Monday, June 30, 2014

Religion and Politics and the Matter of Interpretation

This past week the Supreme Court has been handing down many of its decisions for this term.  Their decisions have reflected a variety of questions and issues that face our nation.  But at core, many of them have addressed the question of freedom.  What does it mean to say ours is a nation dedicated to such things as freedom of speech and  freedom of religion? 

From the earliest days of our country we have tried to define our terms.  The Constitution often leaves things open to interpretation.  And so we debate.  Political parties and personal philosophies are often built around such interpretations and understandings--often times conflicting understandings.  Conflicting interpretations.

And things change.  What may have seemed acceptable at one time is deemed unacceptable at another.  What may not be permitted in one generation may be permitted in the next.

It is far from original to speak of the Constitution as a living document.  But that makes such a statement no less true!  And while we argue and debate, we do have a final arbiter in the highest court in the land.

Perhaps for those of us who are Protestants that is the problem with the Bible.  While many of us believe it is also a living document, open to interpretation, we are less willing to speak of a final arbiter when it comes to such interpretation.  In my denomination we say that each individual, guided by the Holy Spirit, is responsible for determining how to understand and apply the scriptures.  And that, of course, leads to many understandings and many applications.  Don't misunderstand.  I wouldn't have it any other way!  But it does make for a challenging life!  

They say you should never talk about politics or religion in polite company.  But I say, how can you not?  After all, what does the 4th of July mean if it doesn't mean you can talk about both?  But, of course, that's my interpretation!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summertime--and the Reading is Easy

So what are you reading this summer?  I have a huge stack that I'm working through--some are strictly for pleasure--others are work related.

On the pleasure pile you'll find John Grisham's latest, Sycamore Row, a legal thriller if you will which tackles important issues like racism.  You'll also discover Tom Perrota's The Abstinence Teacher, one of his older novels.  I loved his book The Leftovers and decided to look for some of his earlier works.  I also have Christopher Paolini's Inheritance, the fourth and final installment in his fantasy series called The Inheritance Cycle.  (I still can't believe he was only fifteen when he wrote the first of these Tolkeinesque works!)

My "Presidential Project" continues as well.  I'm up to number nineteen in my effort to read a biography of every present.  Rutherford B. Hayes.  On tap is Garfield.  I'm still trying to do one a month, but that doesn't usually pan out--this one is 600 pages long!  (Who would have thought there could be that much to say about Hayes?)

For work I'm tackling a variety of books related to courses I'll be teaching next season.  I just finished a volume on the Gospel of John by Robert Kayser.  All the years I've been leading Bible studies, I've never taken on John.  I'm co-teaching a course on antebellum attitudes towards race as reflected in literature and religion, and so I'm tackling Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and a new biography of Stowe by Nancy Koester.  And for the course I'll teach next spring on the religious history of Florida, Michael Gannon's The Cross in the Sand.  (I LOVE the title!)

When I was a boy I would sneak out into the hall after I was supposed to be in bed, and read by the hall light until I heard my parents start up the stairs to go to bed themselves.  And my summer days were filled with reading--I used to love the hammock on my great aunt and uncle's porch, where I would swing and read for hours!  I guess old habits die hard!  Summer and reading--perfect together!

But enough about me--what are you reading this summer?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Of Saggy Pants and Dress Codes

I have never been a clothes horse.  I have a few nice suits that I wear on Sunday--and four or five really nifty "Florida" shirts, you know the ones with palm trees and fish and wild colors.  But for the most part my attire is unremarkable.  Indeed my first consideration when I'm buying a new shirt or slacks or whatever is comfort.  I, for one, don't believe clothes make the man--in fact, as one pundit once put it, I believe that the man makes the clothes.

All that said, one of my very first forays into the world of politics came when I was just a sophomore in high school and the school board decided we needed a dress code.  It was the sixties, and skirts were getting shorter with each passing day, and jeans were quickly becoming the item of choice and some of the board members felt it was getting out of hand.  How could we concentrate on our studies?  How could we develop discipline in our work habits if we had no discipline in our clothes closets?

The time came for the board to vote on the matter, but before each meeting there was a time for public comment, and so I, along with some of my classmates, decided to go and share our views.  To their credit the board allowed us to speak, and we let them know in no uncertain terms that we thought the dress code was a lousy idea.  We would learn our lessons whether we were clad in denim or khaki or the finest wool.  And being a future preacher (though I resisted the call for almost a decade after that meeting) I used an analogy.  "We may be like diamonds in the rough, but we are nonetheless diamonds!"  My fellow protesters applauded.  So did a few parents.  But we lost.  The dress code was instituted, but to the best of my knowledge, there was no bump up in grades.  There certainly wasn't for me!

I recalled all this when I learned this week that the Fort Myers City Council, just over the causeway from Sanibel, is discussing a ban on saggy pants.  You know, those trousers some fellows wear six inches below their waists?  Underwear showing, material all gathered up around the ankles?  Maybe if kids weren't allowed to wear such clothing it would build character, so the argument is going.  Maybe it would even help reduce crime!  (I'm not making this up!) 

I'm sorry.  I didn't get it back when I was a kid.  I don't get it today!  I don't like saggy pants--no more than my elders liked our choices of clothing in the sixties. I really don't.  But really--it will help reduce crime?  It will build character?  How about working on poverty?  How about creating job opportunities for teenagers (yes, I know, don't wear saggy pants to an interview!)  How about making sure our police officers and sheriff's deputies are well-paid and better equipped to do their work! 

As a child of the sixties, all I can say is let them wear what they want!  "Up with saggy pants!"  So to speak.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Remembering Howard Danner, Remembering Dad

I grew up in northern New England.  We lived about a mile away from school. Too close to take the bus--so we walked  On nice days, on rainy days, on snowy days, we walked.  Sometimes we'd complain about it.  And inevitably my father would shake his head, and tell us how he used to walk five miles each way, even in the snow!  It wasn't until I was twelve or so that I put it all together:  my dad grew up in West Palm Beach.  Florida! 

It's funny how often I think of that story.

It's funny how often I think of my dad.  We were often at odds over the years.  He tended to be much more traditional in many of his understandings of the faith.  I can remember more than one heated discussion about the use of inclusive language and the respective roles of men and women in life.  In earlier days we'd argued about little things, like the length of my hair (yes, Virginia, I had hair!) or the timing of my curfew. 

Still, for all our disagreements, we also had a real respect for one another.  And a deep, deep love.  I remember when I went away to college waking up one night in October realizing I really missed him!  These days that happens every time I see his picture or someone mentions him in conversation.  Because for all our differences one of the things I could always count on was the fact that no matter what I had to say, no matter how long it took me to explain it, Dad would listen.  Really listen.  And he'd be genuinely interested.  And then, if I asked, he'd offer me sound advice.

He loved me.  He was willing to listen.  And he was interested in what I had to say, in who I was and what I did.  As we approach Father's Day I realize yet again how really fortunate I was to have him.  I only pray that my children will be able to say the same.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Reflecting on Thirty-four Years

Yesterday, June 1, was the 34th anniversary of my ordination to Christian ministry.  I remember the day well.  The service happened in central Maine.  My parishioners had decked out the sanctuary in lilacs.  It was gorgeous.  I had a very eclectic group of folks who participated in the day.  The preacher for the afternoon was the president of my seminary, Wayne Glick.  My father gave one of the charges.  My Masters thesis was a history of the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, and three of my Shaker friends were there for the service--Brother Ted Johnson read a scripture passage.  There were members of the two churches I was serving at the time.  Ted, my dad, and even my seminary are all gone now.  But my dear old friend Charlie Nichols (who I met in third grade) played the organ--and he's still around to keep me honest! 

As a budding church historian, I had built the liturgy around the theme of saints.  We even sang two of my favorite hymns, "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God," and "For All the Saints."

When I got ordained I didn't envision myself having a career in parish ministry.  I was headed for Boston University, to work on a PhD in American Church History.  When I was debating in which discipline I should do my doctoral work (I was considering New Testament Studies and Church History) Wayne Glick had asked me how much I enjoyed language study.  "Not much," I told him--having struggled already with French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  "Well," he said, "The you should do American Church History--you'll only need to do German on top of what you've already done!"  So the decision was made!  And I was planning on a teaching career.

But it didn't work out that way.  I had a part-time position as a Minister of Christian Education while I was doing my course work at BU--and then when my residency requirements were completed, I decided I needed to work in a parish full-time while I wrote my dissertation.  And so I sought and received my first call to a full-time pastorate.

The rest--as they say--is history.  I did finish the dissertation (and managed to pass my German exam on the third try!)  But I found parish work to my liking.  And now, thirty-four years later, here I am.  Serving my fourth full-time pastorate.

God willing, I am a ways off from the day when, as the hymn says, when I am counted among those "from whom their labors rest"--but I continue to live and work among the living saints.  And for that I am most grateful.