Ministers Tired of Praying

The first picture many of us saw was of a broken-hearted woman with an Ash Wednesday cross on her forehead holding another woman as they cried together. The tragedy in Parkland, Florida, was the eighth school shooting so far this year—and it is February.

Here is what I was sure would happen next. I was going to get an e-mail from the clergy association. The ministers would organize a prayer vigil where we read the names of the victims. We would grieve for the families of those who died. We would read scripture. We would pray for an end to gun violence.

Here is what actually happened. Nothing. No e-mail. Apparently I am not the only one tired of going to prayer vigils.  We are in danger of growing numb to these horrors and seeing this as the new normal.  We cannot keep feeling the same pain, so one option is to stop feeling it.

But this is the time to work to make it harder to die from gun violence. More than 30 people in our nation are murdered by guns on an average day.

Gun violence is a domestic violence problem. In an average month, 51 women are shot to death by a current or former husband or boyfriend.

Gun violence is a child abuse problem. The number of children and teens killed by guns in one year would fill 126 classrooms of 20 students each.

Gun violence is a mental health problem. There are 21,000 suicides committed using guns each year.

Gun violence is a safety problem. More than 45 people are shot accidentally each day. (Statistics are from faithinpubliclife.org, everytown.org, and childrensdefense.org.)

Gun violence is a faith problem. We have to be broken-hearted by the gun deaths in our country. We cannot pretend we cannot do anything.

We can work to strengthen background checks. Forty percent of the guns sold legally in the United States are bought without a background check. No records are kept. No questions are asked. Criminals buy guns online from unlicensed sellers.

We can insist that background check laws work. Common sense demands we keep guns out of the hands of felons, domestic abusers and those adjudicated as mentally ill. We can regulate guns as closely as we do cars.

We can require locks that make it harder to pull a trigger and lower the number of accidental shootings. We can work to ban the automatic weapons that seem to have no purpose other than mass shootings.

We can disagree on how best to address the epidemic of gun violence, but we cannot disagree on the tragic nature of gun violence. Support courageous politicians. Replace the ones who are not courageous. Speak up for common sense gun laws that make our streets and schools safe. Defend the right of children to live without the risk of being shot.

I keep thinking about the cross imposed with ashes on that mother’s forehead.  The sign of the cross calls us to grieve for those who are hurting, confess our apathy, and work for a time when we have no list of victims to read.

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God Listens to Lists

On February 1st, my daughter called to tell me she was thinking about transferring schools. She’s a freshman in college. The news did not come as a surprise to me so I encouraged her to apply.  “Wait,” she said. “First I have to make a list of pros and cons.  I’ll text it to you in a few hours.” “Emily, the application is due tomorrow,” I yelled. “Forget the list- just do it!” We hung up on each other.

I have little patience for the thoughtful planning process. I prefer acting, often reacting. For instance, as strict and formal as my upbringing was at home, in school and at church, my daughter’s was intentionally informal.  I refused to push manners or dress. I wanted my daughter to understand that it’s not about appearances but what’s on the inside. I didn’t care about her grades. I wanted her to value and love learning.  But, most of all, I wanted Emily to know God, God’s unconditional love and grace. I wanted her to have a personal relationship with God. I wanted her to turn to God in times of trouble, in times of joy. I hoped she would get there through prayer; not the rote memorized prayers of my childhood but individual, spontaneous, relevant, daily prayer and I encouraged her as best I could.

I am not good at praying.  We’ve been working on prayer in Sunday School.  After modeling closing prayers, I started asking for volunteers.  Initially, the same child raised his hand every week.  He was a natural- a hard act to follow.  Finally, in his absence, a different child raised his hand, only to promptly lower it and avert his eyes.  “Think of prayer as a sandwich,” I encouraged him.  “Dear God” and “Amen” are the bread.  All you need is the middle and as long as it’s from your heart, it’s fine.” He still wouldn’t look at me.  Thankfully, another child gave it a shot: Dear God, thank you for today.  Amen. Short and sweet.  Easy and inspirational.

I was certain this would encourage others- and it did!  I had to wait a few weeks for my initially frozen second volunteer to raise his hand again, but it was worth the wait.  Two weeks ago, he closed our discussion with: Dear God thank you for letting children have Sunday School.  Amen.  I was so proud and happy.  This week, a once reserved girl ended class with: Dear God, thank you for your son, Jesus.  Help us listen better to you and Jesus.  Amen.

On February 2nd, I texted my daughter asking if she had submitted her transfer applications.  Yes, she replied, because unlike you God was willing to listen to my lists.  I probably should have felt hurt or guilty, but I didn’t.  I felt good.

Julia

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Eating burgers, sinning boldly

brett-blogIf you are leaving New York to visit Texas, these are socially acceptable comments:

“I could use some warm weather.”

“We’re looking forward to seeing friends.”

“I miss driving more than forty miles an hour.”

“I haven’t seen an armadillo in a long time.”

“I enjoy the jealousy on people’s faces when I say ‘I’m from Brooklyn’.”

This is not a socially acceptable comment:

“I want a Quarter Pounder with fries.”

I know how unsophisticated that makes me sound.  After two years in a culinary mecca, a center for gastronomic delights, and the world’s best pizza, I am supposed to be beyond mass produced fast food, but I am not.  Mine is not a sophisticated pallet.

This is a difficult confession to make.  I know how bad ordering off the dollar menu is.  I saw Supersize Me.  Finger lickin’ good is not good for me.  I can see that the Burger King is creepy.  I have read studies that say that if you eat a bacon cheeseburger, you have a 75% chance of a heart attack before you get to the Frosty.

But I live 250 miles from the nearest Cook Out.  None of the arguments against driving through a drive-thru—and staring at the menu until the guy behind me starts honking—are enough to keep my mouth from watering with anticipation at driving south on IH-35 knowing there are six fast food places at every exit.

Fast food is democratic.  Working people can afford everything that you have to stand in line to order—and you do not have to tip.

There are no surprises.  Every Whataburger tastes exactly like the Whataburger you had five years ago at the Whataburger 500 miles away.  Why have it your way when you can have it the same way every time?

I do not know how to explain to New Yorkers that fast food fountain drinks are better.  Free refills are a right guaranteed somewhere deep in the Constitution.  A liter of Coca Cola from Key Food is a pale imitation of a Cherry Coke at Sonic.  Anyone who has had the pleasure of eating a meal in their car at a Sonic Drive-in knows there is no better ice in all the world.

No one asks, “Are we dressed well enough?” before going to Dairy Queen.  No one worries that their preschoolers might act up at Subway.  Children do not get a toy with their meal at Ruth Chris Steak House.  There is no playground at Del Frisco’s.

As I sat on the plane heading to Texas I thought about the options:  Whataburger’s Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit (sugar and butter make food wonderful); Jack in the Box’s two for $1 tacos, the perfect level of greasiness; KFC’s original recipe anything; the chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-a (the pickle chips are the key); an Oreo blizzard at Dairy Queen (Oreo crumbs are to ice cream what bacon is to everything else).

I ended up thinking inside the bun—a Homestyle burger (an ironic name) and an iced mocha.  This is nothing to write home about—but I’m lovin’ it.  I know that if they served a McDonald’s iced mocha at Starbucks it would cost twice as much.

When Martin Luther wrote, “Love God and sin boldly” he was not in a fast food restaurant, but he could have been.  Luther was calling us to recognize what is important and what is not.  There are times when you should order the salad, but sinning without worrying about it too much is, on occasion, good for your soul.

As Lent approaches some of us are deciding whether to give up soft drinks, sugar, or Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Tacos Supreme.  We would do better to give up envy, anger, and greed.  We have many things about which we should feel guilty—how little we give to feed hungry people, how quickly we dismiss people who dismiss us, and how much time we spend on our own amusement.  Because there is so much about which we should feel guilty, we can feel free—every now and then—to eat curly fries boldly.

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Marching On

marching-baby

The crowd was spectacular: fathers donning pink hats with ears, women holding bright signs inscribed with colorful language, and little girls wearing t-shirts that said things like “Future President” and “My daddy is a feminist.” Last Saturday’s Women’s March on New York City drew over 200,000. Women, men, children and even some dogs started gathering at Columbus Circle and lined up all along Central Park West, reaching as far north as 72nd Street.

Going to the March was a last minute decision after receiving an invitation to go with a friend. I hadn’t gone to any of the marches last year, mostly because I am claustrophobic and can’t stand being trapped in a sea of people (the 8 am A Train is my living hell). This year I thought I would brave the crowds and see what this marching is all about.

After getting out of the oh-so-congested subway at Columbus Circle, we were greeted by law enforcement instructing us to walk up Broadway. We walked past the Trump International Hotel and Tower. We walked past Lincoln Center, home of The Metropolitan Opera. We walked past a number of male street vendors selling buttons that said things like “Stay Strong, Stay Nasty” and “Girls just wanna have Fun-damental human rights.” Just when it started to feel like we were journeying on a sexual assault trail of tears, we finally arrived at ABC studios, where we could cross over 66th Street toward the park.

“Is this the march?” I heard one woman ask as we turned the corner.

“No,” said her friend. “We are marching to the march.”

Right before we got to the end of the intersection of 66th and Central Park West, the crowd had come to a stand still. Police kept us from joining the rest of protestors. Stuck and frustrated on 66th, we followed the lead of an elderly woman holding a poster that read “My arms are tired from holding this sign since the 1960s” and busted through a side barricade when the police officer was looking the other way.

We were finally on Central Park West and headed north to find an opening that would allow us to cross the park side of the street. Once we crossed, I felt like I was able to breathe again as there was a bit of elbow room. Now that we were done marching to the march, it was time to stand in line for the march. It was tough for me to find the perfect standing and waiting spot. I needed a place where I could feel a part of the crowd, while still maintaining my personal bubble.

We walked down the sidewalk through the crowd and finally stopped by a stone wall that bordered the park. The journey from the subway exit to this resting place had taken us a little less than two hours. We finally claimed a spot and waited for the crowd to start marching.

As we waited, we took it all in. Looking at all the signs, the t-shirts, the various costumes of lady liberty and female genitalia, I was surprised by how many causes were represented: immigration rights, racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s empowerment groups, disability rights, women’s reproductive rights, women’s and children’s healthcare, peace and reconciliation, environmental protection, science education, anti-human trafficking, domestic violence prevention, sexual harassment and abuse prevention, and children’s rights. There were so many voices shouting in the chorus, “We will not be silent, and we are not going away.”

The intersectionality of the Women’s March was undeniable. People of all races, genders, ages, sexual orientations, religions, education levels and apartment sizes came together as one group to say, “This Matters.”  Yet, in the clamor of it all, I felt lost.

I had journeyed for two hours to this place, only to feel empty. I felt like an outsider, a spectator. It didn’t make sense. I care about these causes. I, too, am angry with the current administration’s negligence towards human rights. I whole-hearted believe in the impact of organizing for social and political change. I am glad we live in a country that gives us the freedom to peacefully protest and speak our minds. But I wanted more. I wanted something that a march just couldn’t provide.

Last Sunday a group of parents got together at Plymouth Church to learn how to talk to our children about racism. This Sunday a group of Plymouth people will watch a documentary and learn how to end human trafficking in Brooklyn. The first Sunday of February, volunteers will pack food bags to give to hungry families through Brooklyn Delivers. When I think of these and the other Plymouth ministries, I realize that social and political activism doesn’t just happen in the streets. It happens in the pews, in the prayer circles, in the baptismal font, in the pulpit, in the offering plate, in Hillis hall, and in the Sunday School classroom.

Church isn’t just a house of worship. Church is an auditorium for the voiceless, an assembly of protest, an incubator for activism, a forum for forgiveness and a place of peace. The Church is continuously marching. There are no barricades to keep people out. There is no waiting around for things to get started. The march is here and now and always.

 

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If “The Post” was a Church, We Should All Join

Here are 10 reasons to see The Post:

  1. You have already seen Star Wars.
  2. Films set in the 1970s make you nostalgic for better government.
  3. You want to see a movie with old people in the audience.
  4. You want to see a movie with old people in the movie.
  5. You like films that make your wardrobe seem up to date.
  6. You want to see if Meryl Streep can do an American accent (SPOILER ALERT: She can!).
  7. You are relieved that Tom Hanks has finally gotten a good role.
  8. Steven Spielberg needs your support.
  9. You love movies about Robert McNamara.
  10. You want to remember how good the church could be.

As a New Yorker for almost two years, I am happy to point out the movie begins with the Washington Post getting scooped by the New York Times.  (Our hometown newspaper is surprised that a movie about the Pentagon Papers is called The Post.) Daniel Ellsberg, a former aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, exposed the government’s decades-long history of lies about Vietnam by sending the long report known as the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Each administration knew the war was unwinnable, but kept that fact from Congress and the American people.

After a court order halted the New York Times’ publication, the Post got its own copy and had to decide whether to step up, tell the truth, and defy the court order. Kay Graham, publisher of the Post, got the job after her husband’s suicide. As the movie begins, Graham is hanging on to a naïve faith in American leaders.

The newsroom is filled with idealistic reporters who smoke constantly, pound typewriters, pour dimes into pay phones, and send copy to the printer through those cool pneumatic tubes. You feel like there should be ink on your fingers at the end of the movie.

The old-school editor of the Post, Ben Bradlee defends the freedom of the press: “The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish!”

Ben Bagdikian, an old-school reporter, says, “I always wanted to be part of a small revolution.”

When Bagdikian asks Ellsberg why he is acting so courageously, Ellsberg responds, “Wouldn’t you go to prison to stop the war?”

Publishing the papers could land Bradlee and Graham in prison. The Post’s board of directors does not want to take on the government because they are afraid of losing money.

Graham argues for the board’s position: “We can’t hold [government] accountable if we don’t have a newspaper.”

Bradlee counters, “If the government is telling us what to print, then the

Washington Post has already ceased to exist.”

This would be an unpopular movie if Graham did not find her footing, courage and voice. Putting the good of the country before your own financial interest sounds corny, but it shouldn’t. The mission of a newspaper is the welfare of the people. The Post chose its mission over its security.

Churches should see themselves in this movie. The First Amendment is about a free press and a free church. The church, like the board of the Post, is tempted to focus on survival. When well-meaning Christians worry only about the budget, the church ceases to be the church.  Institutional Christianity, like a bad newspaper, is organized, conventional, and uninteresting.

Martin Luther said, “Churches that preach the gospel, except where it addresses the issues of the day, do not preach the gospel.”

The church has to tell the truth, be a voice for peace, and make it clear that our culture’s values are upside down. Every community has a story which tells them who they are, offers a sense of what made them great, and guides them in their decisions. Americans have the Constitution. Christians have the story of Jesus.

When the Post stood up for truth, they went from being a nice local paper to being an important national one. When the church is brave, the church attracts those who want to live with conviction.

In the Supreme Court’s response to the Pentagon Papers, Justice Hugo Black wrote that America’s founders affirmed freedom of the press “to serve the governed, not the governors.”

The church is to serve the world, not the church.

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Prince Harry and Me

brett-harryWe questioned their judgment when the Coopers asked us to take care of Harry for a week.  We are good people, but we are not dog people.  I have not lived with a dog since my Chihuahua Catastrophe lived up to his name in an encounter with a brand new 1968 Ford Mustang.

Our only goal was to keep Harry alive until his family got home.  We were so afraid that something would happen, but Harry slept most of the time.  He disappears like Harry Houdini into blankets and pillows.

Harry is a combination of Harry Styles and Harry Truman—hip, but wise.  He’s a little Toto, a little Benji, and a lot Ewok.  He is nine years old, so if he was human he would be seven years older than I am.  Harry is a Shih Tzu, a breed not meant to hunt, herd, or protect.  If I fall into a well, Harry will keep the news to himself.

I want us to be Turner and Hooch, but Harry sees our walks as an opportunity to train me to take orders.  My attempts at “Sit,” “Stay,” and “Heel” are met with Harry’s you-don’t-know-what-you’re-doing look.  Several of our walks take place in freezing weather, but Harry likes being a chili dog—though he does not care for that joke.

Harry walks faster than I do so that he can pretend I am not there.  He is fascinated with finding the right pile of leaves, hibernating squirrels, and the backsides of other dogs.  Walking with Harry is interactive.  We speed up.  We slow down.  We move from side to side.  We get excited about parked cars.

New Yorkers ask, “What’s your dog’s name?” more often than “What’s your name?”  I wonder why these people did not talk to me before I borrowed a dog, but I like the subculture of dog people.  They may not speak to one another if they do not have their dog, but there is not a lot of judgment.

I assume Harry and I are friends after our week together, but he could be thinking Cujo thoughts and I would never know.  Though Harry seems unimpressed with me that does not keep me from being wild about Harry.  Petting Harry is like singing the blues.  You feel better though you are not sure why.

Hanging around Harry is good for my soul.  Politics is ugly.  Work is stressful.  People can be difficult.  Harry does not care about any of that.

I talk to Harry a lot.  He is not attentive, but he does not interrupt.  Talking to Harry is like talking to myself, which is just a little bit like praying.

Abraham Lincoln said, “I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog is not the better for it.”

Caring for animals may seem unimportant with all of the problems in the world, but the message of loving one another, loving animals, and loving creation is a hopeful word in a troubled time.  When good churches have food drives they include dog food.  They take pets to visit the sick and host adoption events.

When St. Francis talked to animals they talked back, but I can only imagine what Harry is thinking:  “You could learn a lot from me.  The past is gone.  The future isn’t here yet.  Enjoy the moment.  I appreciate what I have.  I don’t sit around wishing I was Lassie.  I don’t want to be a terrier or a boxer or a poodle.  I am fine with who I am.  Be happy with who you are.  There’s a reason all dogs go to heaven.  We don’t care about money.  We don’t worry ourselves to death.  Dogs don’t hold grudges.  We aren’t judgmental, like cats.  You are too easily frustrated.  You should chase things.  Jump for joy when you’re happy.  Get excited about whatever is in front of you.  Wag your tail because life is good.”

We grow in our faith in a variety of ways.  We worship.  We read.  We pray.  We listen.  We walk the dog.

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Fair of The Plymouth Church

“Fair of The Plymouth Church – Tomorrow, at 10 o’clock p.m., the ladies of the Plymouth church open their fair in the rooms devoted to the meetings of the ‘Social Circle,’ over the lecture room of the new church, in Cranberry street.  We learn that the ladies of this church have had their fair in contemplation for a long time, and have wrought a great variety of useful articles which will be for sale at fair prices….”

When Whitney and I began our planning last Spring, we knew we had a big shoes to fill and big expectations to satisfy.  We kicked off with a lunch for former YF chairs hosted by Sharon Humphries, which yielded over 10 pages of notes of many wonderful ideas, sage advice and warnings, as well as hilarious YF stories and finally (and thankfully) offers to help!  One big take away from that meeting was that a Yankee Fair is really only as great as the sum of its booth chair. With that in mind, Whitney and I buckled down recruiting our leadership level volunteers.  Many coffees, emails and meetings later we were staffed.

Historically, the leadership at Yankee Fair has tended toward the female, but given all the dedicated men in our community, we wanted to expand our volunteer base, so we asked David Burrell to lead the men’s group in the service of lunch.  A daring task which he nonetheless accomplished with fierce determination.  We applaud the men who served lunch on November 4 and we pity those who did not.  David Burrell has your number and knows where you live!

Much of what happens at Yankee Fair, comes together at the last minute of activity. However some things, such as the coordination of the children’s programming, or lunch, or the creation of all the handmade items, happens for months leading up to the fair. For example, Penelope Kulko served many pots of delicious soups which warmed the stomachs of many crafters on many late nights spent cutting and glueing.

Which leads me to this most important observation: fellowship, whether it be found in the sorting of collectibles, toys, books, the serving of lunch, the hanging of buntings or in the flitting about coffee hour with a clipboard to sign up unsuspecting potential volunteers, is the true result of a Yankee Fair well planned. In fact, the best part of Yankee Fair is not the fair, but the collaborative work that makes the fair an actual fair.  What Whitney and I eventually learned on November 4, 2017, is that Yankee Fair is not so much an event to be chaired, as it is a vital part of the church which requires faithful stewardship.  You take your turn at the helm, and leave good notes for those who will follow you.

The first fair of 1849 was a benefit to furnish the rooms of the church. Since those early days it has become the tradition of Yankee Fair to find a charity recipient that the entire Church, Church School and neighborhood can all feel comfortable supporting together.  This year, while our neighborhoods undergo significant changes in the affordability in a place that everyone can call home, we thought Habitat for Humanity provided a perfect balance for these various constituents – and it helped that our Christian Help Ministry already had a long standing relationship with the organization.  Having their staff come and participate in the fair with an educational craft event for children in the gym only added to the festivities.  We are very grateful to be able to present them with a check for approximately $9,000!

So now as Whitney and I upload the last of our notes to the Yankee Fair Dropbox, we do so with knowledge that Yankee Fair 2019 will be every bit as wonderful as was the Yankee Fair of 2017 due to the strength and vibrancy of our entire community. Thank you to everyone for making it such a success!

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Surprised by Peace

Oh dear God – how do I go from here?

This was my prayer of panic in the 2 AM dark in the waiting room of the cardiac building of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.  I suddenly realized I was hunched over a small round table, my hands and face wet with tears that finally poured out of me following the most bizarre and incomprehensible 24 hour period of my life.  Standing over me were my parents-in-law, and the heart surgeon who had just informed me that my husband of only four weeks had survived the seven hour surgery to repair a massive aneurysm and dissected valve that had been found in his ascending aorta the day before.  Although my face was hidden, I was keenly aware that the people above me – the only other people still left in the dark waiting room at 2 AM – were watching me with intensity.  It was a moment of total suspension.

The preceding day, Martin had called me to say he was on his way to the ER and I should meet him there immediately.   I had forgotten that he’d gone to see a cardiologist that afternoon, as a precautionary measure, because his brother had had a procedure a few months prior.  We hadn’t paid much attention to it, because we were busy being happy and excited for our wedding over Thanksgiving, and were filled with the promise of the new life we would create together.

So when I received the phone call and Martin used unfamiliar words like ‘massive aortic aneurysm’ I didn’t fully understand what they meant, or why it was so urgent that I get myself from Brooklyn to upper Manhattan that instant.

When I arrived at the hospital, Martin looked completely fine, the same as always.  He had no symptoms of any kind.  Indeed, he had his gym bag with him because he’d intended to lift weights after that doctor’s appointment, just as he did several times each week.

As word of his condition spread throughout the ER, several interns came to look at Martin, curious to see a 43 year old man with an aorta 5 times the size it was supposed to be.  “Wow,” they all said with the enthusiasm of finalists at a national high school level science competition. “It’s amazing – you are actually alive!”

When the surgeon came in, he said, “I have never seen this condition.  Somebody must want you to be here because, medically speaking, you should have died last summer.”  “It’s my wife,” Martin said, which was supposed to be a joke, but I knew he meant it.

I could not fully comprehend what was happening.  Aneurysms, dissected valves and cardio-thoracic surgery are not things newly wedded couples spend time thinking about.  When one speaks vows of “in sickness and in health” and “until death part us,” one doesn’t think those words apply to RIGHT NOW – surely they are meant for much later.

“What if it doesn’t go well?”  I asked Martin.  “I need to know what you want me to do.”

Later, in the 2 AM darkness, after hearing the successful result of surgery, after finally falling into weeping, after feeling the eyes of Martin’s parents and the surgeon watching me intently for what I would do next, after knowing they were waiting for some kind of cue from me, which I could not give, I prayed . . .

Oh dear God.  How do I go from here?  How do I move?  Because I do not understand any of this.  How do I physically make the journey from this moment into the next?  And what on Earth will the next moment bring?

There was no noise.  There was no light in the room.  Nothing remarkable happened.  Very simply, peacefully – I sat up.  And the next moment began, and life moved on.

I often think of that moment in my life.  In the chaos and confusion of a real emergency, that simple movement – from here into there, supported by God’s peace – was the bridge that upheld me as I entered the next unknown.

Maggie Fales
Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, NY
December 10, 2017

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Christmas Lights

Every once in a while I see a jogger and react in a way that is incomprehensible to thinking people.  I say to myself, “I should start jogging.”  One spring a few years ago, during such a period of insanity, I began running around a couple of blocks.  The highlight of my stroll was passing an out of the ordinary yard not far from our house.  At night, when the lights are on, it can’t be missed.  The most striking feature is the Christmas lights.  The lights, which cover a Mulberry tree, are a startling variety of colors.  A red birdhouse with a black roof invites passersby to “See Rock City.”  A big red bow adorns a holly wreath.  It’s hard not to smile at the yard.

In a conversation with someone who lived a few doors down I asked, “What’s the story with your neighbor’s Christmas lights?  That’s an interesting yard.”

The yard is not as amusing to him as it is to me:  “Those stupid Christmas lights have been up for years.  It makes me furious when I think about what that yard does to my property values.  I am sorely tempted to buy a BB gun just to shoot those &%$* lights!”

I started to rethink my feelings.  Perhaps the yard wasn’t as wonderful as I originally thought.  Maybe I would feel differently if I lived next door.  Then one evening, as I was leisurely making my way I saw a woman working in “the yard” just up ahead.  I sped up so that ten minutes later, when I was in need of a break anyway, I was able to stop and say:  “Your yard is really interesting.  Is there a story behind the Christmas lights?”

She smiled, “Yes, there is.”

She pointed to the house across the street and identified a particular window:  “The elderly woman who lives there came to stay with her children seven years ago.  She’s in her nineties now and seldom leaves her room.  After her first Christmas here she went on and on about how much she enjoyed looking at the lights and bright colors in our yard.  We’re the only view she has.  When Christmas was over, we didn’t have the heart to take the lights down.  We decided that as long as she’s around, we’d leave the lights on.”

In a world full of darkness, we need to leave the lights on.

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Helping the Holiday Hurt

The Christmas season can be a time of celebration for many people in our community. Twinkling lights on Montague Street, Christmas carols played by street musicians, and bedazzled storefront windows can stir feelings of wonder and joy. While it is easy for us to get caught up in the splendor of Advent, we must remember that for many people Christmas is a time of sadness, stress and grief.

The holidays make pain more painful. For those facing the recent death of a loved one, the loss of a job, financial hardship, the breakdown of a relationship, or a physical or mental illness, Christmas festivities serve as reminders of loneliness and want. If you are someone who hurts during the holidays, here are some suggestions to find some peace while in pain.

Admit the Hurt
Trying to gloss over your hardship or pretend that the pain isn’t there will only create frustration. People are emotional pressure cookers.  If you continuously stuff down uncomfortable feelings, eventually the pressure builds and those emotions will come out one way or the other, usually in bursts of rage or anxiety. During the holidays, make sure that you give yourself moments to express your feelings in healthy ways: take time to cry, talk with a minister or counselor, or write in a journal.

Change Traditions
Holiday traditions are never the same when there is a major change to your life situation. Trying to recreate the happy moments of the past will leave you deeply disappointed. Doing something different for the holidays can ease some of the pain. Some ideas would be to go on a trip, decorate your house differently (or not at all), or plan to eat out on Christmas rather than cooking at home. Even small changes to your holiday routine can make big differences in your emotional state.

Play it by Ear
December is filled with invitations to happy holiday gatherings. Rather than avoid the parties altogether, tell your friends that you hope to attend, but will not be sure how you are feeling that day. Ask if it would be ok if they could plan on you coming, but know that you might have to cancel last minute if you are having a bad day. Friends that are worth your friendship will understand.

Find Support
There is a world of support available to people in pain in the city. Now is the time to seek out that support. You can find grief and emotional support groups online. Multiple AA and Al-Anon groups meet throughout the city each day of the week. There are holiday dinner meet-up groups for those who are alone. Many churches, like Plymouth, will have Blue Christmas services, which are worship services specifically designed to help people cope. If you need help finding support, talk to a minister or counselor and they can give you a list of resources.

Hope in What Really Matters
While the secular world tells us that Christmas is about family, presents, laughter, and fun, we must remember what it is truly about. God entered into the world to give hope to people in pain. Jesus came to earth to teach us that God’s love, peace and joy are available to us at all times, no matter what life throws at us. God’s love is more comforting, God’s peace is more healing, and God’s joy is more igniting than any carol, twinkling light, or adorned window.

Much hope, peace, joy and love to you this Christmas season.

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