Monday, November 24, 2014

Thoughts at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving.  For most Americans it conjures up images of abundance.  Tables overflowing with turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberry sauce and at least two kinds of pie.  No wonder our ancestors called it "the groaning board"!  Yet for many Americans Thanksgiving is just one more day of hunger. 

A recently released study based on a federal survey says  49 million Americans are "food insecure."  In some 324 counties, one in five residents.  That means going hungry, eating less than is needed, or eating nutritionally inadequate meals due to financial constraints.  In other words, 49 million Americans are undernourished, malnourished, or simply hungry.  (USA Today, April 20, 2014, 5B)

We hear about hunger in America every year at this time.  And for a few brief days--sometimes weeks--we do fairly well at applying band aids to the problem.  We hold Thanksgiving dinners for the poor.  We take up food collections for soup kitchens and food pantries.  We pack up Thanksgiving baskets for needy families.  And that is all well and good.  Very good.  But let's not fool ourselves.  It doesn't solve the problem.  These are all wonderful acts of charity--but they are not really acts of justice.  Justice works to resolve the underlying inequities.  And while a basket of goodies or a hot meal in the church basement may fill a belly for a day, it doesn't begin to resolve the ongoing issue of hunger in America.

Let's be honest.  For those of us who think in theological terms, it is a societal sin.  I don't like to throw around such words needlessly, but the fact that there are children (and adults) who don't have enough to eat, or the right things to eat, or anything to eat at all, is unconscionable.  And the answer doesn't lie in opening more food pantries or soup kitchens.  The answer lies in working towards full employment.  The answer lies in addressing the minimum wage issue.  The answer lies in making it easier for supermarkets and other purveyors of good food to open stores in the inner cities. 

This Thanksgiving, as you and I sit at our tables laden with good food, let us recommit ourselves to working towards the goal of food security for all Americans. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

So Who's in YOUR Prayers?

I saw a brief blurb in the most recent Christian Century which reported that almost half of all Americans say they pray every day.  Of that number 82 percent said they pray for friends and family.  Only 40 percent pray for their enemies and a scant 12 percent pray for governmental leaders.  (October 29, 2014, 8)  Which just goes to show you that those who think politicians haven't got a prayer may be right!

Seriously, though, I am struck by the fact that so few of us pray for our president, our governors, our senators and representatives.  Here at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ our staff gathers for prayer every morning, and one of the prayers we offer up every day reads:  "We pray for those who make decisions that impact all our lives, especially our President, Barack, and our Governor, Rick."   For the cynically minded, it means we cover both enemies and those in authority in one prayer--for Barack Obama and Rick Scott are politically polar opposites!  One or the other is probably your political nemesis!  The Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, and prayer books for many other denominations as well, includes prayers for governmental leaders.  As the piece in Christian Century notes, it is what the New Testament says we are supposed to do.  "I urge that supplications, prayers,intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone," writes the author of First Timothy, "for kings and all who are in high places . . . ."  (2:1-2a)

Next week we will be going to the polls to elect some of our leaders.  Here in Florida we will decide the outcome of an exceptionally virulent campaign for governor.  It is a tight, tight race.  Too close to call.  And around the nation there are other such contests as well.  Places where the populace is evenly divided when it comes to their choice of candidates. And so it is in this democracy of ours.  Often we find ourselves disagreeing over leaders and policies and programs.  Good and faithful people can be found on most any side and most every side!  As that old bumper sticker says, "God is not a Republican . . . or a Democrat!"  But as Christians, Jews and other people of faith, we should all agree on this:  our leaders need our prayers.

So who's in YOUR prayers?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Zombies . . . and Ebola

It was a strange juxtaposition.  Zombies and ebola.  Let me explain.

The neighboring city of Fort Myers held it's annual ZombieCon this past weekend.  A celebration of all-things zombie.  Folks dress up in elaborate zombie-themed costumes.  There are contests and music and special foods.  All the things you'd expect at any street festival.  All focused on zombies--the living dead.

Needless to say, such an event provides many photographic opportunities for television.  And the local stations did themselves proud, covering the event in great detail.  TV screens were filled with graphic images of decaying flesh masks and make-up gone wild.  Some of it was pretty silly.  A lot of it rather scary.  And most of it just plain gross.

I was shocked, however, not so much by the event or the make-up as I was by the way the stories about the ZombieCon were butted right up next to stories about the ebola crisis.  It struck me as rather tasteless.  I'm all for good fun.  And dress up is indeed a game the whole family can play!  But our national fascination with the zombies, animated dead bodies who dine on the flesh of the living, is bizarre at best.  Then again, maybe it's not.  Maybe it really is rather understandable.

One thing about dressing up like a zombie:  when you're done playing make-believe, you can wipe off the makeup, take off the raggedy costume, and resume your everyday life.  You can't do that with diseases like ebola or AIDS or cancer.  You can control being a zombie.  And we all know zombies aren't real.  But ebola isn't fake.  HIV/AIDS is very real.  Cancer impacts most every family. And ISIS and drought and tornadoes and forest fires that last for months . . . there are some things we can't seem to control.  Things that really frighten us.  Maybe that's why it's such a relief to be a  zombie--if only for a weekend.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Graying of the Church

Technically we are not part of the so-called "gray belt"--a cluster of eight counties in central and western Florida that is populated by a disproportionate number of senior citizens.  Lee County has plenty of older folks, but not enough to qualify for that designation.  Sanibel, however, this lovely island where I live, could be called the gray button.  Our average age here in our fair city is sixty-one.  ( Counter-intuitively, we are the wave of the future, for our nation is aging with each passing year.

We have never tried to determine the average age of our five hundred or so parishioners here.  But I suspect it's not far off the city average.  It may even be a bit older.  We have some younger members, and even a few families with young children.  We have a good educational program for kids--bopth midweek (which attracts quitre a few "non-church" kids) and Sunday mornings.  We also run our own weekday preschool.  But by-and-large our members are retirees, often snowbirds.  Here for the winter, but gone three to six months of the year.

We do a fair amount of hand-wringing around here about church growth.  We need younger members, we need to bring in the young families!  I hear that a lot.  But what if they aren't there to be brought in?  Or, what if what we have to offer just doesn't meet their needs? 

I love church.  I love Sunday worship.  I love the various accoutrements that surround the institution called church.  I even love a good stewardship campaign!  But I just turned sixty-one.  I'm not even bringing down the average age anymore!  Only one out of my three children is a regular church goer.  I share the fate of most of my parishioners.

What if church as we know it is on the verge of extinction, what then?  How will we, in this liminal time, best serve those in the gray belts and buttons, while still moving into the future?  I wish I had the answer--I'd hire out as a highly paid consultant!  I'm sure it is not simply a matter of guitars and drums in worship, and Starbucks in the social hall.  But what is it?  How do we institutionally carry out our mission to love God and neighbor in this rapidly changing world? 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Do We Really Need Clergy Appreciation Month?

October is Clergy Appreciation Month.  I'm not sure why we pastors need a special month dedicated to folks expresing their appreciation.  I find they tend to do that all year long--it is one of the things that truly sustains me in my work.  Folks send lovely notes and e-mails.  Sometimes they leave a book or an article that they think I'll appreciate in my mailbox.  And they often take time to stop me at coffee hour to say thank you for this or that.  So I don't really think we need a designated month.  But be that as it may, perhaps it does give me a chance to thank some of the clergy who have been important in my life.

I start, of course, with my Dad.  Howard Danner.  He was a stubborn son-of-a-gun.  He had strong opinions, and he was more than happy to share them with you.  From the pulpit, in one-on-one conversations, in written correspondence.  I suspect it wasn't always easy being one of his parishioners. Certainly it wasn't always easy being his son--especially since my views often diverged from his!  But parishioners and offspring alike also knew that they could count on Dad when they needed him to be there.  He was a real johnny-on-the-spot when it came to pastoral care!  I learned much, sitting under his preaching and pastoring for eighteen years.  But the two most important lessons were this.  Don't be afraid to speak the truth as you understand it.  And, love.  Love the people you care for as a pastor.  Really love them.

When I was a teenager I was part of a youth group led by another pastor in town.  A fellow named Don Rankin.  Don was my Dad's successor--and in many ways they were polar opposites.  But Don had a real heart for young people.  His youth group meetings were always challenging.  We deal with a wide array of issues:  human sexuality, racism, poverty.  And when you needed a wise bit of counsel, Don was always willing to make time to sit and talk things through.  From Don I learned that pastors should be there for the young people as well as the adults. 

Actually, my list of clergy I appreciate is very, very long.  I know more pastors than may be healthy for any human being!  But I mention just one more.  Ron Kurtz.  Ron was the regional minister when I was starting out in my first full-time parish in upstate New York.  He was a very wise judicatory official, who understood that even pastors need pastors.  Shortly after starting at my new church in Gloversville, I was separated from my wife of twelve years.  I was petrified!  How could I tell these folks who had just called me as their new pastor!  "Trust them," advised Ron.  "They will be far more accepting than you can imagine."  And he was right.  Ron helped me through the crisis, and even saw to it that I got two or through opportunities for writing and learning that boosted my very fragile sense of self.  From Ron, I learned that being a pastor is, in some ways, a two way street.  Not that a congregation is there to meet your needs as a pastor.  Rather, there are times when they will need to hold you up--like the leaders who held up the arms of Moses.

I'm still not sure we need a special month for expressing our appreciation for the clergy in our lives.  But the truth is, when someone makes a difference in your life you can never say thank you enough!

(Photo:  Howard Danner, circa 1980.  Unfortunately, I am unable to locate pictures of Don Rankin or Ron Kurtz.)

Monday, September 29, 2014

One Grandfather's Perspective on Homework

I am meeting with one of my grandchildren once a week to do some tutoring this year.  History and literature in particular.  I'm happy to do it--it's nice to have some one-on-one time.  But it has caused me to be more aware of homework than I have had to be for almost twenty years!

The reality is, the kid has a lot of it.  Practically a ton of it.  Just heft the back pack stuffed with text books and folders if you don't believe me!  And I, for one, can't help but wonder if it's too much.  The general guideline offered by the NEA and other education groups is ten minutes times the student's grade level.  So a first grader would only have ten minutes of homework a night; a high school senior, two hours. 

The same report indicated that children shouldn't learn new information or new methodologies by doing homework, but rather homework should reinforce what is taught in the classroom during the day.

Last week during our tutoring session we worked on explicating Walt Whitman's poem, "O Captain, My Captain."  It is a powerful piece of poetry, historically rooted in the time following the assignation of Abraham Lincoln.  It was a well crafted assignment which allowed for some real integration of historical material and literature.  The assignment emphasized Whitman's use of extended metaphor.  And my grandchild seemed to really understand it.  But it was a bit of a struggle, and I'm not sure there would have been the same level of understanding had I not been sitting there.  That's not to pat myself on the back.  It is to say I'm not sure it met either of the aforementioned criteria.  It was only one of many assignments for the night and weekend.  And it took well over the allotted time.  But most significantly, I think my grandchild did learn something new.

I don't know what the answer is to the problem.  But I have decided that the complaining I sometimes here from young parents is justified.  The issue of too much homework is really an issue.  And finding and making time for play, plain old-fashioned play, is as important to a child's education as learning about extended metaphors, algorithms and cellular reproduction. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Fair Expectation

The National Football League is a tax-exempt, not-for-profit organization.  No kidding!  Not the teams themselves, but the league.  As it turns out, so too the PGA and the National Hockey League.  Not-for-profit, like a church or the American Cancer Society or your local food pantry.  The NFL!  Apparently the tax-exempt status grew out of the same conversations that granted it an exemption to various anti-trust laws when the former American Football League merged with it.  Not-for-profit.  It seems so very Orwellian to speak of an organization like the NFL as not-for-profit.

The league itself, according to USA Today, makes about $300 million a year, and the industry (including all the teams) turns over $9 billion a year. The teams are not tax-exempt, just the league.  Still, it is a money-making machine!  Television revenues alone . . . . well, you get the point.

Not-for-profits are established to better the community.  That is their purpose, and that is why they are allowed tax-exempt status.  Now it is true, the NFL does sponsor some charitable work.  And that is good.  But if the NFL really wants to live up to it's tax-exempt status, if it really wants to help better the community, then it has do a much more credible job of handling the domestic violence concerns that are being raised.  Thousands, no millions, of youngsters look up to players.  They are role models for youngsters across the country.  How the NFL deals with this crisis will send a strong message to those young people.  It has the potential to make our national community a better place.  And that is a fair expectation to have of a nationally recognized not-for profit organization.