight.  Maybe I'll hum "Happy Birthday" as I ride along the bike paths here on Sanibel.  Or maybe I'll sing a few lines from Dad's favorite hymn, "A Mighty Fortress"--or maybe I'll just keep still, and be grateful for the first sixty years of what has been an amazing ride!

Thanks Dad!  Thanks Mom!  I may have been late, but it doesn't mean I didn't want to come to the party!


PS:  If you are one of the few people I haven't hit up for a donation yet, your support would be welcome.  Checks should be made payable to Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ and marked "Wheels".
The church address is 2050 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, FL 33957.

(Photo:  Howard Danner (my late father) in his wheelchair enjoying the morning sun nin front of his home.)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Living in Florida--July 2013

"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 to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a focible felony."

Stand your ground.  That's the law in Florida.  You have the right to stand your ground, to protect yourself or others or to prevent a felony.  You have no duty to retreat.  Florida is not the only state in the Union with such a law--but it is where I live, so it's the version of the law that most concerns me.

You can also carry a concealed weapon in Florida.  Again, we're not the only place where that is legal--but I don't spend much time on the streets of Cheyenne or Dallas. 

There are many issues raised by the Trayvon Martin case.  Many fears brought to the surface.  There are worries about racial profiling and gun violence and xenophobia and the citizen's role in neighborhood security.  But for me the biggest issue is civility.  I know, that sounds trite.  But at root, each of these issues reflects our lack of civility.  Our lack of trust in each other.  Our lack of love for our neighbors.

I don't know about you, but I have no interest in living in the wild, wild west.  I want to live in a society where all are welcome.  Right here.  In Florida.  A society where men and women seek to understand one another.  A society where trust and acceptance, not suspicion and fear, are the norm. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

On Turning 80.5

Just a few days ago we celebrated my mother's 801/2 birthday--or as my daughter put it, her 80.5 birthday.  Her 80th birthday was December 30th.  But we put off the big celebration so that everyone could get their without major weather concerns.  I have brothers who live in Nebraska and Michigan--places where, unlike sunny Florida, snow is a real issue!  So we converged on her home in Kentucky late in June and threw a big party for her.  There were over one hundred guests!

Mother isn't a native to Kentucky.  She moved there in the late eighties to take a teaching job at a small liberal arts college in the city of Barbourville.  Don't be misled by the word city--it's real a pretty small town, but it has a mayor and all the other requisites for a city government!  Despite being from away mother has made an impression--not just on the college, where she was a very beloved professor before her retirement several years ago, but also on the city itself.

She is very active in her church--one of the first women elders ever elected to that position by the congregation.  She serves as a regular liturgist, leads a women's Bible study and is cfhairing the Board this year.

She is a vital part of the local historical museum, serving as a proofreader for their publication, taking a weekly turn as docent, and filling the role of Secretary.

She is a member of the Tuesday Club, a traditional women's club, and hosts the meeting annually at her home.

At the age of seventy-five she thought it would be wise to take up a new pastime--she had read that the best way to stay mentally sharp was to learn something new.  So she started taking dulcimer lessons.  She is now a member of a dulcimer group (they played at her party!)--the Knox County Porch Pickers.  (I admit, I do tease her about the name!)

And she is a voracious reader--two or three hours a day she has her nose in a book.  She currently is pursuing an interest in patristics and Eastern orthodoxy, as well as reading Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, Flight Behaviour.

Throughout my life, my mother as served as a role model.  And in her advanced years she is doing it again.  As I approach sixty this summer, I am grateful to know that eighty holds a great deal of promise as well!  Happy 80.5, Mom!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Dedicated to Liberty and Justice for All

The numbers are staggering.  In just three days time 165, 120 Americans engaged in an incredibly bloody battle at Gettysburg.  By the time the cannons were stilled and the gun smoke cleared, 7,058 of them lay dead, 33,264 were wounded, and thousands more were missing in action or captured.  It was, by most accounts, the turning point of the Civil War.  It would lead, in time to the defeat of the Confederacy and the reunification of the United States.  All this happened 150 years ago this week.

Some, though, would argue the war is still being fought.  Some would argue that the core issues--racism, states rights and others--have yet to be resolved.  Certainly, there are no shortage of symbols of the conflict still standing.  Here in Florida, for instance, at the intersection of Interstates 4 & 75, a giant Confederate flag waves atop a very tall pole, visible for a great distance by anyone in the area.
 
Later, after the battle was over, Abraham Lincoln offered his most enduring speech at the dedication ceremony held to mark the cemetery where many of those killed in that battle were interred.  It was a short speech.  A speech much maligned in its day by the press.  He had, after all, written it on the back of an envelope!  But it struck a chord.  And it continues to remind us of the responsibility we all share to see to it that our nation lives up to the ideal set forth in the Constitution.  For this nation, he said, was "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men [no doubt today he would say all people] are created equal."  That is the ideal. And living up to it is still a challenge.  He called it "a great task."  And so it is. 
 
On this Independence Day, this Fourth of July, might we all reflect on how we are advancing the cause of freedom.  Might we all reflect on how we are promoting liberty and justice for all.  Lincoln said we should dedicate ourselves to the cause.  Might we all do so, even as we remember the dead at Gettyburg, and all those other places in times of war and times of peace, where others have given so much.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Importance of Words: "N" and Others

One of the modern parenting techniques that I really like involves encouraging a child to verbalize their feelings.  "Instead of stomping your feet, or hitting someone, or sulking in a corner," a parent will say to a child who is upset, "use your words".  We sometimes forget, in this day and age of mass media and information overload, just how powerful words can be.  They can help convey emotions, they can heal broken relationships, they can encourage those who are downcast.  Words can do far more than simply inform.

Two current events remind us of that reality.  The first involves the southern chef Paula Deen.  It was revealed that she had used the so-called "n-word."  It is such a potent racial slur that it is most often spoken of using that shorthand.  The N-word.  It is just a word.  Yet it is a word that carries within it a whole history of meaning.  Clearly, sticks and stones aren't the only things that can hurt!

The second current event are the pending decisions of the Supreme Court relative to California's Proposition 8, that bans same-sex marriage, and DOMA, the federal law that defines marriage as being between one man and one woman.  The word in question, of course, is "marriage."  It's importance is being acknowledged on both sides of the issue.  Those who are opposed to same sex marriages say that the definition of the word marriage shouldn't be changed to meet current mores, that it has long meant one man and one woman.  I have heard some folks even say, "I"m all for giving gays and lesbians equal rights, and allowing them to be in legally recognized relationships, just don't call it marriage." 

On the other side of the issue, the proponents of same sex marriage say no other word will do.  Calling such relationships "unions" or "domestic partnerships" just doesn't carry the same weight, the same meaning.
Clearly, there is much at stake in the whole debate, but in many ways it does come down to defining a word.  The M-word.  It is just a word.  Yet it is a word that carries within it a whole history of meaning.

As I write these words the Paula Deen situation is far from resolved.  And the use of racial slurs is nowhere close to being a thing of the past.  The Supreme Court has yet to hand down it's decisions on Prop 8 and DOMA.   And the debate over the meaning of marriage has, in many ways, just begun.  But what is very clear from both of these situations is that words are powerful.  They can hurt, they can heal.  They can hinder, they can enable. 

Yes, use your words--but use them with care!

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Children of Tomorrow--Today

I almost missed it as I read through the Friday New York Times this past weekend.  After all, there is a lot to read, and I also tackle the local Fort Myers News Press on the weekend (I need my weekly fix of comic strips!)  But there on page A19 of the Op-Ed section was a piece by Charles Blow titled "These Children Are Our Future."  It's a good headline.  It caused me to ask, 'what children?" and then to read further.  (I got paid for a while to write headlines--it is a real art form.)

It turns out Blow's column was a summary of a recent piece written by David Murphey, a researcher with Child Trends, an organization devoted to research about children. Murphey had taken a lot of statistical data, crunched it, and then had created a portrait of this year's high school graduates.  If you had a statistically typical graduating class of one hundred American high school students what would they look like?  His answers are startling to say the least!

Seventy-one of them have been physically assaulted at some time over the course of their eighteen years of life.  Ten of them would have been raped.  Maybe that all helps explain why sixteen of them carry a weapon.
Fourteen of them seriously considered suicide over the last year, and six of them actually tried to commit it.

Almost half of them are sexually active--and sixty-four of them have had sexual intercourse.  Twenty-one of them had some sort of sexually transmitted disease over the last year, and one of them had an abortion.

Of the one hundred students in this hypothetical class, twenty-two of them live in poverty, and ten in what Murphey calls deep poverty.

Disturbing details, yes?  And to think these children, as the headline reads, are our future.  That is unsettling enough, but even more so is to imagine their futures as individuals.  Yes, some will overcome the difficulties they have enountered in their childhoods.  Some will overcome the impact of physical violence or rape.  Some will climb out of poverty.  But others will not.  We can't change the childhoods of this year's class--but what can we do for next year's and the one after that and the one after that? 

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me."  I have no doubt he meant all of the children.  Our care and concern for them must be as deep and as wide as is necessary. 

I encourage you to read Charles Blow's article.  It appeared in the June 14 edition of the Times.  Here's the link:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/15/opinion/blow-these-children-are-our-future.html?_r=0  And then, ask yourself, what can I do to welcome the children of the future today.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Farewell Francis Bailey!

In his essay called "History," the preacher-poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:  "All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history, only biography."  All history is, in the end, biography.  All history can be discovered in the lives of the individuals who lived it.  Such is the case with Francis P. Bailey, Jr.

The flags here on Sanibel have been lowered to half-staff with the announcement of his passing this weekend.  At the age of 92 he not only saw but helped shape much of the modern history of this place we call home.  His family first came to the island in 1899, when it was still a mosquito infested farming community.  And while he was actually born "overseas" in neighboring Fort Myers, Francis was, for all intents and purposes, a life long resident.

I met Francis shortly after arriving on the island.  It was hard to miss him!  He was a frequent participant in various island activities.  I remember spending time with him after a memorial service I had conducted for another Sanibel pillar.  He had story after story to tell about his days on Sanibel!  History captured in biography!

Some will laud his dedication to the island, and his long history of government service here, including a stint as mayor.  Others will highlight how he was among those who fought for the incorporation of Sanibel in order to protect it from becoming overdeveloped..  Still others will talk of his work with the family business, the Sanibel Packing Company and the renowned Bailey's General Store (where you really can buy nails, nuts and knives!)  But in many ways his greatest contribution to the island over the years, has been the way he has embodied our history.  His storytelling was and is legendary.  And in many ways helped to keep us connected to the real Sanibel.

In a lengthy story about Francis in his college newsletter (he attended Hampden-Sydney College)  Francis spoke of the days before our island was connected to the mainland by the Causeway.  "We had no paved roads," he said, "no sidewalks, no furniture store, no barber, no beauty shop, no movie theater.  It was just here.  Nobody felt deprived.  That's what we had."  (Quoted by John Dudley in "Francis Bailey's Wonderful Life," The Record, March 2012)

We've got all those other things now.  And much more besides.  But the reality is, we still have this island--so much of it preserved and protected--thanks to folks like Francis Bailey.  Folks who understood that "just being here" was and is a gift in iteslf.

(Photo Credit:  Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Three Cheers for Cheerios

As a preacher I have always been a big fan of Cheerios.  More than one screaming child has been silenced by those marvelous little oat circlets!  And as a parent--well let's just say your American Express Card isn't the only thing you should never leave home without! They are practically indispensable at a certain stage of life!  Loving Cheerios--in a variety of flavors these days--seems so very American!  So wholesome!  It's even good for what ails you in the heart department.

So imagine my surprise when I heard this venerable breakfast cereal was under attack!  I should have seen it coming.  I shouldn't be surprised.  But it is 2013, isn't it?

In case you've missed it, Cheerios has a very delightful and sweet ad running right now about a little girl who asks her mother if it is true Cheerios are good for your heart, and then, when she is told yes they are, she scatters them all over her sleeping father's chest.  So what, you ask is the controversy?  Has someone determined the heart claims are all a big hoax?  Not at all.  The problem, according to some folks, boils down to race.  The Dad is black, the mother is white, and the little girl is biracial.

Like I said, it is 2013, isn't it?  But there are still folks out there who are upset by such a public display of racial equality.  That a black man would marry a white woman, horrors, such folks say, horrors!  Apparently the attacks against Cheerios on their website got so virulent, so nasty, that they took it offline.  But they haven't taken the ad off the air.  Bravo!  It is good to see a major corporation stand on principle!

My kids are all grown now--and the grandkids are past the Cheerios stage.  But I may just go out and
buy a box or two to show my support.  It will be good for my heart--just like the ad!