On Giving

When ministers write about giving, we begin with subtle disclaimers.  I don’t like writing about this!  I don’t mention this often!!  I’M NOT LIKE OTHER MINISTERS WHO ASK FOR MONEY!!!

This Sunday in worship we will be thinking about how we give.  Church fundraising experts point to several keys to effective stewardship—talking about money openly, guiding giving by grace rather than guilt, and not warning church attenders when Sunday’s worship is about giving.

Churches used to come up with corny themes for giving campaigns.  “Stewardships that Fail to Sail,” “Taking the Stew out of Stewardship,” and “The Sermon on the Amount” say something incomprehensible.

The Bible has a lot to say on giving:

“God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

“The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).

“Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life, and money meets every need” (Ecclesiastes 10:19, but that one doesn’t sound right.)

Pithy quotes on giving can be enlightening:

“When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart” (John Wesley).

“Each of us will one day be judged by our measure of giving—not by our measure of wealth” (William Arthur Ward).

“A dead church doesn’t ask for money” (Clara Bess Eikner).

“I’d find the fellow who lost it, and if he was poor, I’d return it” (Yogi Berra—when asked what he would do on finding a million dollars in the street).

I could have written a negative article saying that if you do not give we may play an accordion rather than the organ, stop writing clever columns, or provide no more coffee.

Some of the most interesting articles on giving promise great rewards.  Giving to the church leads to weight loss.  Generosity will make you irresistible.  People who give to the church live longer.  (If it is not true it should be.)

Ministers are reticent to write about giving to the church for a variety of reasons.  I am glad that I can unapologetically encourage people to give to Plymouth.  When I write a check to the church—I’m old enough to still write checks—I’m happy to be part of a holy work.  I believe in our shared ministry.  Many of you already give sacrificially.  Everyone can consider giving more.

As you think about giving, be brave enough to ask, “Do my gifts to Plymouth reflect how much I value this family of God?”

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Experiencing Easter

Words have been failing Easter since the first Easter.  Words of theological explanation miss the Spirit.  Words of debate miss the point.  The words of poets, like gospel writers, come closest, but even they miss the wonder.  Easter is not meant to be spoken, but experienced.easter1

The first reaction the women had on seeing the stone rolled away was not joy, but confusion.  According to Luke’s version, two men offered the terrified women an explanation they were not sure they could believe.  The women returned to the disciples’ hiding place and took turns trying to present a coherent story.  Their listeners wanted to be polite, but they had never heard such nonsense.  The women’s words about life from death were particularly unconvincing.

What did the women expect?  They may have been upset that the other disciples dismissed their story as foolishness, but they must have understood.  An empty tomb proves nothing.  The last explanation to consider is the one that they gingerly suggested.

Resurrection does not square with anything else we know.  No resurrection makes its way into Gray’s Anatomy or Pontius Pilate’s scribal records.  This is a shaky beginning for the world’s most widespread religion.  Modern Christians, with a modern understanding of what is scientifically possible, are tempted to apologize for Easter.

The writers of the New Testament make it clear that Easter does not happen on the basis of second-hand reports.  Those who believed did so only as they discovered that they were not as alone as they had thought.  Christ was somehow with them—making them braver, kinder, more alive, and more like Christ.  The only reason good enough to believe in the resurrection life is if it happens to you.

easter-2Like the first group that hesitatingly made its way toward Easter, we must make our own way to the tomb, not to analyze its emptiness, but to hear the voice of hope.  Easter cannot be experienced vicariously.  So take a walk to the garden and consider the quiet.  Gather with the church and sing the songs of new life.  Serve the Risen Christ by caring for someone who is hurting.

Look for signs of Grace’s appearing—especially in your own heart.  Are you tired of dusks and yearning for dawn?  Open yourself to the possibility that the Spirit of Christ lives on among us—not as a memory, but as the outlandish presence of the Holy Mystery calling us to celebrate.

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A Letter from Liz

How often do we write letters anymore?  When was the last time I sat down, with a pen and paper (or, fine, a laptop)?  It’s not something we do often.  Email is today’s form of a letter but we use it for business, for necessary communication.  Letter writing feels like something altogether different.  Letter writing is reserved for when we have something meaningful and personal to say.  The last time I wrote a letter, not to be confused with a thank you note, I was saying something deeply personal to someone very close.

The Apostle Paul wrote letters to many, different faith communities in his ministry.  Some of the communities were having theological arguments that he needed to help sort out.  Others were concerned about him sitting in prison and he wrote to ease their worry.  Some of Paul’s letters were in response to good reports about how the community was doing.  But, in all of his letters there are two consistent characteristics.  He reminds each community of the centrality of Christ’s teaching and he encourages them.

As I was thinking of how to write you, I could think of no better model.  I have loved my time at Plymouth.  I have grown to love many of you.  I love our worship together.  I love our ministers and staff. I’ll return to Georgia a better minister because of my time here.  So, while it will be difficult for me not to be with you, I am not worried because of who I see you to be, Plymouth.  You are a church that indeed encourages one another and looks to the Gospel for hope, instruction, and purpose.  The centrality of Christ in all aspects of your ministries is evident.

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians in his first letter of the beautiful hope we have in Christ.  Life was not always easy for this community living in Greek culture and learning to follow the way of Jesus.  Culture often conflicts with what we learned from God incarnate.  And so Paul, to these people he had grown to love, wrote these words:  “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”  That is what I, likewise, say to you.

Thank you for blessing my life richly and for encouraging me.  Keep up the good work of God that I have seen you doing and keep remembering because of whom you do it.  Be different and have courage for the awesome work that God is offering you.  See with God’s eyes and know that the spirit of love shines brightly through you.

I pray all of God’s grace and joy for you as you continue to grow in community and faith.

Gratefully,

Liz

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)?