Monday, July 21, 2014

Small Steps and Giant Leaps

Normally our young charges would have already been in bed--for that matter so would most of us.  But that night every camper and staff member at Camp Lincoln in southern New Hampshire was gathered in the dining room around a tiny black and white television.  For along with 500 million folks around the world, we wanted to witness Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon.

That was forty-five years ago now.  I was only fifteen at the time, a junior counselor, helping to ride herd on a group of eight boys who were assigned to our cabin.  It had some woodsy name, as I remember, Beaver's Dam or Pine Branch.  I've long since forgotten!  The next day I would celebrate my sixteenth birthday.  That summer Armstrong took his small step for man, while I took a small step towards growing up.

It wasn't the best of summers.  I was really a rather obnoxious young fellow.  I really thought I knew it all.  After all, I was the older brother of three siblings.  I knew how to take care of little kids.  My senior counselor, however, disagreed.  We often argued.  I learned the meaning of insubordination that summer.  I really was a bit of a jerk!  Needless to say, I wasn't invited back the next year.  But that's another story.

The picture on our black and white television was very fuzzy.  Partly because the reception in the woods, in those pre-cable days, was lousy.  Partly because it was fuzzy anyway!  But we were still thrilled.  I remember going outside and looking up at the sky and marveling that Armstrong and Aldrin were actually on the moon!  Amazing!  It still sends chills up my spine!  We had met Kennedy's challenge.  We had won the race to the moon!

I don't remember now how long we watched once Armstrong had actually set foot in the Sea of Tranquility--but I suspect the camp director sent us all off to our cabins fairly quickly.  After all there were boats to sail, and arrows to shoot and baseball games to be played in the morning.  And even though there were men on the moon, that wouldn't delay the rising of the sun and the playing of reveille!  Nor would it stop the fact that I would be another year older.  And by the end of the summer, rather chastened, and perhaps a bit wiser.  Not because of the moon landing, but rather because of the lessons I'd learned, the hard way, about working as a team and sharing responsibility.  In the end, it may have been more than just a small step in my growing up--that summer may have actually been a giant leap!

(Photo:  Danner Family, circa 1969.  Front, l to r, Mark, Sue.  Back, l to r, John, Howard, Robert, Constance)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sitting in a Pew--or a Padded Chair, Actually

Yesterday I had the rare opportunity to attend a worship service for which I had no responsibility.  I had the morning off and one of our sons had asked us to check out a church near their home that they are considering attending.  They've been there a couple of times and wanted my take on it.  We weren't church shopping per se.  More window shopping.  We certainly weren't going  to "buy" anything ourselves, but we wanted to take a peek!

To begin with, I knew that the church was non-denominational, and what would be characterized as "evangelical."  Like so many first-time visitors I had gone to their website before I went to service.  It was a very polished website--and, if you were willing to dig, one that conveyed a fair amount of information about the church, including it's statement of faith.  If I had not been on my particular mission, that would have stopped me right there.  It was theologically very, very conservative. 
It spoke of biblical inerrancy and substitutionary atonement, though it used much more accessible language.

That said, the website gave very clear directions, and had a very inviting look about it.  As did the parking lot when we pulled in on Sunday morning.  Balloons marked two clear signs pointing to the children's wing of the church--and a number of parking spots were reserved for parents with very young children.  Clearly they were aiming for the younger crowd.  And it appeared to be working!

When we entered the foyer, the doors were held open for us by cheerful greeters.  We were welcomed at least three times.  Everything was clearly marked--I noticed the worship space was labeled "auditorium"--not "sanctuary."  A tip of the hat to those unfamiliar with churchy language.

The music was loud.  Very loud.  It was a so-called contemporary service, and it began with a rock band and light show.  The song lyrics were projected onto three large screens--though it seemed that it was mostly the band members who were singing. And it was loud.  Very loud.  I love good rock and roll.  And I can handle volume being turned way up--but it was loud.

We stood for the first twenty minutes as the band played on.  The auditorium was full of young families.  Very few older folks--and virtually none from my mother's generation.  She would not have been able to stand for so long, I suspect.  They say one of the secrets to church growth is to have a very closely targeted audience.  They did.  And clearly it was working.

The sermon was piped in from another location.  It was well-done and shown on a very large screen which had been lowered for the presentation.  It was well-thought out, with a fair amount of humor--and reflective of the church's theology.  But I missed having the preacher in the room.

I was struck by how little we had to do as worshippers.  The room was fairly dark--more like being in a theater than in a traditional sanctuary--and it was very easy to close in on yourself and your own concerns.  The sermon was targeted that way as well.  I may have missed something, but I don't think there was a single mention of any outside event.  No mention of Israel and Gaza, no mention of flooding across the country, no mention of gun violence erupting again.  A very well crafted cocoon had been prepared for us--granted one with very loud music--and we could simply sink into the experience and let our troubles go.

Are there things for old fogeys like me to learn from such an experience?  Sure.  The use of technology was awesome--and if we are going to connect with younger folks we need to use it more expertly.  The welcome was genuinely warm--always a plus.  Laughter is good.  And at least for some of our worship experiences we need to recognize musical tastes vary widely.

But that said, worship--for me at least--needs to be more inclusive of the worshippers.  Worship needs to reflect our commitment to serve others.   I'm a trained actor--I love a good show--and bringing a measure of theatricality to worship is not a bad thing--in fact, I would suggest it is a good thing.  But worship needs to be more than a show. 

And finally, the church is one of the last places where one can have an intergenerational experience.  I for one think that is one of the real gifts we offer to the world.  I would hate for us to become stratified by age.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to go.  And I appreciate that while the church I visited is coming from a very different space than I am, it clearly is meeting some needs for folks trying to understand their place in the world and their relationship to God.

But did I tell you the music was loud? 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sending Mom to Washington

What would drive a parent to such depths of despair that he or she would not only allow, but encourage his or her child to travel alone hundreds miles across unknown terrain?  What manner of fears would prompt such an action?  They are called unaccompanied minors, these children who are crossing into the United States illegally.  But I think that's a less than helpful term.  Unaccompanied minors are children who travel on planes, watched over by flight attendants and delivered safely into the hands of a waiting adult.  And while some of these children may be watched over by smugglers--coyotes--the only hands they are delivered into are those of border patrol officers.  These journeys  north aren't  summer vacation trips to Grandma's.  They are, at least in the eyes of parents from places like Honduras and Guatemala, trips designed to save young lives.

So I ask again, how can a parent be so desperate?  Yet many, many are.  The violence and poverty in so many villages and towns in Central America has proven so deadly that even a trip through the deserts of Mexico, worth all the risks of robbery, rape and even murder, is a safer bet.

Do we need to address the immigration issue?  Of course.  Can we have a porous border and survive as a nation?  Probably not.  But meeting these children with protests and angry cries is not the way to solve the problem! 

I imagine that many of the youngsters traveling north have to grow up very quickly along the way.  We can only hope that our governmental leaders would grow up as well. The bickering, the tit-for-tat approach we are witnessing in Washington is as childish as it gets!

When we were little and had a squabble, my mother would sit us down and make us apologize to each other and then we'd have to work out our differences.  Maybe we should send Mom to Washington.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Religion and Politics and the Matter of Interpretation

This past week the Supreme Court has been handing down many of its decisions for this term.  Their decisions have reflected a variety of questions and issues that face our nation.  But at core, many of them have addressed the question of freedom.  What does it mean to say ours is a nation dedicated to such things as freedom of speech and  freedom of religion? 

From the earliest days of our country we have tried to define our terms.  The Constitution often leaves things open to interpretation.  And so we debate.  Political parties and personal philosophies are often built around such interpretations and understandings--often times conflicting understandings.  Conflicting interpretations.

And things change.  What may have seemed acceptable at one time is deemed unacceptable at another.  What may not be permitted in one generation may be permitted in the next.

It is far from original to speak of the Constitution as a living document.  But that makes such a statement no less true!  And while we argue and debate, we do have a final arbiter in the highest court in the land.

Perhaps for those of us who are Protestants that is the problem with the Bible.  While many of us believe it is also a living document, open to interpretation, we are less willing to speak of a final arbiter when it comes to such interpretation.  In my denomination we say that each individual, guided by the Holy Spirit, is responsible for determining how to understand and apply the scriptures.  And that, of course, leads to many understandings and many applications.  Don't misunderstand.  I wouldn't have it any other way!  But it does make for a challenging life!  

They say you should never talk about politics or religion in polite company.  But I say, how can you not?  After all, what does the 4th of July mean if it doesn't mean you can talk about both?  But, of course, that's my interpretation!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summertime--and the Reading is Easy

So what are you reading this summer?  I have a huge stack that I'm working through--some are strictly for pleasure--others are work related.

On the pleasure pile you'll find John Grisham's latest, Sycamore Row, a legal thriller if you will which tackles important issues like racism.  You'll also discover Tom Perrota's The Abstinence Teacher, one of his older novels.  I loved his book The Leftovers and decided to look for some of his earlier works.  I also have Christopher Paolini's Inheritance, the fourth and final installment in his fantasy series called The Inheritance Cycle.  (I still can't believe he was only fifteen when he wrote the first of these Tolkeinesque works!)

My "Presidential Project" continues as well.  I'm up to number nineteen in my effort to read a biography of every present.  Rutherford B. Hayes.  On tap is Garfield.  I'm still trying to do one a month, but that doesn't usually pan out--this one is 600 pages long!  (Who would have thought there could be that much to say about Hayes?)

For work I'm tackling a variety of books related to courses I'll be teaching next season.  I just finished a volume on the Gospel of John by Robert Kayser.  All the years I've been leading Bible studies, I've never taken on John.  I'm co-teaching a course on antebellum attitudes towards race as reflected in literature and religion, and so I'm tackling Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and a new biography of Stowe by Nancy Koester.  And for the course I'll teach next spring on the religious history of Florida, Michael Gannon's The Cross in the Sand.  (I LOVE the title!)

When I was a boy I would sneak out into the hall after I was supposed to be in bed, and read by the hall light until I heard my parents start up the stairs to go to bed themselves.  And my summer days were filled with reading--I used to love the hammock on my great aunt and uncle's porch, where I would swing and read for hours!  I guess old habits die hard!  Summer and reading--perfect together!

But enough about me--what are you reading this summer?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Of Saggy Pants and Dress Codes

I have never been a clothes horse.  I have a few nice suits that I wear on Sunday--and four or five really nifty "Florida" shirts, you know the ones with palm trees and fish and wild colors.  But for the most part my attire is unremarkable.  Indeed my first consideration when I'm buying a new shirt or slacks or whatever is comfort.  I, for one, don't believe clothes make the man--in fact, as one pundit once put it, I believe that the man makes the clothes.

All that said, one of my very first forays into the world of politics came when I was just a sophomore in high school and the school board decided we needed a dress code.  It was the sixties, and skirts were getting shorter with each passing day, and jeans were quickly becoming the item of choice and some of the board members felt it was getting out of hand.  How could we concentrate on our studies?  How could we develop discipline in our work habits if we had no discipline in our clothes closets?

The time came for the board to vote on the matter, but before each meeting there was a time for public comment, and so I, along with some of my classmates, decided to go and share our views.  To their credit the board allowed us to speak, and we let them know in no uncertain terms that we thought the dress code was a lousy idea.  We would learn our lessons whether we were clad in denim or khaki or the finest wool.  And being a future preacher (though I resisted the call for almost a decade after that meeting) I used an analogy.  "We may be like diamonds in the rough, but we are nonetheless diamonds!"  My fellow protesters applauded.  So did a few parents.  But we lost.  The dress code was instituted, but to the best of my knowledge, there was no bump up in grades.  There certainly wasn't for me!

I recalled all this when I learned this week that the Fort Myers City Council, just over the causeway from Sanibel, is discussing a ban on saggy pants.  You know, those trousers some fellows wear six inches below their waists?  Underwear showing, material all gathered up around the ankles?  Maybe if kids weren't allowed to wear such clothing it would build character, so the argument is going.  Maybe it would even help reduce crime!  (I'm not making this up!) 

I'm sorry.  I didn't get it back when I was a kid.  I don't get it today!  I don't like saggy pants--no more than my elders liked our choices of clothing in the sixties. I really don't.  But really--it will help reduce crime?  It will build character?  How about working on poverty?  How about creating job opportunities for teenagers (yes, I know, don't wear saggy pants to an interview!)  How about making sure our police officers and sheriff's deputies are well-paid and better equipped to do their work! 

As a child of the sixties, all I can say is let them wear what they want!  "Up with saggy pants!"  So to speak.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Remembering Howard Danner, Remembering Dad

I grew up in northern New England.  We lived about a mile away from school. Too close to take the bus--so we walked  On nice days, on rainy days, on snowy days, we walked.  Sometimes we'd complain about it.  And inevitably my father would shake his head, and tell us how he used to walk five miles each way, even in the snow!  It wasn't until I was twelve or so that I put it all together:  my dad grew up in West Palm Beach.  Florida! 

It's funny how often I think of that story.

It's funny how often I think of my dad.  We were often at odds over the years.  He tended to be much more traditional in many of his understandings of the faith.  I can remember more than one heated discussion about the use of inclusive language and the respective roles of men and women in life.  In earlier days we'd argued about little things, like the length of my hair (yes, Virginia, I had hair!) or the timing of my curfew. 

Still, for all our disagreements, we also had a real respect for one another.  And a deep, deep love.  I remember when I went away to college waking up one night in October realizing I really missed him!  These days that happens every time I see his picture or someone mentions him in conversation.  Because for all our differences one of the things I could always count on was the fact that no matter what I had to say, no matter how long it took me to explain it, Dad would listen.  Really listen.  And he'd be genuinely interested.  And then, if I asked, he'd offer me sound advice.

He loved me.  He was willing to listen.  And he was interested in what I had to say, in who I was and what I did.  As we approach Father's Day I realize yet again how really fortunate I was to have him.  I only pray that my children will be able to say the same.