Asking Big Questions

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
recovery of sight to the blind,
and to let the oppressed go free.
—Luke 4:18

Reflecting Christ’s vision is hard.  Most churches do not have a poverty committee, a prison ministry, an anti-racism task force, an environment ministry, or a world hunger committee.  Every church struggles with the temptation of managing the ministry of the church rather than doing ministry.

We easily forget that the church does not have a mission.  God has a mission in which the church gets to participate.  Churches are at risk of getting stuck in the church.  How can we help people serve God?

The Church Staff and the Church Council have been talking about how to lean into bigger questions—away from business-as-usual church questions and into being-the-people-of-God questions.  Can our committees, ministries, and task forces focus on the questions God might have us ask?  For instance:

Children’s Christian Ed
            From the good question:
How do we lead and support children’s activities?
            To the bigger question:
How can we teach children to live as God’s people?

Christian Help
            From the good question:
How can we best share money with other ministries?
            To the bigger question:
How can we as a church use our gifts to serve God?

Finance
            From the good question:
How can we be responsible fiduciaries?
            To the bigger question:
How do we share who we are and what we have been given?

History
            From the good question:
How can we provide a strong resource sharing our church’s history?
            To the bigger question:
How can we interpret and share the faith that led Plymouth to serve God in courageous ways?

Membership and Fellowship
From the good question:
How can we welcome new people into our church?
To the bigger question:
How can we practice hospitality that invites people to be part of God’s church?

Nominating
From the good question:
How do we find the best person for each responsibility?
To the bigger question:
How can we discover our people’s gifts and help them use those gifts for God’s purpose?

Personnel
            From the good question:
How do we write and implement helpful policies?
            To the bigger question:
How can we help the staff serve God more fully?

Stewardship
            From the good question:
How do we raise the money to fund the church’s ministry?
            To the bigger question:
How do we help people give themselves more fully to God?

Women’s and Men’s Ministries
            From the good question:
How can we provide significant events?
            To the bigger question:
How can we help our people live as God’s people?

Worship and Arts
            From the good question:
How do we improve the events for which we are responsible?
To the bigger question:
How can we use the arts to worship God more seriously and joyfully?

Plymouth will keep looking for ways to move from the good question, “How can we be a good church?” to the bigger question, “How can we be God’s church?”

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Born to Run (but it took me a while to figure it out)

I was fourteen years old when Bruce Springsteen released the Born to Run albumthough for me it was the Born to Run 8-track.  The player in my 1969 Chevy Impala eventually required a Popsicle stick to adjust the tracking, because I wore it out singing those eight songs over and over: Someday girl I don’t know when we’re gonna’ get to that place were we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun, but till then tramps like us baby we were born to run.

When Bruce and the E Street Band came to Cleveland a friend said, “A bunch of us are going to hear Springsteen.  Do you want to go?”

Most aficionados would have immediately, enthusiastically shouted, “Yes!” but most aficionados weren’t conservative-leaning-to-fundamentalist-Christians.  I ended up saying “No,” because I was afraid of the people who would be there.  I pictured a crowd drinking beer and smoking dope.  My religious upbringing made it clear that I shouldn’t be part of a mob of criminals, reprobates, and good for nothings.

I was forty-seven before I got to my first Springsteen concert.  When we got to our seats—which were “backstage” but not in a good way—the could-have-been-a-vice-principal next to Carol asked, “Do you think we’ll have to stand through this?”

A quick glance at the gray hair around us made Carol confident in saying, “I’m sure we’ll get to sit.”

We stood for the whole two and half hours.  Some danced in the aisles.  We clapped and raised our hands.  We shouted and sang as a congregation.   It felt like a Pentecostal revival.

The Boss thinks we are all in this together—criminals, reprobates and church people:

Everybody needs a place to rest

Everybody wants to have a home

Don’t make no difference what nobody says

Ain’t nobody like to be alone.

Everybody’s got a hungry heart.

I looked at the people who were singing with such joy and was embarrassed for myself and for the part of the church that keeps pushing people away.  The choir included drinkers and teetotalers, the promiscuous and the chaste, black and white, old and young, bikers and preachers.  Where in the Gospels do any of us get the idea that church people should feel superior to anyone else in the crowd?

On Sunday, January 22, at 3:00 at the parsonage, a group will gather to discuss Bruce’s new memoir, Born to Run, and how God loves us all—even the tramps like us that were born to run.

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Life Abundant

As we close out this season we are (just as Mary and Joseph were when the wise men left) forced back into the real world.  The twinkling lights get put away.  The trees and wrapping are put out on the curb.  The garland has dried out and the red and green are fading from the city.  Carols are gone from stores and elevators and, maybe, from our spirits.  We get back into the daily grind.  Back to regular work and school schedules.   And, if we aren’t careful, our sense of awe at God’s love for us might fade right along with the lights over Court Street.

We are, with the close of the Christmas season, being ushered back to reality.  We’ve taken twelve days and then some to reflect on what it means that God came among us in the flesh.  We’ve thought about why God came, incarnate in Jesus, to be born into the lowliest of circumstances.  It’s like God choosing to be born to immigrant parents in Queens who can’t qualify for a Habitat house and struggle to keep the heat on in the winter.  Why would God choose that?  Hopefully, in these twelve days we’ve come to the conclusion that it is because those circumstances show us that there is no place God’s love can’t dwell.  There is no person it cannot envelope.  There is no space God’s love won’t go.

The wise men brought gifts symbolic of the importance of Jesus’ birth.  The gold representing his royal standing; frankincense his divine birth; and myrrh his mortality.  Jesus’ three pronged identity as royal, divine, and mortal threatened the existing power, and ultimately, the reigning way of life.  Pray that Jesus continues to threaten our way of life beyond these twelve days of Christmas.  Pray that this Christmas has shaken up our tendency toward existential dread, toward mundane attitudes, toward blindness of what God is doing.  Pray that the wonder and awe of this season will not die with the lights and that we will continue into 2017 with a keen sense of God-with-us.

Jesus talks about having come so that we might have life and have it abundantly.  As we move out of the Christmas season and into Epiphany, may we live as though life is a feast every day.  May we recognize the table of goodness spread before us.  May we see twinkling light in the eyes of our children, beauty in the morning sky, and the glow of our friends’ smiles.  Above all, may we have life abundant because we love and are loved, so, so loved, by God.

Merry Christmas….still?

“In America do you say Merry Christmas or Happy New Year on December 27?”  A friend of mine asked me this question after she was rudely chastised that after December 25 the proper salutation relates to the New Year coming up.

For weeks (in retail for months) we prepare for Christmas.  Gifts are purchased, decorations displayed, and parties seem endless.  THE DAY comes and goes, and we move immediately to the next thing.  Looking back on the year that was and making resolutions for the upcoming year fills the news and our conversations beginning on December 26.  Whatever happened to the season of Christmas?  Yes, Virginia, there is such a season.

The season of Christmas is filled with fun traditions, odd celebrations, and folklore.  Some historians contend the Twelve Days of Christmas poem and song is filled with hidden meanings passed along for centuries due to religious persecution.  I wonder if 10 Lords-A-Leaping really does stand for the 10 commandments.  Maybe?  Maybe not.  The NY Times made its annual report on the cost of purchasing everything from the partridge to the drummers.  $44,602 – a slight increase over last year.  (Note: leave out the golden rings for a big cost savings.)  Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was written to close the Christmas season on January 6.  Many church staffs are beginning serious planning this week for Lent and Easter.  Why don’t we bask in the manger’s perfect light before heading down the road to the cross?

I fear too often we live in anticipation without experiencing the joy when we arrive.  There is a letdown the day after Christmas when there ought to be continued celebration.  Ripped wrapping paper and left overs should remind us of the day we kicked off the Christmas season.  Even the celebration of administrative professionals has grown from one day to a full week.

A couple of days ago we celebrated Emmanuel, God with us.  Is it possible to use these 12 days to reflect on what incarnation means in our lives?  God the son took on human flesh and human nature.  Epiphany will be here soon enough when the proclamation of the Gospel begins.  We know how the story of Jesus’ earthly life ends.  There will be time to observe those solemn days with the incredible ending.  For now I’m going to do what is so difficult and rewarding.  Join me in living in the moment, in the season of Christmas.  Keep singing Joy to the Word and saying Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas, still!

John

Skipping Christmas

For centuries, Christians have celebrated the birth of Jesus by coming to church to sing, pray, remember, give thanks, and recommit our lives to God.  What were we thinking?

This year, with Christmas falling on Sunday, many churches have decided that the best way to celebrate the coming of Christ is to cancel worship.  The primary reason given is that attendance will be sparse.  When did we decide that the purpose of worship is to draw a crowd?  Attendance at the first Christmas was not big, but God decided to go ahead with it.

A second reason offered is that canceling worship is in keeping with a “family friendly” approach.  A pastor in Melbourne, Florida, says: “Christmas is a big family day, and we’re focused on the family.  We should be able to worship the Lord in our homes, also.”

Huh?  Should churches encourage members to gather with their family for brunch on Easter or go bowling on Good Friday?  When did we get the idea that the primary purpose of the church is to support the family?  The New Testament teaches that the church is our family.  Christians put God ahead of their family.  Jesus felt this so strongly that he said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters cannot be my disciple.” (This verse is not going to make it on to anybody’s Christmas card.)

What about the people without a family—the elderly, singles, lonely people, those a long distance from family?  Isn’t it possible that those who are alone at Christmas need to worship God?

The real issue is not that people will skip church on Sunday.  The problem is that churches are failing to tell the truth about Christmas.  It is hard to read the Gospels and see how our modern Christmas celebration could have begun with the ancient story.  In the Bible, Christmas is not about big crowds, family gatherings, or expensive presents.

The first Christmas marks the beginning of a small, counter-cultural community that puts their trust in God’s way and none of their faith in materialism.  Christmas invites us to have different standards, hopes and dreams than those who do not know the meaning of Christ’s coming.

If we believe that Jesus’ birth changes the world, then we will change the way we see our world.  The work of Christ’s hands will be continued in the work of our hands.  We will have compassion for all people—especially those that are usually left out.  Because Jesus has come, we will walk out of step with the rhythms of the world.

On Sunday morning at 11:00 at Plymouth, we will gather to sing, pray, and listen to the story.  We will celebrate by remembering the first Christmas and giving ourselves again to the hope born in Bethlehem.

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On Love – The Fourth Sunday of Advent

We are told the time of Advent is all about waiting.  Waiting.  Preparing.  Quietly contemplating.  So where does Love fit in?

Is there time for love?  If I’m any example, my days are chock full and noisy. Dashing.  Rushing.  Juggling.  Between working on a presentation—it’s, maybe, really good, but definitely really late; attending holiday performances for school—can I get to the MetLife plaza in time to hear my kid for yet another year; coordinating visiting family over Christmas—wait! I can’t sleep 8 additional people here, and you know “she” doesn’t get along with “her”; baking cookies—“No Mom! not Cinnamon Stars, we wanted Raspberry Thumbprints”; waiting for the cashier who’s taking his or her time—“so what do you do with fennel?”; end-of-year odds and ends—yikes, we’re out of gift wrap; and well, someone’s got to get dinner on the table (every night!).  Where is the time for Love?

Is there the proper setting for love?  The way the days go, are we ever in the right place for love?  The office is sterile, the classroom is noisy, the kitchen is a mess, the sidewalk is crowded, the gym is sweaty, and well, the subway platform is crowded, and something doesn’t smell too good.  Where is the place for Love?

Do I have the capacity to love?  You mean you want more than I’m already giving.  It’s not enough that I go to church on Sunday, that I write an extra check to a good cause, that I’m baking and buying and shopping, that I’m here for you!  So I ask again, where does Love fit in?

I’m stuck on the wrong love.  Here I am talking about drumming up and doling out more of the same.  But we’re talking about a different kind of love altogether.

Advent offers us a sanctuary for a quiet moment of relationship to God amid the noise of the season.  The coming of Christ is our sign of the presence of divine love in our lives, in our relationships, in our world, and in us.  The coming of Christ is our marker of divine love.

How ironic that I and others take this season devoted to the birth of Christ and allow it to drown out just exactly that quiet contemplative love.  Could the advent of divine love free me and free others from my self-centeredness?  Might I then experience my own possibility for good will? It’s easy to love my friends, but not so easy to love the slow cashier, the demanding client, the pushy parents, the needy child, and the fetid masses.

At this Christmastime, as we experience the season, as we gather and celebrate the coming of Christ, let us feel divine love and pour out our love and receive love in worship, among friends, family, our global community, and our faith.

Penelope Kulko

Advent Joy

 

Joy is, in my opinion, best visually represented by the young. As we get older we unfortunately turn down the physical expressions of such emotions to some degree (except when it comes to family). It’s mostly in the young where our true visual manifestation of such a powerful emotion can fully be expressed to the eye with such abandonment. Please pardon my obvious and sometimes not so obvious depictions of this wonderful feeling. Oh and by the way, this was a joy to do -)

Joy is something you Give
Joy is
something you See
Joy is
something you Feel

Joy Is the Love we share

Joy Is Doing God’s Work, even in unexpected ways

Joy Is the Beauty before us – if only we open our eyes

Joy Is What We Bring to life

Here are some of my favorite quotes on Joy:

“Remember to light the candle of joy daily and all the gloom will disappear from your life.” – Djwhal Khu

Joy is not the absence of suffering. It is the presence of God.” – Robert Schuller

“In thy presence is fullness of joy.” – Psalms 16:11

“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” – Guatama Buddha

Joy is not in things; it is in us.” – Richard Wagner

Joy is the infallible sign of the Presence of God.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardi

“Heaven, the treasury of everlasting Joy.” – Shakespeare

Joy is prayer – Joy is strength – Joy is love – Joy is a net of love
by which you can catch souls.” – Mother Teresa

“Now and then it is good to pause in our pursuit of Joy 
and just be Joyful.” – Anonymous

Chris DeRosa

For lots of Chris’ Pics, go to www.chrisderosa.net

© 2017 Chris DeRosa  Pictures From Terrafirma

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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