Monday, December 28, 2015

Packing Up Christmas

So Christmas has come and gone--Christmas Day, that is.  Technically we are still in the season of Christmas.  But we in America are so quick to pack up the decorations, put away the lights, turn off the special music and move on to preparing for the Super Bowl (usually brushing past Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with a mere nod of the head in the direction of civil rights or black history.)  I am not opposed to the Super Bowl, I just think we shortchange ourselves!

We feasted through Advent, with office parties and family parties and neighborhood parties and school parties and, well you get the point!  And so we were worn out by the time we got to Christmas Day itself!  We will rally a bit for New Year's Eve, but that is mostly an excuse for excessive drinking, late night partying and journalistic pontifications about year's best (those ubiquitous "Best of" columns) and the year ahead diatribes (you know, "Forecasting 2016" articles).  And as for Epiphany?  Aside from our Hispanic neighbors who enjoy the day as El Dia de Tres Reyes, most of us forget it even exists.  January 6th, a holiday?  What's that?

It's sad, really, that we've lost the fasting/feasting cycles of life in postmodern America.  There are, of course, those who fast unintentionally, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and those who engage in non-stop feasting, indulging in every whim.  But intentional fasting, going without, and intentional feasting, enjoying the good things of life in a healthy, happy way--that's a lost art for most.

As I move into 2016 I wonder how I can rectify that in my own life.  Maybe you'd like to join me.  Maybe we can use the rest of Christmastide to figure it out!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Branches of Hope and Tree Trunks of Faith: An Immigrant Christmas

Like hundreds of thousands of other German immigrants, Heinrich  had come to this country early in the last century in hopes of finding a better life.  He'd been apprenticed to be a cabinetmaker, and hoped to use his skills to provide for his family.  While he was here his son, Walter, was born--and life looked promising. 

But then news came of a sudden death in Germany, and Heinrich, by now known as Henry, got word that he had inherited a chicken farm in the homeland.  So back he went.  And things went well, at least for a bit.  But it was a time of growing unrest in Germany.  A time when evil was on the rise; when neighbors were being pitted against neighbors by a madman known as Der Fuhrer.  And Henry could not stand the distorted reality called National Socialism.  So he gave up the farm and his inheritance, and with his son Walter in town, returned to America.

They found a tiny attic apartment and scraped by on Henry's meager earnings.  They were good Lutherans, and normally looked forward to Christmas with its special music, and of course, the tree.  After all, wasn't it Luther himself who started the tradition of decorating a pine in honor of Christ's birth?

But money was very tight, and there were other things to worry about.  Still, Henry wanted to keep the tradition alive, if not for himself, then for his eight-year old son.  So he scraped together what little he had, twenty-five cents in all, and went out late on Christmas Eve to look for a tree.  Finally he found a tree seller still open.  He was down to his two last trees.  And a very sorry sight they were!  Both of them were scraggly at best, with only a few branches each.  One of them was as crooked as the Rhine River.  But the second, at least, had a trunk that was straight and true.

Maybe the seller was tired, or eager to get home.  Whatever the case, a deal was struck.  And Henry took both trees for a quarter.

He and his son Walter dragged them home.  And then, undeterred by their scrawniness, and using his carpenter skills, Henry cut the branches off the crooked tree, drilled hole in the trunk of the other, and soon assemble a fine looking specimen.  It was a Christmas tree to make old Martin Luther proud, but it was more than that.  For it was, in retrospect, a symbol, a sign, a reminded that the importance of facing the unexpected twists and turns of life with courage and honesty.  For time and again, Henry did just that.  He embraced the unexpected, and over time, assembled a life that would provide branches of hope, and a tree trunk of faith, not only for young Walter, but for his daughter as well. Henry's granddaughter.  Who told me this story many years later, as we sat one December afternoon in her living room.

My Christmas prayer, for each of you, my dear readers, is that you too might face the unexpected twists and turns of life with courage.  Might you too create branches of hope and tree trunks of faith.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Meeting God at the Mall

This time of year, one often is flooded with memories of Christmas seasons past.  One such memory for me involved a young woman from one of my former parishes, who was living far from home.  She was facing a very difficult pregnancy and, just before Christmas, her unborn baby developed some very serious complications.  First she was rushed to a local hospital, and then to a specialty unit in Philadelphia.  It was vey touch and go.  To treat the fetus meant putting the mother at some real risk.  But she and her husband clung to hope.

Meanwhile, the young woman's mother-in-law was in Northern New Jersey.  She was able to pray.  She did her best to support her son and daughter-in-law with visits and phone calls, still, she was worried.  More than that she was afraid.

But Christmas was coming, and she had things that needed to be done, including some last minute shopping.  So with a heavy heart, she headed off to the mall.  She wrestled the traffic, found a parking spot, and was exhausted before she even got inside.

As she passed though the mall hallways, she came across a group of children singing in one of the courts.  She sat down to listen, and soon the poignancy of their Christmas carols just washed over her, and she began to weep.

One of the children's moms was seated next to her.  She reached over and gently touched her arm.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

With that it all came flooding out:  my friend's fears, her worries, her tears.  But lo and behold, the singer's mother was a woman of faith, and within seconds, she gathered up three of her friends and right there in the middle of the largest shopping mall in New Jersey, they prayed for a woman they had just met, her daughter-in-law a hundred miles away, and a baby not yet even born.

After my friend finished telling me the story, which she gave me permission to share with others, she said, "You know, John, I'm sure God sent those young mothers to tell me, "You know where I am, and you know what you're doing, so just keep doing it."

And right there, in the middle of the mall, my friend knew God was with her.  Emmanuel.

Shortly after that encounter, my friend became a grandmother.

Might you too be blessed by an awareness of God's presence in this holy season.  And might you make that presence known in your own acts of love and kindness.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Faith in God, Faith in Guns

I subscribe to two newspapers, the New York Times and the local daily paper out of Fort Myers, The News-Press.  The Times gives me a broad picture of the nation and the world, the News-Press helps keep me current on matters of concern here in Southwest Florida.

One of the features in the News-Press is a chronological listing of events and classes being held by area faith communities.  As I read through this past Sunday's listings for the week ahead, it contained an array of items, mostly focused around Advent, Chanukah and Christmas:  a 25th annual Christmas carol sing (twenty-five years is old in Florida!), a Chanukah celebration (no specifics, but menorahs and latkes will most likely be included!) and an event called Celebrate the Advent Season (most likely without latkes!)  Imagine my surprise, however, when wedged between a Christmas cookie decorating event and a Holiday Bazaar, I found this listing:  "Florida Gun Shows Fort Myers until Dec. 13, Lee Civic Center, etc.)"  (The News-Press, 12-6-15, 28A)  Florida Gun Shows?  In the Faith Calendar?  I realize, one could argue cookie decorating has little to do with matters of faith as well, but Florida Gun Shows?  I can only hope that some editor was asleep at the switch when that entry was included.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that it may have been incredibly appropriate.  For there are many, many Americans (and others) who place their faith in guns.  Why else would they hold on to them so tightly?  What's that t-shirt that shows up on Facebook every once in a while?  "They'll take my gun out of my cold, dead hand"?  If that's not religious fervor I don't know what counts as such!  Perhaps those who claim religion is the cause of all--or most--wars and violence are right.  They've just forgotten to list faith in guns among the various religious expressions around the world.

That's why, as much as I agree with the front page editorial that showed up in the New York Times this weekend as well, I don't think it's going to happen.  Here in part is what they said:  "Certain kinds of weapons . . . and ammunition . . .must be outlawed for civilian ownership . . . . [A]nd yes, it would require Americans who own those kind of weapons to give them up for the good of their fellow citizens." (New York Times, 12-5-15, A-1)

That sounds to me like a practical application of the Golden Rule, subscribed to by people of many different faith traditions.  But I suspect it doesn't cut it if you put your faith in guns.

Saturday, November 28, 2015


Would Jesus want his followers to drink Budweiser, or some locally produced craft beer?  Would he urge them to eat Wonder Bread, or a freshly baked 12-grain loaf?  These are the kind of questions one can't help but think of when reading John J. Thompson's Jesus, Bread and Chocolate.  In fact, this intriguing volume might be described as a collection of object lessons for grown-ups.  You remember object lessons, don't you?  Sometimes called children's sermons, object lessons involved pastors taking some common everyday item, and using it to illustrate a theological point or to teach a moral principle.  Lots of preachers still use them, including from time to time me.  And arguably, Jesus used object lessons all the time--however we usually call those parables.

But I digress.  The objects Thompson writes about all fall into the general category of artisanal products.  Handmade, hand crafted, individualized things like craft beer, fair trade coffee, home baked bread . . . you get the idea.  Part of the book's charm lies in the details Thompson provides about the objects themselves.  He is a home brewer himself, and lovingly describes the process of creating beer.  "The grain must first be malted," he writes, by exposing it to just enough moisture so that the germ inside starts to grow." (165)  That kind of detail is offered up for coffee, chocolate, farmers markets and indie music.  Again and again he makes the point that what makes such things extra fine is the simple fact that they are not produced by machines and assembly lines, but rather by individuals who truly care about the end result.

The key to understanding Thompson's book can be found in the final paragraphs of his text where he writes:  "In confirmation class, I learned that a sacrament is 'an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.'  Therefore, cultivating taste for the good, the true, and the beautiful is a sacramental process.  How amazing is that?  There are outward and visible signs everywhere around us."  (254) Things that can be found in places like farmers markets or small local bakeries.  Throughout the book he attempts to point out the "inward and spiritual grace" tucked away in such common things--much like the germ inside the grain.

As Thompson's half-title indicates, he is advocating for "crafting a handmade faith in a mass-market world" or what he calls "an artisanal faith."  Occasionally he gets lost in the details, but for the most part he successfully makes his point.  His object lessons work. 

Thompson's book can be read cover to cover, or, one could benefit from picking out the chapters that intrigue and gleaning the wisdom contained in those so chosen.  To some extent, Thompson's writing is at its best when he focuses on very tangible objects and the lessons they have to convey.  It is less successful when he strays into the abstract. 

Which brings me back to my original questions.  I'm not sure how Thompson would answer them.  However, despite Bud being the self-proclaimed King of Beers, I suspect he would have us understand that the local craft beer would be the choice of the King of Kings.  And even though Wonder Bread claims to build strong bodies twelve ways . . . well, you figure it out!

(Disclosure of Material Connection:  I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255)
(Note to my readers:  I am now part of SpeakEasy, a network of bloggers who review books having to do with matters of faith.  Every four-six weeks I will feature a book review that I hope will be of interest to you.  Otherwise, this blog will continue to focus on those issues and ideas that impact our lives as people of faith.  Thank you for your continued loyalty to this blog!)

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Voice from the Past, Speaking Out for Today

The news these past few weeks has been full of stories about terrorist attacks around the world:  Lebanon, Mali, Paris.  And I am frightened.  Very frightened.  Not so much by the terrorists themselves, though their actions are cause for a measure of fear.  No what really frightens me is the vitriol of the response to their actions that seems to sweeping across the nation.  It especially concerns me when it is packaged as a "Christian" response. 

There is something especially frightening about the prospect of some sort of national registration based on religious affiliation.  The suggestion that all Muslims should register as such with the federal government is abhorrent.  And then to go on and suggest that all mosques should be kept under surveillance only increases the level of fear and hatred already present in this country.  Does that mean monitoring all those coming and going from mosques?  Does that mean embedding spies in all Islamic prayer services and classrooms?  We must step up and say no to such ideas.  Not later when they become actual regulations or laws, but now, while they are still only ignoble suggestions.  If for no other reason than to protect our own religious freedoms.  For if the government can do it to one religious group what is to prevent it from doing it to all?

These ideas, as so many have pointed out, smack of the Nazi's rhetoric and actions towards Jews and others in an earlier time.  Indeed, the words of Martin Niemoller, a German Protestant pastor who was held in a concentration camp for seven years, ring as true today as they did so many years ago.

"First they cam for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--because I was not a Jew.  And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me."

Yes, there are Islamic Radicals, Extremists, Terrorists at work in the world.  And we must seek to bring them to justice.  But we must not, absolutely must not, paint the millions and millions of Muslims around the world and in our own nation, with the same brush strokes.  We must stand up and say, No!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Enough is Enough

Sunday I attended a Communitywide Prayer Vigil in Fort Myers.  It was held in response to the gun violence in our county and beyond.  Many pastors, musicians, governmental leaders, law enforcement officials and just plain folks gathered to pray and sing and light candles and hold up our common concerns.  Near the end of the service we used a litany called "Vigilance after the Vigil."  An extremely well-written piece, it called on all of us who had assembled to not only pray, but to be willing to take action.

I was reminded on the slogan promoted in years past by an organization up north:  "Pray and Picket."  I am not sure the action called for in this case involves picketing or other such demonstrations, but the sentiment is there:  we can pray, we must pray, but we also must be willing to do more.  A reference was made to an old saying, sometimes attributed to St. Ignatius, that you must "pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you."  And an expression used by  Frederick Douglas was also quoted, inviting us to "put legs on our prayers."  However you say it--what ever slogan you use--the bottom line remains the same.  We've got to get up off our knees and work towards a solution.  That doesn't mean never return to our knees--but it does mean our efforts must include more than prayer.

I'm not sure what shape that will take in my own ministry.  I'm not sure what it will require of me.  But I know I agree with the overarching theme of the evening:  "Enough is enough."  The time has long since come and gone, when people of all faiths, and no faith, need to band together and strive for a more perfect union.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Dance of Life, The Dance of Death

Very early this morning I put Linda on a plane so that she could head up north to tell one of her closest friends goodbye.  The friend is in a hospice in New Jersey where she is receiving the palliative care she needs at the end of her life. Linda's friend is one of the brightest, most inquisitive people I have ever known.  She always, always, asks questions.  Good questions.  Tough questions.  Questions about faith, about politics, about social justice.  Throughout her life, she has consistently taken a stand for those who are downtrodden.  As a nurse, she often cared for those who others had shunted aside.  She has a rather wry sense of humor--and loves life.  She and Linda and another friend are planning a private dance party later this week.  At the hospice.  I'm not surprised!

Later this morning I got a call from a parishioner, telling me his wife of many years had died over the weekend.  For several years he has taken great care of her.  He wants to hold a Memorial Service for her later this week.  So we will sit down this afternoon and make plans.  She had identified a few elements she wanted to be included.  We'll look at hymns and scriptures, and we'll consider the story of her life.

Still later this morning, I spoke with the daughter of yet another parishioner.  The family had been debating whether or not to admit the parishioner into a local hospice.  After much discussion, they finally decided, with the full consent of the parishioner, to do just that.  The parishioner is a wonderfully feisty sort of person!  Always thinking about the other guy.   It was a hard decision--but well-considered.

Today marks All Souls Day.  That annual reminder that in the end death comes for us all.  And even if we would rather avoid it, there is no escaping that reality.  But today I have also been reminded , in a very dramatic fashion, that while each of us must walk that road, we needn't walk it by ourselves.  (Despite the old gospel song!)  For even when we walk though the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.  In friends, and family, in well-trained professionals--and yes, even in dance partners!
For in life--and death--and beyond death, love truly transcends all things.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Come Hell or High Water--or Even Zombies

I took my 11 year old granddaughter to the movies the other night.  She's a charming little girl who has had a rather challenging year as her parents have gone through a separation, and she has moved from her old home--where she had lived for her entire life --to dividing her time between her parents' two different apartments.  That night she told me she missed the old house . . . but I think it goes deeper than that.  I think she misses the sense of stability that she once had.  But enough of the psychoanalyzing!  She seems to be weathering it all fairly well.

While we were making our way to the movie theater we talked about the upcoming holiday.  I asked her about her costume. 

"What are you going to be for Halloween?" 

"A Zombie prom queen," she said.  "Mommy is going to help make the costume."  And then she proceeded to tell me all about their plan for assembling the various elements of the outfit.  I was pleased to here my daughter-in-law was encouraging such creativity, even if I would have preferred to hear my granddaughter was going to be a firefighter or something a little less gruesome. 

But then I got to thinking about it a bit.  And I remembered something I once heard about Disney movies, back in the old days of "Snow White" and "Pinocchio" and other great animated classics.  Frequently, it seems folks would complain about the fact that Disney movies included evil characters and even acts of violence.  (Albeit, mild by today's standards!)  Especially the death of Bambi's mother.  You remember that scene?  Where a hunter kills the mother deer, leaving a grieving fawn behind?  At any rate, one time I heard someone defend such inclusions on a psychological basis. Such things, they said,  allow children to work out some of their fears, some of their concerns, in a fictional setting, making it easier to cope in the real world when they are confronted by the challenges of reality. 

It made sense to me back then--and it still does today.  Yes, it all can get carried too far--and today often is.  But children do need safe outlets for expressing the feelings we all experience of fear and anger and sadness.  I'd still prefer a firefighter or princess for my eleven year old granddaughter.  But maybe a zombie prom queen is just what she needs in this challenging year.  Whatever the case, I think she knows that no matter what changes she may face in life, she's got a grandfather who loves her come hell or high water--or even zombies!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Putting a Different Spin On It (So to Speak!)

Yesterday I preached a sermon called "Not Again!"  My text was Mark 10:32-45.  In case that doesn't instantly bring the story to mind, it takes place as Jesus and his disciples are making their way towards Jerusalem for what will be the climatic last week of his life.  It begins with Jesus warning the Twelve that he will be facing great opposition when they get to the capital city, and furthermore, that he will be arrested, tried, and executed. The disciples, though, only hear what they want to hear:  they are going to Jerusalem, and that must mean that Jesus is about to make his move, and take his rightful place as King.

Two of the disciples, James and John, decide to put in a bid for special positions in Jesus' court.  Jesus uses the occasion to teach them and the others a lesson.  "Whoever must be great among you," he says, "must be your servant."  (Mark 10:43b)   I had begun the sermon by sharing a few quotations from various well known folks about politicians in general. They were not flattering.    I then  juxtapositioned the concept of servant leadership with what usually happens.  "Imagine,"  I said, "if that was the  attitude of all our elected officials!  They would be true public servants."

After the service one parishioner who came through the line at the back door, a parishioner who is very politically savvy, shook my hand, and said, while she liked the general thrust of the sermon, she wasn't very crazy about the wisecracks about politicians.  "We need to support those who are doing the right thing," she said, "those who are placing others ahead of themselves." 

I got to thinking about her observation, and remembered my daughter's middle school.  Back in the nineties, when she was in seventh grade, the school had a slogan that applies.  In an attempt to look at student behavior in a new way they had strung a big banner that read, "Catch Me Doing Something Right."  In child development circles it's called positive reinforcement.  And it can be very effective.

So what if we applied that to elected officials?  We often hear about the bad things they do--the mistakes they make.  Lots of ink and air time is devoted to pointing out the failures of government, and that is probably necessary.  But what if we devoted equal amounts of time and energy to celebrating the times when public officials put the public interest ahead of their own?  What if we celebrated those politicians who do address the needs of the poor and the marginalized?

We desperately need more servant leaders in government, in the church, in business and the not-for profit sector.  But we already have some.  And it is right for us to celebrate their good work.  Let's catch them doing something right--and then let's tell folks about it.  I'd love to hear about such folks--so send me an e-mail, let me know about the servant leaders you've encountered along the way. 

(The sermon can be found on our website,

Monday, October 12, 2015

Muslims and a Wise Word from C. S. Lewis

I am currently teaching a class here at the church on the theology of C. S. Lewis.  Best known, perhaps, for his children's books about the fantasy world of Narnia, Lewis was also a prolific apologist for the Christian faith.  He did not consider himself a theologian (he was an English professor)--but he had a way of making sense of complex theological concepts that appealed to everyday folks.

In the class we are going to be examining one of the chapters of Lewis' book Mere Christianity.  Based on a number of BBC radio talks he gave in the forties, it has continued to be a best seller even now, decades after its publication.  Now you need to understand something:  I greatly appreciate Lewis, but I often disagree with him.  He is far more orthodox, far more traditional, in his understandings of the faith than I am.  Still, he is a well-reasoned thinker, and his use of words is often quite beautiful.

Lewis opens the chapter we'll be discussing with these words (originally addressed to his radio audience):  "I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe.  If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that other religions are simply wrong all through."  (Mere Christianity, 43)

That quote came to mind as I read about the anti-Islam, anti Muslim rallies that were organized this past weekend.  Some of the organizers even called on attendees to come with weapons!  And often, all this was (and is) in the name of Christianity.

I've got to tell you, I get so tired of the kind of thinking that says to love one thing you have to hate another.  And especially when Christianity is placed over and against other faith traditions.  You know, thinking that suggest to be a good Christian, you have to hate Jews.  To be a good Christian you have to say Islam is bad.  To be a good Christian . . . well, you get my point.  But it seems to me Jesus suggests there are only two requirements when it comes to being a good Christian:  loving God, and loving your neighbor.  Your Jewish neighbor.  Your Buddhist neighbor.  And yes, your Muslim neighbor.

Maybe we'd be better off if instead of looking at other people of faith as the enemy, we viewed them as neighbors.  And maybe then we can not only begin to address the common problems we share as human beings, maybe we can actually learn something.  Because Lewis is right:  "If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that other religions are simply wrong all through."

Thursday, October 8, 2015

On Moving Mother (or Not)

Last Sunday, as the sabbatical wound down, I went to church with my mother.  She is a member of Frist Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Barbourville, Kentucky.  Let me amend that--not just a member, she is one of the tiny congregation's four Elders.  In fact she was only the second woman named an Elder in the congregation's history!  Normally, she also serves as the congregation's lector, reading the scriptures in her clear, contralto voice.  But she's had a bit of a health scare recently, and Sunday was her first day back in several week's, so she just took a place in one of the pews, next to her visiting preacher son.

There couldn't have been more than twenty of us in attendance.  At 62, I probably brought the average age down a notch or two.  There were no children present, and none from my children's generation.  Gray was the color of the day!  But there lack of numbers was and is not due to a lack of goodwill!  I was personally greeted by almost everyone in attendance.  Granted, many of them know me by name.  Mother has been there over twenty-five years, and so I've worshipped in that church many times--even preached there once or twice.  And I co-officiated at my father's funeral service that was held there several years back.

Barbourville is a small place, and on this trip we made a couple of visits to lawyer and accountant types--making sure mother's legal and financial houses were in order.  Both her accountant, who I hadn't seen in years, and her lawyer, who I had only met once before, instantly recognized me, and commented on my rendition of "Ol' Man River" at my father's funeral (it had been Dad's favorite).

There are times when I really wish she lived closer.  Nearer to a city with the cultural offerings she enjoys so much.  I'd love to move her to Florida where I could take her to bookstores and concerts and plays and art galleries more readily.  But then I reflect on her role in Barbourville.  She is, in more than one sense of the word, one of the community elders now.  Well-respected.  Viewed as a wise and courageous woman.  And she is, indeed, both of those things.  When  I call the local florist to deliver her some flowers for Mother's Day or Christmas, the florist always tells me she'll make sure they get to Connie right away.  I even have a house account for the billing!  Whenever we walk into a store or bank, somebody knows her, if only by reputation.  Oh, they'll say, you're the professor who took care of her husband after he was hit by that drunk driver.

Yes, I'd love to move her down to Florida.  But then I stop and remember her role, her place, in Barbourville, and I realize, that's where she belongs.  Because . . . that's where she belongs.  Really belongs.

(Photo:  Mother, delivering the charge at my Service of Installation in Sanibel, 2010)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A War Story, A Love Story--and a Band of Gold

They had "kept company"--as it was called back then--for close to four years.  But then he was called away to serve his country.  It was to be a short tour of duty, but then he received notice that his term   was to be extended indefinitely.  He was stationed in South Carolina at the time, and when he called his sweetheart to tell her the news, and that he was to be shipped overseas, she told him she wanted to come right down from New York.  So they could get married.

She did--and now many years later, in the second decade of another century, they are preparing to celebrate their seventy-fourth wedding anniversary.  She's turning ninety-five, he's ninety-seven.  And my wife Linda's Aunt Lil and Uncle Tony still live in the house they've occupied for most of their lives.

This last week of the sabbatical includes the usual measure of study as I continue to focus on the abolition movement, but it also involves some family visits in upstate New York and Kentucky.  And today's visiting was highlighted by our lunch with Tony and Lil.

While we were chatting the conversation turned to rings.  And Uncle Tony told us a story.  He loves to tell stories--and he often tells good ones!

Tony served as a medic in the War.  (For his generation "the War" always means World War II).  And his time was largely spent in the European theater.  Part of his time he was stationed in northern Africa.

"It got really hot there," he told us.  "We used to keep thermometers in a glass jar filled with alcohol on a stand.   When a sick soldier would come into our tent, we'd take one of them out, shake it off, and stick it in his mouth.  Well one day, it was really, really hot--something like 115 degrees.  And the thermometers only went up to 108. 

"So this guy comes in, and I stuck one I his mouth.  Suddenly he says, 'Ow!  That pricked me.'  I took out the thermometer and it had broken.  I looked at the others in the jar of alcohol, and when I stuck in my hand to check them out, they were all broken.  They had exploded in the heat!  And my hand was covered with mercury.  We didn't know it was so poisonous back then."  Tony wiped off the mercury, but his gold wedding ring had turned all silver." 

The next morning, when he woke up, the ring had turned brittle, and  broke into three pieces.

"I sent it home to Lil," he told us.  "I wanted her to get it fixed."

"Yeah," she said.  "But it was going to cost as much as a new one."

"I know," said Tony, "but I wanted to keep the original."

And, as he twirled the restored ring around his finger, I couldn't help but think it wasn't just the original ring he kept.  He, and she, have kept their vows for more years than many people live!

Seventy-four years!  Amazing!  God bless them both--and God bless all those who keep their vows. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Of Popes and Traffic and Road Trips

The number one complaint on Sanibel last season was . . . traffic!  Many days Periwinkle Way, which is the main drag down the center of the island, was literally bumper-to-bumper for several hours .  I too joined in the grumbling.  Yet, how quickly we forget!  Being here in New Jersey for the last two weeks I have been reminded what a real traffic jam looks like--and how few people really consider the other driver as they swerve in and out.

The news this week has been full of warnings about the upcoming traffic mess that will arrive with Pope Francis.  On the Garden State Parkway, overhead LED signs proclaim:  "Major NYC events in week ahead.  Expect closings."  Not just delays, but closings!  Whole sections of streets and roads blocked off to any traffic.  Mass transit over crowded.  Buses crammed with folks.  Subways overloaded.  Trains chock-a-block with sightseers and the faithful.  I'm sure there are similar warnings in Philadelphia and Washington.  A veritable traffic apocalypse!

Yet the Pope, who is being transported not in a limo but in a gas-saving Fiat 500 (don't you love it?) will probably not address the traffic situation--at least not directly.  But he is addressing climate change.  We have an obligation, he said,  to take care of this gift we have been given by God, this gift we call Planet Earth, what he referred to in his address at the White House Wednesday morning as "our common home."  Obviously, our use of cars and other modes of transportation has a direct impact on the environment--and so, traffic does present an issue for us all to consider.  But not for the usual reasons (things like inconvenience) but rather because of its role in the overall environmental situation.

In that same speech, Pope Francis said that in order to address climate change--and many of the other issues facing our world, ranging from poverty to war to intolerance--we will need to change.  We will need to change our hearts, our minds, and our ways of living.  We will need to be more forward thinking, and instead of being so focused on our own needs, we will need to consider the needs of those who come after us. 

As I continue this long road trip I am made more aware than ever of the impact traffic can have on our lives.  But I am also reminded, as I type these words, of the irony the trip itself  (with its many, many miles of driving and gallons and gallons of gasoline).  What can I do to make a difference--what I can do to take care of this gift of God called Planet Earth?  How do I need to change?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Cronies in a Tizzy, Co-workers on the Farm

"When Jesus was born in Gainesville, Georgia, during the time that Herod was governor, some scholars from the Orient came to Atlanta and inquired, 'Where is the one who was born to be governor of Georgia?  We saw his star in the Orient, and came to honor him.'  This news put Governor Herod and all his Atlanta cronies in a tizzy."  (Matthew 2:1-2, Cotton Patch Gospels)

So begins the familiar story of the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi as translated by Clarence Jordan in the 1960s.  In his paraphrase, Jordon, a Greek scholar with a PhD in New Testament Studies, recast the story in terms that he hoped would prompt folks to recognize that the life and teachings of Jesus had ramifications for modern times. 

Jordan didn't live in some ivory tower, however, but rather on a farm in rural Georgia--a commune, I suppose one might call it.  He described it as an intentional Christian community, modeled after the description of the early church one finds in the book of Acts. Along with his wife Florence and another couple, he founded the community, called Koinonia Farm, in 1942 (koinonia is Greek for communion or joint participation).

My wife Linda and I had the honor of visiting Koinonia as we wended our way north to New Jersey.  It is located in Americus, Georgia. 

As we toured the grounds with a long-term intern we were filled in on the history of the Farm.  From the start it was rough going, because Jordan and his co-founders were committed to racial equality.  Folks, black and white, lived and worked together on the farm, and their neighbors were none too pleased.  When additional help was needed to harvest pecans and other crops, the workers they hired were paid a fair wage (unlike many others in the area) regardless of their race.  And their neighbors were none too pleased.  The KKK targeted Koinonia, and fires were set.  There were drive-by shootings.  Indeed, stacks of wood were piled on all four sides of the buildings to provide a measure of protection from flying bullets.  But Jordan and his fellow residents persisted.  They had a mission--not just to provide an example of Christian community, but also to introduce farming methods that would help conserve the soil and protect the environment.  The Farm was very involved in providing low-cost housing for folks in the area, and in time gave birth to Habitat for Humanity.

Today they are still seeking to live out it's mission.  There are many outreach programs to the wider community, a retreat program where they share their learnings with others, and they have  recently introduced biologic farming to the area.

we sat at lunch, and shared the fresh greens from their gardens and meatloaf and burgers made from their grass-fed beef, we are also fed by the sharing of prayers and a reading from the scriptures.  And as folks shared with us at lunch, we realized that Jordan's dream has been realized as the community lives on decades after his death in 1969.  "What the poor need," he once said, "is not charity, but capital, not caseworkers but co-workers."  Koinonia continues to provide just that, co-workers--and we were honored to meet and talk and dine with several of them.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Steeples, Basements and Dreams

On sabbatical and starting in the deep South . . . .

When we arrived at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, we hadn't been sure we'd be able to get inside.  And sure enough, the doors to the sanctuary were locked.  So we walked around to the back of the building, hoping to find an office entrance.  We had to make our way past some construction--the church is putting in an elevator, realizing the dream of its late pastor, Clementa Pinckney, and many others, to make the building accessible to all.

As we rounded the back of the structure we were greeted by a fellow in his sixties.  He introduced himself as one of the church trustees.  We explained the work I am doing on the abolition movement and our hope to see the inside of the church, for its congregation has often been at the center of the struggle for equal rights.

Well come this way, he said, and then he ushered us through a side door and down a  narrow flight of stairs into the church basement.  It is a church basement like hundreds, thousands, of other church basements all across the country,  Basements where church suppers with casserole dishes and salad bowls brought from home, youth group meetings with silly games and serious discussions, and Bible studies of all kinds are held on a routine basis.  But on that Wednesday night in June things had been anything but routine as gunfire ended nine lives, and shattered so many others.  As we sat there on metal folding chairs, we were filled with a mix of emotions and an overwhelming sense of the sacred.

We smile a lot around here, our trustee host told us, it helps us make it through each day.  And as he took us around the rest of the building, we were struck again and again by the pride the congregation has in its property.  Most of it built by former slaves, we were told.  The woodwork on the pews was intricate.  There was a fine looking organ.  It was a place where folks like Martin Luther King, Jr., had spoken and offered up God's word of hope.

Emanuel AME--Mother Emanuel--is situated on Calhoun Street in Charleston, but it used to be called Boundary Street.  Because it marked a boundary, a line, that people of color were only allowed top cross if they were with their masters or on their masters' business.  They could work across the boundary, said our new friend, but not worship.  But on this side . . . .

On this side stands Mother Emanuel, with its steeple reaching for the sky.  Bearing witness.  Saying God's over here as well!

They call Charleston the Holy City for all its churches and steeples.  But last week I was reminded how often the holy lives cheek-by-jowl with that which is anything but holy.  Yet I was also reminded that even in the midst of great tragedy, there are those who keep building elevators, and welcoming strangers, and reaching for a dream that transcends all the boundaries we human beings can erect.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

On the Road Again (without Willie Nelson!)

Well, Linda and I are finally on the road for my sabbatical.  It is such a lovely gift for a congregation to give to their pastor!  Many folks have called it "well-deserved"--and that may be the case, but mostly I think of it as a gracious expression of a congregation's care!

We have quite a journey planned.  We have already dropped off our cat Tiny at "Camp Laurie"--the home of a dear friend in Ocala who watches Tiny whenever we are gone for more than a day or two.  And this afternoon we arrived in Americus, Georgia.  We are staying at a grand old hotel, the Windsor.  We plan on visiting the headquarters of Habitat for Humanity (there is even a Millard Fuller Road here in town!), Koinonia Farms (a community that played and plays a key role in the struggle for civil rights) and the birthplace of Jimmy Carter (planned many months ago, but suddenly very timely!)

From here we head to Charleston, South Carolina, where we will be staying with a seminary buddy and daughter Elizabeth's godmother, Sue Ingham.  There we will be visiting several significant sites in that storied old seaport.  We are especially anxious to visit Mother Emmanuel to pay our respects.  So much good work has happened over the last many years since abolition, but so much still needs to be done!

From there we plan time in Cape May, NJ, Easton, PA, and then on to Bayhead, NJ (on the Jersey shore), where we will stay for two weeks in a rented house.  Bayhead is on the commuter line to New York, and I will travel into the city two or three times to do some research.  I am doing some work on the abolition movement, and in particular the role played in the same by John Quincy Adams.  Stimulating and important stuff!  I hope to produce a course that I will teach this spring on Sanibel, perhaps an article for publication and a monologue. 

Our five-and-a-half week journey then takes us to Lake George and Gloversville, New York, for some family visits and some real rest.  And then, as we wend our way home, a stop in Kentucky to visit my mother.  My siblings will all converge there at the same time--so a mini-reunion of sorts.

Last Sunday, many good folks wished me well as they left church on Sunday.  I received several nice notes and e-mails from people with similar wishes.  Ironically, one of them came from a very dear parishioner who died suddenly just before I left Sanibel.  A memorial service awaits my return.  Life works that way sometimes.

One parishioner who is currently up north, wrote, "Your grand road trip sounds wonderful . . . your itinerary sounds delicious . . . ."  What a great word!  Delicious!  My mother is fond of saying certain things feed your soul.  That I trust will be the case with this delicious sabbatical.

As one parishioner was leaving service on Sunday she tucked a piece of paper in my hand.  It was an offering envelope she had taken from the pew rack.  On it she had written:  "John, I will pray some time each day for you during your sabbatical.  I pray today for your safety as you start your venture
tomorrow.  Blessings."  You see what I mean about it being a gift?  Your prayers are welcome as well.  For my part I'll keep you posted through this blog--and no doubt Linda will be making smart comments on Facebook!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Waiting at the Door

My congregation has entered into some preliminary conversations with Mount Olive AME Church, a predominantly African-American congregation in neighboring Fort Myers.  Our hope is to form a partnership that crosses various boundaries, so that together we might reach out to the wider community.  We have talked about the possibilities of shared mission efforts, youth work and worship experiences.  Time alone will tell how all that turns out.  I am excited about the prospects!

This past Sunday I was off  and so I thought I'd take the opportunity to worship at Mount Olive.  I called the pastor on Friday to give him a heads up that I'd be in the congregation on Sunday.  He said that would be lovely. 

I fully expected to do just that--sit in the pews and simply enjoy the service.  But when I arrived, the pastor had stationed a layperson at the sanctuary doors to be on the look out for me.  Then he invited to be sit in the chancel with him.  During the service I was introduced, asked to say a few words, and very much to my surprise, presented with a gift basket filled with good things to eat!  I was stunned!  Person after person came up to greet me, shake may hand and tell me how glad they were that I was there. 

In the United Church of Christ we talk about "extravagant welcome"--and I experienced that on Sunday!  I don't imagine we could pass out gift baskets to every visitor (in season we can have fifty or sixty visitors some Sundays!) , nor ask each one to "offer a few words"--but we can, and should, be on the lookout for those who are new, offering them a warm welcome, with words and a handshake, and an invitation to Coffee Hour.  Like my new pastor friend in Fort Myers, we can be watching for them at the door!  And not just at church.  We can be expecting newcomers in our wider communities as well, seeking to help them feel welcome.  Folks who look like us--and those who don't. 

Well done, Mount Olive--thanks for a great morning!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Making History . . . Not Just in Missouri

Have you ever been to Independence, Missouri?  I hadn't--at least not until last week, when my mother and I spent part of a day while on our "pilgrimage" to her favorite bookstore (see last week's blog for more details about the bookstore!)

Independence, which is a short distance from Kansas City, is a rather fascinating place.  Not only is it home to the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, it also has a Mormon Visitors Center, which highlights the Mormons' time in Independence, and the Temple of the Mormon breakaway group, the Community of Christ.  It is one of those places Chambers of Commerce and tour books describe as "historic."  You know, "Visit Historic Independence, MO!"

It is true, there are many historic sites to visit in Independence, but that term has always bothered me.  For every place, every location, is loaded with history!  Presidential history?  No, not usually.  Major events in religious history?  Not as a general rule.  But every place has political leaders; every place has its religious story.  And far more than that!  For every place has people with rich and varied backgrounds.  Every place has families--and some of them stretch back in time for generations!  There is history to be discovered in every backyard, at every intersection, in each church and synagogue and mosque and city or town hall.

My mother has devoted many, many hours to the preservation of history in her own county in Kentucky.  It is a small place, with a few brief encounters with better know events and people.  Daniel Boone made his way through the county seat when it was still a forest.  The first shots fired in the Civil War in Kentucky were shot off in her county.  But for the most part, it is a quiet, and somewhat remote spot.  But the little museum where she has spent so much time is full of artifacts and stories of everyday folks doing everyday things!  Everyday folks making history!

So what are you contributing to history today?  You don't have to be a Mormon or Harry Truman or even Daniel Boone to add to history--simply by living you are doing that every single day!

(Photo:  Harry S. Truman Gravesite, Independence, MO)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Crazy Tale about Mothers and Books and Wichita

Many years ago my parents owned a bookstore--well, actually, a gift and bookstore.  But for my mother it was the book part that really counted.

Mother loved operating that little shop in part because it gave her ample time to sample the wares.  I can still picture her sitting in her rocker near the checkout counter, engrossed in one or another volume she had slipped off the shelves!

They sold the business over thirty years ago, but to this day, my mother loves bookstores.  Most any kind of bookstore.  from big chains like Barnes and Noble, to small musty ones that sell second-hand books.  She loves them all!  She can get lost amongst the rows of bound pages for hours on end. 

For several years now her favorite bookstore has been a rather eclectic place in Wichita, Kansas called Eighth Day Books.  It is run by an Eastern orthodox fellow who is a big fan of Wendell Berry and C. S. Lewis.  It has sections devoted to literature, liturgy, spirituality, science--even a section devoted to the art of reading!  And it also has a very large stock of icons.  The eyes of Mary follow you all over the store!

But while mother had poured over Eighth Day's catalogues, which included reviews and lengthy descriptions, and while she has ordered dozens of books from the shop by mail, she had never set foot in the place! 

So earlier this summer she was talking about Eighth Day and off-handedly said, "You'll just have to take me there some day!"  We both laughed.  I live, as readers of this blog know, in Florida.  Mother lives in Kentucky.  The store is, as I said earlier, in Kansas!  But when I got off the phone and told my wife Linda about the conversation, she said, "Why not?  Why don't you take her to Wichita?"

So, the next Sunday, when we talked on the phone, I told her--and she was thrilled!

"Wichita?"  she almost shouted, "You're really taking me to Wichita?"  And so an adventure was born.

And this week we've been to Wichita.  The owner of Eighth Day Books, Warren Farha, and his staff, were most welcoming!  I suppose it's not everyday somebody comes all that distance just to visit their store.  But we did!

Crazy, right?  I mean, Wichita?  In August?  But such is the draw of books--for Mom, and quite honestly, for me as well.  My sister, who lives in the same town as Mom, tells me Mother has told everyone about the trip.  Everyone.  her friends, her pastor, her pharmacist, probably the guy who pumps her gas.  And when she gets back home I'm sure she'll regale them all with tales of our trip.

Who knows what the future holds for me and Mom as we both continue to grow older.  But, hey, we'll always have Wichita!

(Photo:  Warren Farha, owner of Eighth Day Books, my mother, Dr. Connie Danner, and me at Eighth Day Books)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Imagine That: Another Shooting

Another child has been shot in the neighboring city of Fort Myers.  Her name is Luxury--Luxury Vance.  She was at a family gathering when she was shot three times--probably for no other reason than the simple fact she was in the way of gunfire.  According to the police, "the child was not ithe intended target."  (News-Press, 8-3-15)

She's a good kid, folks are saying.  A really fine basketball player--and a leader on her school team.  And she's just twelve years old.  One year older than three of my own grandchildren.   It could have been any one of them.  Imagine that. 

Of course, that's the problem.  Lots of folks refuse to imagine such a thing.  Luxury is a black child--she lives in one of the more challenged parts of town.  Of course such things happen--it's Dunbar--what do you expect?  But such a failure of imagination is part of the reason such things happen--  because we refuse to identify.  We refuse to think it could happen to "our" children, "our" grandchildren. But it could--and even if it couldn't, the Luxurys of the world matter.  No child's death should be "expected" or acceptable!  And as long as we also refuse to create and enforce serious gun control measures, such things will continue to happen.

A week or so ago I saw a cartoon that spoke to the problem with real eloquence.  It was published shortly after the most recent mass shooting.  It picture a traditional old man God, complete with long white beard, looking over a cloud, holding a lightening bolt in his hand.  "OK," he said, "enough of the prayers for the victims and their families!  How about enacting some serious gun control measures!"

I don't think we should give up on the prayers, and I'll add Luxury and her family to my prayer list.  But enough is enough.  The time has come to put our imaginations to work, and to finally come to grips with the reality that we need to do something about the guns.

Imagine that!  Really.  Imagine that!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Just Because

A parishioner recently lent me an anthology of sacred prose and poetry titled God Makes the Rivers to Flow.  It is a lovely collection of poems and prayers drawn from a wide array of religious and spiritual traditions.  One prayer that caught my eye was penned by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Spanish founder of the Society of Jesus--better known as the Jesuits.

St. Ignatius is especially well-known for a series of devotions he developed based on the scriptures, designed to help one move along his or her spiritual journey, called the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius' discipline is built on using one's imagination to enter into the Biblical story.

Here's a part of the prayer that caught my eye:
Oh, my God, I want to love you,
Not that I might gain heaven
Nor escape eternal hell
But, Lord, to love you just because
you are my God.
As I pondered that prayer I realized that's how it is with all of us.  We want to be loved not because of what we can do for the other, but rather, just because.  Just because we are who we are.  That, in the end, is the purest expression of love--is it not?  To love another, just because.
(The photo is an icon of St. Ignatius of Loyola)

Monday, July 6, 2015

The NEW Modern Family

All six of my grandchildren have been with us over the 4th of July weekend.  All six!  They range in age from seven to fourteen and are all very unique human beings.  While I consider each and everyone of them my grandson or granddaughter, I realized at some point this weekend that not one of them is biologically tied to me.  None of them carry my DNA.  Which may be to their advantage!  But each of them came into my life in other ways.  Through stepchildren, through adoption . . . but not one in the traditional fashion.

I've been thinking about that a lot.  My wife Linda and I have a friend who refers to us as "the New Modern Family"--referencing the popular television show.  I suppose she calls us that because in our mix are folks of varying racial backgrounds, religious backgrounds and sexual orientations.  But she is, I suppose, right.  Our  family is representative of many, many families in the world. 
Yet we still cling to the mom, dad, and two biological kids model as the ideal.

So is there an "ideal family'?  I don't think so.  I think family configurations are as varied as people--and each comes with its own strengths and weaknesses.  Each comes with its own blessings, and its own challenges.  And sometimes, those are the same--what appears to be a challenge, is a blessing in disguise.  And what looks for all the world like a blessing, proves to be the ultimate challenge!

Whatever the case, I am most grateful for my family.  And all six of my grandchildren.  We're having a good time together--and when they go home, Linda and I will take a very long nap.  A VERY long nap!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Work of Loving

Last week's Supreme Court decision concerning marriage equality is welcomed and celebrated by many.  Various polls indicate a majority of Americans support the concept.  It is now the law of the land in all fifty states.  But that doesn't mean the work is over.  Clearly, there are also large numbers of Americans who are opposed to same-sex marriage.  And, as we have seen in other civil rights struggles, a change in laws--whether legislatively imposed or judicially--is not the same as a change in attitudes and behaviours.

So what can we learn from the past?  First, things take time.  Many have commented on the fact that this change has taken far less time than many other changes in societal rules.  To think it will be implemented free of issues, to think that overnight people's understandings will change, would be very na├»ve.  That will not be the case, most assuredly.

Second, I think we must continue to recognize that the best way to convince someone of any such change is in and through personal experience.  One of the reasons a majority of folks support marriage equality is that they realized they have family and friends who are gay or lesbian.  And they want for them the same considerations as the heterosexuals in their circle.  If people experience same sex marriages there will be a better chance they will accept them in general.

All across the internet and beyond, one sees the phrase, "Love Wins" in reference to the Court's decision.  And I suppose, judicial decisions are always about winners and losers.  But Love isn't really about winning.  It is about accepting the other, caring for the other, doing right by the other.  And the work of loving--like love itself--never ends.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Changing Symbols, Changing Hearts

Earlier today I signed a petition urging the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House in South Carolina.  Apparently hundreds of thousands of other folks have done the same.  And  there is little question in my mind that such action needs to happen.  The flag symbolizes a movement that sought to undo our nation based on a desire to perpetuate slavery.  Period.  Keeping it aloft only antagonizes at this point.  It needs to come down.  Yes, put it on display in museums as a reminder of the past--but it has no place on a governmental institution.

All that said, however, signing that petition is low-hanging fruit.  Anybody can sign a petition.  The biggest risk in doing so is receiving unsolicited e-mails and social media posts that ultimately can be stopped with a keystroke or two.  And while the petition  may help push South Carolina's legislators into doing the right thing, ultimately, it is a distraction.  Not that it is unimportant, symbols are very important.  As a pastor I deal in symbolism all the time.  But to really make lasting changes we need to do far more than merely eliminate or change the symbols around us.  What we really need to do is change our hearts and minds.

Let's be clear.  The attack on Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was racially motivated.  It was a hate crime.  Let's not get distracted from that reality.  Let's not lose sight of the fact that it is far from the first such attack in the history of the Black church.  Time and again, innocents have died and buildings have been burned.  Not because somebody was mentally ill.  Rather, because somebody was filled with hatred.

The folks at Mother Emanuel know that better than I ever will, I suspect.  But they also know that the only way to combat hate is with love and forgiveness, and their witness has been amazing!  Mind you, forgiveness does not mean saying, "What you did was OK."  It doesn't mean saying, "Don't worry about it!"  Rather, forgiveness means letting go of one's need for revenge. Don't misunderstand, that doesn't mean there are no consequences to be paid by the perpetrator.  There are.

The question now, however, is what are we going to do besides signing a petition.  How are we as individuals, as religious congregations and as a nation, going to bring about real change in the way we think and feel about race?  Yes, we need, in some cases, to clean up our language, and stop sharing racist jokes. Yes, we need to take down the flags.  But we also need to take a deep, long look at the ways we systemically and institutionally perpetuate racism.  And more than that, we need to look deep in our hearts and, with the help of God, root out all that prevents us from living lives of love and forgiveness.  And what better symbol of that than the steeple of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston?

(Photo: The steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, taken by Rebecca Travis)

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Word about Dress Codes

It may have been 1968 or 1969.  I don't remember for sure.  I was in high school at that time, and our local school board was considering instituting a stricter dress code.  In particular, they wanted to ban jeans.  They already had certain requirements in terms of things like shorts (they weren't allowed) and skirt lengths for the girls (no more than a certain number of inches above the knee, as I remember).  But now they wanted to add jeans to the proscribed list.  And we students were not happy about it.

Most folks--just like in the adult world--just groused about it.  But some of us decided to take on the school board and attend their open session.  It we would a show of solidarity around the issue.  We didn't really consider if any one would actually address the board during the public comment period, but that night, rather on the spur of the moment, I did.  I went to the mike, voiced my concern, and then used an analogy to explain my position.  "Diamonds in the rough," I said, "are still diamonds.   Clothes don't make the man or the woman or the boy or the girl.  What determines how a student acts, thinks, works, is deeper than clothing."  My fellow students applauded--I don't remember how the board reacted--I was too nervous to look at their faces!  I guess I didn't make that much of an impression though--for in the end, they banned jeans.

I've been thinking about that as I've followed with interest the case of  Caroline Boland, a young woman here in Lee County who was initially stripped of her office as Historian for the District Chapter of the National Honor Society because she wore a dress that violated the dress code.  She is, obviously, an excellent student, as well as an accomplished athlete (she plays basketball)--and this was her first "offense"--somewhat unwitting, it appears.  Whatever the case, the Superintendent of Schools finally overturned the decision. 

That's good, but still . . . . should it even have been an issue?  As an adult, I have a bit more patience with the idea of dress codes than I did as a high school student, but still, my position remains basically the same.  What really matters is what's on the inside, not the clothes one wears.  And  seems to be just the kind of student that we want to--need to--applaud and hold up as a role model for others.  This kid's a real gem--a diamond--let's let her sparkle!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Home Runs, Dance Steps and the Issue of Gender

This past weekend my wife Linda and I attended our niece's four-hour dance recital.  Yes, you read that right--four hours worth of student dancers!
  Some as young as two or three, others in their twenties and thirties.  Mostly children, though, with a few adults thrown in for good measure.

All told, there were sixty-three different numbers.  They ranged in style from classical ballet to hip-hop--so the accompanying music ranged from Tchaikovsky to . . . . well, your guess is as good as mine.  Maybe better!

Some dancers were part of one or two numbers, while others showed up multiple times.  Some of the older dancers, not the adults, the older kids, had solos.  Most did not.  Some of the choreography was actually quite original, and three or four numbers verged on stunning.  One in particular, based loosely on the themes in the holocaust novel The Boy in Striped Pajamas, was very moving.  And very surprising.  One does not usually think of such a serious piece being part of a kids' dance recital. 

Most of the performers--some sixty or so in total--were girls and young women.  As one would expect.  But about eight or nine of them were boys.  I must say, I have the same kind of respect for boys who take dance lessons as I do for girls who play Little League baseball.  And even more than that, I have a real; appreciation for their parents.  Not all moms and dads are supportive of their children when they want to take up an activity that crosses traditional gender expectations! 

As I watched the various news reports this weekend and considered the journey Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner has undertaken, I couldn't help but think of those dance recital boys.  When, I wonder, will we get over our preconceived ideas about gender?  Clearly, it still matters--gender that is.  But how, and why?  What does it mean to be male?  What does it mean to be female?  Have we moved beyond biology?  So many questions! 

I guess, for me, it comes down to this:  what does it mean to be human?  Ultimately, that is the real question.  And how do we nurture girls and boys, gay, straight, bisexual or transgendered, as they grow into adulthood?  Letting them dance if they want to, letting them slide into home plate if that's their desire, and supporting them in their efforts, like the hundreds of family members who filled the auditorium at the dance recital--it's not all of it, but it certainly is a start!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

So Many Books . . . So Little Time: A Reader's Lament

Maybe you have the same problem I have.  Too many books, too little time!  My good wife is constantly wondering why I take books out of the library on a regular basis when I already have several piles waiting to be read at home and at the office.  (Truth be told, I am a regular patron of two libraries, and a card holder at two more!)

My stack at home is largely fiction.  Novels I have been given (or occasionally have purchased for myself) waiting for the mood to strike.  Which doesn't mean I don't read much fiction.  I do.  Lots of it.  Most of those books checked out from the Sanibel Library or the Lakes Regional Library in Fort Myers are novels.  I have three of them at home right now.  Sara Gruen's latest, At Water's Edge, Jodi Picoult's most recent volume, Leaving Time and a real gem that I've almost finished, Marilynne Robinson's Lila.  (Robinson is such a fine writer!)

Here at work I have three stacks.  The books are mostly ones that have been given to me.  Some have been written by parishioners or their offspring.  I've got one by Robert Dornberg that I keep intending to get to called A Nation of Sheep.  He's a lovely fellow, and a thoughtful human being.  I may not agree with some of what he has to say, but I suspect it will be very well thought out.  I've got one by the son of parishioners, Dan Maurer, called Far Away.  Dan's a good writer--I've read one of his other books.  I keep stalling though on this one as it's about human trafficking.  I suspect it will be tough sledding.

The stacks also include a variety of things I want to read for professional reasons.  Parker Palmer's healing the Heart of Democracy, for instance.  I've dipped into it a bit, and as usual, Palmer is extremely trenchant.  "When we hold our suffering in a way that opens us to greater compassion," he writes at one point, "heartbreak becomes a source of healing, deepening out empathy . . . ."  (22) 
Good stuff!  But wait, there's more!  Aging Well, by George Vaillant, The (Un)common Good by Jim Wallis, and the list goes on!

And then there is the stack for my upcoming sabbatical.  Books related to my work on the abolition movement.  I'll be focusing especially on John Quincy Adams and his role in the anti-slavery movement, so Harlow Unger's biography of Adams is on the pile.  But so is Frederick Douglas' autobiography. 

One of the greatest pleasures in life, for me, is reading.  In fact, I can't imagine life without books.  And maybe that's why I have so many stacked up waiting to be read.  Maybe subconsciously I believe that as long as I've got at least one more book to read, I'll live to see another day.  Instead of the fountain of youth, I've got a bookcase of youth. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Thirty-Five Years and Counting

June 1st I will celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of my ordination to the  Christian ministry.   It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my father's ordination.  He was already serving student parishes when I was born.  For all of my almost sixty-two years I have been a part of this institution, so I am hardly an objective observer.  But I am an experienced one.  I have been a preacher's kid, a lay person in  the pews and a pastor in the pulpit.  I've seen the local church from most all angles, and while it is far from perfect, indeed at times very flawed, it is also an institution which has the capability of being an enormous force for the good in our world today, even as it has been in the past.

My PhD studies focused on church history, in particular, American Church History.  I asked my seminary president what he thought I should major in for my doctorate, New testament Studies, Church History or Theology.  He asked me how I was with languages.  I said, "It's not my favorite part of being a student."  "Well," he said, "if you go into any of those fields you'll need at least two languages, but except for American Church History, you'll need three or four languages."  I opted for American Church History!

In my course work and writing my dissertation, I was reminded over and over again of the many ways we have failed as an institution, how all too often we have been on the wrong side of history.  While the church led the charge in the abolition movement, much of the church vigorously defended slavery for decades.  While some in the church were part of the women's movement, patriarchy was often the rule rather than the exception.  It still is in parts of the church.  While there were and are compassionate folks in the church who have helped address the AIDS pandemic, some in the church have seen it as a punishment for persons living in ways of which they did not approve.  You get my point. 

But all that said--and there is much more that could be said--I remain firmly committed to the church, for I believe that it is an institution that has the capacity to being open to the stirring of God's Spirit.  I believe that it can be (and often is) a source of healing, reconciliation, forgiveness and grace in a world sorely in need of all the healing it can get.

But, as I said, I am far from objective !

Monday, May 18, 2015

Strong . . . or Wrong?

Two years ago, a few weeks after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, I received a package in the mail from my daughter Liz.  She lives in metropolitan Boston, and shares my enthusiasm for the Red Sox.  So I was both surprised and pleased when I opened up the small box and found a cap she had bought for me with the Red Sox "B" logo and underneath it the word "STRONG".

In the weeks and months following that senseless attack, I would occasionally see news articles about how very people who had been impacted by the bombing we living out the Boston Strong motto.  I was especially impressed by the amputees and others who ran in the marathons in 2014 and 2015.  The strength of character demonstrated by such folks truly enhanced the city's reputation.

Then in recent months as Dzohokhor Tsarnaev was tried for his role in the tragedy I once again witnessed various persons showing real spiritual, emotional and psychological strength as they took the stand and testified to what they had seen and experienced on that April day in 2013.  Such testimony always calls for real courage in the face of fear and sorrow.

On the day that Tsarnaev's sentence was to be handed down, I noticed at least one Boston Strong sign among those who waited outside the courthouse.  But, I wondered, what does Boston Strong mean in such a context?  Some have suggested that passing down the death penalty is a show of real strength.  We'll show terrorists we mean business.  But the way I see it, the death penalty is never a symbol of strength.  At best it is a symbol of frustration, at worst, it is a reminder that the human need for revenge can, at times, be overwhelming.

Don't misunderstand, the guilty verdict was clearly the right verdict.  And the jury demonstrated strength in their willingness to sit through testimony that was at times most painful.  I applaud their willingness to serve their community.  And under the circumstances, I can understand their desire to mete out what they perceived to be the most severe penalty for such an atrocious act.  They wanted to be Boston Strong.  But the death penalty isn't strong.  In fact, it is weak, for when it is administered we human beings are giving in to our basest emotions.  Yes, Dzohokhor Tsarnaev should be locked up for life, with no chance of parole.  But putting him to death only reinforces a cycle of violence that leads to more violence.

I will continue to wear my cap.  I will continue to be proud of a city I love dearly.  But each time I wear it I will pause and consider what it really means to be strong.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Needing Some Truth, Needing Some Reconciliation

I recently came across a quote from Desmond Tutu which struck a nerve.  "If you are neutral in situations of injustice," he said, "you have chosen the side of the oppressor.  If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." 

As I think about the ongoing conversation in our nation about police relations with minority communities, I can't help but wonder what it means to remain neutral.  Clearly, there is a measure of injustice at play.  Clearly, racist attitudes impact such relations.  If remaining neutral means saying, "well, there may be injustice here, or maybe not"--then I am most certainly not neutral.  There is injustice.  Black detainees have been mistreated.  Being stopped and frisked does happen for no other reason than a driver is a young black male.  If being neutral means saying those things may or may not happen, may or may not be fueled by racism, then count me out!  I'm not at all neutral!

But, if being neutral means recognizing that no social ill can be explained away with a simple answer, if being neutral means recognizing that cops are people too, if being neutral means recognizing that many, maybe even most, police officers are doing their job faithfully and well, then count me in.  I am more than willing to take sides about the issue. But I want to make sure we don't demonize either side.  Members of minority communities are human beings.  So are cops.  And we must never forget that. 

But, we must also remember we have a very real problem.  The very ones police officers are sworn to serve and protect often feel they are neither served nor protected.  Indeed, they often feel they are considered less than human.  And often for good reason, for the treatment they receive is at times sub-human.  And no one--no one--should ever feel that way. 

Desmond Tutu was instrumental in helping establish the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa.  A process  that led to genuine understanding and healing between persons who were at least as estranged as cops and minority community members are in our country today.  Perhaps we need to look there for a model.  Certainly we could use some truth.  And a little reconciliation would be a good thing too.  For mice and for elephants--and for all the rest of us as well.

Monday, May 4, 2015

And So We Wait

So, the arguments have been presented and now we wait for the court to make it's decision.  Will the judges allow for marriage equality across the land?  Or will they place limitations on it, maybe even eliminating it altogether?  While the later seems highly unlikely, stranger things have happened over the course of history.

How often do we find ourselves in just such a place?  For me, and many others, I'm sure, the days of waiting are often harder than anything that follows.  I have heard more than one person waiting biopsy results say they just want to know what's going on so they can move forward with their lives.  If it's good news, wonderful.  But if it's not, well then, they can begin to address it.  But this waiting, Pastor.  This is hard!

And so it is.  I've never been known as a patient person.  My seminary president once wrote in one of my first professional references that I was a very gifted person, but--and it was a big but--"but John will need to learn that everything can't happen all at once."  It's a lesson, some thirty-five years later, that I'm still trying to learn!

So we watch and wait as the court makes up its mind.  We've been in this place before, and we'll be in it again.  It may not be marriage equality, or cancer tests, but it will be something.  Because my old seminary president was right, everything can't happen at once.  And sometimes, sometimes, the greatest lessons happen in the gaps, the in-between times, the transitions, the times of waiting.