Too Busy To Sing

I came to work on Tuesday with a detailed to-do list.  If everything went perfectly, I would end the day writing something for the e-news.  If I got through six of the ten items, it would be a productive day.  If I got through five, I would have kept up.  If I only got through four, I would be seriously behind.

I got off to a good start, but made the mistake of checking e-mail.  (Don’t look at your e-mail if you want to get things done.)  I had seven e-mails to which I needed to respond.  The wonderful sermon ideas I had written on Monday night were now clearly unacceptable.  I remembered something that I was supposed to have done a week ago.

Someone I really wanted to talk to dropped by.  I had several conversations with children who were at Vacation Bible Camp.  Carol was with the youth, so I was on my own for lunch—which I should have realized before I went home at noon.

On Tuesday afternoon, we have worship planning and staff meetings.  I enjoy both, even when they go long.  At 6:00, I had gotten through three of the ten items on my to-do list.

I wanted to work late, but I had told Jacque Jones that I would go to the hymn sing at 7:00.  I did not have time to sing, but I took my bad attitude with me to the choir room.

Bruce Oelschlager had chosen international hymns.  We started with a Spanish tune, “Come Christians, Join to Sing.”

The people in attendance were smart enough to know that if we do not want to sing, then we have lost our way.  Music is yoga for people who do not want to wear yoga pants.

We sang a Brazilian hymn, “O Sing to the Lord/Cantad al Senor”—which is Spanish, though they speak Portuguese in Brazil.  I briefly considered raising my hand to complain.

We sang a Scottish song with the wonderful line, “The house of faith has many rooms where we have never been.”

People who sing are happier than people who do not.  Singing makes it hard to stay frustrated.

We sang “Christ beside Me,” a Gaelic hymn based on the Prayer of St. Patrick from the fifth century.

I was no longer thinking about what I should have gotten done.

We sang the Ghanaian hymn “Jesu, Jesu” and asked God to “fill us with your love.”

Singing reminds us of things that are not on our to-do list.

Some of us will gather in the choir room to sing hymns at 7:00 on August 23 and 30.  If you are too busy to sing, you should come.  If you are too tired to sing, you should try.  If you think you are too important to sing, you need to sing.


Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Adam Sandler

Years ago when attendance had gotten small, Plymouth Church brought in a consultant who said, “You can either be a museum or a church.”   The consultant had been going to the wrong museums.  A good church is like a good children’s museum—a place to learn, explore, and discover.

On Monday night I met with eighteen members of our church’s history ministry.  They know how good a museum can be.  Plymouth’s tour guides are better than the ones who wander down Orange Street.

I have interrupted five tours in front of the church.  One thing those guides do well is fit the tour to whatever tourists have paid the thirty bucks.  When the tour was filled with teenagers, the guide talked about Adam Sandler making a movie here.  When the tour was an African American choir, the guide described the Fisk University Choir singing here in 1871.  When the tour was a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the guide pointed to 74 Hicks Street where Charles Taze Russell’s cousin lived.  (Who knew?)

We share an amazing history, so touch Plymouth Rock and give thanks.  Sit in pew 89 and wonder what Abraham Lincoln prayed when he sat there.  Turn off the lights in the basement and imagine what it feels like to run for your life.  Visit the Senior Minister’s office and think of Branch Rickey praying there until he decided that God wanted him to ask Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball.

Some of our heritage is complicated.  The sculptor of the statues in Beecher Garden, Gutzon Borglum, was in the Klan.  Our founding pastor was a gifted minister who fought courageously against slavery.  His adultery trial sold a lot of newspapers and ended in a hung jury.  Look at the portrait of Henry Ward Beecher in the arcade and ask yourself if he is attractive.  Mark Twain wrote:  “Mr. Beecher is a remarkably handsome man when he is in the full tide of sermonizing, and his face is lit up with animation, but he is as homely as a singed cat when he isn’t doing anything.”

The list of people who have been in our building is surprising—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Elliott Spitzer, Colin Kaepernick, Norah Jones, and Sarah Jessica Parker.

A couple of years ago our Senior Minister Search Committee was asked to fill out a form that asked for the three biggest moments in the church’s history.  They picked Henry Ward Beecher’s tenure as the first pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching an early version of his “I Have a Dream” sermon at Plymouth, and the church recommitting itself to Jesus Christ in 2004.  Plymouth’s resurgence is part of the story.

We do not have to choose between being a museum and a church.  We think about what God has done to remind us that God is still at work.


The Theological Implications of Barbecue

To the casual observer those gathered for the Plymouth men’s barbecue had merely found an excuse to eat meat and drink beer, but to serious students of the Bible and church history, we were doing God’s work.

Deuteronomy 12:15 says, “Nevertheless, you may slaughter your animals in any of your towns and eat as much of the meat as you want, according to the blessing the Lord your God gives you.  Both the ceremonially unclean and the clean may eat it.”  You may want to crochet 12:20 on an apron for someone you love, “When the Lord your God has enlarged your territory as God promised you, and you crave meat and say, ‘I would like some meat,’ then you may eat as much of it as you want.”’

Ezekiel 24:10 offers a simple recipe, “Heap on the wood and kindle the fire.  Cook the meat well, mixing in the spices; and let the bones be charred.”

This is the Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Barbecue brings people together.  The perfect combination of smoke, meat, and fire creates a meal and a moment when we taste and see that God is good.  Church barbecue has a long, rich history.  In the first half of the 19th century, evangelists enticed crowds to camp meetings by serving barbecue.  Before grocery stores and restaurants, you could not order a single barbecue sandwich.  You ate barbecue only when an entire animal was cooked.  In order to avoid waste, everyone was welcome at a barbecue.  For some poor people, revival barbecue was one of the few times there was more than enough food.

Barbecue is still a religious experience—especially in African American churches in the South.  In Texas, there are church-connected barbecue restaurants, like New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue in Huntsville.  Pit masters are called “preachers” and their barbecue pits “pulpits” from which the holy word is served.  One barbecue joint trying to avoid the sectarian divisions that divide Texas barbecue from North Carolina barbecue claims to serve “nondenominational barbecue.”

In a 1902 article about a Methodist church barbecue, the chef said, “This method of serving meat is descended from the sacrificial altars of the time of Moses when the priests of the temple got their fingers greasy and dared not wipe them on their Sunday clothes.  They discovered then the rare, sweet taste of meat flavored with the smoke of its own juices.”

Praise the Lord and pass the sauce.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


1 2 3