Teach Us to Pray

Lord, teach us to pray . . .

When life troubles us
and we need a clearer view
of your path.
When we must act now
but need help to act well
with a grace that surprises
and transforms.

Lord, teach us to pray . . .
When our vision of prayer
and our experiences of it
are much too small.
When we use prayer to hide
from your world and you use prayer
to help us engage the world
with compassion and love.

Lord, teach us to pray . . .
As you taught generations of disciples
once filled with fear
who sought your help
and found strength
to do the brave things
you ask your people to do
with courage and faith.

Lord, teach us to pray . . .
Until prayer becomes
the breath that fills and moves us,
the gift that draws us to you,
the way we learn
that all these days we live
are yours.
Amen.

Worship Receiving Line Etiquette

photo-feb-19-12-01-40-pmAfter Jesus’ first sermon, the congregation tried to throw him off a cliff.  Since then churches have instituted a receiving line as a way to avoid an unfortunate end to a worship service.  The preacher at Plymouth is stationed at the door through which most people exit, but we leave room for the disgruntled to escape without comment.

This Sunday after she preaches, Liz will have the joy of these conversations.  Most of you are quite good at this exchange, but, nonetheless, just to be helpful, here are a few comments you should not make after the sermon:

“Good try.”

“Do you have a cold?”

“I’m just saying it’s 12:30.”

“Why don’t you preach on Revelation?”

“Every sermon you preach is better than the next one.”

“That used to be one of my favorite texts.”

“Where do you get your hair cut?”

“I’ll give you five bucks if you say the word zamboni next Sunday.”

“Do you know if we’re using real eggs for the Easter egg hunt this year?”

“Here’s what I would have done with the sermon.”

“I don’t come to church to be preached at.”

“Let me respond to the tiniest bit of minutiae from your sermon.”

The receiving line is your opportunity to be the preacher’s favorite—and with so little effort.  There are so many good things to say.  Try one of these on Sunday:

“If you had been my preacher twenty years ago I wouldn’t be so corrupt.”

“You almost make me want to read the Bible.”

“I never thought about that text in that way.”

“I like the Jesus you preach more than the Jesus I grew up with.”

“I talk about prayer a lot, but today I prayed.”

“I feel less tired than when I got here.”

“I remembered some things that matter.”

“I did not enjoy the sermon, but I will think about it.”

“I have a neighbor I haven’t spoken to in ten years.  I’m going to talk to her this afternoon.”

“Thank you for being honest.”

“I want our church to do more for hungry children.  How should I start?”

“I am going to be more aware of God this week.”

“I think I heard the Spirit invite me to do more.”

The best response to a sermon is not the words you offer the preacher, but a renewed openness to God.  As you leave church on Sunday consider shaking Liz’ hand and saying, “I want to be a Christian more than I did an hour ago.”

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Face Time

I rely on my phone a bit too much. It’s my personal assistant, reminding me of appointments I’m prone to forget and birthdays I don’t want to miss. My phone gives me access to the latest news and weather updates- however unpleasant at times. It lifts my spirits. Songs I waited hours to hear on the radio, photos of my family and favorite spots in Brooklyn are a thumb tap or two away.

My phone makes communicating easy and efficient. I can text everything.  Information- on my way- have entire conversations. I can check my work email and gmail and share a moment with friends via Instagram.  Occasionally I’ll even talk to someone, the old fashioned way; but I refuse to face time.

A child whose family had moved came to visit his former Sunday School class a few weeks ago. Every other boy focused on retaining his popularity in the classroom. Bad jokes were made and the laughter was louder than usual. Goldfish crackers and Lego pieces were “accidentally” thrown.

I started the lesson about temptation with a question: “What are you sometimes tempted to do even though you know you shouldn’t?” Not an easy answer to share but a number of hands went up. A number of children were willing to reveal themselves, to take a risk, to trust that their audience would be kind.

The first child cautiously admitted that she wanted to be a couch potato, to watch movies and read all day long. A clever, honest answer.  Well, some of the boys thought that was just too funny. As their laughter took over the room, the child’s tears took over her face.

But they weren’t looking at her face, they were looking at each other for approval. When they did look at her face, when they saw her trembling lips and eyes,  they were horrified. Their intentions had not been bad, but the outcome was.

It’s easy to forget the power of our words and the fragility of others. We need to be reminded that those close to us need to be cared for, need love.  “If we love one another, God lives in us. God’s love is made complete in us.”  (1 John 4:12)

While I will never agree to face time on my phone, I will remember to do face time in life.

Underground Railroads

Have you imagined the questions the members of Plymouth Church were asking during the 1850s?  Why can’t the church stay out of politics?  Why are we involved with the Underground Railroad?  How do we know the people we are helping are not dangerous?  What is the vetting process?  Can anyone guarantee that nothing bad will happen to us?  Don’t we have enough to do just taking care of ourselves?  Should a church be breaking the law?  What could the government do to us?

Churches across the United States are now asking those same questions.  Many are part of what they are calling the New Underground Railroad.

Recent executive orders on immigration and two Department of Homeland Security memos move past earlier guidelines to focus only on criminals for deportation, and instead put undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation for something as minor as a traffic ticket.  We are being asked to ignore the fact that immigrants are statistically less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.

The present administration’s ramping up deportations raises new questions, but the immigration system has not been effective or humane for a long time.  We break families apart and penalize the kind of people we want in our country.  Since 1995 the United States has allowed 5,000 visas per year for unskilled workers (and a guest worker program of about 200,000).  But for years this country has imported most of its agricultural workers, so twelve million people work in the shadows.  Ninety percent of undocumented men are working, because our country needs their labor.

People who do not think of themselves as political, but take their faith seriously, feel compelled to speak out.  Churches are resisting the deportation of undocumented immigrants.  They believe that the Jewish tradition compels us to practice hospitality to the foreigner.  They recognize that the Gospels are clear about the Christian requirement to care for the outsider.  Jesus warns those who pretend to follow, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”

The Sanctuary Movement includes more than 800 courageous congregations that have committed to protecting immigrants.  They pledge to pray, educate, and give money.  Churches like Judson Memorial in Manhattan have formed study groups that are looking for thoughtful and responsible ways to follow Christ’s instructions.  Churches like Pilgrim St. Luke’s in Buffalo are preparing to use private homes as part of a modern-day underground railroad to move undocumented immigrant families to Canada.

Christians are asking good questions.

https://www.buzzfeed.com/salvadorhernandez/sanctuary-churches-v-trump-deportation-mandate?utm_term=.wh86pnX7pr#.pu66ArPqAl

http://www.sanctuarynotdeportation.org/

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/roots-and-branches-sanctuary-movement

http://justice.crcna.org/matthew-25-movement

http://www.judson.org/sanctuary

Basement

What is Lent for you?

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush writes of Lent, “some will fast from mindless consumption of what distracts us; others will offer radical service to neighbor; but what is most important about Lent is that we make time and space for an awareness that God is with us and loves us—even right here and now.”

I love Lent.  I’m glad to be part of a Protestant tradition that doesn’t skip or gloss over it.  I’ve spent some time reflecting this week about why I love it and I think I’ve come to a conclusion.  Praise and joy feel shallow without first having faced the hard stuff.  Easter is only joyous because of Good Friday.  And this mystery of Cross and Resurrection is a reflection of the rhythm of life that is hard for us name.  But if I try to name it, it will sound something like this: Lent is a reset when we get to reflect on the hard stuff that makes the great stuff recognizably great.  And we get there by different means.

About this time each year, we hear people asking one another, “What are you doing for Lent?”  Giving up chocolate, or Facebook, or worrying, or booze are a common response.  We give up something that is a regular part of our day so that each time we reach for it, our attention is turned back to Christ in the wilderness.  We connect with our temptations.  And chocolate might be a daily, less significant one, but hopefully by God’s grace we start forming an awareness of bigger temptations we contend with in life.

Others of us choose to do something for Lent; volunteer at the soup kitchen on Saturdays, add a special, extra time of prayer into our busy day, drop by and talk with our elderly neighbor who we know to be lonely twice each week.  We take up a burden and are reminded of the burden Christ took up for us.  And, hopefully, by God’s grace, we become people who embrace that burden until it no longer feels like such.  It becomes a joy.

Whatever we do to honor Lent, let us do this: hold fast to the why.  Be aware of God’s love and compassion for us.  Connect with things God is calling us to or away from.  Listen hard and be willing to see the things within ourselves that we prefer to overlook.  The great mystery of God-work is happening all the time.  So, may we go into Lent looking for how it is happening in us.  The journey to the Cross is difficult.  But Sunday, God has promised, is indeed coming.  And, it will mean more, Easter will mean so much more, if we have embraced the season of Lent.  Welcome to the season of the night, but go into knowing that joy comes in the morning.

On Not Going through Life without Goals

brett-and-carolAs part of our pursuit of all things New York, Carol and I recently experienced the thrill and excitement of professional hockey.  Our seats were not the best.  We were well out of range of the Kiss Cam.  We had to look down to see the championship banners.  I wanted to shout “Hey, Zebras!  What game are you watching?” but was not sure that made sense from section 209, row 22.

We saw our friends John and Jill Scibilia on the Jumbotron reading the fans’ code of conduct.  I believe the Islanders asked John to do this because he is a fan who needs to be reminded of the fans’ code of conduct.

Hockey is not a big sport in Georgia, so my knowledge is not extensive.  The Islanders’ mascot, an underpaid person in a colossal blue and orange head, is, for reasons I do not understand, Sparky the Dragon.  I also do not understand offsides or icing—which seem to comprise about 2/3 of the referees’ calls.

Hockey has better nicknames than other sports.  Islanders opponents include Blues, Blue Jackets, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Ducks, Devils, Penguins, Maple Leafs (shouldn’t it be leaves?) and Predators (actually “Predators” seems like an unfortunate choice).

Hockey is a little like soccer on skates and a little like human pinball. There were beautiful moments when a skater would turn, spin, and glide majestically across the ice.  Those moments often ended with a huge person knocking the graceful skater into a wall.  Michele Kwan, meet John Cena.  Dentists must love hockey.

I tried to sing along with the tribute to the New York Rangers, “If you know the Rangers suck, clap your hands.”  I offered to buy Carol tickets for Mother’s Day, but she wants to consider other possibilities.

This leads to the perfunctory theological insight that closes church e-news columns.  (I admit this is a stretch and if you only read this column because you love hockey stop now.  You do not need to check this—which may be the worst hockey pun in this column.)  The deep, profound insight is: “We don’t have to stay with what we’ve always known.”  Hockey is now my favorite sport on ice.  (Curling is also a cool sport).

We are tempted to decide what we will do by its proximity to what we have already done.  Maturity is learning that “haven’t been there” doesn’t need to mean “won’t go there.”  There are chess fans who would love hockey if they gave it a chance.  If today is just like yesterday, it may be because we are not seeing the possibilities.

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Take a Number

img_5217My earliest recollection of hearing “take a number” was growing up in Mineola on Long Island.  It was at dad’s favorite Italian deli – Ardito’s.  Those who did not appreciate the finer aroma of Italian cheeses referred to this palace of pasta as the smelly deli.  The “take a number” machine was too high for me to reach, so dad pulled the number, gave me the ticket and quizzed me on how to read the number.  He engaged me in counting down as we walked among delicacies and an occasional creeping snail that escaped the basket.  “How many to go before us, John?”  When our number was called I grabbed the gold ring, which in this case was a slice of Genoa salami to be savored as dad was rattling off his wish list to the clerk.  We were rewarded for waiting our turn, knowing when our number was called our wishes would be granted.

Caterina Scibilia was #100186130413 and assigned to Line #19 on Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century.  (Imagine having that number called?!)  It was a long wait.  At the end she grabbed her gold ring – entry into the USA.  More than 22 million people took a number at Ellis Island through 1954.  Many left their homes due to war, drought, famine, persecution and genocide.  Coming to America was rarely a situation of going from good to better.  These refugees saw the Lady’s torch and were aching to take their number and get in line.  The Statue their eyes embraced, originally erected to recognize America’s friendship with France, celebrate democracy and to honor the end of slavery, became known as the “mother of exiles” thanks to a poem written by Emma Lazarus in hopes of welcoming persecuted Russian Jews.

It’s as if Emma Lazarus heard God’s word to the Israelites, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)  Perhaps she was channeling Jesus’ words in Matthew when he says when you feed, visit and welcome the “least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40b)  How many will we prohibit from taking a number because of how they pray?  Whose numbers will be taken away because of our fear?  Are we willing to forget the Egypt of our past and the numbers and lines of our heritage?  Will we welcome the stranger and live the words with the silent lips of the Lady,

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

Will we lift a lamp beside our door?  Will all be welcome (really)?

Fear or Fear Not?

Three men were walking together from lunch one day.  Two of the men were not religious.  One of the men was religious.  Along came a stranger in their direction.  He was wearing biker gear, had a shaved head with tattoos covering his neck, and a chain wallet.  Once the menacing looking fellow was out of earshot, one of the non-religious men looks at the other two and says, “Man, that guy looked like trouble.”  The other responds, “Yeah, he was a scary.”  The religious fellow responds to his friends, “What man?”

As people of faith we are called to fear less. The command not to fear is given 365 times in the Bible.  Over and over again that’s what God is saying across the ages.   But, we fear anyway.  We fear all kinds of things.   Nomophobia is a fear of losing cell phone contact.  Gamophobia is the fear of getting married.  We joke about scary in-laws, but syngenesophobia refers to the fear of relatives.  And, this one is risky to mention, but ecclesiophobia is the fear of going to church.  (Not one of you better use this one next time you miss worship.)

Thankfully most of us don’t fear cheese, birds, or the moon because there would be some pretty difficult implications for our lives.  But, we do fear civil unrest, political strife, personal rejection, loss, financial insecurity, and making big mistakes.  The truth is that our biggest mistakes are often the result of fear.  God has been trying to help us see that since the beginning of time.  When we choose fear over love, despair over hope, exclusivity over inclusivity, we are at odds with the good news of the Gospel and we are succumbing to fears.

National fear and unrest is at all-time high.  What do we, Gospel-people, do in times like these?  One temptation is paralysis; to lay low and wait for the storm of unrest to blow over.  Another temptation is to blame and point and proclaim that “I” am not the problem; to pass off responsibility.  But, we are reminded 365 times, to fear not.  Why?  Most often the answer follows the “fear not” and has something to do with God being with us, something to do with good news, something to do with God.

“Fear not,” is also used when there’s hard work to be done that nobody wants to do or knows how to do.  “Fear not,” is what gets communicated to us before a burden gets laid on us.  We are keenly aware of menacing forces in our world, our country, and our own lives that tempt us to forget the call to fear less as people of faith.

The man of faith responded to the fear of his friends, “what man?”  He didn’t see what there was to be afraid of because he looked at the world through a different lens.  He looked through eyes that knew God; knew God doesn’t have strangers, knew God doesn’t see our differences the same way we do; knew God loves us beyond the surface, beyond ethnicity, beyond nationality, beyond religion—all of us.

To Jesus-followers, partisan isn’t most important.  People are.  We get to fear not and love hard.  We get to not make our biggest mistakes because of fear.  We get to stand on the foundation of God-with-us and do the work God calls us to.  That’s the beauty of faith and it’s a gift for which we can be grateful.

A Letter to the President

Dear President Trump:

I am sure you are getting letters from groups that feel like they are being mistreated.  Muslims, Hispanics, African Americans, women, Jews, the poor, and the LGBTQ community have legitimate concerns, but have you also thought about how you are making life more difficult for preachers?  Ministers are not usually considered an oppressed group, but preaching was easier before you became president.

Most preachers are not looking for trouble.  We do not want to offend church members.  We have no interest in partisan politics.  We try to be respectful of those who do not vote as we do.  Preachers say things like “We are not all going to agree,” “Good people have different opinions,” and “My mother never votes like I do and she’s a fine person.”

But you are making it hard.  On the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I was preaching on racism.  I finished preparing the sermon on Friday afternoon.  On Saturday you sent a tweet insulting John Lewis, “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results.  Sad!”  How could I preach on bigotry on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend and not mention the President picking a fight with a Civil Rights hero?  If you feel like you have to do things like this, it would be helpful if you would do them early in the week so preachers do not have to rewrite their sermons on Saturday night.

How can ministers preach on telling the truth without using the phrase “alternative facts”?  How can we preach on equality without noting that you have said horrible things about women?  How can we preach on caring for the hurting without pointing out that you are cancelling health insurance for twenty million people?  How can we preach on the biblical command to welcome strangers without commenting on the wall and the ban on immigration?

Preachers do not have a choice.  We have to preach that God loves all people and does not believe in America first.  If we preach the Gospel, some are going to think we are taking shots at you.

You are forcing preachers to mention you or look hopelessly out of touch.  If we do not respond to the things you say, then some are going to assume we are asleep in the pulpit.  Do we risk offending church members or feel like cowards?

You could make our lives easier.  You could replace the Affordable Care Act with the More Affordable Care Act.  You could work to alleviate hunger.  You could strengthen our commitment to education.  You could diminish the spread of terrorism by lessening the causes of terrorism.  You could make the lives of so many people better.  Some of them are preachers.

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Rev.  Brett Younger
Plymouth Church, Senior Minister

Life is so daily

Pete Valentine has held court on her Willow Street stoop for years.  She tells about her encounter with Cher during the filming of Moonstruck on Cranberry Street with delighted tourists.  Tales of her magical childhood in Brooklyn Heights- roller skating to school and being given a horse by her God father- resonate with locals old and new.  Neighborhood dogs pull their owners to her stoop for a treat.  Every time I see Pete, she reminds me “Life is so daily.” Every time I hear it, I think I get it, maybe.

This past Sunday, I benefited from false advertising.  Crafting for a Cause was meeting for the first time.  Based on past classes, I prepared for a handful of older children, many of them girls.  The class started at 1; by 1:10, there were fifteen six and seven year olds in the room, all but two of them boys!  Odd, I thought as I scrambled to come up with more age appropriate activities.  Rolling pins and paint brushes replaced sewing needles and weaving looms.  I was a bit disappointed.

My announcement that we would begin crafting was met with an unexpected cheer.  Several children shouted “I love Mine Craft!” Mystery solved.  Mine Craft is a popular video game, not the activity I had planned.  I started to explain what we were doing and why, when a fight over a sword and some small animal figures- three raccoons and two mice- ensued.  Feeling more and more defeated, I began negotiations.  Mid-negotiation, one of the children asked, “Will we be painting?”  He had noticed the brushes. “Yes” derailed the negotiations (which were at a pathetic stalemate.) Everyone charged to the tables.  Crafting began.

fullsizerender1While our creations will not be sold on Etsy or displayed on Pinterest, I could not have felt happier.  For almost an hour, we worked diligently on bird houses and Easter bunnies.  Most of us used too much paint.  Many of the Easter bunnies heads are bigger than their bodies.  Everyone was happy.  As the kids talked and laughed while they worked, I finally allowed myself to enjoy the moment.  It was not about the end product but the process that included new friendships being formed and old ones being strengthened.

At pick up, two of the fathers peered into the Bowling Alley and reminisced about their childhoods at Plymouth.  It struck me that as parents, they had returned to Plymouth.  I hoped their children would one day do the same.

If the day had turned out as I had planned it, none of this would have happened.  We try so hard to control our lives but we are not in charge.  God gives us small reminders of who is and why.  Pete is right, “Life is so daily.”