Monday, April 5, 2021

Doubt and Ants and Thomas

This coming Sunday is sometimes called Doubting Thomas Sunday due to the fact that the story of  his initial encounter with the Risen Jesus is marked by doubt.  Often Thomas is castigated by preachers for being a doubter.  Yet I have always thought of him as more of a realist.  I mean, really, if you were told someone you loved had suddenly reappeared after being killed in such a violent fashion, wouldn't you have doubts about the veracity of the claim?

Doubt is a funny thing, though, it can get in the way of our taking necessary action.  It can paralyze us.  In twelve-step programs like alcoholics anonymous they talk about analysis paralysis. I know i get caught up in such thinking from time-to-time, weighing the alternatives, doubting this or that element of a situation.  Doubt can be a real problem.

On the other hand, doubt can stir us to clearer thinking and better decisions.  Even in matters of faith.  Maybe especially in matters of faith.  Author and preacher Frederick Buechner once said, "Doubts are the ants in rhe pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving."   True enough!  After all, it is said once Thomas' doubts were addressed, he went on to carry the good news all the way to India! 
So maybe this year, we can lay off poor Thomas, and thank him for making it easier for us to admit our doubts, our concerns, our worries.  

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Easter Promise: Love Wins

 Easter is all about surprises, isn't it?  I mean, the underlying story of resurrection is about the biggest surprise of them all:  someone returning from the dead.  Sure, we have all sorts of such tales in fiction.  Old, old stories, like the ancient myths of Greece, Rome and Egypt, and new stories, like the harry potter stories, and the return of "he whose name shall not be mentioned" (if you don't know who I'm talking about, ask one of your kids or grandkids!)

But Christians claim the story of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead isn't just a tall tale.  They claim it is true.  How they understand it varies, of course.  Ranging from those who understand it as literal, physical/bodily resurrection, to those who see it as a spiritual event.

In all cases, though, I think the truth of the resurrection boils down to the notion that love can't be defeated, that no matter what you throw at it, love wins.  You can't even kill it.  Love wins.  And for Christians, Jesus is love incarnate.  Love in the flesh.  As Martin Luther penned in the well-known hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,  "the body they may kill, God's truth abideth still."   And that truth, is love.  Love which undergirds every single facet of reality.  And that can't be destroyed.  I can't explain it.  I can only trust it to be true.

I hope your Easter is blessed by hope--and blessed as well by the knowledge that God's love endures forever. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Why Is Good Friday . . . Good?


This Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week.  Christians around the world will observe Palm Sunday, a day of celebration as it recounts the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem.  The gospels tell us that he rode in on the back of a donkey and that palm branches and cloaks were strewn on the road before him.  Shouts were lifted up by his followers.  "Hosanna!  Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!"  Of course, within hours it would all begin to sour, and by the end of the week he will have been arrested, tried, and crucified.  Crucified on the day ironically named Good Friday.

Over the years I have almost inevitably been asked, why do we call it good?  It was a horrible event.  Gruesome at best, totally undermining of his life and work at worst.  And that, of course, is true in one sense.  No doubt it was gruesome.  Horrible.  Humiliating even.  But maybe that's why we call it good.  Because Jesus refused to be humiliated.  He was humble, yes, the donkey was perfect earlier in the week.  But not humiliated.  Because despite all the horror of his final days, torture, ridicule, an exceptionally horrid death, Jesus continued to hold out love.  Love for the men he was crucified with, love for his captors and executioners.  Love for his disciples, despite the fact that most of them fled the scene.  These are not the acts of a man who is humiliated, these are the acts of a man who knows who he is.

Yes, he does cry out "Father, father why hast thou forsaken me," as he trunks his eyes heavenward (or  inward) but later he turns himself over to the same God he questions.  "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."

Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting Good Friday is a day to celebrate--but it is a day to observe
.  It is a day to hold up the example Jesus provides in his last hours.  It is good because if we pay attention, we can learn how to better be who we are created to be.  ons and daughters of God, come hell or hig water.  Loved and valued.  

Monday, March 15, 2021

One Year with the Poets, One Year with God

Over this past year, since March 15, 2020, shortly after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, I have been posting live on Facebook a brief devotional offering I've called "A Poem and a Prayer."  Three-hundred-sixty-five poems, by dozens and dozens of poets.  Some well known, like Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson and Rumi.  Others known by far fewer, like my friends Maren Tirabassi, Jennifer McLean and Tanya Hochschild.  During February
I focused exclusively on Black poets, in honor of Black History Month, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Amanda Gorman among others. I have discovered any number of poets that I didn't know before, like Jeanne Murray Walker, and was pleased to share some of my old favorites, like Shel Silverstein, Madeleine L'Engle and Maya Angelou.

And each day I have also offered a prayer, always making intercession for the sick, the grieving and those yearning for justice.  They have been reflective of themes raised up in the poetry.  Some days they ahve been short and to the point, other days there has been much to say, and much to pray.

I have decided to continue this practice.  To begin with, the pandemic which set it all in motion is far from over, despite the gradual improvement in things.  And the racial reconciliation, which hopefully was set in motion last summer, will take a real measure of time.  And poems and prayers can help us deal with both.

I am always open to suggestions, recommendations, for specific poems and specific poets.  And I also welcome prayer requests.  My hope is that all this will be helpful for for those who listen in.  I know it has been helpful for me!

 

Monday, March 8, 2021

I Was Gone Long Before I Left: A Review

What would it be like to live in a monastery?  And how would it change ones life to leave such a sheltered setting after twenty-five years?  These are the questions addressed in Peter Wilcox's book I Was Gone Long Before I Left.  Written in memoir style some thirty-eight years after he actually parted ways with the monastic life, Wilcox's account benefits from his having had almost four decades to reflect on this crucial part of his life.  While he certainly speaks of the great challenges and difficulties that he faced (emotionally and spiritually) it is usually without the rancor that some such volumes often exhibit.  Indeed, he is not an ex-Catholic, simply a former priest and monk.

It is intriguing to note that the book is essentially divided into two major sections.  The first, recounting his life story, the second, reflecting on its significance and meaning, seems written in two different styles.  The first is much more colloquial, and far less polished, the second, more formal.  An example of the former can be found in a passage where he reflects on a day in his childhood spent collecting leaves for a biology project in a local park.  He writes:  "It was such a fun day and among our group was the girl that I liked a whole lot which made the day even more interesting and enjoyable."  (23)  An example of the latter reads:  "Letting go of something in life isn't one step but many.  It's a winding, spiraling process that happens on deep levels and then, only gradually."  (170) 

The book is carefully organized, in fact a bit too carefully for my taste.  It is literally ordered following an outline, and is divided into many, many lettered and numbered subsections for each chapter.  Perhaps the structuring grows out of the many years of living a highly scheduled life.  Whatever,
the format hinders the flow of the book and would have been better left out altogether.

That said, the book taken as a whole, provides a fascinating account of a life rich with a variety of experiences.  Certainly if Socrates was right about the importance of living a life that has been well-examined, Wilcox has met that criterion.  He is a careful observer of his own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of others.  This is not a book of heroes and villains, nor an account of someone who sees himself as a victim.  Rather it is the story of a man struggling with his faith and his identity. 

Near the end of the book Wilcox talks about his own work as a psychotherapist.  "When you listen generously to people, they can hear the truth in themselves, often for the first time.  And in the silence of listening, you bring healing to the other person." (191)  One can only assume that in recounting his life story Wilcox has listened generously to himself.  And in doing so has heard the truth within himself.  In sharing his story, he has also allowed for others to listen in.


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, March 1, 2021

Back to the Future

We are returning to our sanctuary this Sunday.  Or maybe I should say our congregants are.  We've been livestreaming from our sacred space ever since the pandemic began last March, and now, almost a year after we left, we are coming back.

We are taking all manner of precautions.  We're limiting numbers to 25% of our capacity.  We are marking off pews, and will practice social distancing.  This morning two of our deacons cleared out all the hymnals, Bibles, and papers from the pew racks.  We are opening up all the doors (one whole side of the sanctuary is sliding glass doors open to the elements) and all the windows.  We will be sanitizing before and after each service.  Our Parish Nurse will be standing at the entrance, checking everybody in and asking health questions. And perhaps most importantly, masks will be required.  It is a big step.

I hope folks realize things will look different, and be different.  I mean yes, we've shared all these protocols with the congregation--more than once!  But still, things won't be the same as the last time folks were in the pews.  They aren't coming back to the past, they are coming back to the future.  Atr least the near-term future.

I never would have guessed we'd be out of the space for so long when all this began.  And, of course, we aren't out of the woods yet and we will need to keep many of these precautions in place for weeks, perhaps months.  For those still uncomfortable with being indoors, we are continuing to offer an outdoor service (with the same protocols) every Sunday.  And we will also continue livestreaming one of our services.  That, in fact, will be a permanent addition to our Sunday schedule.  Something of a silver-lining in all of this.

But while our members and friends will just be returning this week, God has always been present.  Present with the few worship leaders and technicians who have led online services from the space for the past year, and present with our congregation even though they have been scattered and not gathered.  I suppose that is a considered by some to be a rather trite observation, yet it is a reality that has kept me and so many others afloat this year.

Monday, February 22, 2021

The First Dose and Beyond

So my mother, wife and I all have gotten our first dose of the Covid Vaccine.  Moderna, in all three cases.  But all somewhat by chance.  I just happened to sign in to the Walmart site just before they opened up appointments.  I have no idea they were doing that right at that moment!  So a week ago Friday, I took my mother to a local Walmart and waded through some confusion to get her shot.

A friend of ours has been helping Linda and I secure our vaccines.  She just happened to get notification of a pop-up clinic about an hour from here, and passed along a phone number and e-mail address to contact for an appointment.  I did, and later that day got a return e-mail with yet another phone number and a request that I call back.  I did.  And a very kind gentleman signed us up.  It was all very informal and quite unlike the lottery system set up in other locations.  The vaccine itself was administered at was a a well-organized, drive-thru set up and we were in and out and vaccinated within forty-five minutes.

Don't misunderstand.  please!  I am extremely grateful to have the process underway, especially for my eighty-eight year old mother who has been mostly on lockdown for a year now.  But as they used to say, is this anyway to run a railroad?  There seems to be so little rhyme or reason to how it is all unfolding.  I hope, if nothing else, we will learn some important lessons here about preparedness.  Scientists are clear:  this will not be the last pandemic we face as a nation, as a planet.  We must address the whole infrastructure and create a system that is logical, equitable, easily launched when needed.  

Meanwhile, the experts advise get whatever vaccine you can as soon as you can.  Good advice.


Monday, February 15, 2021

Random Thoughts for Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday may be the least appreciated day on the liturgical calendar.  Certainly among mainline Protestants.  For the most part I don't think it even shows up on most evangelical Protestant calendars.  But this year, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, it seems so relevant.  Maybe because in one corner of my office there are currently three containers of ashes--human ashes--waiting to be scattered in our Memorial Grounds when it is once again safe for families to travel.

Most of my Committal and Memorial Services these days focus around ashes and not a body.   That's largely due to this being Florida, and while burials are possible, they aren't always very practical.  That and the fact that my congregation is largely made up of people who come from somewhere else, and if they are to be interred up north ashes are far easier to transport.

Here it's not uncommon for ashes to be divided.  Some scattered here, some buried in a family plot in Illinois or Michigan or Massachusetts.  How reflective of our mobile society!  

Some one near and dear to me once said they wanted to be cremated so that if there really was bodily resurrection God could really show off his/her stuff. 

Granted, the ashes of Ash Wednesday are different.  The come from the previous year's Palm Sunday palms being burned to a fine dust.  Still, I can't help but think of the connections.  And, like all of us I imagine, I hope that out of the ashes of this time of pandemic and economic crisis and societal unrest, we will rise to a new way of living.

(You may wish to join us online at www.sanibelucc.org for our streamed Ash Wednesday Service, February 17 at 7:00 PM)

Monday, February 8, 2021

Better Christians, Better Jews

 Let me share a story with you.  A hopeful story.

My congregation shares its building with a Reform Jewish congregation, Bat Yam--Temple of the Islands.  For years, our congregations have shared a close relationship, but this covid year we have grown even closer.  Our various educational offerings have been offered on Zoom, and we have cross-promoted them, meaning there are often folks from both congregations sharing an educational experience.  Additionally we developed a drive thru food drive program, and once a month we collect groceries for two local food pantries.  Volunteers from both of our congregations staff it.

Last summer one of Bat Yam's educational programs focused around racial justice in our local schools.  The guest speaker was a woman who is the only African-American member of the school board.  She e;loquently described the challenges faced by students of color.  Our  Associate Pastor signed into that presentation, and was inspired to ramp up our efforts in terms of help meeting some of the needs.  As a result some three-hundred-twenty-five gifts cards were distributed to students and staff members in the poorest schools in our county.  Inspired by our Jewish partners, we Christians acted.

A couple of months ago the Bat yam's rabbi was one of those staffing the drive-thru food drive.  He was rather appalled to discover many more members of our congregation were bringing by groceries than from his own.  That Friday at Shabbat Services he reported out his experience, and challenged his congregants to "do better" next time.  They did, increasing their giving twenty times over!  Inspired by their Christian partners, our Jewish friends acted.

In the end, the larger community benefitted from our efforts.  Our Jewish partners made us better Christians, and we made them better Jews.  Ultimately, we are most certainly better when we work together.  A fact we celebrated this past weekend at our annual Pulpit Exchange Weekend!
 

Monday, February 1, 2021

Black History Month: Why Bother?


Today marks the beginning of Black History Month.  There are, of course, those who wonder why we need to have a month dedicated to Black history.  After all, such folks will argue, isn't the goal to see all history as important, regardless of the race of those whose stories are being told?  Which, of course, is true.  But I view Black History Month as an early precursor of Black Lives Matter. Yes, all history matters, but until certain parts of our history are told, it is only reasonable to emphasize those people and stories have been underreported, underrepresented, and sometimes not represented at all.

The proposal for holding Black History Month came out of Kent State University in 1969, and was first observed the following year.  It was first observed nationally in 1976.  Then President Gerald Ford explained the need for it when he said, "In celebrating Black History Month we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."

Our history.  Until we tell the stories of Black Americans, Native Americans, women in general, and other persons who have often been neglected or forgotten, it is not really our history, even as we can't really say All Lives Matter until we recognize those lives that have often been ignored or worse yet devalued.  Until Black History matters, history itself is incomplete and therefore inaccurate.  We will never have a complete picture of our past, no more than we can have a perfect union as a nation.  But we can work towards a more perfect, a more complete, history, even as we must strive for a more perfect union. 


Monday, January 25, 2021

So Who Am I When I Retire?

This coming Sunday marks the eleventh anniversary of my first Sunday at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ. And what a wonderful eleven years it has been.  Even this last year, with all its challenges! It also is the first Sunday in what will be a two-year time of pastoral transition for both of us, me and the congregation.  For yesterday the congregation, at it's Annual Meeting, officially approved of a retirement plan that I had originally proposed to our Church Council Executive Committee.

Retirement!  I am still adjusting to the idea.  I once said I found it easier to imagine dying than retiring.  I'm happy to say I've moved past that morbid thought, but still I am having a hard time imagining it.  I am rather wed to the idea of being an active pastor (it's been forty-three years, after all!)  So the next two years will provide me time to take a good look at my identity.

It will provide the congregation the same opportunity.  Not to look at my identity, but rather theirs.  Who is John Danner beyond being Pastor Danner?  And what is the Sanibel Congregational UCC at this point in its
journey?  Big questions for both of us.  But I suspect we will come to a similar answer.  For Pastor or not, I will remain a follower of Jesus, trying to ascertain what's next on my faith journey.  And the congregation will remain a church, followers of Jesus also discerning the direction they need to go in the future.

Keep us all in your prayers as we move through these transitional times.  

Monday, January 18, 2021

A Place at the Table


While we are no longer a legally segregated society, we still are largely divided by race and class.  Just look around this sanctuary if you need a concrete example.  As Martin Luther King often noted 11:00 o’clock Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in America.”

One could argue, I suppose, that the lack of racial diversity in my congregation is directly tied to the lack of racial diversity on Sanibel.  And that is, no doubt, true. We can’t unravel the complexities of de facto segregation in a single blog post, but perhaps we can acknowledge the reality that we are still a long way from Dr. King's vision of a world where all have a place, an equal place, at the table.  Where all can share in the abundance.

In the last years of his life, Dr. King paid an increasing amount of attention to the economic ramifications of racism.  And in the last days of his life he was engaged in supporting the garbage workers of Memphis, Tennessee who were out on strike, protesting poor working conditions and low wages. When he traveled there from Atlanta the plane, he was to fly on was guarded overnight to make sure no one would plant a bomb on it.  When he touched down there were verbal threats against his life.  It was nothing new, he he had dealt with such threats for a number of years.  But still be persisted in his efforts to lift up those who were oppressed, those who had no place at the table.

On April 3, 1968, he mounted the pulpit at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal denomination. 

As he wound up his address, his words rang out:   “. . . I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. . . . But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And he allowed me to go up the mountains.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”  (A Testament of Hope, 286)

It was last sermon and it proved to be powerfully prophetic.  King was assassinated the very next day.

King’s dream was a dream of a day when all of God’s children are seated at the table.  A day when all of God’s children share in the abundance of life.  A day when all drink freely of the waters of life.

Yes, we've made some progress, but this past year in particular has reminded us we aren’t there yet.  


 

 

 

 

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Worst Form?

 A parishioner reminded me last week of a Winston Churchill quote from 1947:  "[D]emocracy is the worst form of government," he said, "except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time . . . ." (https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/quotes)  These past weeks we have certainly seen that put to the test.  

It would, of course, be far easier to  give up on democracy.  How much simpler it would be to have some form of autocratic rule.  No decisions to be made.  No need to take responsibility for anything that happens.  Just go along to get along. 

But those of us who are part of the Congregational tradition have realized over the years that as hard as it is sometimes to have the conversations necessary to make decisions for the whole body, our lives are greatly enriched when we do.  And often our decisions are so much better.  Especially when we work at including everyone in the conversation.

Clearly, as the attack on the Capitol made very clear, we need to recommit ourselves to the work democracy.  Work that should be, must be, non-violent and broadly inclusive. And just as clearly, as the protests over the summer also made clear, there are many who have not been included in the decision-making process, many whose voices have not been heard.  Those who are impoverished, rural folks, people of color, and the list goes on.

Let's be clear, our democracy is broken.  But I hope we don't approach it like so many other things in our modern age.  I hope we don't just throw it out and replace it with something new and different.  I hope that we will have the courage, the patience and the will to fix it; to honestly assess what's wrong, and to address it.

I don't think planned obsolesce is built into American democracy, but clearly, from the start, there was a recognition that it needs ongoing adjustments, even major adjustments.  And for that to happen it will take all of us being involved. 

Monday, January 4, 2021

Let Me Be Joy! (Another Look at the New Year)

 I thought this was supposed to be a new year and a fresh start?  Why does it feel so much like . . . well, 2020?  You know, political turmoil, an out-of-control pandemic, bureaucratic snafus, civil unrest, racial tensions unresolved, economic stress on so many . . . doesn't look very new to me!

But here's the thing.  I can, get so bogged down in that kind of thinking that I fail to take the steps I can to make a difference, a difference in my life, and a difference in the lives of those around me.  I can fall into despair, "Oh mothing changes, nothing ever gets better!" Or, I can work out of hope.

Daily I share a poem and a prayer on Facebook Live, and this morning I read a poem called "A Prayer for Today" by Mary Carolyn Davies.  Born in the late nineteenth century, Davies was a moderately successful poet whose work was even included in Louis Untermeyer's 1921 anthology Modern American Poetry.  She died, however, in extreme poverty in new York City in 1940.  Hers was not always an easy life.

What struck me most about the poem, and why I shared it, is its call for approaching life in a way that would and does make a difference.  The poet asks God to make her "too brave to lie or to be unkind" and "too understanding to mind the little hurts companions give."  Many would call it a simple prayer and a simple poem.  Even simplistic.  Yet I found and find some real strength in it, as she prays, "Let me be joy, be hope!  Let my life sing!"

So let me take another look at 2021 and really give it a chance.  And let me take another look at my own attitude.  For I too can be joy, hope and a song, if I so choose.