Thursday, December 18, 2014

S-E-X and other Christmas Matters

A number of years ago, on the outskirts of Auburn, Maine, there stood a billboard that had splashed across it in bright red letters S-E-X.  Then, beneath the word sex, in small black letters, it said, "Now that we have your attention, we'd like to share the following information with you."  The billboard then went on to advertise a product totally unrelated to sex.

I used to wonder as I drove past that sign if it really was an effective form of advertising.  Sure, it was an attention-getter, and one doesn't easily forget the billboard itself, but for the life of me I can't remember what was being advertised.  The method, the medium, was so controversial that the message itself has been lost!  Thirty-five years later I remember the billboard, but not the product being promoted!

I think that is often what happens when we consider the nativity story.  Mary is visited by an angel who tells her that she is going to give birth to the Messiah.  When Mary questions how this can happen, after all she is a virgin, the angel tells her:  Nothing is impossible with God.

The important fact of the announcement is who is going to be born--not how that is going to happen!  But we get so hung up on debating what the story says or doesn't say about the virgin birth, that we often overlook its central affirmation:  the one to be born is the Saviour.  Like that billboard in Maine, too often we focus on the medium, rather than the message.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Making Peace at the Airport

This time of year many of my parishioners go back up north for the holidays.  The hassles of holiday travel are very much a part of their routines--including the risks of checking bags at the airport.

I'm reminded of the story about the holiday traveler who plopped his case down at the ticket counter, and noticed a bit of mistletoe above the scales.  "Why is that there?" he asked the ticket agent.  The agent smirked.  "So you can kiss your luggage goodbye!"

No wonder folks at airports are rarely at their best!  I've heard angry customers rip ticket agents to shreds.  I've seen people bump and push their way through lines like they were the only person in the world who needed to get somewhere. 

According to Jason Barger, a consultant a frequent flyer, the general atmosphere at airports makes them perfect places to hone one's skills as a peacemaker.  A few years back he decided to spend seven consecutive days and nights in the air travel system to see how people respond to the stress and anxiety of flying.  He kept a journal, noting all that he observed.  "I started thinking, maybe the airport . . . is where we could start thinking about beginning a more civil and graceful society."  (New York Times, 12-2-08, B4)  Instead of jumping up when the captain turns off the no seat belt signs and cramming the aisle with everybody else at the end of the flight, we could just stay seated, and let the frenzy go by.  Instead of jostling for the best position at the baggage carousel, we could just stand back and wait calmly for the bags.  As we live with a greater measure of peace and serenity, he reasons, it will influence others.

Barger's premise is really quite simple.  If we want to have peace in our lives, "we just need to smart small . . . [We can] . . . change the world, by the way be live at the airport."  (Ibid)

Just a thought in this busy season of the year!

Happy travels!

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Good Dose of Advent

Gray Thursday.  Black Friday.  Small Business Saturday.  Cyber Monday.  The trifecta of shopping--plus one for good measure!  Note that Sunday doesn't make the cut--thank God!  But of course it didn't--I mean what's left?  Convenience Store Sunday?  Seven-Eleven Sunday (Oh thank Heaven! )  I'm all for commerce.  I enjoy a good Christmas gift as much as the next guy or gal.  But the hype has just gotten to be a bit too much!

So what are we to do about it?  The complaints that Christmas has gotten too commercialized are nothing new.  I'm sixty-one, and I don't remember a time when somebody didn't complain about shopping and such pushing aside the Christ child.  And as for Advent.  Well there's a lost cause for you if ever there was one!  Most folks probably think it's a new prescription medication.  Take two Advents and call me in the morning.  But beware, it can cause internal bleeding, drowsiness and in rare cases a prolonged sense of yearning. 

OK--now that I've gotten that out of my system, maybe I can focus on a serious word or two about this time of year, this holy season called Advent.  Every preacher worth his or her salt speaks of patience and watching and waiting in these weeks leading up to Christmas.  Yet this is so very counter-cultural!  We are not a patient people.  Just sit two seconds to long after the light turns green and you'll understand what I mean!  We want things now.  And as for watching and waiting.  Please!  We see so much in this visual age that we miss most everything in sight!

But such are the bywords of the season.  Watch.  Wait.  Be patient.  I hope (another good Advent word) that I can do just that.  Not because I am overly eager for presents and the other stuff of Christmas, but because I yearn for peace and joy and love.  Maybe a good dose of Advent is just what I need. 

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?