Monday, January 28, 2013

Carefully Chosen Words

Poet Mary Oliver will be visiting Sanibel next week.  She will be giving a public reading at one of our neighboring churches and helping to raise support for a local environmental concern. She was supposed to come last year, but had to cancel due to illness, so folks are really looking forward to her visit.

A lot of people think poetry is irrelevant in our day and age.  Just a lot of froth and nonsense.  But it is hard to read the poetry of Oliver and walk away with anything but a real sense of respect for her ability to observe the world around her and then capture her impressions in a few carefully chosen words.

I think that is the real lesson we can all learn from poets.  Making a point doesn't take a lot of words--not usually--just a few that are carefully chosen.  Today there are so many platforms, so many venues, so many ways that someone can share his or her words many folks have become overly verbose.  Instead of carefully chosen words, they spew out uncensored tirades.

You'll often here the parent of a three or four year-old child who is throwing a tantrum say something like, "Use your words!"  Good advice.  But for older throwers of tantrums I would add something:  "Use your words,"  I might say, "just not all at once!"

Monday, January 21, 2013

Coffee, Conversation and the Constitution

While Barack Obama was technically inaugurated for his second term yesterday, Sunday, January 20, to fulfill the requirements of the Constitution, the public celebration of that is today, Monday, January 21.  It is a tradition that if the 20th falls on a Sunday, the public swearing-in takes place on the following day.

I was struck by some of the events that are included in the day's activities.  There is, of course, the actual swearing-in ceremony, complete with Beyonce singing the national anthem.  Two different Bibles will be used, one that was used by Lincoln, and another that was owned by Martin Luther King, Jr.  And everyone is familiar with the glitz and glamour of the Inaugural Balls (only two this year, less than usual apparently.)  But the day began with prayers at St. John's--the so-called Church of the Presidents.  And later in the morning the President and Congressional leaders were scheduled to share coffee.

That's what really caught my attention.  Not the swearing-in or the balls or even the prayer service (all good and appropriate things to do)--no what caught my eye was the governmental coffee klatsch.  I don't know if it is part of the standard traditions, but I think it's a great idea.  I mean, how many problems are solved in diners and truck stops all across the country by folks sitting down together and sharing a cup of joe?  Maybe, instead of all the committee and cabinet meetings and public debates, the members of Congress and the President should get together every morning for coffee.  Maybe they should let caffeine do it's good work and give them the necessary boost of courage and energy to really work on resolving their differences. 

The Preamble of the Constituion calls for a  "more perfect union"--not a perfect one, a more perfect one.  One striving to live up to the dream of so many great men and women, including Dr. King, that this be a nation of liberty and justice for all.  Republicans and Democrats and independents alike need to learn you can't have everything you want--but you can strive for the best.  Which ultimately means being willing to compromise, being willing to work together.

A cup of coffee and some good conversation.  Everyday.  It's not too much to ask, is it?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Work Goes On

He was born in 1929--in this very day.  He was the son and grandson of Baptist preachers.  He wasn't perfect, none of us are.  But he changed the world for the better.  He made a mark.  And so we celebrate his life and legacy each and every year.  He was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As King stepped up his involvement in the Civil Rights movement, he became a target for verbal and physical attacks.  One night, after receiving an especially vicious threat, King fell down on his knees and carried his concern to God.  "I am here," he prayed, "taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But know I am afraid.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter.  I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left.  I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."

King's prayer for courage and strength was answered as he heard an inner voice.  "Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be by your side forever."  (A Testament of Hope, 509)  And stand up he did.  And in the years that followed, he continued to have the fortitude he needed as he took on risk after risk.

King helped right many fo the wrongs we faced as a nation.  But there are still those who are oppressed.  there are still those who are hungry.  There are still those who have no place to lay their heads at night.  The work Dr. King and others undertook in the fifties and sixties has not been completed.  The question we must all ask ourselves on this day, is how will we participate in the ongoing how are we being called on to stand up for the truth?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Everybody's Problem: Violence, Guns and Children

A number of years ago an African-American friend recommended that I read a book titled Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun by Geoffrey Canada.  It is a very disturbing account of what it meant for the author to grow up in the Bronx.  Written in  the nineties about earlier decades, it recalls what he describes as "A Personal History of Violence in America."

I'd forgotten about it until this morning when I happened to glance at that shelf of books and saw it wedged between two other volumes.  Re-reading a bit of it in this post-Aurora, post-Newtown era, I was struck by something he wrote back in 1993:  "It is because most people in this country don't have to think about their personal safety everyday that our society is still complacent about the violence that is engulfing our cities and towns."  (x) 

For many folks, especially those with young children, that is no longer true.  Safe and secure spots like suburban Connecticut no longer feel so safe.  For the moment, America seems to have awoken to the reality that we have a problem and it's name is violence.  No longer is it "simply" the concern of inner city residents, no longer is it "simply" an issue for the poor and members of minority groups.  (It never was, of course, but to hear folks talk you'd think that was the case.)  No, now it is everybody's problem.

So what are we going to do about it?  Are we going to let the issue slip out of sight, like the Geoffrey Canada book did on my shelf?  Or, are we going to do something about it?  Personally, I have decided to preach a series of sermons on the issue during Lent. While I've preached anti-war sermons and I've addressed the issue of domestic violence, I've never taken on the underlying themes of violence in our culture or the slap-dash way we approach gun control.  Some folks won't like it, I'm fairly sure.  But there are things that need to be said--and they should have been said back when my friend recommended the book, if not before.

Here's a bit of how Canada closes his book.  The tragedy is that it could have been written yesterday!  "We have failed our children," he writes.  "They live in a world where danger lurks all around them . . . . And the stuff of our nightmares when we were children is the common reality for children today. . . . And so we must stand up and be visible heroes, fighting for our children."  (179)

The time is now.  We must indeed fight for our children, but not with fists, sticks, knives, or guns.  Rather with loving concern, with well-chosen words, and with legislation that leads to positive action.  Our children, and their children, are depending on us.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Coming Home from Bethlehem

Everybody knows the story of the of the Wisemen--those seekers from the East who follow the star and travel to Bethlehem to see the Christ Child.  Everyone is familiar with the gifts they brought of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  They show up in special songs like "We Three Kings" and add a bit of spice, so to speak, to Christmas pageants.  In some parts of the world, especially Latin America, Three Kings Day rivals Christmas in importance.  But north or south, for all intents and purposes, we've left them stuck in Bethlehem.  Matthew doesn't.  In his story , they leave the Holy Family and head back home, changed forever by their experience.

I suppose we could just move on, as we often do, and forget Christmas ever happened.  But what if decided to bring something home, so to speak, from our annual sojourn in Bethlehem?  What if we stopped to consider what we have learned this Christmas season that might make a difference in our lives the rest of the year?

Maybe, if some of your neighbors have still found themselves unemployed, you've rediscovered the joy that comes from helping others.  Maybe you've realized afresh that we really are all in this together, that what you do impacts those around you.

Maybe you've joined the nation in grieving the children and adults killed in Newtown and you've come to realize that the problem of violence isn't just going to go away and that you need to take a hand in helping to find solutions.

Maybe, if you or a loved one has struggled with health issues this season, you've been reminded of what an amazing gift you've been given in your body and have rededicated yourself to treating it with care and respect.

Maybe, if you've felt estranged from God or distant from the church, you have seen once more how important your spirit is to your well-being.

Only you know what you've experienced this year as you sang the carols and knelt by the manger.  But whatever the experiences, whatever the lessons, their usefulness isn't limited to the twelve days of Christmas!  For we are invited to come home from Christmas as different people, newly empowered and committed to live lives dedicated to peace, justice and love.

In the end, these are far greater gifts than gold, frankincense and myrrh.