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!