Advent Peace

During my senior year in high school I was a columnist for the school newspaper.  For one issue, I got the idea to write an entire column that was just one sentence and to see if anyone noticed.  What topic was so broad, so vague and nebulous, as to permit such a ruse?  Peace, I decided.  I composed a draft which some poor student teacher accidentally graded, thinking it was serious.  I eventually wrote the column about something else and won an award for it, but I still occasionally wonder at the utter drivel I must have written the first time.

But it occurs to me peace is a temporal state that has a clear forerunner and clear descendant (hey, I’m always up to pontificate on this topic).  The forerunner of peace is truth, or rather, truth is the origin of peace. I remember being rather amazed at the truth and reconciliation commissions of the past decades. You mean they just openly discuss all the crimes they did, and review the past, in an attempt to move past it and heal?  But from all accounts it worked.  That alchemical quality of a real solution, of an answer, drawn not from any specific “side,” but only from God.  Only God knows truth, and when pure truth, or as pure as we get here on Earth, comes into play amazing things happen.  However, truth is hard.  It is also surprisingly quotidian, unremarkable, and complex.  As any fiction reader knows, there is a lot of truth to be unpacked at any moment within anyone, and counterintuitively reading widely in serious literature will only deepen your knowledge of truth.

But peace is temporary unless people work to preserve it.  It is subject to entropy.  Peace requires mission.  It requires vigilance, and renewal of covenantal values.  It requires adults adulting, which is not in vogue. I was watching a 60 Minutes report about a school that took on teens at risk for gang violence.  A graduate reported the school, which had saved his life, would no longer accept a kid like he once was.  It had turned away from its mission, he claimed.  Mission work, like truth, is also quotidian, unremarkable, and complex.  My main memory from volunteering is not glory but all the joyful toil.

Peace does not come from the proverbial sky, it is created and preserved on earth by us, if we so wish.

John Leighton

Advent Hope

All of us are hoping for something.  I’ve had more than a fair share of hopes these first weeks in Brooklyn.  I spent my first hour here hoping that my box spring would fit through my door if we tried one more time.  I hope that I learn to properly use my washer/dryer combo so that I don’t have to iron every article of clothing that comes out of it.  I hope what I think is curbing my dog is actually curbing my dog.

That’s one kind of hope.  There are also hopes that carry more weight.  We hope our children handle preschool well.  We hope our marriage gets stronger when it feels strained.  We hope our new president-elect will do a good job. We hope that our families will be happy and healthy.

A few nights after I moved here, I was wearing Converse tennis shoes walking down State Street.  As I look down at my feet, crying, I experienced God-hope.   A small wave of missing my old life came.  My dog, my family, my friends, all that was familiar felt suddenly out of reach.   But, as I looked down at my feet, through watery, blurred eyes, I experienced a flash of how fully I will one day understand exactly why God brought me here.  It was hope.  Hope is not about certainty.  We cannot be certain that everything in life is going to go well.  Hope, rather, is a choice in the absence of certainty that makes all the difference.  Hope is a promise in God’s story made to you and me and anyone willing to choose it in the face of uncertainty.

We are invited to participate in a great hope that cannot be taken away.  Hope that love, God-love, will become second nature in and through us.  Hope is the gift of Jesus Christ.  We may not get angels and shepherds reminding us to hope, but the gift of God among us is forever present if we are looking for it.  And, that IS reason for hope.

Welcome to the season of a greater hope.  Welcome to Advent, a time carved out of this year for the purpose of reflecting on greater hope; hope that things are being made right, hope that what is broken is being restored, hope that love will win and that joy and peace are already here, waiting for us.  We need to live with that hope.

Liz Coates

Stopping Prayer Vigils

In the last week, Jewish synagogues have been defaced with swastikas.  Latina women have been threatened.  Muslim women have been forced to remove their hijabs.  On Veterans Day, Marie Boyle, a U.S. army veteran from the Philippines, was told to “Go back to Mexico.”

I do not want to go to another vigil.  Sometime soon someone will easily obtain a gun no hunter would ever use.  He will open fire in a room full of innocent people.

Clergy will organize a vigil where we read the names of the victims.  We will grieve for the families of those who died.  We will read scripture.  We will pray for an end to gun violence.

We will give anyone paying careful attention the impression that we are not sure that God and God’s people working together can stop or even slow gun violence.  The ministers will not offer concrete suggestions as to how we might prevent the next tragedy.  The ministers will either be afraid of offending someone or they will not know what to suggest.  Does a prayer vigil that leads to no action make us complicit?

The temptation for those who have worked against the easy availability of guns is, if not to give up, to stop trying so hard.  But this is not the time to—as one of my dear friends put it—binge watch The West Wing and eat ice cream.  This is the time to be vigilant.

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.  21,000 suicides are committed using guns each year.  College students dealing with depression are especially at risk.

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.  Christians have to be broken-hearted by the gun deaths in our country.  Each person killed by a gun is a child of God.  We have to be more concerned with the sixth commandment than the second amendment.  We may like to say that gun violence is as prevalent as it is because politicians are afraid of losing their jobs, but it is also true that Christians have not worked as we should to end the violence.  We cannot pretend we cannot do anything.

We can work to strengthen background checks.  40% 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.  Connecticut improved their background check laws and cut gun deaths by 40 percent.  Missouri repealed their background check laws and gun deaths increased by 40 percent.  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.

Christians disagree on how best to address the epidemic of gun violence, but we cannot disagree on the tragic nature of gun violence.  We have to do something.  Support courageous politicians.  Write letters to the ones who are not courageous.  Speak up for common sense gun laws that make our streets and sanctuaries safe.  Defend the right of families to walk their neighborhoods without the risk of being shot.

Pray for an end to prayer vigils.  Pray for the time when we have no list of victims’ names to read.  Pray that we will have the courage to speak up.  Pray that we will realize that, especially in hard times, God expects more from us.

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Antonio’s Biscuits and Spoons

We closed the shelter at the end of October.  It moved to Grace Church for November. I paused to chat with Antonio as we were putting things away. He told me he was born at Long Island Jewish Hospital and lived all his life in New York. Most of his life he worked as a school security guard.  He rattled off the names of schools spanning several boroughs and several decades where he worked. I watched in fascination as he pulled out his overstuffed wallet. It was shaped more like a rounded fist than a wallet. It was jammed with ID cards and business cards. He kept the ID cards from every place he worked, schools and other employers, making his wallet a portable scrapbook of his working years. He shuffled through the stack and pulled out one from the Andrew Jackson School, with a photo showing him in younger days. Antonio told me he never married and never had children, but he loved being around children. Security guard jobs were perfect for him. He is retired now, and spends most of his time helping his ageing father and looking for a place to live he can afford.

I don’t remember how we got on to the topic of music.  He told me about his uncle who had been the musical heart of his family. His uncle was a natural musician. He played and built guitars. There was music in the room and in the family when he was around. Among other things, this uncle had coached a local baseball team. One night at a celebratory party for the team, he intervened in a fight between two people and was shot and killed. Antonio said there was still music in the family, but it hadn’t been the same since.

I cooked chicken stew with biscuits on top for the shelter dinner the night before.  Slaw, zucchini bread and brownies made the dinner complete. It was a popular meal.  They liked the stew very much.  They REALLY liked the biscuits. Unfortunately, demand for the biscuits exceeded the supply. The slaw was less popular. The zucchini bread was regarded with some skepticism. The brownies vanished quickly. Next morning our guests packed the left over stew and slaw in takeout containers for their lunch. Antonio fixed himself some takeout.  He noticed there was food left in the pans after the other guests packed their lunches. He asked if it would be OK for him to pack a second lunch to take to other people who are hungry. He also asked if he could have a few of the plastic spoons we have at Plymouth. He said they were easier for his father to handle than the spoons he usually uses.  He meticulously wrapped four of them in a napkin for his dad.

We talked a bit longer, until he realized all the other guests left. He headed to the door toting his bag of food. There was a hand shake and a thank you.  Then he paused to look up with what I presumed to be a kind of hat tip to God.

I made a note to myself – the next time I cook for the shelter, whatever else I cook, make a ton of biscuits.

Jacque Jones

The column in which I tell you how to vote

This year’s presidential campaign has been depressing for many of us.  There are major religious issues facing our country that do not seem important to either major political party.

Caring for the poor is a religious issue.  While both parties argue over the middle class, no one is putting forth courageous policies that offer a real chance to poor families.

War is a religious issue.  Jesus’ call to be peacemakers and love our enemies would seem out of place in either party’s platform.  Do people even remember that we have troops in Afghanistan?

Telling the truth is a religious issue.  After each debate, media outlets print lists of lies each candidate has told.  Both lists are getting longer.

Neither of the major parties is making a serious effort to consider how free trade could be used to alleviate hunger, how basic medical coverage could be adjusted to lessen suffering, or how scrupulous concern for justice in the international arena could alleviate anger towards our country.

Christians are smart enough to consider issues beyond the last ridiculous punchline.  Immigration, prison reform, and the environment matter to Christians because our faith has something to say about hospitality, revenge, and creation.

When Dorothy Day was criticized for what observers saw as the inconsistency of her “radical” political life and “conservative” religious life, she responded, “I don’t act politically on the street or worship in church to fit in with people who are radical or people who are conservative.  I read the Bible.  I try to pay attention to the life of Jesus Christ.  I try to follow his example.  I stumble all of the time, but I try to keep going—along the road he walked for us.  I belong to a church, and when I made the decision to join it, I knew my whole life would change.  For me, everything is religious—politics and the family and work, they all are part of our obligation to follow our Lord’s way.”

Imagine the good our country could do if Christians followed “our Lord’s way” and took God’s concern for the poor, peace, and honesty into the voting booth.  What wonderful things would happen if our values were derived from the life of Christ rather than political partisanship?

Sincere Christians can choose to vote for different candidates for reasons deeply rooted in their faith.  We can and do disagree on how to enhance human rights, protect children, promote racial reconciliation, and support gender equality.  We may also share frustration that our politicians tend to appeal only to individual interests, national interests, and special interests.  Faith leads us away from narrow-mindedness to act for the good of others.

Ours is a remarkable country with lofty, worthy goals.  Participate in the process, pay attention to more than the superficial, and vote with concern for all people.  On November 8, I will walk to P.S. 8 to cast my ballot.  I will vote with appreciation for the privilege and disappointment at some of the choices we have been given.

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Why Brooklyn Needs Plymouth

When my styNew York City in the glow of sunsetlist at Supercuts finds out that I have only lived in Brooklyn for five months, she offers to explain New York to me.  She looks me in the eye and says, “If you love New York, she will love you back.  If you don’t love New York, then you need to leave right now.”

I love New York and, most days, she loves me back.  I wake up in the morning and thank God that I am here.  The river, the skyline, and the people rushing around make me grateful.  I am thankful for the amazing art, theater, and food.  Our city is vibrant, diverse, and resilient.

But I have also been here long enough to know that New York is complicated.  Some things are more difficult here.  Driving unpainted, narrow streets filled with bicycles, scooters, adventurous pedestrians, and aggressive taxi drivers is frightening.  Parking—alternate side unless it’s a street cleaning weekday with an R in it 8 am to 6 pm—is confusing.  Paying a reasonable amount for housing is impossible.  Raising a family is tough.  Helping children get the best education is complicated.  Lugging groceries home is problematic.  Finding a quiet place or a restroom or a way to retire is tricky.  Being kind is challenging.  Making friends is difficult.  Feeling like you matter is hard.

New York makes it clear that we need the church.  We need others to help us recognize God’s presence.  When the city treats us poorly, when we feel confused, alone, or sad, we need Plymouth.

We need Plymouth because we need a place where people know who we are, treat us with kindness, and let us be kind.  We need a place where people listen to us, talk about the things that matter most, and trust us.  We need a place to spend time with children and senior adults, be around those with a deep sense of spirituality, and serve those who need our help.  We need a place to pray, sing, give, and listen for the Spirit.  We need Plymouth.

Dorothy Parker said, “London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful.  Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.”

That is a good description of the church Brooklyn needs—always hopeful, believing something good is about to happen, hurrying to meet God.

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How to Ride the Subway

tube-chat

Londoners have reacted with horror to an attempt to get them to speak to one another on the subway.  Three weeks ago “Tube Chat?” buttons began encouraging riders to engage in conversations with fellow travelers.  The response on social media has been universal distress:

“I feel like civilization is ending.”

“You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot lead a Londoner into social interaction on the Tube.”

“It’s bad enough on above ground trains, where random strangers want to talk while I’m on Twitter, chatting to random strangers.”

New buttons have appeared: “Don’t even think about speaking to me,” “Wake me up if a dog gets on,” and “Nope.”

One Londoner argued:  “Only drunks, lunatics and Americans talk on the Tube.  Resentful silence is the proper way.”

The man behind this attempt to get commuters talking is indeed an American.  Jonathan Dunne admits that he has not received the friendly experience for which he hoped.  He explains his motivation by saying he comes from a small town in Colorado where “We actually talk to people.”

When I moved to Brooklyn, I got lots of advice on how to ride the subway:

Do not be discouraged if your metro card does not work on the first five swipes

If there is an empty car, avoid it.  There is a reason it is empty.

You should offer your seat to a woman with a small child or a pregnant woman—though she should be at least eight months pregnant.

Hang on to the pole.  This is no place to pretend you are surfing.

Face the right direction—the direction everyone else is facing.

If you look at the “NEXT STOP IS . . .” sign, you look like a tourist.

Do not stare at anything that is hard not to stare at.  This includes tattoos, piercings, uncovered body parts, and hair colors Disney has never tried.

Do not pay attention to the crazy guy giving a speech—even if he is making sense.

If someone tries to hand you something, do not take it.

Move to the side to let people get off the train and avoid getting moved off the train.

I enjoy riding the subway.  I am amazed by the number of nationalities you see.  I love the singers and musicians—both the ones who have permission to be there and the ones who clearly do not.  $2.75 is a bargain.

An early morning subway car can be amazingly quiet.  When this many people live this close together, we need to give each other space so, for the most part, we leave each other alone.

Commuters hold on to their coffee as if it is their last hope.  College students study.  People in suits read The Wall Street Journal.  People in Philadelphia jerseys read The New York Post.  Teenagers play the kind of games I am too smart to put on my phone, but which I wish I had on my phone.  Lots of folks wear earbuds which may or may not be connected to anything.  Commuters have a surprising level of weariness.

While I love riding the subway, I am afraid it might make me less caring.  I do not want my silence to become apathy.  I do not want to learn to ignore those around me, so here is what I am doing.  I look at the people on the train.  I look at each face and say to myself, “God loves you.”  That crying little boy.  That elderly woman.  That angry man.  That bored teenage girl.  I need to think “God loves you” so that I will remember that it is true.

And if there is ever a moment when it does not seem horrifying, I will start a conversation.

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The Coolest Thing about Plymouth

“What’s the coolest thing about your church?”

The minister asking the question doesn’t know Plymouth.  Where was I to start?

I could talk about our history.  Tourists hang on the fence to hear the stories of Henry Ward Beecher ignoring threats to fight slavery, church members breaking the law to be part of the Underground Railroad, and Branch Rickey praying in the minister’s study until he decided to offer Jackie Robinson a contract.  Our Congregational tradition is a rich heritage.  We have a great story.

I could talk about the friendships we share.  In many churches, the building is empty ten minutes after the postlude.  At Plymouth, Hillis Hall is crowded thirty minutes after worship, and it isn’t because we want Oreos for lunch.  Fellowship hour is loud and happy.  The conversations sound like they are about faith, politics, and family, but the real subject is our love for one another.

I could talk about our ministries.  When I asked a guest at the overnight shelter which church was the best to visit, he said, “Yours, of course.”  Our support of anti-trafficking continues our commitment to proclaim as Jesus said, “release to the captives.”  We participate in creative hunger initiatives like Brooklyn Delivers.

I could talk about Plymouth Church School.  Walking up the stairs takes longer when you are behind a line of three-year-olds, but singing with them is fun.  I could talk about the delightful confirmation class Carol and I are getting to lead.  I could talk about our church staff, whose dedication to Plymouth is inspiring.  I could talk about our thoughtful, inclusive, and welcoming theology.  If asked the coolest thing about our church, we have lots of answers from which to choose.

One of the many reasons I love Plymouth is clear every Sunday morning.  When worship begins, people in our sanctuary expect something sacred to happen.   Plymouth sings joyfully, prays honestly, and thinks deeply.  We expect to be challenged.  People in our church give themselves to God each Sunday.

The best thing Plymouth has going for it—that for which we should be most grateful—is the presence of God.  Though most of the time we don’t see it, a goodness bigger than we are has pulled us this far, and made this church holy and wonderful.

This sound odd, but God is what’s coolest about our church.  God makes this place and these people home.  God is here when we help one another and when we help people we don’t even know.  Plymouth is more than the sum total of what we can see, because God is with us.

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Me and Captain Morgan

In The Perfect Storm, George Clooney dies when the ship sinks.  In Titanic, Leonardo Dicaprio dies when the ship sinks.  In All is Lost—spoiler alert—Robert Redford makes it, but just barely.  When I get on a boat I think about these movies, because I cannot swim.  I have come to believe that water, more than any other place, is where people drown.  I understand why “seasick” is a word and “landsick” is not.  I do not even go to Old Navy. I have biblical support for my attitude.  In the Psalms, the Leviathan is lurking beneath the boat just like Jaws.  No thinking parent would tell the stories of Noah or Jonah at bedtime.  Egyptian children have bad dreams about crossing the Red Sea.

I have historical support for my attitude—the Bismarck, the Lusitania, the Poseidon, the Voyage of the Damned, and the Sloop John B, as well as pirates with hooks for hands and pegs for legs.

Carol and I are, nonetheless, delighted when Peter and Lee Scott take us on the S.S. Alabama for a “three hour tour”—just like Gilligan’s.  This is another chance to learn to love the ocean.

I count the people on board—thirty—and the seats on the lifeboat—twelve.  These are not the odds for which you hope.  A guy from Michigan—not me—asks about life jackets.  The life preservers are in the bottom of the boat.  If the boat starts to sink, they expect me to run downstairs.  I am humming “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

The barefoot crew of the S.S. Alabama is made up of teenagers.  The Captain’s name—I am not making this up—is Morgan.  This does not inspire confidence.  Captain Morgan warns us to watch out for the boom, as it could kill us.

After thirty minutes, I stop staring at the boom.  We eat ham sandwiches and mint fudge.  (I prefer regular fudge, but sea life is hard.)  I start saying things like, “That’s a good-looking flying jib.”  I tell Carol, “I’m getting sunburned on my starboard side.”

Lee makes friends with everybody on board.  She gets Maureen’s email address, so she can send her recipe for spinach pie.

After two hours, I am scanning the horizon while I steer the Alabama.  I am looking for boats with bad names—Ahoy Vey, Yacht Sea, Gravyboat, She Got the House, Buoys in the Hood.  Then again—I wish I was the first one to say this—if it doesn’t come when you call it, why name it?

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is sleeping below deck when a storm shows up.  The frightened disciples wake him up.  When he has gotten his eyes open, Jesus speaks first to the wind rather than the disciples, “Cut that out!”  He is gentler with the sea, “Take it easy.  Quiet down.”  As Mary Oliver writes, “the sea lays down, silky and sorry.”

Sometimes it makes sense to feel nervous.  At other times we just need to be still.  We cannot always decide how afraid or hopeful we will be, but we get to choose which way we will lean.  We get to decide if we will share our fears with God.  We may still feel nervous, but we can know that we are not alone.  We can eat a sandwich and try some fudge.

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Dreaming the Church

For some of us, the phrase “church planning” elicits the same weeping and gnashing of teeth as the phrase “root canal.”  Long-range planning committees have for many years identified purposes, stated objectives, and determined goals.  The mission of traditional long-range planning was to have lots of long, excruciatingly dull committee meetings and produce a long, excruciatingly dull spiral-bound report filled with dates, dollar amounts and ideas like increase Sunday morning attendance by 18% and reversible choir robes with Velcro stoles.  These reports were put on the shelf with The New York/New Jersey Association of Congregational Christian Churches Annual 1999 and the last long-range planning committee report.   

An increasingly popular form of long-range church planning is market-driven planning.  This form carefully studies the competition.  The competition has traditionally been understood to be the Episcopalians.  After scouting the opposition, the church looks for a niche among people groups.  Where do left-handed people go to worship? Is there a church reaching out to dentists?  Can we be the church for displaced Luxembourgers?

A third form of planning is known as reality based planning (as opposed to fantasy based planning).  When planners utilize this system they work for incremental changes: increase the Sunday morning attendance by 1.8%, begin a fund for Velcro stoles, and write a note to Dr. Stein—the left-handed dentist from Luxembourg.

Multiple-scenario planning lays out a series of possibilities and forms a contingency plan for each.  What will we do if our Sunday morning attendance suddenly increases 18%?   What if someone leaves money for ceiling fans, but we want reversible choir robes?  What if Dr. Stein brings lots of dentists with him?

Visionary leader planning is one person announcing, “I have been to the mountain top.  Follow me.”  This approach is particularly unpopular with ministers who have raced halfway up Everest only to turn and see that no one else has broken camp.  The opposite approach does not work any better.  Ministers with their ears to the ground get run over.

On Sunday morning Plymouth will engage in planning of a different sort.  For the next three Sundays at 9:45, we will gather in the Reception Room to ask, “If we really believe that the church is God’s, how will that change the way we act as the church?” “How do we approach issues with a sense of grace?”  “How can the church be on the side of the hurting—no matter why they are hurting?”

We need to plan for the future in more-holy-than-ordinary ways.  We need to keep asking, “How can Plymouth live as God’s people?”

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