Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Coming Back from Bethlehem

"You sail out across the sea, but it's when you make your return that you
may discover what you have been seeking is in fact inside yourself."
--Erling Kagge

In some way or another I think that may be the core message of Christmas, the core truth of the Incarnation. Each year we travel to Bethlehem pnly to disover that the baby is still in the manger, that God still affirms the basic reality that we hold within this fragile frame called human life the very things we so long for, the peace, hope, joy and love we speak of during Advent.  God, we discover, or rediscover, is with us.  Emmanuel.  God is still saying YES to humanity.

Amazing, isn't it?  After all we have done to ourselves, after all the ways we have allowed hatred, violence, greed and fear to dominate our world, God has not given up on us!  The answer still resides within us!

Ann Weems, in her lovely collection of Christmas-themed poems titled Kneeling in Bethlehem, reminds us that "we've been warned in a dream" when we leave our annual Christmas celebration, our annual jo
urney to Bethlehem, we are "to return another way."

That way, I am convinced, is a way of peace and justice, a way of joy and love, a way of hope--a way that was hidden within us along.

Might we rededicate ourselves to living lives marked by the presence of the Holy.  Might we rededicate ourselves to living out of the human goodness God affirms in the Incarnation.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Star Wars and Bethlehem

Last Thursday I joined my oldest son and my youngest grandson at an Opening Night showing of the new Star Wars film The Last Jedi--technically, Episode VIII.  It was a terrific three generation bonding experience.  Chris, my grandson, seemed to especially enjoy the various light saber duals, my son enjoyed seeing his son having such a good time, and I was caught up in some of the subtler parts of the story.  Though, truth be told, it makes a great three generation experience because there isn
't really a lot of subtly about it!

Don't worry, I am not about to offer up any spoilers, but I was especially drawn to a line uttered fairly near the end of the film by one of the newly featured characters in this episode, Rose Tico.  At a crucial point in the story, she says, "Don't fight what you hate, save what you love."

That has been floating around in my head ever since I heard it last Thursday.  And the more I've thought about it the more I've come to realize it really sums up the meaning of Christmas.  Granted, quite unintentionally!

The central theological idea of Christmas is incarnation.  The notion that God takes on human flesh to show us how to live.  And not powerful human flesh, but the vulnerable flesh of a baby.  A baby who grows up to be a marginalized figure in a marginalized community.  God doesn't appear to us in the form of a general or a mighty warrior, God comes as the son of a carpenter, born of a peasant woman, destined to be a homeless, wandering Jew.  One who teaches that love is the answer to our problems.  God comes to us in the manger at Bethlehem not to fight what God hates, (evil, injustice, war and violence)--not atg all.  God comes to save what God loves.  People.  All manner of people. 

I realize, Star Wars, as the name of the film series implies, involves a lot of battles and much violence.  But I wonder if it's real message is tied up in the words of Rose Tico?

Don't fight what you hate, save what you love.

Have a blessed Christmas, dear readers. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Jesus, Joy and Witchita


A few years back I flew out to Witchita, Kansas, to preside at my nephew's wedding.  And while I was there I found Jesus.  Right there in the middle of the country, on a very cold weekend in December.  Even more amazingly, I spotted him in the airport. 

 
I was reading the paper and Linda was knitting when a family of Hispanic folks settled into the spaces around us, and the matriarch of the family sat right beside Linda and struck up a conversation.

 
The family had all been in Wichita for her grandson’s graduation from college, and now they were headed back to Austin.  She, it turns out, had immigrated to the States with her late husband many years ago, and her children were all born here, as were her grandkids.  Her late husband had been a professional baseball player, a pitcher, and her grandson, a budding shortstop, hoped to follow in his footsteps.  As they spoke to each other, the family members easily moved back and forth between English and Spanish—clearly enjoying the time together.

 
We noticed that one of the young men, the best friend of the matriarch’s grandson, was dressed in boots and a cowboy hat, and sitting in a wheelchair, with a cast which stretched from his ankle to his hip.  He’d broken it shortly before the trip to Wichita, she told us, but he was doing well.  Then she chuckled.  We looked at her a bit puzzled, and she explained.

 
“While we were here,” she said, “We went to Wal-Mart, and there was one of those Salvation Army red kettles out front.  The bell ringer was giving it her best, but everybody just walked by—nobody gave her a thing.  So Juan, he’s the one in the wheelchair, he wheeled up beside her, put in a dollar, and then he started to sing “Feliz Navidad”.  He sang and sang, and pretty soon, folks started throwing in money—almost more than the ringer could handle.”  And with that she chuckled again.  And so did we—for we realized that we’d spotted Jesus, seen a touch of the holy, right there in Wichita.  We saw God at work through a Hispanic man in a wheelchair, and a faithful bell ringer for the Salvation Army, and a grandmother mother who was willing to tell the story to strangers in the airport.  And it filled us with joy, deep, deep joy.

 
In Wichita!  Imagine that!

 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Angels in the Parking Lot


I love Christmas music.  I have dozens and dozens of seasonal CDs.  And I listen to them throughout the month of December.  But my top ten list of Christmas songs and carols wouldn't include the hits of Burl Ives or Brenda Lee, as much as I enjoy those.  I'm not sure all it might include, but I am sure one of the carols I'd name would be "Angels We Have Heard on High."  For though I've never been as fortunate as Mary or Joseph or the shepherds in the nativity stories, I have heard angels.  Not on high, but rather on low.  Angels like a cook named Teo.  Let me explain.

It happened a several years ago when I was living in Connecticut.  My wife Linda had been out of town for most of several weeks, tending to our then new granddaughter and her aging parents who ahve since passed on.  I had more work than I could comfortably handle.  I was constantly on the run, feeling a bit sorry for myself, and very tired.  Even my tutoring work with Literacy Volunteers seemed unproductive.  One of my English as a second language students had returned to Haiti and another had been ordered to stay at home by her doctor as she went through her last weeks of pregnancy.  I was seriously thinking about giving it up.  It seemed like just one more thing on my to-do list.  I was so busy I didn't even have time to do much reading myself, so I was returning a half-finished overdue book to the library.  It may be telling that its title was The Dark Night of the Soul.

I was running, as usual;, and so rather than go inside, I decided to use the outdoor book drop..Just as I put my book in the slot and started to walk away, I looked up and saw one of my former Literacy students walking across the parking lot.

Teo is from Columbia.  He is very bright and very charming.  And he was making real progress in his English lessons with me.  Though he is professionally trained, his limited English meant that he had to work as a cook at a diner in the area.  So, when his hours changed at work, he had to give up his lessons.

I'd never seen Teo in Westport where I lived, and was very surprised.  He had a little girl with him, who turned out to be his daughter.  And they were going to get some books.

"So how are you doing, Teo?  We really miss you in class!"

He smiled, and then, in his halting English, Teo told me he was well, and that he had started taking English classes at the local community college, ones that fir into his new schedule.  More advanced classes.  Then he made a gesture as if smoothing the air with hand, and he smiled and said, "I can do them because of your class."        

We shook hands and as I walked away, my step was lighters and so was my heart.  And even though I was the English teacher, all I could say was "Thank you God."  For you see, I had been sent an angel, a messenger, one whose first language is Spanish, one who reminded me that God understands my deepest needs, including the need to know that what I am doing matters.  So I didn't quit teaching English, and for many more months, you could find me every Thursday afternoon, covered with white chalk dust, explaining  nouns and verbs and tenses to folks who really wanted to learn the language.  All because of an angel I met in a parking lot.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Sufi Muslims: Children of God

And so it happens again.  A group of believers engaged in prayer are attacked and killed, only this time they didn't  live in South Carolina or Texas, this time they lived in Egypt.  And this time they weren't Christians, this time they were Muslims.  Sufi Muslims.

I imagine most Americans know very little about Sufi Muslims. "If you've seen one Muslim you've seen them all."  That's what many folks believe.  But that is far, far from the truth.  And while love is willing to acknowledge, even celebrate, differences, hate never does.  And while the attack this past weekend is being portrayed as a Muslim against Muslim atrocity, it is really hate versus love.  Exclusion versus inclusion.  Narrowness versus broad acceptance.

I read a poem every day--it's good for the soul!  And for the past two or three months I've been reading through a collection of poems by Hafiz, a  14th 
century Sufi Muslim.   Mysticism is woven through the very fabric of Sufism, and that is reflected in so much of Hafiz' poetry.  In memory of our Islamic brothers and sisters killed this past weekend, I offer this poem written so many centuries ago.  This poem that reminds us we are all children of God.


"I Got Kin"
 
Plant
So that your own heart
Will grow.
Love
So God will think,
"Ahhhhhh,
I go kin in that body!
I should start inviting that soul over
For coffee and
Rolls."
Sing
Because this is a food
Our starving world
Needs.
Laugh
Because that is the purest
Sound.
 
 
--Hafiz

Monday, November 20, 2017

A Thanksgiving Reminder

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of thank you notes and e-mails.  I like sending them.  I like receiving them.  I even keep a file of thank you notes I've received over the years.

One of my all-time favorites came for a former parishioner named Rose when I was serving the Saugatuck Congregational Church in Westport, CT.  I had spoken at the board meeting of a local social service agency.  It was one of the agencies the church's mission board  supported and Rose served on the agency's board for many years.  She was writing to thank me for taking the time to meet with them, and offered some very kind words about a brief meditation about gratitude that I had offered.  In the note she also expressed her appreciation for the church.

"It's so easy," she wrote, "to take our many blessings for granted as you pointed out.  Yesterday I stopped to think about some of the things I have to be thankful for.  Thanks for reminding me."

I suppose we all need to be reminded from time to time.  Like children caught up in the excitement of new toys at Christmas, sometimes we need to be prodded into offering up our words of thanksgiving.

So consider this a prod--a reminder.  As we move into this week of formal thanksgiving, what is it that you consider among your blessings?  And who do you need to thank?  God? After all, God is the Source of Life itself!   Your family?  A treasured teacher, friend or clergy person?  Maybe the neighbor who takes care of your cat when you are out of town.  Or the cashier at your grocery store who always remembers you like your groceries' packed just so.  Maybe it's the doctor who performed your hip surgery.  Whatever--whoever--now is a good time to say thank you.  Write a note.  Send an e-mail.  Make a phone call.  Just do it!

PS:  And thank you, my faithful blog readers!  I truly appreciate your visiting this site week after week!  Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Empty White Chairs

Among my favorite musicals is Les Miserables.  One of the most poignant moments in the show occurs after the failed uprising intended to overthrow the corrupt government.  One of the student revolutionaries, Marius, survives an attack by the government which has killed most of his friends.  As he revisits the place where they had met to dream about a future of freedom, he looks over the empty chairs and tables, and mourns.
 
There's a grief that can't be spoken,
There's a pain goes on and on,
Empty chairs at empty tables
Now my friends are dead and gone.
 
 
I couldn't help but think of that song as I read the news about the memorial that has been established in Sutherland Springs.  The sanctuary at First Baptist Church where the mass shooting happened a week ago Sunday, has been cleaned and emptied of the bloody remnants of that attack.  It has been painted a pristine white, and white chairs, twenty-six of them, one for each victim, have been placed in the exact spots where each of the murdered men, women and children fell.  On the back of each chair each victim's name has been painted in gold. And on each, a rose. Empty chairs representing
 friends who are dead and gone.  It is a powerful set of symbols. 
 
"Here they sang of tomorrow," intones Maurius in Les Miserables, "And tomorrow never came."
But there is a difference for the people of First Baptist Church.  And not because those who died were far from being French revolutionaries.  For the people of First Baptist Church believe that while a tomorrow on this earth never came, a new tomorrow did indeed dawn for each one of the slain.  A new tomorrow beyond pain, beyond grief.  As their pastor said on the following Sunday, the folks at Frist Baptist Church believe that their loved ones are "dancing with Jesus."
   
 Make no mistake, there is certainly grief here and now for the survivors, pain and grief that will go on and on.  And while empty white chairs may help ease the sorrow, it will not eliminate.  No more than the genuine hope in the life to come will erase the hurt, the ager and even the guilt.  No doubt some of those good folks can sing with Maurius, "Oh my friends, my friends, forgive me, that I live and you are gone."  But there is also faith, and hope and love.
Yes, empty white chairs and empty hearts.  But hearts touched with a measure of hope.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Armed Guards at the Door

Monday afternoon I got a phone call from a colleague checking on a rumor one of her parishioners had heard that my congregation has posted an armed guard at the entrance to our sanctuary. "If they've got one there at the Congregational Church," the parishioner had apparently said, "we should have one too."   I assured my colleague we did not have any guards at the door. Armed or otherwise.  Some well trained head ushers.  An officer directing traffic in the roadway in front of our driveway.  But no armed guards.

No doubt the mass shooting in at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, stirred up the question.  And it does, once again, raise the issue of security for houses of worship.  It is an issue that needs to be taken seriously, no doubt about it.  Indeed, our local police department even offers a special one hour training program on such matters for church staff members.  But an armed guard?

Maybe I am naïve.  Maybe my biases about guns in general is showing.  But frankly, I think such a move would be contrary to everything that happens beyond the church entrance and inside the sanctuary itself.  We gather to proclaim our trust in the way of God, not our trust in firepower.  Yes we need to be vigilant. Yes
, we need to be alert to the reality that if it happened in Charleston at a Bible study, or in Texas at a Sunday worship service, it could happen here. At our church.  But that does not mean we need to take up arms.

But there are issues we as the church can help lead the way.  The pervasiveness of violence in our culture.  The paucity of mental health services.  The failure to adequately address domestic violence.  The sheer number of guns in America and the ease with which they can often be procured.  Yes, the church needs to respond to the mass shooting in Texas.  But there are far more constructive things we can do than simply post an armed guard at the door and hide behind our fears.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Semper reforma!

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther's posting his ninety-five theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg.  It is often considered to be the beginning of the Reformation--though truth be told there were several so-called pre-reformers (like Hus and Wycliffe) who came long before Luther).

Five hundred years.  A lot can happen in five hundred years, and so it has!  I am not sure Luther would recognize the Protestant churches of today as heirs to his work and tradition.  Even in his own time, there were other thinkers approaching the matter of reform in different ways.  That is why some historians insist that we should be talking about the reformations, plural, as opposed to The Reformation.

However we describe it, however we label it, what happened in Wittenberg, and across much of Europe in 1517 and the years that followed, did indeed change the church in the West.  It was never quite the same after that.  Some bemoan that fact.  Some bemoan the reality that the church is so splintered and divided.  Honestly, it bothers me as well. But then I remember one of the key principles of that period in time:  semper reforma.  Not semper fidelis--that's the Marines.  But rather semper reforma, always reforming.  And when we are always reforming, that means of necessity, that there will be differences of perspective and opinion.  We can hope--and pray--for a big enough tent to contain them all.  But sometimes that just doesn't always happen.

Semper reforma--it's a bit unsettling, and it's a bit hopeful.  Most of all, it is where we can find God at work.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Pleading for the Widows

One of the great pop anthems of the sixties was Aretha Franklin's rendering of "Respect."  Most anyone raised in that decade can sing along when it comes on the radio, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T!  Find out what it means to me . . . "  It was written by the great Otis Redding, who died much too young.
The song popped into my head today as I was reading an account of the current dispute between our president and the widow of La David Johnson  --one of the soldiers killed last week in Niger. 

I don't know what happened in that phone call.  Some of it seems to boil down to a he said, she said, debate.  I really don't have the information I would need to determine the truth of the matter.  But I do know this, from a biblical perspective, widows are supposed to be treated with respect.  Most especially those who have been widowed by acts of war or violence.  In the many laws of Judaism, widows are often singled out for special care and attention.  But often in the biblical narrative they were neglected or worse. And when that happened the prophets would rail against their contemporaries reminding them of their obligations. "Learn to good," writes Isaiah, "Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (1:17)

I guess that's what I'm doing here.  I'm pleading for the widow.  Indeed for all widows, especially those widowed by warfare or violence.  And widowers too, for that matter.  They deserve our respect.  They deserve our love and care.  They deserve to be treated as we would want to be treated in a time of great grief.

This is not a political statement.  This isn't about one party or the other. It's not even about the president.   This is about basic decency.  This is about respect, something that seems to be in low supply these days, not just in Washington, but all across this land of ours.  Respect for the fallen, respect for their families.  Respect for one another as fellow human beings.  That's always
a good place to start in any conversation.  Always a good place to start if we want to move towards a more civil society.

Monday, October 16, 2017

On Being the Church in a Broken World

This past weekend I attended the annual meeting of the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ.  Delegates from around the state joined together for worship, workshops and business.  Before you decided you're not interested in any of this church stuff, hear me out.  Because I witnessed somethings that I think tells us not only a lot about the state of the church, but also the state of the world.

On Saturday morning John Vertigan,  our Conference Minster (for you non-United Church of Christ readers, that's something like a bishop without the power) gave his annual address to the gathered.  It was powerful, and spoke not only about parochial matters, but also about our role as a denomination in the work of justice in the wider world.

After he was done speaking John and the planning committee had scheduled a town hall style time for folks to offer comments, ask questions or promote their own concerns.  The variety of issues brought up reflected the very eclectic nature of our denomination.  But two of the speakers stood out from the rest.

One was a young black man, who was attending with his teenaged son.  When he was called on, he stood up, introduced himself, and indicated he was relatively new to the Untied Church of Christ.  He then asked his son to stand up with him.  I paraphrase, here, but this is the gist of his comments.

It's hard, he said, to know where you are safe when you're a black man in our society.  Even harder if you're a very young man.  You don't know what the other person is thinking.  You don't know if they are discounting you because of your race, or if they are frightened, or if they are accepting of differences.  I have been so relieved to find this church, because here I know I am loved and so is my son.  He was in tears when he sat down.  And so were most of the rest of us.

A speaker or two after that, a woman in the rear of the sanctuary stood up.  You know, she said, I'm angry.  I'm angry that more people don't know about our church.  I'm tired of being lumped together with folks who call themselves Christian, but who hate gay people and transgendered people and so many others.  I am tired of having to defend myself every time I tell someone I'm a Christian.  She had a hard time speaking, at one point, for she too was in tears.

I don't know about you, but I share her frustration.  And I am continually saddened by the truth spoken by the young black father.  I am grateful to be part of a church that speaks up about racism, the environment, the rights of LGBTQ people and so on.  But I am also very aware that we need to do a better job getting out our message.  Because the world shouldn't be so dangerous for a fourteen year old black teenager and his dad. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Greatest of These . . . .

The Imperial River wends its way through Bonita Springs, and after many more inches of rain than normal in August, and a hurricane in September, the river jumped its banks, and flooded many nearby homes.  The damage was and is devastating.

This past Saturday, as part of a larger effort mounted by the Rotary Clubs in this part of Florida, eight members of my club here on Sanibel ventured down to Bonita Springs to help out.  We were assigned to do debris removal and preliminary demolition of a home that had suffered extreme water damage.  Our task was to cart out all the ruined furniture, clothing, curtains and personal effects, and pile them by the side of the road for pick-up and removal.  And then, under the guidance of a volunteer crew chief, we were to remove the baseboards and all the no-longer drywall in the house up tot he four-foot mark. "Be careful," said the crew chief, "especially if you have thin soles.  There are bound to be nails."

The owner of the house, who we will call Maria, and her young adult daughter, were present to salvage what they could and to give us guidance as to what we should or should not throw out.  As Maria watched, often in tears, we hauled out most of her belongings, now ruined by mold and mildew.  We were told to set aside a few items that had been especially high up.  The almost new refrigerator and stove were still being paid for, so those were kept because Home Depot need to see them.  Hopefully to replace them with new ones. Ironically, one of the damaged books that went into the trash was called The Elements of Feng Shui.  Another was a Spanish language New Testament.

As we neared the end of the time removing household items, I noticed mounted near the top of the door frame going out of the house, a small hanging, with a tribute to Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe)--and hanging from the same nail, a rosary.  I went to find Maria, and brought her into the house and asked if she wanted to keep the hanging and the rosary.

"Oh yes," she said, as she started to tear up.  I took down the rosary, and as I handed it to her, she looked at me and said, "My granddaughter got this for me in . . . ."  She hesitated and turned to her daughter.  "Jerusalem," said her daughter.  "Yes," said Maria, "Jerusalem.  I love it."  Then turning to the crucifix, hanging on the other side of the door frame, she said, "I really love Jesus."

Having lost almost everything she owns, Maria reminded me with her simple words, that there are some things no flood can wash away; there are some things that no hurricane can destroy, that faith, and hope and love, do indeed abide.

We had been warned by our crew chief to be careful if we had thin soles.  What he didn't say, was "Be careful if you have thin souls."

Thank you fellow Rotarians, for being love in action.  Thank you Maria, for granting us the privilege of learning from you in a most powerful way.

(Photo:  Sanibel-Captiva Rotarians in front of Maria's home)

Monday, October 2, 2017

Worried about Vegas--and Lee County Too

I am worried.  Really worried.  I am worried that we will forget about Houston, or San Juan or Mexico City.  Because terror struck last night.  Whether we call it an act of domestic terrorism or not, terror struck last night in Las Vegas.  The men and women, the girls and boys caught in that hailstorm of bullets were terrified.  And well they should have been.  And so, it was an act of terror.  For not only did it frighten those caught in the mass shooting, it also made all of us a bit more fearful, a bit more uncertain about our own personal safety. Truly, my heart goes out to all those impacted, directly and indirectly by this horrendous act.

But still, as I said, I am worried.  Because we as Americans get so caught up in the news cycle.  It is as if we are afflicted with a national case of ADD, a national case of Attention Deficit Disorder.  We can't seem to hold our focus on one concern for more than a week or so.  We are so easily distracted that we speak about the disaster of the week.  And so things often come and go without anything really being done about the underlying factors that figured into their happening.  We live by the motto, out of sight, out of mind.

So there was flooding in Houston after Hurricane Harvey that has disrupted millions of lives?  That's so sad, our thoughts and prayers go out them.  This week.  And earthquake toppled buildings, even schoolhouses, and killed little children as well as adults?  So tragic!  Our thoughts and prayers go out to them.  This week.  An island full of American citizens was laid to waste by Hurricane Maria?  Goodness!  Our thoughts and prayers . . . . You get the drift.

More and more I realize the importance of thinking globally, but acting locally.  I need to support the various agencies that will help address the problems in far flung places like Houston, San Juan, Mexico City and San Juan.  I need to be aware of them.  But I also need to address the problems closest to home.  Flooding?  There's plenty of that right here in Southwest Florida due to Hurricane Irene.  What can I do to help?  An earthquake in mexico City?  Maybe I need to sepak out about the impact of fracking on our fragile limestone underpinnings in South Florida.  Gun violence in Las Vegas?  How can I work for better gun control and readily accessible mental helcth care in my own community?  Poverty in Puerto Rico made worse by a devastating storm?  What can I do to help alleviate the poverty right here in Lee County. 

I'm not suggesting that anyone should close out the wider world.  But I am suggesting we can do more than move on from one disaster to the next.  We can make a difference right where we live.  We can, and we should.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Irma, Justice and Me

I was part of a meeting with regional and national denominational officials yesterday to discuss our response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.  Naturally, much of our conversation focused around our immediate area here in Southwest Florida and our own experiences of Hurricane Irma.  Stories were shared, statistics analyzed, offers of help made, preliminary plans discussed for actions to be taken, and so on. 

One of the issues that got raised was the connection between charity and justice.  How do we see the impact of underlying systemic issues on disaster situations?  I've been giving that some thought over the last twenty-four hours.  And as I drove to work this morning, and rode down the main drag (let's face it, the only drag) through the island, I couldn't help but be impressed by how much progress has been made in cleaning up the mounds and mounds of vegetative debris that lined the street just last week.  It's not all gone, but it is so much better!

But of course that's happened quickly.  This is an island of means.  We are fortunate to have the resources, both human and financial, to do such things quickly and well.  But there are other places, not so many miles from here, where such clean up will take months and months.  In part because of greater damage to begin with (for many homes in such places are made of substandard materials or are poorly constructed mobile homes), and in part because of a lack of resources.
And here's the irony:  most of the folks doing the actual clean-up work here on the island, live in those places that will still be buried in debris in the months ahead.

Hurricane Katrina brought up many of these issues over a decade ago.  But I am afraid we still haven't taken it all to heart.  As Harvey and Irma and most especially Maria, are showing us once again.

Monday, September 18, 2017

After Irma

"We dodged a bullet!"  So read the local daily paper's headline after the storm passed.
And so we did.  Irma certainly brought some real damage to our area, but nothing like what might have resulted had we endured the predicted storm surge of fifteen feet.  It will take a while to get things cleaned up and back in shape, but by-and-large, we made out well.  Here.  On Sanibel.  In Fort Myers where I live.  But not everywhere.

A friend of mine noted in one of her Facebook posts during the last week that she hesitates to say we were blessed by not being hit so hard.  She is on to something when she notes that it raises disturbing questions.  Does that mean places like Barbuda and St. Thomas and Key West and Marco Island were not blessed?  Does that mean they were cursed in some way?

There are those who thank God that the storm didn't do more harm here than it did.  And that is appropriate. We must be grateful for all the good things in our lives.  But God didn't steer the storm in another direction.  God didn't bless us and curse others by bending and twisting Irma's path.  We can, and should, thank God for the many blessings we have, but not if we think we are somehow blessed and therefore others must be counted as cursed.  That's a zero-sum approach.  Everything in the end must zero out.  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  It may be good physics (though there are those who would debate that point as well), but it makes for just plain bad theology.

We are all blessed, loved, accepted, by God.  That love, that acceptance, is unlimited and is not parceled out to some and not to others.  Period.

But there is also a lot of pain, a lot of destruction, a lot of damage in our world.  And it is our task to share that love in and through our responses to Irma, Harvey, the wildfires out west, and all the other ways people are hurting in our world.

Now that we've dodged a bullet, how will we live?  That's the real question. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Waiting for Irma

And so we wait.  We've made arrangements for shelter.  We've put the yard in order--brought in any projectiles, taken down statuary and locked doors and gates.  We've gotten mother's condo buttoned up.  We've filled a portable filebox with our insurance policies, passports and so forth.  We've stocked up on bottled water, flashligths and batteries.  Wonderful volunteers and staff members at church have gotten things ready there.  We've cancelled church services and activities this weekend.  We've done what we've needed to do to prepare for Hurricane Irma.  And now we just wait.  Wait and pray.


Not that God will suddenly stop the storm in its tracks.  I don't believe God works that way.  No, praying for patience, serenity, courage and wisdom so that I might face the time ahead.



Over the years I've discovered many powerful truths as I've worked with twelve-step spirituality.  And one twelve-step slogan seems especially appropriate today.  Zero expectations. Not denial.  It is important to acknowledge the realities we face in life.  But we should avoid both debilitating negativity and false hope.  There are all sorts of possibile outcomes over the next few days, but they are beyond our control.  Yes, we need to prepare.  But beyond that, we must wait it out, trusting that God will give us the strength to handle things as they come along.




I also have taken great comfort in the Serenity Prayer.  I am convinced it holds the key to how we can move through these challenging times.  God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change--like when and where the hurricane will hit, like how strong it will be when it passes over us, like what sort of damage will be incurred.  I cannot change those things, and I will be far more serene if I accept that reality. Courage to change the things I can--like the preparations we've already undertaken, like my willingness to work with others as part of a term, like my attitude and behavior.  Courage, after all, is fear that has said its prayers. Wisdom to know the difference--which requires a measure of patience and a willingness to listen to others.




When I was a seminarian my school's president once wrote in a letter of reference that I needed to learn patience.  In many ways, I am still taking that course almost forty years later.  But with the help of these simple twelve-step concepts, and the grace of God, I am learning every day a bit more about what it means to wait.
 

Might your waiting be blessed with patience, serenity, courage and wisdom.  Might it be blessed by God's grace.



Tuesday, September 5, 2017

On Dealing with Fear

It was during the 1932 presidential campaign that Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  In the midst of the Great Depression, as millions faced poverty, unemployment, displacement from their homes, and so on, it was a rather brash thing to say.  Yet he got elected, and in time, the economy did improve. Setting aside the fact that many historians believe what really pulled us out of the Depression was World War II,  the reality was people did go back to work, and a sense of purpose returned to the nation.

I suppose it could be argued that Roosevelt was able utter such a bromide because he was among the financially secure of his day.  He wasn't unemployed.  He wasn't impoverished.  He hadn't lost his home. But still, he was speaking a real truth that is important for us to hear on this particular day here in Florida, across the nation and around the world.  For there are some real threats out there: the increasing concern about the sabre rattling with North Korea and the possibility of nuclear war; the uncertainty faced by so many children and young people who may lose the protections they have received under DACA; the wild fires out west, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the concerns about  Hurricane Irma.  It is all very frightening.

But that said, what next?  If we allow fear to overtake us, if we become paralyzed by our anxieties and concerns, then we are sunk.  Fear itself has done us in.  But if we acknowledge our fears, recognize that they are real, turn them over to God and ask for a greater ability to identify what we can do to help address them, then we are on our way to dealing with the matters at hand. 

Eleven years before Roosevelt was campaigning for President, a poem by Karle Wilson Baker was published in Poetry:  A Magazine of Verse.  It's a short little bit of poetry called "Courage".  It's final two lines are a powerful reminder for all of us in these anxious times as well:
 
Courage is Fear
That has said its prayers.
 
Might you be courageous in the days ahead.



Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Rain and God, Harvey and You

This past weekend Sanibel and the surrounding area got close to twelve inches of rain in three days.  That on top of what has been a very rainy month.   Most folks had to detour around flooded streets, and some had to deal with flooded homes.  It was pretty wet--but nothing, of course, compared to Texas and Louisiana, where feet, not mere inches, of rain are falling in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

One local church recently had a sign out front which captured the feelings of many people.  It read:  "Whoever prayed for rain, please change your request."  I imagine lots of folks in Houston have prayed for the rain to stop.  As did folks around here.  But while I believe you can offer up anything in prayer, I don't believe that God intervenes in the weather. I just don't think it works that way.

So what, you may ask, is the use of prayer in a situation such as that faced by the millions of folks in Texas?  Is it a waste of time and energy?  I think not.  I think prayer is more important than
ever.  I think we can, and should, pray for the courage to face the problems presented head on.  I think we can, and should, pray for the wiliness to do whatever is in our power to help those who are impacted by the storm.  I think we can, and should, pray that our leaders be graced with wisdom as they determine what they can and should do to come to the aid of those whose lives have been turned upside down.  I think we can, and should, pray that love prevails.

And then, we should get to work and do our part.  If we can physically be of assistance, we should.  If we can financially help out, we should.  For God does answer prayer--but most often God answers in and through us.

(For further information about ways you can help, follow this link to our denomination's website :  http://www.ucc.org/disaster_hurricane_harvey)

(Members and friends of Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ can make financial donations to help in the effort by sending contributions through our church.  Checks should be made payable to Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ and marked Hurricane Harvey.  All such funds will be forwarded to the denominational effort.  Checks can be sent to SCUCC,  2050 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, Florida, 33957)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Jesus and the Path of Totality

With all that's going on in the world, it has been rather refreshing to see so much energy focused on preparing for the solar eclipse.  It even seems to have spawned a few business enterprises along the way! 

Here in Florida we are outside of the so-called path of totality.  I believe we will have about 75% of the sun covered over by the shadow of the moon.  Enough to make a difference in the amount of daylight reaching us, but not quite the same as a total eclipse.  Nevertheless it is pretty exciting!

The term "path of totality" is, I imagine, nothing new.  But I never heard it before the current round of news stories about the eclipse. In ancient times, before folks had a scientific understanding of solar eclipses, many saw it as a harbinger of the end of time.  While that's rather outmoded, I still have been thinking about it in theologically.  I've come to believe it is a perfect the term is for describing what it means to follow Jesus.  His way of life is a path of totality. 

When asked what is the greatest of the commandments Jesus responds, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  And the second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"  (Matthew 22:37)  Love  with every facet of your being!  The whole enchilada!  Love with and in everything you do, in everything you are! 

This then is the way of Jesus, this way of love.  It is a true path of totality.  One that doesn't bring darkness into the world, but rather one that sheds ever increasing amounts of light into every corner of our being.

After Charlottesville, after Barcelona, after all the darkness of these past days, a little light and a lot of love would be most

welcome.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Charlottesville: In No Uncertain Terms

When I was a boy if I didn't know the meaning of a word or how to spell it, I was always told to look it up in the dictionary.  So I decided to look up three terms that have been heard a lot over this past weekend.  Not because I didn't know how to spell them, nor because I didn't know what they meant, but rather to make sure I knew what I was talking about.  Here are the terms, with their Merriam-Webster definitions.

NEO-NAZI:  a member or group espousing the programs and policies of Hitler's Nazis

WHITE SUPREMACIST:  a person who believes that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races.

KU KLUX KLAN:  a post-Civil Wart American secret society advocating white supremacy.

These are pretty clear definitions, pretty straightforward.  And they are not at all reflective of the values we espouse as a nation--at least not those values enshrined in our founding documents.  True, in the beginning "all men are created equal" had a very limited meaning.  But we have evolved, we have changed, we have matured.  We have come to a point of believing that all people, not just men, not just white men, not just white Protestant men, not just white straight men, but all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights.

Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists and Klansmen believe otherwise.  They believe that only white folks, white Christian folks, white straight Christian folks, especially men, have inalienable rights.  And that, if nothing else, is clearly un-American.  It is bigoted, hateful and un-American. 

UN-AMERICAN:  not characteristic of or consistent with American customs, principles or traditions.

As an American citizen, as the grandfather of six grandchildren, two of whom happen to be black, I want my elected leaders to be clear about all this.  And I want them to be willing to speak out in no uncertain terms.  That's why I'm providing these definitions.

(All definitions https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary)

Monday, August 7, 2017

And So Another School Year Begins . . . But Learning Never Ends

T
This week marks the beginning of a new school year here on Sanibel.  Here at the church our preschool reopens.  Around the state public schools reopen.  Youngsters will be heading to their classroom to learn new things and to reinforce old lessons.    
 Learning, of course, is a lifelong proposition.  We can always learn something new; we can always deepen our awareness of the basic truths of life.  And for that we are always dependent on those who have gone before us.  As Hebrew scripture scholar Raymond Van Leeuwen writes:  “None of us lives long enough to experience enough of God, [the] world and humanity to be adequately equipped without the wisdom of the past.”  (Ibid, 62)  Indeed, as has often been noted, being a good teacher means first being a good student. 

But that said there does come a certain point in life where we are more often in the teacher’s role.  As we grow older, as we mature, we have more to share with those who follow in our footsteps.  That’s not always readily apparent.  In this technologically dependent age of ours you may forget how much you know.  Just because you can’t work an iPhone, just because you get lost on the internet, just because you think tweet is a sound a bird makes, that doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing to share! 

 “What all older people know,” writes Paul Theroux, “what had taken me almost sixty years to learn, is that an aged face is misleading . . . the old are not as frail as you think . . . for we have come to learn that the years have made us more . . . streetwise.”  (Dark Star Safari, 198)  Wise indeed is the admonition found in  the book of Proverbs:  “Listen children, to a father’s instruction, and be attentive that you may gain insight.”  (4:1)

 If you are young, if your father or mother, a grandparent even, is still living, don’t lose out on what they might have to teach you.  For the day always comes when the door closes and the opportunity is lost.  And if you are older, if you are a parent, a grandparent, an older aunt or uncle, an elderly friend or neighbor, remember you too are being offered an opportunity—an opportunity to share what you have learned over the years with the younger people in your life.

 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Proifiles in Courage Revisited


It has been sixty years now since John Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage.  In it he told a number of stories of what he called political courage.  Stories of political figures who were willing to champion their values even at great political risk.  He wrote about John Quincy Adams, Sam Houston, Daniel Webster and other lesser known men (it was 1957--they were all men.) "A man," he wrote, does what he must--in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressure--and that is the basis of all human morality."

I would suggest that this past week three senators, John McCain, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, exhibited just the kind of courage Kennedy was talking about.  Whether or not you agree with the position that these three took, you cannot help but admire the fact that each of them, for his or her own reasons, felt compelled to vote contrary to how others thought they should. The political risks were enormous. But each of them acted courageously in the face of enormous pressure.  Each of them acted out of deeply held convictions. 

That is the kind of political leadership we need in this country. Candidates for public office should be willing to articulate their views clearly enough  that voters can make informed choices when it comes to those who will represent them.  And then, liberal or conservative, Democrat, Republican or Independent, our elected leaders should be willing to stand up for what they believe--regardless of labels.  That doesn't mean being unyielding, or unbending--honest compromise is a necessary part of governing.  But it does mean refusing to give in to the kind of pressure we often see being exerted in Washington.

I for one, want a effective government, one that gets things done.  But just as importantly, perhaps more importantly, I want one that is morally sound.  And that takes courage.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Come Together, Washington, Right Now!

I have a friend you recently moved from a state where Medicaid had been expanded where my friend was able to get health insurance coverage.  But in Florida, where Medicaid was not expanded, it was a different matter.  Now my friend, who is only able to work part time due to physical limitations, is  faced with the reality that health insurance here will cost in excess of eight hundred dollars a month.  My friend is caught between the proverbial  rock and  hard place.  To qualify for the reduced rates of the Affordable Care Act my friend would need to be earning at least thirteen thousand dollars a year. The part time work

she performs pays a fairly decent wage--but at sixteen hours a week my friend will only make eight hundred dollars a month--before taxes.  Obviously none of this adds up.

There is little question that the Affordable Care Act has made it possible for millions to get health insurance who otherwise would have none.  But it is not a cure all, and some folks still fall between the cracks.  Simply repealing it would have a devastating impact on those millions of folks.  But not shoring it up, repairing it, fixing it, will leave others still uninsured.  Action does need to be taken--but this will require more than a scalpel! 

The Beatles had a song I always loved, called "Come Together"--maybe it is time our representatives in Washington did just that.  I firmly believe this complex issue needs to be addressed cooperatively.  I believe it is time  Democrats, Republicans and Independents set aside the partisan bickering, and the intrapartisan bickering, and come together to truly serve the people they represent.  Everyone needs good healthcare.  Everyone needs to be insured.  It is obviously good for us as individuals to have health insurance, but it is also good for us as a society.  Healthy individuals mean a healthy society.  And a healthy society means a healthy America.

I believe all this because it makes sense, and also, because Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." 

Let's stop the name calling.  Let's stop the bickering.  Let's stop the blame game.  And let's come together.  Right now.  For the sake of my friend.  For the sake of millions of other uninsured Americans.  For the sake of the nation.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Missing Barry: Believing in the Dawn


I miss my friend Barry.  He's not dead--he just lives in New Jersey.  Which I realize some folks think is as good as being dead--but I lived there for ten years, and found that I really loved the place.  Such a wonderful mix of seaside beaches, fields of corn and tomatoes and city life.  But I'm not here to do a Chamber of Commerce pitch for the Garden State.  I'm here to tell you about Barry.

Did you ever have a friend with whom you really didn't have a lot in common, yet you hit it off beautifully?  Barry and I are like that.  I'm a pastor--I've devoted my life to matters of faith and religion.  Barry--while certainly very respectful of religion, is not what I would call religious.  Barry is an accountant--and a darn good one at that.  I, though I recently completed a four year stint as treasurer of my Rotary Club, am less than enamored with numbers!  I love baseball and the Red Sox--Barry is a football fan, and follows the Green Bay Packers.  Barry met his wife while they were still kids--Linda and I met when we were adults with children of our own. I ride  a bike--Barry lifts weights.   He's  politically conservative and I--am decidedly not!  I read the New York Times--he reads the Wall Street Journal. You would think with all those disparities we would have a hard time connecting.  But the truth is, some of the deepest and most meaningful conversations I've ever had have been with Barry.  What's the old saying--steel sharpens steel?  The secret, I think, is that we both have a deep and abiding respect for each other.  And we both understand that the other has a well-thought out and caring point of view.  We both long for a day when the world is set right--we just see different paths to getting there!

Barry and I would go out to dinner with our wives, or sometimes party with other couples as well.  But the times when our conversations were the most rich were the long nights we shared hosting the homeless.  The church I served in New Jersey was part of a coalition of faith communities that provided emergency shelter for homeless men and women.  The hosting congregation would provide space for cots, a hot dinner, breakfast, a brown bag lunch and two volunteers to stay overnight.  A recliner was provided for the volunteers, who could take turns sleeping if they wanted--but both Barry and I usually stayed up most of the night talking about everything and anything.  Politics, religion, politics,  social issues, politics and sports.  When I'd come home Linda would ask if the two of us had managed to solve the world's problems overnight.

As the night wore on, our conversation would begin to slow down a bit as fatigue set in.  But gradually we would notice out the kitchen windows there in the church basement, the darkness beginning to fade.  And then, to the east, the light would begin to grow brighter, as we approached sunrise.  When we finally dismissed those in our care and stepped outside, depending on the time of year, it was not unusual for us to be greeted by the golds and pinks of the dawn.  It wasn't a sunrise over the ocean, but in its own Jersey sort of way, it was a thing of beauty--and a symbol of the hope we held in our hearts that the homeless folks we had gotten to know a bit overnight, would have a brighter day than the one before, that they would find a job, or permanent housing, or reconciliation with family. 
Henry David Thoreau once said, "We must learn to . . . keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn."  That's what kept Barry and I awake.  That's what kept us going those long dark Jersey nights.  Hope for the future--and  an "infinite expectation of the dawn."  For each in our own way, Barry and I both believe God can and will work to bring about a better world.  Despite our dramatic differences, Barry and I both believe that the dawn will come.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Happy Birthday, Henry!

Two hundred years ago, on July 12,1817, Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts.  His best known work, Walden, extolled simplicity and solitude.  It was and is required reading in many high schools and colleges, usually held up as a premiere example of journal writing.

Thoreau often difficulties fitting into the usual world of employment, despite graduating
at the top of his class at Harvard.  It is somewhat ironic that he sometimes found work at his father's pencil factory.  But the reality is he made more of a mark with pencils than in making them.

Thoreau was an outspoken critic of slavery and the Mexican War.  He was an advocate for the environment, long before the modern ecological movement.  He is said to have inspired many of the important figures in the effort to preserve the natural world, including John Muir. 

When I was a junior in high school I first encountered Walden.  It was required reading for my AP English class.  I was so enamored with it that I decided to be a bit more natural myself--and so I became a vegetarian.  For six weeks.  A pepperoni pizza did me in.

Still, I have long held a warm spot in my heart for the book and its author. (And not because of heartburn from those pizza pies!)   I even co-taught a course featuring Thoreau recently.

On February 5, 1855, Thoreau wrote in his journal:  "In a journal it is important in a few words to describe the weather, or character of the day, as it affects our feelings.  That which is so important at the time cannot be unimportant to remember." 

Enough of these ramblings--and on to the salutations.  Happy Birthday, Henry!  Might we always remember you and the lessons about life, nature, writing and civic responsibility you taught us.

And by the way, there's a thunderstorm brewing at the moment.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Tilt-a-Whirl World



Earlier this summer we had some vacation time with our grandkids.  They come in a variety of sizes, ages, colors and backgrounds.  They are a pretty diverse lot.  But despite that, they are cousins--and they really enjoy getting together.  Our time was spent on the Jersey shore, and two of the nights we went to the boardwalk.

Boardwalks on the shore are full of honky-tonk.  Rides, games, foods that no human being should ever eat (deep-fried Oreos anyone?)  Fortune tellers and skee ball.  None of it very substantive.  But all of it a lot of fun.

One of the rides the kids went on was the tilt-a-whirl--you know, the ride that turns you on your side and spins you around at gravity-defying speeds. When I saw this photo of the two youngest grandkids, heading hand-in-hand towards the tilt-a-whirl,  I couldn't help but think of our world today.  In so many ways it has been turned on its side.  In so many ways it is spinning so fast that we are being lifted off our feet.  Indeed, if you are like me (and the Anthony Newley character in the old musical) sometimes you just want to shout "Stop the World! I Want to get Off!"

But the world's not going to stop.  Things aren't going to slow down.  Things are going to continue to change at break neck speeds. And short of death itself, we aren't going to get off.   So what are we to do?  Just what my granddaughters did.  We need to be willing  take one another by the hand, regardless of our differences, and forge ahead. Giving each other the courage we need to live life in this tilt-a-whirl world. Because, after all, aren't we all cousins?

Monday, June 26, 2017

Farewell to Tiny: A Lesson in Hospitality

One of our cats died this weekend.  She was something of a hand-me-down, if you will.  In oh so many ways.

About eighteen years ago she showed up on my late mother-in-law's doorstep.  She was a bit bedraggled, and quite obviously a stray.  Hazel loved longhaired  cats, and so she decided she'd feed the stray.  And the next day, the cat showed up again.  And then again and again and again.

 "She keeps coming back," she said to my wife.

 "Well, you're feeding her, Mom.  Of course she keeps coming back!"

 "But I'm just giving her some canned tuna and a bit of canned salmon!"

The next day, the cat moved in.  When they went to name her, she and my late father-in-law, Cyril, debated what to call her.  They had another cat named Tiny.  Wouldn't it just be easiest to call this one Tiny Two?  And so it was settled.  Tiny.  Even though she was actually rather large (all that tuna and salmon, I guess!)

Time passed, and Hazel and Cyril needed extra care--so they, along with Tiny, moved in with us.  We already had a cat, named Alex.  He always stayed upstairs, Tiny lived down.  A feline détente of sorts!

Hazel and Cyril's health, though went from bad to worse, and so two years later they had to move into a nursing home.  But Tiny wasn't allowed.  So she stayed with us.  She outlived our dog, Alex the upstairs cat, and got along tentatively with our newest pet, a tortoise shell cat named Nyla.

In the United Church of Christ we talk a lot about extravagant hospitality.  And that is most certainly what Hazel offered to Tiny.  She welcomed the stranger with open arms (and an open lap!)  I'm glad that she did.  For all of our lives were enriched over the last eighteen years by the stray who loved salmon.

Now if we could only learn how to do that welcoming of strangers with people as well as Hazel did it with a cat.  Wouldn't that make for a better world!

(Photo Credit:  Linda Bradbury-Danner)

Monday, June 19, 2017

What Does It Mean to be Saved?

For the most part we mainline Protestants don't talk much about being saved.  It's just not part of our vocabulary.  We may reluctantly talk about being church members; we may even say we follow the teachings of Jesus.  But few of us pinpoint a certain day, or talk about a particular experience, and say, "That's when I was saved.

Indeed such language makes a lot of us squirm in our pews.  Salvation language conjures up images of a more conservative style of Christianity and reminds us of folks going door-to-door, asking neighbors if they've been born again.  It conjures up images of fans at football    games holding up signs that read "John 3:16."  It brings to mind television preachers screaming about hellfire and damnation, and calling folks to be saved from the clutches of the devil.  And none of that rings true for most of us.  We have a much subtler approach to our faith.  A more private understanding   of our relationship to God.  Not that others can't honk if they loved Jesus, but we'd rather give a little nod of the head.

So here's my take on salvation.  I don't think it's about intellectual assent.  It's not about affirming the virgin birth or the particularities of Trinitarian theology.  It's not about thinking the scriptures are the literal words of God.  rather, it is about your willingness to trust that God's love  is boundless.  And to do that we must be saved--saved from fear and bigotry and self-centeredness.  And saved for life and love.  For when we truly believe, truly trust that God loves us and all creation, then we will behave ion a whole new way.

Don't worry--I'll not knock on your door.  I'll respect your right to wrestle with salvation in the privacy of your own heart.  I won't even honk my horn.  But really, have you thought about it?  What's salvation mean to and for you?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

With Apologies to Texas

I try hard to avoid being a bigot.  I really do.  But I must admit when it comes to Texas I've always had a burr under my saddle (so to speak).  There are just so many things connected to Texas that I  don't like.  The huge emphasis on guns.  The crazy devotion to football.  The politics of the place.  Country music on every station. No question, I suffered from prejudice about all things Texan.

But this last weekend, I was brought up short.  I had to travel to Fort Worth to conduct a memorial service for my wife Linda's cousin.  A good guy, who I had enjoyed.  And he had been very important to Linda.  But he was, despite being from upstate New York, thoroughly Texan.  And a biker (as in Harleys).  I really didn't know what to expect.

Imagine my surprise then, when as we pulled into our hotel, I realized it was right beside an elaborate shared use trail system (Trinity Trails) that wends its way through Fort Worth.  I enjoyed my early morning walks along the river along with dozens, if not hundreds, of Texans out for a run or a bike ride or a stroll.  It was wonderful.

And how about this:  Sunday morning the lead headline in the Fort Worth newspaper heralded the first place finish of the Korean winner of the Van Cliburn Competition, held right there in the city.  The Van Cliburn Competition!   One of the premiere international classical music competitions! 

Perhaps the most important learning, however, came at the memorial service itself.  Linda's cousin had ridden over the years with some pretty heavy duty bikers.  And some of them came to the ceremony.  Dressed in biker regalia. 

After the ceremony one of the guys approached me before leaving.  He had longish hair, and a beard, and plenty of tattoos.  He wore a Harley Davidson cap and a leather vest, complete with a pocket chain.  As he shook my hand, he thanked me for my homily, and said, "Those were some good words.  In fact I heard some of them in church this morning."

Texas, I apologize.  I still don't like the gun culture.  I may still think too much is made of football. A lot   of country music still drives me bonkers. And I know I don't like much of your politics.  But I shouldn't judge a book--or a state--or its residents--by its cover.  And I thank you for a very pleasant visit under less than ideal circumstances.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

After So Many Years: A Visit to Ground Zero

It is hard to believe that it has been close to sixteen years since the attacks on 9/11.  Living in metropolitan New York at the time, I was professionally and personally impacted by the horrors of that day and the days and weeks that followed.  I ended up conducting three memorial services/funerals for victims, including a memorial service for a young friend and parishioner, Jennifer.  Jennifer Louise Fialko.

I had not been back to the World Trade Center site since the attacks.  I had many opportunities.  I continued to live in metropolitan New York for over eight years after that terrifying day.  And I have frequently been around and even in New York since moving to Florida.  But I never have been able to screw up the courage to go to the site.  Until this week.

My wife Linda and I had taken two of our granddaughters into the city for the day.  They had never been there before, and so we did the usual tourist things:  we gazed at the Statue of Liberty; we had lunch near Times Square; we went up the Empire State Building; we rode the subway.  And for some reason, maybe the prompting of the Spirit--it was the Monday after Pentecost after all---we decided to take them to the 9/11 Memorial.

Neither of them were even born when it happened.  And the younger of the two, Megan, wasn't even sure what had happened there.  So it fell to me to explain it as we approached the footprints of what had been the Twin Towers.  It was all I could do to give them a very brief description of that day.  I found myself tearing up several times.  Especially when I told them about Jennifer and the other two victims whose services I had conducted. 

As we made our way around the outer perimeter of what had been the North Tower, we read name after name after name.  Some with the added words "and unborn child."  But we didn't find Jennifer's. Nor Brad's.  Nor Scott's.  I couldn't remember which tower they had been in.  So I asked a guard if there was a directory--which there is.  A computerized directory, complete with pictures of the deceased.  And suddenly, there she was, looking out at us from a computer screen.  Fresh and vibrant.  With the location of her name on the Memorial.

As we found the spot where her name was engraved, it all became a bit more real.  And I was reminded once again why it is so important to honor the dead with such markers, memorials and rituals as well.  I don't know if my granddaughters fully understood why their grandfather suddenly went quiet.  It was just that I couldn't really say much more. The Memorial--especially that engraved name--spoke for itself.