Monday, August 11, 2014

A Post about Posts

I recently finished a very disturbing book, The Circle, by David Eggers.  It is a work of science fiction set in the very near future.  And I just can't get it out of my head!

The Circle in the novel's title refers to a fictional corporation modeled after Facebook.  One of the founders of the company even wears hoodies!  The basic question posed by the book is "What happens when every part of our lives is online?"  The Circle is initially presented as a very positive influence on the world.  But as the book goes along one becomes increasingly concerned by the far reaching consequences of its move into every facet of life.

Two issues that surface in the book really gave me pause.  The first had to do with the addictive quality of the virtual world.  How easily we fall into compulsive behaviors when it comes to things like checking e-mail, social media sites and so on.  The second had to do with the ongoing issue of privacy.  How much privacy do we have any more? Total transparency is lifted up as the highest good by the Circle.  Folks are expected to reveal all to the world.

I don't know about you, but I have things I really don't want to share with my best friends and family, much less complete strangers.  And I'm willing for others to have such private thoughts and ideas.  I'm an introvert--I need time to process things that cross my path.  Social media encourages instant responses.  responses that are not always well considered.  I find it all a bit unsettling.

I encourage you to read Eggers book.  You may not like it.  You may not like what it suggests may happen if we continue to follow the virtual path without real consideration of its implications.  But I am sure it will give you much to consider.

I'm not going to abandon Facebook.  I'm not going to stop writing this blog.  And I'm not giving up e-mail.  I'm not a Luddite!  But I am concerned.  I think we all should be concerned.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sitting in a Pew--Part II

I spent the weekend at my Mom's in southeastern Kentucky.  It's a part of the world where church is serious business.  Everywhere you look there are signs (literally and figuratively) that indicate these are church going folks.  I saw several billboards, for instance, that all proclaimed in huge letters "Talk to God--Sundays 11:00 AM"

Every couple of miles along the highways one sees signs pointing up into the hills (the hollers as they call them there) indicating the presence of one small church or another.  Many of them are Holiness Churches.  Others are independent, non-denominational congregations.  And most of them have Baptist in their name:  Roadside Baptist, First Baptist, Turkey Creek Baptist . . . you get the drift.  And all of them are very evangelical in their theological understandings. 

It's not an easy place to be a mainline congregation.  But they do exist.  United Methodists and Presbyterians and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for the most part.  Often they are small, struggling congregations.  Doing their best to offer some theological alternatives in a place dominated by biblical literalism.

Mom is part of just such a church.  It's a little Disciples of Christ congregation that considers it a really good Sunday when thirty folks are in attendance.  Their part-time pastor is a seminary student who divides his time between working for the church and working on his degree.  He is a good and imaginative man.  And the congregation knows it.  They consider themselves fortunate to have him.

I've been to Mom's church many times before, and so was warmly greeted by several parishioners when I walked in the door.  I came a bit later than Mom.  She is the regular lector, and had gone to church a bit early to set up her reading.  But I wasn't the only one greeted in such a fashion.  I don't think anybody, not even the young high school student who was coming for the first time, walked through the door who wasn't greeted by at least three or four others.

As the service proceeded we sang several old chestnuts:  "Blessed Assurance,"  "I Am Thine O Lord" among them.  We used the denominational hymnal, Chalice, a very fine hymnal.  There was a sound system--but no overhead projections.

I realized as the service went on that a third of the congregation, there were twenty-five of us on Sunday, was involved in leading the service.  The only two children in attendance lit the candles, others read, served communion, said prayers at the altar, led singing . . . . it was very participatory!

There wasn't a lot of glitz or glamor.  But at prayer time, folks were invited to share their joys and concerns, and they did.  We offered up prayers for a couple just passing through town with an "anonymous concern" as well as for long time members who were ill.

As the service ended and folks started to leave--well, they didn't.  Everybody stood around the sanctuary chatting with each other.  The young man with a bandanna and beard who sits in the balcony by himself every Sunday.  The young college student from the nearby liberal arts college.  The elderly widows and grandparents.  Everybody seemed to know everybody else.  And clearly they enjoyed being with one another.  They were almost loath to go!

I think it was church guru Lyle Schallert who once labeled a congregation the size of Mom's a family church.  And that is so apt.  Like any family, they have their squabbles, I'm sure.  But like a good family, they stick by one another.  Coming to church for worship on Sunday is like a reunion.  A family reunion.

All the years my Dad was disabled the women's Bible study--they call themselves the Friends of Jesus Bible Study--met at my mom's, to make it a bit easier for her to participate.  When Dad died, they just continued to meet at Mom's--that is until another of the group's members had to care for her home bound husband.  Then they moved to her house.  That's the sort of thing family's do, isn't it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Parenting the Second Time Around

My grandsons are here for the week.  Along with their two dogs.  They are attending a day camp here on the island (the boys, not the dogs) alongside kids who live here on Sanibel year round, and other grandkids like themselves.  Their evenings are spent with us. We have them for a couple of weeks each summer, as we do two of their cousins.  Its our way of helping to pick up some of the slack in childcare.  It also means some extra time with the kids themselves.

Ours is a relatively easy lot when it comes to grandparenting.  I know people who are virtually raising a grandchild or two.  And across the nation, their are thousands of grandparents doing just that.  Thousands of grandparents who have sole responsibility for their grandkids.  Sometimes it is because both parents have died--but more often it is because the father is missing from the scene, and the mother is caught up in drugs, or is imprisoned, or in some other way unable to parent her own children.

I often say that being a grandfather is not only the best job in the world, it is also one of the easiest.  I don't usually say that this time of year (the part about being easy)--but I really do say it with some frequency.  When I was a boy and we'd play make believe I always wanted to be the grandfather.  Even then I knew that it was a great gig. 

But in the summer, when the grandkids are here by themselves, and we're packing lunches and making sure showers are taken and breaking up squabbles, I remember that for some grandparents its a year round 24/7 job.  And I offer up a prayer of thanks.  Thanks for my own children, who have all grown up to be capable parents.  Thanks for their very able partners and spouses who are as well.  And thanks for those grandparents out there who step up to the plate when needed and become surrogate moms and dads.  God grant them the strength and wisdom they may need as they do parenting the second time around!

(Photo:  Me and my oldest grandson on our bicycling adventure last summer.)

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!