Stay Awake to the End: The Benediction You will Hear Most Sundays at Plymouth

On most Saturdays Jesus attended a Sabbath synagogue service that ended with this benediction from Numbers 6:24-26:

May God bless you and keep you.
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God look upon you with kindness and give you peace.

Did the priest ever feeling like closing with something different: “May God look upon you with a look that says ‘I’m watching you’”?

The Sunday morning benediction at the churches of my childhood went like this:

The nursery workers asked me to remind you to pick up your children as soon as this service is over.  Youth, don’t forget to bring a sweet or salty snack to the ping pong party on Friday.   Anybody got anything else?  We’ll see y’all back here at 6:00.    

On my first Sunday as a college student far from home, the minister offered this benediction:

May the Lord Christ walk ahead of you to prepare your way.
May Christ be beside you as companion on your journey.
May Christ be beneath you to support you when you fall.
May Christ be within you giving peace and joy.
May Christ be behind you to finish what you must leave undone.
May the Lord Christ be over you, watching, calling, guiding, challenging now and forevermore.

I had never heard such a thing in worship.  I learned to look forward to this weekly reminder of Christ’s presence.

What would be the reaction if a minister offered this Irish blessing?

May your glass be ever full.
May the roof over your head be always strong.
And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

Would worshippers be amused if this were the benediction?

May those who love us love us and those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts.  And if God doesn’t turn their hearts, may God turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.

A few years ago I heard a prayer and scribbled a rough, paraphrased version on the back of an offering envelope.  I tried unsuccessfully to find the source, but used it many times before a seminary student recognized it as part of a Franciscan prayer:

May God bless you with distaste for superficial worship so that you will live deep within your soul. 
May God bless you with anger at prejudice so that you will work for justice.
May God bless you with tears for those who sorrow so that you will share a word of comfort.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world.

This is the benediction I will offer most Sundays at Plymouth because I need the reminder to live deeply into God’s blessings—and think you might, too.  One Sunday I may add:

May God bless you with dissatisfaction at just hearing a benediction so that you will truly feel God’s blessing.

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No Easy Answers

I had just finished teaching “The Parables in Luke” at my middle class white suburban church, so when I was asked to lead a Bible study for fifteen homeless African American men with drug or alcohol addictions in inner city New Orleans, I said, “Sure.”  Ex-convicts, victims of abuse, and only a few high school graduates made it a Saturday night crowd rather than one of the Sunday morning groups with whom I usually share Bible study.

On the first day, while discussing the Parable of the Good Samaritan, I said something like:  “It’s hard to know what to teach our children about strangers.  I know that they can’t trust everyone, but if we teach them to be afraid, we may also be teaching them to hate.  We can’t teach our children to avoid every stranger.”

Max shouted, “You don’t know what it’s like in my world.”

Max was the only one standing:  “I was eight years old the first time I saw a man murdered.  I’ve lost count of how many murders I’ve seen since then.”

A vein on his forehead looked like it was about to burst:  “I have an eleven-year-old daughter.  I’m going to teach her to fear everyone.  If hating them keeps her alive, then I hope she hates them.”

For just a moment I wished that there were metal detectors on the doors of the Salvation Army.  A few participants who had only been marginally aware of our Bible study were suddenly interested.

I shakily admitted, “I really don’t know what it’s like in your world.  You’re right.  If I lived with your concerns I’d raise my children differently.”

During the week, Max and I talked about the way our environment shapes our attitudes.  Our conversations led us to the conclusion that poor and wealthy, white and black, church attenders and those who would rather be anywhere else often start with the faulty assumption that everyone on the other side is less trustworthy.

Max made me think about the wisdom that comes from struggles beyond my experience, the dignity born of suffering, and the spiritual strength that comes with genuinely thanking God for getting through another day.

During the past week it has become clear that our country still has a long way to go.  We thought we were farther along.  Our hearts have been broken again by the news of white police officers shooting African Americans, and a black sniper killing five white police officers.   Some of the subsequent protests have been charged with the kind of racism with which we hoped we were done.

We will not find easy answers, but we can listen, learn, and ask God to help us with our fears.

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The Third Time across the Brooklyn Bridge

Brett on BridgeI like running to Manhattan and I love running back to Brooklyn—though running may not be the right word.  I have trotted across the Brooklyn Bridge three times.  I go slow enough not to miss much.

According to an unreliable source, more than 4,000 pedestrians and 3,000 bicyclists cross the bridge each day.  No one is counting the scooters, skaters, and skateboarders.  The great majority are not from around here.  The parents wear Yankees caps they bought 15 minutes earlier.  The children wear foam Statue of Liberty headdresses.  They debate the merits of a New York key ring versus a New York key chain—which I’m pretty sure are the same thing.  They gawk, gaze, and ogle.  Their eyes are wide.  Their jaws are slack.

My third trip across the bridge was on July 4th.  For the first time I reacted like many real New Yorkers.  I was annoyed.

The lanes are clearly marked.  Distracted pedestrians to the left, racing bicycles to the right, and sluggish joggers on the line that divides them.  There is room for three people to walk side-by-side, so tourists tend to spread out in groups of six.  This puts the slow-moving runners on a collision course with the fast-moving bicyclists.

Tourists take lots of pictures.  The selfies are bad enough, but the selfie sticks are infuriating.  These monopods allow the photographers and their enraptured subjects to be six feet apart and send everyone into the high-speed lane.

When I pass a shutterbug I wave.  I am part of several Iowans’ photo albums of their trip to New York.  These omnipresent tourists make you understand why New Yorkers keep selling the bridge to them.

I want to say, “If you want a New York experience, don’t rent a pedicab, get in line at Grimaldi’s, or buy an Empire State Building mug.  Get a bagel at Cranberry’s and read The New York Times.”

I am at my most annoyed when, a block from home, a family from Czechoslovakia has their smiling seven-year-old—whose English must be the strongest—ask, “Where to walk Brooklyn Bridge?”

I am jealous.  They are more excited about the bridge than I am.

Here’s the problem.  On your third trip across the Brooklyn Bridge you might not notice how many love-struck couples write the date and their initials on a padlock, latch it on to a cable, and throw the key in the East River.  This romantic act represents the love that will last until the city sends workers to cut the locks off.

On your third trip across the bridge you may cease to be curious about the bridge on which you saunter.  If you don’t read the historical marker the first time you may never read it.   You might not notice that the bridge is 133 years old.  At the opening, they had a band, fireworks and President Chester Arthur.  The bridge cost $15 million.  27 people died during its construction.

On your third trip across the bridge you might not even care that early on there were rumors the bridge was going to collapse, so P.T. Barnum led a parade of 21 elephants over the bridge, or that they used to store wine under the Manhattan end, because it was easy to keep at 60 degrees.

What if I stop being amazed by this amazing bridge?

I live in the greatest city in the world.  What if I start taking it for granted?  What if I stop hearing the multiplicity of languages?  What if I cease to be astonished by the ethnic restaurants?  What if I stop noticing the Statue of Liberty?

I want to be a tourist—wide-eyed, slack-jawed, and surprised.  People come all over the world to visit my hometown, because New York is busy and beautiful and something astounding is going on all of the time.

My hometown has coffee places not named Starbucks, book stores not named Barnes and Noble, and pizza places not named Domino’s.  We have neighborhoods that do not look like the next neighborhood.  I want to feel surprise when I see dogs in baby strollers and feel peace when I sit on my stoop.  I want to be a sightseer.

We get so used to the extraordinary that we stop seeing.

To be a person of faith is to be a tourist.  In some ways, the longer Christians are at the business of being Christians, the more difficult it is.  We are dulled by our familiarity with what we have been given.  We do not feel the excitement a visitor feels.

When the community of Jesus’ followers acts the way Christ dreamed we would, there is nothing like it.  We pay attention to those around us.  We listen carefully, speak kindly, and overcome differences.  We find grace in welcoming strangers.  We are amazed.

I plan to keep running on the Brooklyn Bridge, so the tourists can teach me to see.

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Becoming a Real New Yorker

In my continuing quest to become a real New Yorker, I went to the DMV.  It’s pretty far, but I walk because that’s what New Yorkers do.

I get in line to talk to a woman who is telling us which line to get in.

I smile and say, “I’m here to get a New York driver’s license.”

She points.  I get in a second line.

After a long wait I smile and say, “I’m here to get a New York driver’s license.”

A woman who is already having a long day says, “Old license, three forms of identification.”

I hand her my old license, social security card, passport, and birth certificate.

She asks, “Why would I want your birth certificate?”
“I’m sorry.  I thought you said three forms.”

“The passport counts for two.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’re B512.  Listen for your number.”

I know that my number was B512 because I was B512 for several hours.  I am finally called to window 19, where a man who wishes he was somewhere else asks to see my old license and three forms of identification.  I don’t offer my birth certificate, but I’m ready.

I say, “It’s pretty busy today.”

He says, “Go wait for your number.”

I sit for a long time.  After a few hours I decide to send a picture to Carol so she can see where I’m spending the day.  A police officer rushes to make it clear that I will go to prison if I take a picture inside the DMV.

I almost say, “But I want it for my Christmas card,” but then think better of it.

They finally call B512 to window 32, where the clerk complains that I should have been sent to a different window.  When she sees my old driver’s license she says, “If I could get to Georgia I would never come back to Brooklyn.”

This is probably not what the Chamber of Commerce wants government employees to say.

Some institutions treat us like a number instead of a person.  Some people make us feel unimportant.  We need a place where we matter.  We need a family that cares for us.  We come to Plymouth because we are important.  We come to church to remember that we are God’s children.

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Step by Step

Anne Lamott writes about the time her brother waited until the night before his huge research paper on birds was due to begin working on it. He sat at the family table, surrounded by stacks of bird books, completely overwhelmed, as much a mess as the table was. How could he do this? Where should he start?

His father sat down beside him, put his arm around his shoulders, leaned in, and said, “Bird by bird, Buddy. Bird by bird.” He gave his son a way to move forward.

Following Christ feels overwhelming sometimes. We want faith that moves mountains, courage that overcomes fear, love that changes the world. We picture who we want to be spiritually, then we look at the messy situations that surround us and wonder how in the world we will get from Point A to Point B. The distance seems too great. Time too short. Opportunities too wasted. Where would we start?

In those moments when we’re overwhelmed by how far we have to go, God leans in, and offers what we need. “Step by step, child. Follow me, step by step.”

We want to live with Christ’s courage, so God shows us the people we find intimidating. God leans in and nudges us to speak to them anyway, then listen for their response, then prepare to do this again and again.

We want to live with Christ’s hope, so God leans in and shows us children we can learn from, enjoy, and befriend. We find a struggling parent who needs to know someone notices and cares. So we offer a friendly word, a shoulder, a listening ear, a plate of brownies. We spread those acts of joy that we can offer, those things that we can do. We watch for the steps God invites us to take.

We want to live with Christ’s love, so God leans in and says, “Do you see that person?” Being thankful for that task they did will change their day. Noticing who needs what we can give and giving it moves us closer to Christ, step by step. A selfless gift given, a gracious gesture made, a prayer lifted on their behalf, a question bravely asked that changes a difficult situation. Small steps from apathy to compassion draw us closer to Christ. Doing small things with great love, as Mother Teresa said, are the ways we follow.

A Long List of Things Your Senior Minister Wants

Roy Oswald writes about churches selecting a new Senior Minister: “No matter how much work has been done in terms of self-study, goal setting, and job description, the selection of a new pastor is not a rational decision.  The decision is deeply intuitive with a good deal of blindness connected with it.”

Love may be blind, but we are together for better or worse, so I want you to know what my goals are, recognizing that I have only been on the job for three weeks.  I plan to get more rational.

I want to ride the subway without repeatedly looking at the map to make sure the train is still headed in the right direction.

I want to go a day without consulting my gps.

I want to honk my horn like a New Yorker.

I want to go into a grocery store and think, “That’s a reasonable price for a pound of ground beef.”

I want to look at a restaurant menu without sticker shock, “How can a Coca-Cola here be three times as good as a Coca-Cola in Georgia?”

I want to go to a Mets-Braves game without secretly rooting for Atlanta.

I want to convince myself that climbing stairs counts like a trip to the gym.

I want to feel at home at Plymouth.  I want to know names—including the 22 Davids listed in the church directory.

I want to learn our history as a way of visioning the future.  I thank God for Henry Ward Beecher, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., David Fisher, and Al Bunis.  I want to be grateful for where we have been as well as where we are going.

I want to learn how we tell our story.  Plymouth is a gift to our community. You and I have friends and neighbors who need this church.  We need to let them know we are here for them.

I want to understand how we learn the Christian story together.  The best Christian education is not just learning content, but becoming more like Christ.  How do we do that at Plymouth?

I want to help people find friends.  I want to know which groups will be the best family for which newcomers.

I want to know about the ways we care for the hurting.  Our ministries help us become the people God wants us to be.

I want to continue to feel God’s presence when I walk into the sanctuary.

I want to have a part in our worship growing deeper.  I love our worship, and have no desire to change things for change’s sake.  The goal is to strengthen our worship so that we can more fully give ourselves to God.

I want to be a good person as well as a good senior minister.  I want to set up patterns for well-being and growth: prayer, exercise, and study.

I want to give guidance, support, and care to the leadership and staff of Plymouth.

I want to understand the structure of the church’s ministry, to ascertain what organizational needs we have.

Eventually I want someone to introduce me by saying, “This is our Senior Minister.  He’s not that new.”

Carol and I came to Plymouth to be part of the family.  I want to hear your stories, and I want to share my story.  I want to move past being acquaintances and become friends.  I want to be real church.

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How should we pray for Orlando?

Before worship on Sunday I checked the news about the tragic shooting in Orlando.  The report at the time was that 20 people were dead.  During worship we prayed for the families of the victims.  By Sunday afternoon the number of dead had risen to 50.

That does not seem right, but it happened in lots of churches.  We prayed for the families of 20 people who had been killed, and then the news got even worse.

We have way too much evidence that prayer does not work the way we wish prayer would work.  Prayer does not keep the news from getting worse.  Prayer does not protect innocent people.  Prayer does not prevent hateful people from buying guns.

We have gotten used to praying after horrific events; Littleton, 2012, 12 deaths; Newtown, 2012, 28 deaths; San Bernardino, 2015, 14 deaths.  Each time, our hearts are broken.  Each time, we pray fervently.  Each time, we remember the lives snatched away by gun violence.  Each time, we experience grief and despair.  Each time, nothing seems to change.    We have started to feel numb to it.

We do not need to pray silently.  We need to make our voices heard.  People who pray do not have to agree on the exact interpretation of the Second Amendment to agree that gun violence is a national tragedy.  We can point out that there are options between taking all the guns away and the AR-15s that keep being the instrument in these shootings remaining readily available.  4 of 5 NRA members support expanded background checks.  There is plenty of room for improvement in the space between the two sides in this debate.

People who pray need to talk to their elected officials before the next tragedy.  Innocent people are murdered with weapons specifically designed for killing and we behave as if nothing can be done, but representatives do change their position when enough people speak up.  We can push for common-sense gun laws that will prevent more tragic bloodshed.  People who pray should protest gun shows—where many of the rules about background checks and waiting periods do not apply.  We need to work for change that will make our communities safer.

We have gotten too used to praying after mass shootings.  We have to do more.  Our prayers will feel routine until we pray, “God, show me what I can do.”

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Prayer for Our Church

Heavenly father, we have witnessed many times before that even the tiniest part of your perspective and wisdom is far greater than any of us ever seem to imagine.

Know that it is our desire that your vision become our vision, and that OUR focus be on you and you alone.

Forgive us for the infamous Brooklyn sin of ever thinking that we might know better, and for ever knowing that we think better.

Help us here and now to humbly see beyond what we think we know.

This day is not about Plymouth.

This day is not about Brett.

Help us to see that this day is about you with their help.

Take us now into your hands,

so that we may feel your way,

so that we may think your way,

so that we may truly live and walk your way here at Plymouth and beyond,

just as your son Jesus taught us to do.

For nearly 170 years it has been our privilege and honor to walk with you here at Plymouth and we thank you for guiding us on that journey.

As we enter this new chapter with Brett and Carol, we ask for your guidance that there not be a needy person among us, between us, or around us.

We ask that you reach far back and beyond to bind a new and growing Plymouth together to feel as though it’s “of one heart and soul.”

We ask that we feel now, more than ever, that everything we own is not ours, but yours.

We ask you to help us to live out the Great Grace of which you speak, so that it may enlighten and inspire us to be truly humble stewards of your place, this place, its property, and its people.

We ask your help in showing our greater Brooklyn community, and each of us how to live out this Great Grace such that we may extend it to Brett and Carol with all the love and generosity that they should expect from being a part of your great kingdom…and a sweet place they now call home.

We ask all of this in Jesus’s name.

Amen

Happy to Be Here

“Moving Day” has all the initial appeal of “Income Tax Day,” “Root Canal Day,” or “Commitment Sunday.”  We should admire the people at Mayflower, because it’s honest to name your moving company after a long, miserable trip on which everyone got sick.

While a few of our boxes were accurately labeled “Towels, linens,” I was surprised to find boxes marked “miscellaneous,” “leftovers,” and “under the bed.”  Seven boxes of “Christmas stuff” seems excessive.

I am still wondering: “Where did we get all this stuff?  Why do we have a tripod?  Do we need high school annuals?  Is this our chair?”

But by the grace of God and the goodness of the people of Plymouth, moving day/week has been a gift.  We walked in the door to find two big, beautiful cards from the children welcoming us to Plymouth.  Good people came on Sunday and waited with us for the moving van that showed up nine hours late and took out several garbage cans on Hicks Street.  Saints spent their Memorial Day unpacking boxes.  They taught us how to bag recycling, critique every restaurant in Brooklyn, and, by the end of the day, sit on a stoop exhausted.

The parade of food has been amazing.  We recognize that most people do not know the joy of moving into a house where the refrigerator is filled.  People have been bringing meals and goodies.  New York Bagels are not over-rated.  Everything with Brooklyn in the name works—Chocolate Brooklyn Babka, Brooklyn Lager.  We are eating well.

Moving reminds me how wonderfully fortunate I am and how incredibly dependent we all are.  I depend on friends, family, and friends who become family.  The church is made up of those who recognize that they do not have the ability, need, or desire to make it on their own, because we are in this together.

Henri Nouwen said that he lived with the fantasy that every time he landed at an airport he would be met by someone he knew shouting, “Hey, Henri.”

Predictably, Nouwen knew a lot of disappointments.  Each time that he got off a plane and no familiar figure was there to meet him, Nouwen thought to himself: “It’s all right.  When I get home my friends will be there.”

Out of that consolation, Nouwen came to a wonderful conclusion about the nature of eternity: “Heaven is going to be like that.  God will be there and will say, ‘Hey, Henri, how was it?  Let’s see your pictures.’”

That’s how God’s people greet one another.  From the moment we arrived, friends have been shouting: “Hey, Brett.  Come on in.  Welcome home.”

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There are a couple of ways to look at it….

From the outside, Plymouth Church appears to be a very wealthy church.  It has beautiful buildings occupying valuable land.  It has a robust endowment.  It has generous congregation.  In all of these areas and more, Plymouth is indeed a wealthy church.

But if you look at it another way, Plymouth possesses nothing.  That’s right, nothing.  Plymouth does not own anything – it does not own its building, its land, and its endowment.  Plymouth is the steward of these material goods, entrusted to Plymouth over the years by dedicated members and generous donors.  They do not belong to Plymouth.  They belong to God.  Plymouth is entrusted with the stewardship and wise use of these blessings.  Plymouth, as a Congregational Church, elects its representative leadership, and asks that leadership to set priorities for how to manage the gifts in Plymouth’s custody. That is why, every year, Plymouth makes and votes on a budget.  The budget is the clear indicator of how Plymouth is choosing to use the resources with which it has been entrusted.  The budget is created by the leadership and voted on by the congregation.  We are in this together.

Plymouth Church operates in good faith, attempting to employ these resources where they can do the most good in forwarding the Kingdom of God.  Some resources go directly to help those most vulnerable and in need – victims of human trafficking, casualties of natural disasters, children in need of education and food.  Other resources go to help those in spiritual need, and for this reason, Plymouth engages a top-notch staff, maintains a welcoming building, empowers a confident choir, all of which support the work of the community that gathers around Plymouth.

Every story is complicated, and this one is no exception.  Some donors have made very generous gifts to Plymouth that carried restrictions in how they may be used, and the income from those gifts can only be spent on specific things.  To act with integrity, the leadership must deploy those resources in accordance with the wishes of the donor.  Plymouth might wish to use those funds in other ways, but it must keep faith with the donors

The gifts that bless Plymouth the most are the one that have no restrictions. Given from the heart, they allow the leadership and the congregation to set the priories of the church and use its resources advancing those priorities.  And those priorities, in Brooklyn Heights and beyond, will advance the Kingdom of God.

The Stewardship Ministry invites you to prayerfully consider what you are able to give to support the work of Plymouth Church in the upcoming year.  Plymouth’s year begins in July, and we know that seems like a lifetime away, but it is important for you to go on record now. Please take a few minutes to make your commitment this week – before Anniversary Sunday.  Help us celebrate our 170th Anniversary but contemplating what we can accomplish before our 171st Anniversary.

Please be generous in your support of the work of Plymouth Church.  Click Here to Make Your Commitment.

In Christian Fellowship,

Jacque Jones

Stewardship Chair

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