Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Crosses and Yarmulkes, Bonnets and Hijabs

I read an article this week in our local paper which discussed some of the recent difficulties faced by Islamic women who wear the hijab, the head scarf that many wear as a symbol of their faith, and out of a commitment to the Qur'an's call for modesty in dress.  It is one of those outward symbols that immediately identifies the wearer as a person of faith, a particular faith, much like the bonnets worn by Amish and Mennonite women, or the yarmulkes worn by many Jewish men. 

It seems that some Islamic women are reconsidering wearing the hijab, for fear of being singled out and tormented in one way or another by Islamaphobic strangers.  One of the episodes recounted in the article was particularly disturbing.  A woman living in California was at the local playground with her one-year old son.  The little boy was playing with another child his age, when his father, seeing the other in her hijab, rushed over to the play area, and pulled his child away.  He indicated that she should go back to wherever it was that she came from, and then he picked up some of the wood chips that were on the ground and threw them at the woman's one year old son.  (The News-Press, 12-27-16, 2B)

This is wrong on so many levels!  After all, we are a nation devoted to, arguably founded on, the notion of religious liberty.  As Americans we are free to hold whatever religious beliefs we choose, or none at all.  And that includes the right to wear garments that express our religious beliefs without fear.  We are a nation built on laws, laws that tell us it is wrong to publicly attack someone else for any reason.  And really, in what part of our country is it considered acceptable to throw things at a child?

OK--I know I'm venting.  But really, an attack on one, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., is an attack on all.  Would it be appropriate for someone to harass me because I wear a cross around my neck?  Would it be appropriate for someone to throw things at my grandchild because they disagree with my beliefs?  Of course not!

I've said it before.  I'll say it again.  Grow up America!  Grow up!  We are better than this!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas and Blarney, Fake News and Hope

There are more well-known Christmas carols and songs than you can list.  There are purely sacred pieces, like "O Come All Ye Faithful", and purely secular ones like “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas.”  And then there are a few that fall somewhere in-between.  One of those is “Christmas in Killarney.”  Perhaps you know it:


                        The holly green, the ivy green

                        The prettiest picture you’ve ever seen

                        Is Christmas in Killarney . . . .

It goes on to talk about mistletoe and Santa Claus, as well as the parish priest coming by to offer a blessing on the household.  I’m not sure if it’s a very accurate picture of Christmas in Killarney, or anywhere else in Ireland!  But it is lots of fun!


Several years ago I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful concert sung by the Moscow Boys Choir.  Like so many concerts it was a blend of both sacred and secular seasonal selections.  And to my surprise, one of the featured numbers was “Christmas in Killarney.  You couldn’t help but chuckle as boys and men with sturdy Russian accents sang lyrics like, “I’m handing you no blarney.”  It was really a wonder, while at the same time, rather absurd!  Yet in the end, it was a magnificent reminder that the Love we celebrate at Christmas crosses all boundaries.


If truth be told, the Christmas story itself, with its baby born in a stable, and heavenly angels singing to sleepy shepherds is much the same.  It is quite wondrous, while at the same time a bit absurd.


Think about it, for a moment.  The same God who is said to have created the universe, the same God who is said to be all-knowing, all-powerful and ever present, chooses to come to us as a baby—and not even a very special baby.  This is no crown prince born in a royal palace.  No, this is a baby born to a peasant girl in a no-account country.  So unimportant that he and his parents don’t even rate a room at the local inn, and so he’s born in a barn.  And his first visitors?  The local dignitaries?  The mayor of the town?  No, the lowliest of men in the neighborhood—shepherds claiming to have seen angels. 


But despite all the seeming absurdity, it is a story that we have hung on to for centuries.  It is a story that has been told, and retold, and retold again, because it speaks so eloquently of Love. 


In these days when we find it hard to separate fact from fiction, when fake news gets enough traction to cause a shooting in a pizza parlor, knowing that Love is real is more important than ever.  And this simple story of a long ago birth gives us hope.  Hope that Love can be found in even the lowliest of places.


And that's no blarney!




Monday, December 12, 2016

Advent: Seeing Reality with New Eyes

Advent is a time for preparing ourselves to once again experience the joy of Christmas.  But in order to really share in that joy, we need to be willing to expand our definition of reality.  For the Christmas story turns reality on its head!  It turns things upside down and inside out.  It takes our narrow strip of understanding and challenges us to expand our gaze, and to deepen our faith.  The Christmas story says things are not always as they appear.  Things are not limited by time or space.  Reality stretches across the universe and beyond!  Yes, it starts in a simple way.  Yes it is filled with common characters.  A tired old man forced by an occupying empire to take a long journey.  A pregnant teenager unsure of her baby's origins.  A cranky innkeeper, overwhelmed by an influx of travelers.  A band of minimum wage shepherds just doing their jobs.  Nothing special.  Nothing extraordinary.  But the Christmas claim is far reaching.  For it says that in and through these everyday characters, God was and is revealed.  And that is cause for rejoicing!

I imagine when Mary first told Joseph that she was pregnant, when she tried to explain about seeing the angel and being told she was to give birth to the Christ.  I imagine Joseph also had a very limited definition of reality.  He was at first, no doubt angry.  For it appeared Mary had betrayed him.  How else would she have become pregnant? She must have slept with another man.  And then to try and explain it away with such a cockamamie story!  But then, in time, as his initial anger subsides, he too may have felt she was going insane. 

But then Joseph has a dream.  He is visited by an angel and is told that Mary is playing it straight.  What she has told him is true.  She is indeed to give birth to the the one who will save the people.  And that, says the angel, that is why dear Joseph, you must name the child Jesus--for it means he saves.

And suddenly, overnight, the narrow world of Joseph's carpenter's shop with its wood and workbench and tools, suddenly expands into a reality he could never have imagined!  The presenting scene remains the same!  Rome is still in power.  Mary is still pregnant.  Taxes must be paid.  Sheep must be tended.  Yet now it takes on cosmic significance.  For beneath it all, through it all, in it all, God is at work! And that is cause for joy, deep seated joy.  For reality is greater, wider, broader than that which we can see!

I have seen some of life's hardships.  Yes, I've often asked why.  Yes, I've questioned, even doubted.  But whenever I have remembered the simple truth that reality is greater than what I can see, wider than what I can touch, deeper than what I can begin to know, whenever I remember that truth, then I have been given new strength to carry on.  Then I have known joy.  Not necessarily happiness.  I was not happy to see my grandmother fade away from Alzheimer's diesease.  I was not happy to see so many productive lives cut short by terror in the attacks on 9/11.  No, not happiness, but joy.  That underlying sense that in the end all will be well, despite appearances.  That underlying sense that God can, and will, sort it all out.  For I believe that the God who was revealed in a child of born to an unwed mother in an occupied land is always at work bringing about the good, the true, the eternal.  And, year after year, even in the face of personal or societal problems that seem overwhelming, it is because that broader view of reality, that Mary and Joseph view of reality, that I can sing with real conviction joy to the world, the Lord has come!      

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Farewell to Barbourville--Moving Mom

We moved Mother to Florida this week.  She'd lived in Barbourville, Kentucky, for twenty-eight years, and it was finally time to begin, what she calls, the last great adventure of her life.  Who knows if it will be the last one, but there is a sense of adventure about it all!

Barbourville, in the southeast corner of Kentucky, was (and is) a long way from the small Vermont town where she grew up.  But when she took a teaching position there at a small liberal arts college and began teaching English literature and grammar to would be teachers, business folks and others, she settled in.  So did my Dad, who after a four decade career as a pastor, started fresh teaching religion and speech at the same college.  They joined a church, began to make friends, and gained some notoriety as excellent professors.

But then their world was turned upside down when Dad was struck by a drunk driver and almost killed.  For seventeen sometimes long years, he was an invalid--a paraplegic, with serious brain injuries.  But, with a tremendous amount of volunteer help from church members and college friends, as well as some  terrific professional caregivers, Mother managed to keep him at home until he died of cancer in 2009.

When Dad's accident happened, Mother needed to learn to drive.  She had never gotten a driver's license.  So two or three friends taught her the rudiments of operating a car.  One of her coaches frequently took her to the local cemetery to practice.  "You all can't kill anybody here," he told her.  She was a good student, and got her license to drive.  I think through the years she was as proud of that license as she was her PhD!

She retired, and at seventy-five, took up the dulcimer!  She even played with a local group--the Knox County Porch Pickers.  Amazing!  She read voraciously (still does) and worked at the local historical society as a docent.  But all that started to change a bit ago.  She could no longer drive, and needed some extra help.  So the move to Florida where my wife Linda and I live. 

On the last full day we were in Barbourville, Mother and my brother Bob and I went to the cemetery where she had learned to drive, and where Dad is buried.  She wanted to tell him goodbye.  "He was my guy," she said.  And so he was.  She bought a single red rose, and placed it on the grave.  Not a whole bunch of roses, Dad was rather frugal, he wouldn't have approved of such extravagance.  So a single bud.  "I'm moving to Florida," she told him. She's made us promise to bury her ashes next to his when the time comes.  She even has a headstone next to his.  It's a promise none of us are eager to keep.  But when we need to do so we will.

We shared a few stories as we stood in the damp greyness of the late afternoon, and then we walked back to the car.  And the next morning, with some hired help, we packed up the truck, which Linda drove to Florida, and then we left town.

Somewhere on I-75 Mother said to me, "Barbourville seems so long ago now.  So far away."  And I know it is.  But I also know it will never be far from her heart.  She loved that little Appalachian town---and, as we saw so many, many times over the years, they loved her right back.
"Bless their hearts!" 

Monday, November 28, 2016

PATMOS: A Review

There is a lot I like about this C. Baxter Kruger's latest book Patmos, most especially his central thesis that "the assumption of separation is the great darkness."  (91)  I like the way he continually emphasizes his point that here in the West we have all too often believed the idea that we are separated from God and from one another.  But that, says Kruger, is a false notion.  We are not separate from God.  We are not separate from one another.  We just think we are.  It is a message that we need to hear often in post-election America!

But that said, there are things about the book that I find less appealing. 

It's basic premise in fairly straightforward.  The well-educated 21st century theologian, Aidan Williams, is magically sent back in time to Patmos, where he meets the Apostle John.  For three days they have an extended theological conversation focusing on many matters, but most especially on the Incarnation.  And, in the end, Aidan is returned to his own time and his own home.

I have no trouble with the idea of time travel.  It sets up intriguing possibilities like this one.  And while Kruger does recognize some of the incongruities it creates, his focus on things like slang expressions which would make no sense to a first century human being seems very forced in most instances.  In fact, it is distracting.  I suspect some of it is introduced to alleviate the heavy theological dialogue, a bit of leavening with humor, but it usually falls flat.  Especially the seventh-grade locker room jokes about flatulence. 

Kruger makes some assumptions about the Apostle John with which many scholars would disagree.  Not only the chronology of his life, but also, more significantly, crediting him with the authorship of all the Johannine material in the New Testament.  While it is true many conservative scholars would agree with his understanding that the John who wrote the Gospel of John is the same as the John who wrote the Book of Revelation, there are many others, of many theological persuasions, or no theological persuasion, who would disagree.

That said, there are some wonderful twists and turns in the book that make sense out of things that are often hard to comprehend.  The discussion John and Aidan have about the Trinity, with its emphasis on relationship, is truly enlightening.

I want tor recommend this book--for the sake of Kruger's central thesis.  But I hesitate--until I remember most of the action in Kruger's novel takes place in a cave.  And when you spend time in caves, if you are really  paying attention, you can usually find some gems.  Draw your own conclusion!  

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.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Thought for Thanksgiving: Enough to Eat

The church I served in Westport, CT has hosted a Community Thanksgiving Feast for decades.  Hundreds of folks every year enjoy music played by local musicians, and eat turkey with all the trimmings.  Dozens of volunteers shop and cook and set tables.  Dozens more procure donations and clean up after the last guest leaves.
For several years some of the finest support for the Feast came from the kids at two local schools.  The middle school kids raised a significant sum of money to help underwrite the Feast.  The elementary school children made table decorations and cards for each person who attends. 
I just loved reading those cards! They were often quite witty, and truly come from the heart.One of the cards one year featured a turkey on orange construction paper and read: “Dear Best Bud, Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you have a blast.  From Eliana.”
Another, decorated with colorful feathers, was very politically correct:  “Dear He or She”, it begins, “I hope you have a good Thanksgiving.”
A girl named Blythe must have been told by her teacher that some of the guests at the Feast come simply because they were all alone and wanted some company.  Her card, with an adorable brown turkey on blue construction paper, read: “Dear Friend, Happy Thanksgiving.  I hope you can find a friend after Thanksgiving so you can have a friend before the next Thanksgiving.”
Most of the cards, though, focused on the meal itself.  Alyssia wrote: “Have a Happy Thanksgiving.  Eat a lot of turkey.” And Jayan got right to the point: “Eat all the turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and pumpkin pie, even if you have to stuff yourself.”
Across the nation, many, many churches and community groups hold similar Thanksgiving meals.  Others, like the church I serve now, raise funds to buy turkeys or food baskets for those in need.  Most anyone and everyone can get enough to eat on Thanksgiving.  And that is a good thing, a very good thing indeed!  But that unfortunately doesn’t seem to be the case the other 364 days of the year.
Approximately 42.2 million Americans have, what the government calls, "low food security."  Put into plain English, that means from day to day they may not have enough to eat--or know from where their next meal will come.  They may be undernourished, malnourished, or just plain hungry.
I am grateful for congregations like the one in Westport, and the one I serve here on Sanibel, and for the good work they do at this time of the year.  And I am also grateful that both of them, and many other congregations as well, are involved in year round efforts to eliminate hunger in America (not to mention the rest of the world.)  But it will take far more.  It will take a national commitment to ending hunger here in our own nation.  It is time to say, "Enough!"  It is time to demand that our governmental officials do more to address this issue.  No child should go hungry--neither should any adult. Here in the United States, or anywhere else in the world.
As you share your Thanksgiving Dinner, I pray that you remember those who are not so richly blessed.  I pray that you be willing to take up the challenge to help eliminate hunger.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Loyal Opposition

My Dad and I did not always agree.  In fact we were often in opposite corners.  Our views of the world, and our views of Christianity, were not always in sync.  I would characterize myself as a progressive Christian--what some would call liberal.  My Dad was clearly an evangelical--what some would call conservative.  But we both had regard for the other.  And neither of us considered the other beyond the pale!  Our discussions could, and did, get rather heated at times, but they were always respectful and marked by the real love we had for each other.

Dad was an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, as am I.  And as such, his theology often put him in very much of a minority position when it came to denominational matters.  While my theology aligns with most of my colleagues in the Untied Church of Christ, Dad's did not.  But throughout his life he remained a part of the denomination that had ordained him to Christian ministry.  He often referred to himself as a member of the loyal opposition:  those who remain connected to the institution, who continue to respect it, yet who often find themselves at odds with its policies or positions, and who feel compelled to speak out against them.  That was Dad.

I raise this issue of loyal opposition because in the time ahead I suspect that's where I will find myself as various issues, ranging from abortion rights and healthcare to same-sex marriage and immigration, are addressed by our national leaders.  I will more than likely be a part of the loyal opposition.  I have enormous respect for our nation.  I have enormous respect for democracy.  And those we have elected will be those who hold key roles in the system.  But I will not remain silent if I feel the rights and needs of the marginalized, the oppressed, the downtrodden, are being ignored.  I will speak up.  I will speak out.

I am a Christian.  I am an American.  And I am proud to own both labels.  But, I will not sit idly by if the rights and privileges I enjoy as a white Christian male are denied to others due to their sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, or nation of origin.  I will, I suspect often, be a member of the loyal opposition. 

(The photo above was taken with my Dad sometime in the late eighties.)

Monday, November 7, 2016

Lighten Up, America!

"What the country needs is a good big laugh."--Herbert Hoover

I think we've lost our sense of humor.  How else can you explain the hatred and vitriol that has filled this campaign season.  We have lost our sense of humor and our ability to laugh at ourselves.  I know, better than some I suspect, just how serious our situation is as a nation and as a world.  I know that global warming is real.  That the refugee situation is at a real crisis point.  That terrorism threatens lives every day.  I know that race relations are in a very poor state right now.  That poverty is reality for many.  That the tax code is a mess.   I know all that.  And I take it very seriously (as any regular reader of this blog can tell you).  These are issues we need to tackle.  These are things we need to address.  But we can't do anything as long as we are tearing each other apart.  For taking the state-of-the-nation and of the world seriously, is different than taking ourselves seriously.  We really need to lighten up!  We need to recognize that we all have flaws and foibles, that we are not perfect, and sometimes what we do and say is simply ridiculous.

Maybe after the election is over, the ballots are counted and winners are declared, we will be able to step back, realize we really messed things up in the season of name-calling.  Maybe we will take it all as a wake-up call.  Maybe we will realize that we need to begin treating one another with respect; that we need to try a bit harder to really love and care about our neighbors, even those with whom we disagree.  Maybe especially those with whom we disagree.  Maybe we'll do all that.

But at least we can take time out to laugh.  To really have a good, deep belly laugh.  Not a snarky snicker.  Not a smarmy giggle.  But a real laugh. 

We've come out on the other side of what commentators are now referring to as the Great Recession, but Herbert Hoover was all knotted up in the Great Depression.  Yet he was able to say, maybe even with a straight face, ""If someone could get off a good joke every ten days, I think our troubles would be over."  OK--maybe more often than that.  But still.  We need to ease up on ourselves, and especially on one another.  Seriously! 

(Photo:  Herbert Hoover and his dog, King Tut)

Monday, October 31, 2016

Down to the Wire

So it comes down to the wire.  While folks are already casting their ballots by mail or in early voting, many polls indicate that this year's presidential sweepstakes is too close to call.  Some years it is harder to believe that every vote counts, but this year it is patently clear.  Your voice, your vote, matters.

For some folks the choice has been clear from the start.  There has been no question who to vote for--or at least, who to vote against.  But others have found themselves on the horns of a dilemma.  They have not been enamored with either of the two major candidates, nor the two other folks on the ballot.  They have felt the need to choose between, in the words of some, the lesser of two evils.  But choose we must.  It is not only the privilege we who are citizens of this nation enjoy--it is also one of our responsibilities.  If this is truly to be a government by and of the people, with any chance at being a government for the people, we must be willing to participate.  And the most concrete way we can do so is by casting a ballot.

I've written before in this space about our obligation as people of faith to use whatever gifts we have been given in the best way we can.  So I won't wax on about stewardship again.  But I will remind us all that we can and should base our choices on our own values--and for people of faith, that means our moral, faith-based values.  Yours may be different from mine, but I would still hope you base your decision on your values.  It is the only way one can be a person of integrity. 

Facebook has been full of thoughtless, mean-spirited and just plain juvenile posts this campaign season.  But an old college dorm-mate of mine recently put up a very wise post.  I quote it here in part, with thanks to Stew Wolfe: 

"Educate yourselves on what the issues are.

Decide if you are happy with either candidates stand on the issues that matter to you.

Don't listen to the polls, political pundits, or those trying to sway you.

Listen to your heart of hearts, and your conscience.

Cast your ballot!

This country is a Representative Union. Many people have sacrificed much to give you the right to choose whom you want to represent you. Don't do them a disservice by staying home.

If Clinton more closely represents your views, vote for her. If Trump more closely represents you views, vote for him. You don't have to like everything about your candidate, but you do need to choose!"

I couldn't have said it better, Stew.  That's why I didn't try to!

Just vote.

Monday, October 24, 2016

What I Learned from Dolphins

OK--so anyone who knows me understands that patience is not one of my long suits!  In fact, truth be told, I can be very impatient!  In one of my first letters of reference the president of my seminary praised my work as a budding preacher, but ended his letter by noting "John will need to learn that patience is a virtue."  That was almost forty years ago!  I'm still learning!

Right at the moment we are getting my mother prepared to move down here to Florida from the town she has called home for almost three decades.  There are a ton of details, and many things to be arranged financially, legally, medically, logistically . . . and some of the details can't be rushed.  They just have to unfold in their own time. 

Last week I was particularly caught up in some of those details, and I found myself getting rather irritable.  I am delighted Mother is moving here, but I just wanted things to happen more quickly.  I didn't want to wait for this person or that person to make a decision, or to take an action.  I wanted it all to happen NOW! 

Late in the week my brother Bob was here for a very short visit.  He lives in Marquette, Michigan, and while he had been to Florida before, it had been quite some time ago, and, needless to say, its a rather different world down here from the Frozen North!

My wife Linda and I decided to take him out for a tour of Sanibel and Captiva on a boat called "The Thriller!"  While there are no guarantees, the Thriller prides itself on finding dolphins at play in  the Gulf.  It was a two hour trip, and as we went along, no dolphins.  Forty-five minutes, and all the way up the Gulf side of the islands, no dolphins.  Across the pass, and down into San Carlos Bay.  One hour.  No dolphins.  I was getting pretty antsy.  We'd  promised Bob some dolphins.  It would be a long cold winter in Marquette without them! 

Seventy-five minutes in, still no dolphins. 

Suddenly, the captain slowed down the engines, usually a sign that dolphins have been spotted.  We circled slowly, when without much warning, a dolphin's fin was seen on the surface, and then another, and another.  And then one of them breached--practically flew into the air!  Soon a pod of seven or eight dolphins, including two adorable juveniles, were frolicking in the boat's wake.  More dolphins than I had ever seen at one time.  It was amazing!  Incredible!  breathtaking!  And brother Bob was spellbound.

And it was right then and there on the boat that I realized while the details of Mother's move may still take some time to iron out, the old saying is true:  Good things do come to those who wait.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Giant Meteors and the Right to Vote

Recently I saw a post on Facebook that read:  "Clinton and Trump are like two divorced parents fighting over who gets custody off us--and we just want to go to Grandmas!" 

On the side of the road on my way to work I saw a lawn sign that looked like your standard political campaign sign, but where it would normally say a candidates name, it said "Giant Meteor 2016" and then in smaller letters a "campaign" slogan:  "Let's just end it all now!"

Talk about dark humor!  Still, such things illustrate that while there are indeed ardent supporters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as well as third party candidates Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, many, many Americans aren't very happy with any of them.  Again and again polls show a very high percentage of voters feel unfavorably about the candidates.  All of them.

So for many voters, there is a dilemma. For whom should I cast my ballot?  Do I pick a candidate simply to keep the others from winning?  Do I opt for the lesser of two (or three or four) evils?  Do I stick with my party--even if I don't like my party's nominee?  Do I vote based on the Vice Presidential nominees, and ignore the choices for President?   Or maybe, only vote for folks "down ballot"--candidates for the Senate, Congress, state and local offices, leaving the top spots blank?  Or--and for many I suspect this is an attractive option--do I just skip voting altogether this year. 

I've already made up my mind how I'm going to vote--but it's not mine to tell you how you should cast your ballot.  However, as a pastor, as a person of faith, it is mine to suggest we are called to be good stewards of every gift we have been granted.  And for those of us fortunate enough to live in a democracy, one of the greatest gifts we've been given is the right to vote.  I won't be coy and say I don't care HOW you vote.  That wouldn't be true.  But what I care about even more is IF you vote. 

I know for many it feels like a Hobson's choice.  I know for many it feels like being between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  But such is life.  Life's choices are often less than ideal.  But still we must make them.  And while that giant meteor may come crashing down on us before November 8, I really doubt it.  So vote.  Whatever else you do on the second Tuesday of November, use that precious gift and vote!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Camelot--Never Really Was, Never Really Should Be!

All weekend I kept thinking of a song from the 1960 musical Camelot.  Based on T. H. White's The Once and Future King the musical recounts the story of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and the knights of the Round Table, most particularly Sir Lancelot.  The 1960 production of the Lerner and Lowe classic featured several outstanding performers, including Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and in his Broadway debut, Robert Goulet.  It is a tale of political intrigue and sexual attraction, class divisions and warfare, and the wistful dreams of a world imagined but never fully realized.

The song running through my mind all weekend is sung by King Arthur in the first act as he puzzles his way through his relationship to the Queen.  "How to handle a woman," he sings, " . . .   Do I flatter her . . . do I threaten or cajole or plea, do I brood or play the gay romancer?"

See why it has been running through my mind?  Clearly, it is a question many have been asking over the last few days as we have endured political shenanigans unlike any we've seen in our own lifetimes.  But no matter what your answer to the question (which in the play is the rather charming "merely love her") there is a basic problem.  For it is a flawed question!  A question which grows out of a patriarchal culture.  After all, the marriage between Arthur and Guinevere was an arranged marriage!  The question assumes that women need to be handled. But the reality is women need to be respected and treated with dignity.  Women need to be seen as full human beings, with all the rights and privileges of society. Turning a woman into a sexual object isn't respecting her.  It is denigrating her. And assuming a woman's life only finds meaning if she stands in relationship to a man--her father, her husband, her son--fails to recognize her unique worth as an individual.

How to handle a woman?  Don't!  Don't handle her.  Rather, respect her.  Deal with her as an equal.  It may not make for much of a musical, but it will make for a better world.  For all women and men--not to mention girls and boys.  For it is only when we truly respect one another that we can even begin to merely love. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Why There Is No School--for Some

Yesterday my wife Linda and I joined my oldest son and his family to celebrate the fourteenth birthday of one of our grandchildren.  Actually, it was a day ahead of schedule, her actual birthday is today. October 3, which this year falls on Rosh Hashanah,  She attends a public school here in Lee County, and so has today off from classes due to the Jewish New Year.  She was delighted.

My oldest grandson though was not.  He attends a Roman Catholic high school, which is not closed today.  "That's not fair," he said, "We should have it off too!  After all, Jesus was Jewish!"  We all chuckled, and agreed, what he said made perfect sense.

Reflecting on  it though, I was reminded that despite all the work that has been done in recent years to "recover" the Jewishness of Jesus, work that has been done by both Jewish and Christian scholars, many people forget, and some, sadly, do not even know, that Jesus was indeed a Jew.  A practicing Jew. 

One of the scholars who has been at the forefront of this movement is Amy-Jill Levine, of Vanderbilt.  In her book The Misunderstood Jew she reminds readers of the importance of understanding Jesus in his first-century Jewish context.  "By seeing Jesus as a Jew with regard to both belief and practice, Christians can develop a deeper appreciation for the teachings of the church."

I agree.  And while I understand why my oldest grandson is in school today, despite his wishes, I wonder if any of his Christian teachers are taking advantage of this "teachable moment" and helping him and his fellow students better understand Jesus as a Jew?

For all my Jewish friends, Shavnah Tovah--Happy New Year!  And for those of us who are Christian, let us find in the High Holidays a reminder of our Jewish roots.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Hearing God in Conversation: A Review

For the past dozen years my denomination, the United Church of Christ, has used the motto "God is still speaking . . . "  So it makes sense that I might be drawn to a book titled Hearing God in Conversation.  After all, if it's true, if God is indeed still speaking, who wouldn't want to hear what God is saying?

I wouldn't characterize Samuel Williamson's book as a how-to manual, despite it's half-title (How to Recognize His Voice Everywhere).  He is very careful throughout the book to offer up caveats.  For instance, in a chapter on learning how to recognize God's voice, Williamson warns that we need to remember that "it isn't always God's voice" that we hear.  And that we need to learn "to distinguish the voice of God from the voices of sleep-depravation, stress, or fleshly desires."  (53)  He even echoes Charles Dickens at one point when he writes that what we think comes from God may really come "from a poorly digested potato . . . ." (Ibid)

The book is well-written, and exhibits a real sense of humor at times, even a bit of self-deprecation now and then.  And while it is clear discerning God's voice is a very serious matter for Williamson, he does not take himself too seriously.  In a chapter called "Brainstorming with God" he ends his description of this process of divine-human interaction with a cautionary note:  "don't get hung up on trifles.  Not all decisions in life call for divine consultation."  (85)

All that said, though, I did find myself rather annoyed by Williamson's exclusivistic God language.  He, him, his . . . never once does God get referred to using feminine pronouns.  Even gender-neutral words are seldom employed for the Holy One.  Reading Williamson's book leaves one with the distinct impression that hearing God's voice is like listening to a loving and wise grandfather.  In fairness, Williamson does elaborate on a wide variety of channels through which God communicates.  But in general, the male imagery dominates.

As a progressive Christian I also would note that I have some issue with Williamson's approach to the scriptures.  "It is only in Scripture," he writes at one juncture," that we can be sure, absolutely certain, that we have real truth, from God's lips to our ears."  (54)  That is not how I understand the Bible--not at all.  Williamson also suggests that God wrote the Bible.  I realize he doesn't mean that the Holy One literally took pen in  hand and scratched out Genesis, but still, this does not jive with my understanding (which of course, could be wrong) that the scriptures were written by human beings, inspired by their encounters with God.

Still, for all our differences of theology--and some of them are significant-I did find Williamson's book helpful.  I especially appreciated his emphasis on prayer needing to grow out of our relationship with God.  "In seeking to hear God," he writes, "we are seeking to know [God]--not just to know about God but to meet [God] and to know [God] as [God] really is."  (131)

Williamson's book is not for everyone.  Some folks sharing my basic theological positions, will be so put off by the exclusive language and the approach to scriptures that Williamson takes, that they will be unable to find any of the nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout this work.  For me, it proved to be a reminder that I should never close myself off to listening to those with very different views and understandings, for sometimes they have important things for me to hear and to learn.  Sometimes they may even convey a word from God--who is, after all, still speaking.

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.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Where's the Other Sock?

One sock, left stranded on Summerlin Road in Fort Myers, just a matter of yards from the Sanibel Causeway.  Who knows where the other one went--I have a picture of someone, suddenly looking down at his feet and saying, "My sock!  Where's my sock!"  Unfortunately, it was just one of many items of clothing, including a couple of hats, and amazingly, even a bathing suit, that my Rotary Club's cleanup crew found strewn along the one-mile stretch of road that we are responsible for tending to once a month.  And that, of course, does not even take into account the several large bags of papers, candy bar wrappers, plastic water bottles and empty beer cans that were cast out windows by thoughtless travelers.

We do it every third Saturday.  You'll see our club's name on one of those "Adopt-a-Highway" signs.  Its a messy job at times, one gets rather hot and sticky whilst doing it.  I noticed one of my compatriots slapping his calves, brushing away about twenty ants that were making their way up his leg. 

As it turns out, this month's clean-up occurred on the same day as the nationwide coastal clean-up day, when thousands of folks took to the beaches and byways to pick up trash and litter.  A fine, fine effort.

I'm proud of my club's dedication to this task--and it always feels good to be a part of it.  But it also makes me very sad--and even a bit angry.  When will we learn to recycle, reuse and reduce?  Ladybird Johnson, way back in the sixties, emphasized keeping America beautiful.  And, yes, that's an important part of efforts such as ours.  But today we realize litter has a far greater impact on the environment than mere aesthetics.

Sometime before I joined the club, our monthly effort was dubbed "roadkill"--someone's slightly twisted bit of humor!  (We like to laugh in my Rotary Club--it's part of what keeps me active in it!)  But that moniker is also a reminder that our treatment of the roadsides and beaches can kill if we don't, pardon the pun, clean-up our act!

Let me know if you'd like to join us some Saturday.  Or better yet, invite your congregation, civic group, Scout troop or bridge club to take on a section of highway themselves!  And, if you see someone limping along with just one sock, let me know!

Monday, September 12, 2016

The "E" Word

I just finished reading a book written by Dan Kimball.  Kimball is a leader in the emerging church movement, and has written extensively about the millennial generation and their relationship (or lack thereof) with the church.  The book in question is titled, They Like Jesus, But Not the Church.  Essentially the book is based on what can best be described as anecdotal research.  Kimball interviewed (rather extensively) a number of millennials who are not churchgoers.

I read the book, in part, because I like and trust the parishioner who gave it to me--and value her opinion.  She thought it was a worthwhile read.  And it was.  And though one cannot say conclusively that Kimball has figured out what's going on in terms of the lack of twenty-somethings in our pews, I think he has put his finger on a number of issues.

Basically, it boils down to this.  While some of his interviewees had some experience with churches, most of that proved to be negative.  Others were speaking strictly as outsiders, with opinions of the church largely shaped by the media and the Internet. 

So what were their complaints, their issues, their concerns?  Well, here's the list as summarized by Kimball:  the church is . . . an organized religion with a political agenda; judgmental and negative; dominated by males and oppressive of females; homophobic; arrogantly claiming all other religions are wrong, and full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally.

Obviously, his subjects haven't been involved with my congregation.  While I think there are reasons
why younger people aren't filling our pews, few if any of the concerns articulated by Kimball are true of this particular faith community.  But that doesn't mean we aren't tarred by the same brush.  And if the truth be told, we know it.  I suspect some of my parishioners hesitate to identify themselves as Christians, or as active churchgoers, precisely because they don't want to be mistaken for misogynistic fundamentalists who hate gay people.  Even more may say something like, "I go to church, but it is not one of those fundamentalist churches, you know?"

I guess, in the end, those of us who are a part of progressive, mainline congregations and denominations need to do a better job of getting out our story.  People need to know there are alternatives to what they may see portrayed on television or online. 

Here's part of the message we print on the cover of our bulletin every week:  "If you are looking for a friendly church . . . where you will be loved and accepted regardless of age, class, race, ethnicity or orientation . . . where you will be challenged to reflect on your beliefs, acknowledge your doubts, ask your questions and grow in your faith . . . where God's desire for compassion, healing, reconciliation, justice and joy is preached . . .where you are given the opportunity to put your faith into action through effective outreach ministries . . . then we hope to get to know you as a new friend."

There's just one problem, of course, people have to come through the doors to get a bulletin to see the message.  Ultimately, though we do post such messages on Facebook, on our website, and through this blog, ultimately, it falls to each of us here on Sanibel, and wherever progressive Christians are found, to have the courage to share that message.

There's an old-fashioned word for it.  One we progressives tend to shy away from.  It's evangelism--which after all means sharing the Good News.  And part of the good news is that not every church is like those you see on television!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

There's No Place Like Home . . .

Earlier this summer my wife Linda and I took four of our granddaughters to a stage production of The Wizard of Oz.  Following the same script as the revered 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, the cast sang and danced their way from Kansas to Oz and back again.

No doubt you'll remember that when Dorothy wants to return to Kansas near the end of the play she is instructed by Glinda, the Good Witch, to click the heels of her ruby red slippers together while chanting "There's no place like home, there's no place like home . . . ."

As I write this Linda and I are headed to our home, back to Southwest Florida, after a three week road trip.  It's been a good trip, despite a few bumps along the way including some sickness, a death in the family and a rearranged itinerary.  But still, we are both eager to get back to our house, our church, our friends, our cat and our Florida family.  There truly is no place like home.

But this trip has reminded me how very, very personal and particular home can be.  We've stayed with several friends and my mother.  We've visited with our daughter Elizabeth and her family, my brother Mark and his family, and many other family members and friends.  And in most instances we have been places folks considered their home.  Boston and Newburyport, MA.  Lincoln and David City, NE.  Barbourville, KY.  Andover, OH.  Gloversville and Broadalbin, NY.  And more.  All places called by somebody we love "home".

They say "home is where the heart is"--but I wonder, for there is a bit of my heart in all these places--and other places as well.  So maybe we've been home all along. 

Now, if somebody could do something about the hundreds and hundreds of miles on the highway . . .
say, maybe if I just click my heels together . . . .

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Traveling with Jesus

Middle America is different from the coasts--so is the Deep South.  Sometimes, as a life long Easterner, I forget that reality.  Folks in places like Tennessee and Kentucky are much more willing to wear their faith on their sleeves--or in some cases, as above, on their vehicles.  As I sat waiting for Linda in a parking lot in northern Georgia, I was amazed to see a white pick up truck a few rows away, with the words "Thank God I'm a Christian," emblazoned on the tailgate.

Later that same day, I was passed on the highway by a tractor trailer, decorated with a variety of Christian symbols and mottos, including "To God Be the Glory," again in red letters, this time on the side of a white cab, and, on the mud flaps, "Jesus Saves."  Somehow that seemed especially appropriate!

I am grateful to be a follower of Jesus, but I'm not sure I'd call it a point of pride.  Rather it means humbly recognizing that I can't do it on my own.  That I need guidance, that I need help.  Perhaps that is all the fellow with the pick up truck means as he proclaims he's a Christian.  But I'm not sure I would read it that way if I was not.  I might see it as a bit of braggadocio--as a boast.  I'm a Christian--I'm saved. 

Maybe that's why I like those mud flaps.  If you'll pardon the pun, they seem much more down to earth.  Jesus' wise words save me from the messes I might otherwise get into.  Indeed, the way of Jesus even saves me from myself!  But that said, I'm not about to get my car painted with a cross--nor am I about to get a set of mud flaps.   I'll just keep traveling with Jesus in my own way.  And hopefully, though that won't show up on my vehicle, it will show up in how I live.   

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Mother's Bucket List

Regular readers of this blog will remember that last summer I took my mother to Wichita, Kansas, to visit Eighth Day Books, a bookstore she has done business with for years over the phone and through the mail.  It was a great trip, and the first item on her bucket list. 

Earlier, my wife Linda had suggested she make such a list of trips she would like to take so that we could help make them happen.

"What's a bucket list?" asked Mother.

Fortunately, she is a pretty frank person, or else explaining the term to an eighty-three year old might have been something of a challenge.

"Well," we explained, "it means a list of things you want to do before you, well, you know . . . before you kick the bucket."

My retired English professor mother loves a good simile or metaphor, and so caught on I

She gave it some thought and came up with at least two other ideas.  First, she wanted to go to Red Cloud, Nebraska.  Red Cloud, you ask.  It is the childhood home of novelist Willa Cather, and Mother has her PhD from the University of Nebraska--but she'd never made it to Red Cloud.

So the wheels were set in motion, and this past weekend, Linda, Mother and I all set out for Nebraska.  While there we spent time with my youngest brother Mark and his family, and on Saturday, Mother and I, accompanied by my niece Jennie, hit the road and drove across 150 miles of prairie to Red Cloud.

More about the day itself in another post--for now, I'll simply say it was a big success.

The next day Mother was a little teary.  "Well," she said, "I guess that was end of my bucket list."

"No," I quickly reminded her, "there was another trip on the list.  You wanted to go to Boston one more time." 

Immediately she brightened up.  "Boston!" she said, "That's right!  You know it's like Jerusalem for me!"  And so it is.

So Lord willing, we'll make that trip to the city of baked beans, cod fish and the Red Sox in the coming year.

Bucket lists.  It's really never to early to make one--so what's on yours?  Dream big!  Dream wild!  But most importantly, dream now!

(Photo L to R:  Jennie, Mother and me on the porch of Willa Cather's childhood home in Red Cloud)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Going Solar

I will be on vacation at the time of the Florida primary for local and statewide offices, so I recently procured an absentee ballot.  I have a few choices to make in terms of the county school board and the supervisor of elections (a more hotly contested position here in Florida than in most places I suspect), as well as United States Senator.  There is also a proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution on the ballot.  It would mend Articles VII and XII of the Constitution and add language to provide tax exemptions around the installation of solar or renewable energy devices.

I'm a big fan of solar--especially here in the so-called Sunshine State.  It makes a lot of sense. And such an amendment would make it modestly more attractive from a financial perspective.  But still, I don't think folks are going to "go solar" for strictly financial reasons.  Indeed, some studies indicate a very long time is needed to recoup such investments.  No, I think the better argument is a moral argument. 

Solar (and other forms of renewable energy) is a gift for our children.  It is a gift for our planet.  And when one gives a gift, while budget does factor in, other considerations are more important.  And in the end, many gifts don't seem to make a lot of sense economically, at least not in the short run.  You give a gift out of love, or respect, or just because you care.  So it may have to be with solar installations, and all other environmental measures.  We do them out of love for our children and respect for the Earth.  We do them because we care.

I will vote "Yes" on the proposed amendment.  But what else do I need to do?  What do I need to do about solar? 

Monday, August 8, 2016


I am a regular supporter of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).  I have been for years.  They have often been at the forefront of the effort to expose and disable organizations promoting various hate-filled agendas. 

Recently SPLC sent out a booklet to its supporters titled Ten Ways to Fight Hate. It lists and elaborates on ten actions individuals and organizations can undertake to help create a more loving world.  Suggestions include lobbying leaders for changes in laws, teaching tolerance and speaking up.  All of which are solid ideas, and proven methods for combating racism, sexism, and other forms of hate.

Very realistically the booklet acknowledges that things like hate rallies will continue in the future.  Indeed, as the booklet's writers state, "Hate has a first amendment right." But, they go on to suggest,  "Create an Alternative."  For while they don't state it this way, love, too, has a first amendment right!  It is one thing to engage in the anti-hate conversation with yet more hate and anger.  "What a bunch of idiots!"  "That candidate is a real jerk!" And so on and so on.  Ever pushing us further into the mud and dirt of despair.

But creating an alternative--one rooted in love, one rooted in compassion, one rooted in goodness--now that is an approach that might make a real difference. 

So what alternative can you create?  How can you engage in something good, something positive, something that will contribute to greater understanding, greater tolerance and maybe even greater love?

Monday, August 1, 2016

Two Roads Diverged . . . Which Way America?

This past weekend my wife Linda and I had the joy of hosting our entire family at a cookout and pool party to (belatedly) celebrate our thirtieth anniversary.  As readers of this blog probably know, we have a rather eclectic family.  We are a blended family to begin with, and then in the next generations things got even more complicated.  We've got biological grandchildren, and adopted grandchildren, and step-grandchildren.  We've got grandkids who live with one parent, others who live with two.  We've got white grandchildren, and black ones as well.  And we love them all.  And worry about them as well.  We worry about them as individuals--who's having trouble in school, who can't seem to make friends, the usual stuff.  But we also worry about them as part of a generation, a generation that will inherit the world we leave behind.

Near the end of our time together some of us went on a walk around our neighborhood.  My youngest granddaughter and I were up ahead of the others when the picture was taken that accompanies this blog.  It was only later that I knew she'd even taken it.  And it was after looking at it several times that I realized it provides something a visual parable.  Look closely, and you'll see my granddaughter and I are about to come to a fork in the road.  I have her by the hand, and I'm about to lead her one way or the other.  In fact she wanted to go to the right, but I told her we needed to stay to the left, so that eventually we'd get back home.  She happily acquiesced, and about twenty minutes later we arrived at home.  A bit sweaty (it was July in Florida after all) and having had a good conversation about life in general. 

You see, what's a bit unsettling, is that she trusted me--completely.  She doesn't really know my neighborhood.  She could have easily gotten lost.  She could have gone down the wrong road, or gotten herself turned around.  And never reached home.  But Pop Pop was there to guide her, to take her by the hand and make sure we went in the direction we needed to go to get home safely.

So here's the unsettling part. As I see it  we (as a nation) are at a pretty big fork in the road .  We can choose to be people of love, or we can choose to be people of hate.  We can promote the worth and dignity of all human beings, or we can denigrate folks because of their religion, their race, their physical or mental limitations.  As adults, the choice is ours to make.  But make no mistake, the direction we head off in, will set the course for our children and their children as well.

We are holding the hands of our children, they trust us to know the right direction, so which way, America?  Which way? 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Today, Not Tomorrow

It has happened again, and this time in my own backyard.  A mass shooting.  The details, as I write this, are sketchy, but the basics are clear:  two teenagers lie dead, and sixteen more folks (between the ages of twelve and twenty-seven) were injured, because bullets flew last night at a local club in Fort Myers.  The boys were fourteen and sixteen, and attending a birthday party.  A birthday party.  Three suspects have been apprehended, but as of now no motive has been identified.

I realize that the issues may be very, very complicated.  I've said as much on this very blog.  But one fact is clear:  guns were involved.  Guns.  I really want to be objective here.  I really want to avoid sounding like someone who thinks the 2nd Amendment should be repealed.  I really want to support the rights of hunters to engage in their sport.  I really want to find compromises that will work.  But the fact remains.  Once again, guns--not knives, not bows and arrows, not fists, not bombs, not poison, not slingshots--but guns were involved.  And frankly, there are just too many of them out there.  Too many guns which are too readily accessible. 

On average, 297 people are shot everyday in America.  Every single day.  On average, 89 people die because of gun violence.  In America.  In places like Baton Rouge and Dallas and Newtown and Orlando and Chicago and Fort Myers. (News-Press, 7-3-16, 5B)  And we have got to do something about it. We've got to have the courage to stand up to the gun lobby and say "Enough!  Fourteen and sixteen year olds shouldn't be dying because of gunfire.  Twelve year olds should be able to go to a birthday party and not be injured by bullets."

It is not hopeless.  It is not inevitable.  It doesn't have to happen.  But it will unless we do something.  Of course we need to do address race relations.  Yes, we need to address the poor state of our mental health system.  Yes we need to address the problems of police relations with minority communities. But we also need to address the reality that there are just too many guns in America.  Too many guns and too many ways to get hold of them.

Today, not tomorrow, today, each and every one of us who are concerned need to write to our representatives in government and say stop dithering.  Have the courage to stand up for what's right.  Because tomorrow it will be too late for 89 more people.  And some of them may be only fourteen

Monday, July 18, 2016

God in the Knick Knacks

Propped up against my computer screen are four prayer cards--one that has a reproduction of Rembrandt's The Prodigal, another with a detail from Sassetta's, The Ecstasy of St., Francis, yet another with an icon of St. Francis and finally, a card that has a stylized version of the Beatitudes on it.  In front of the cards stand two little figurines.  One is an angel, playing an accordion.  It was given to me by the wife of a woman named Marge who died a number of years ago from cancer.  The other is a clown that my Dad gave to me long, long ago.

I have all these things in front of the monitor to remind me of why I spend my life the way that I do.  For each in its own way, reminds me of things that are truly important.  And on this particular day, as I reflect on the ongoing violence that has captured our nation's attention, in some strange way, they anchor me in my faith.

The Rembrandt reminds me of the simple reality that so many times in my life, I have been like the prodigal, needing to be embraced and accepted, forgiven and loved, by God--and by so many others.  I too have squandered some of the precious things of life.  But like the prodigal, I am given a second chance--time and again!  It also reminds me that I am called to also be like the father in the painting.  I am to be loving and accepting and forgiving, even of those who have harmed me.

And why?  Well, in part, as the Beatitudes card points out, such an approach to life leads to blessing.  Blessing for me, blessing for others.

St. Francis, as is the case with many people, is my favorite "official" saint.  I share so many of his values, and like Francis am devoted to working for the health and well-being of the church and the world.  I often fall short.  And I have nowhere near the courage that he had when it comes to confronting those in power.  But that's why we have saints--to hold out an ideal--to give us something to which we can inspire.

The little angel with the accordion?  I hate accordion music!  But I sure loved the woman it represents.  Marge was a spirit-filled soul, who faced death with great integrity.  And her wife, the one who gave me the figurine, stood by her to the very end, with great, great love.  The angel reminds me every day, that being faithful to my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my m
other and the rest of my family, is indeed, a lifelong commitment.

And the clown.  I really loved my Dad.  So very, very much.  And I think he gave me the clown because he and I both sometimes wore masks--in front of each other, and as we faced into the world.  But beneath those masks, he and I were much the same.  Two souls, trying to work for a better world, a more peaceful world, a more just world, a more faithful world. 

None of that is very profound, but it does serve to keep some pretty important things before me every time I sit down at my desk.  And after all, sometimes God is found in the details--even in the knick knacks.