Remembering 9/11 and Making Meaning of It

September 11 is a hard day for religious people.  Christians pray for God to stop suffering.

In the sixteenth century, Teresa of Avila sold everything she had to build an orphanage for needy children.  A flood came and destroyed the orphanage.  She rebuilt it.  A storm destroyed it a second time.  She rebuilt it.  Then a fire burned the orphanage.

Teresa prayed, “God, if this is how you treat your friends it’s no wonder that you have so few.”

We try to be God’s friends.  We know from painful experience that God does not protect us from all harm.  We share our sorrow.  Sometimes we need to cry.  We cried when we saw the plane slamming into the second tower as smoke poured from the first; the buildings vanishing in a gray cloud; survivors stumbling through the streets covered with ashes.  We will never be the same as we were before that day.  We have scars.  We have wounds that will not heal.

There is a story in the Gospel of Luke about a tower falling and killing innocent people.  Jesus’ followers are upset.  They come and ask Jesus, “Why did this happen?”

I wish Jesus would put his arms around them and comfort them, but he does not.  Instead he says, “We’re all going to die.  You need to take care of the days you’ve been given.”

The disciples remembered Jesus’ words because they are not what we expect.  Instead of comfort, Jesus offers a warning.  Instead of reassurance, Jesus turns the question on its head.

When 9-11 happened we asked, “What does it mean when tragedy strikes?”  For many of us, years have to pass before we can ask “What does it means when tragedy doesn’t come?  Why do we receive these ordinary days?”

Feeling the frailty of our lives on September 11, on this holy day, helps us hear God invite us to see that no day is to be taken for granted.

In 2011, Candy Chang, an artist in New Orleans, lost someone she loved and fell into depression.  As a way of dealing with her grief, she used chalkboard paint on the side of an abandoned house.  She stenciled a grid with the beginning of a sentence, “Before I die I want to ______.”   Fifty times.

Anybody walking by could pick up a piece of chalk and share a dream.  By the next day, the wall was full of responses.  Before I die I want to . . . Play the piano.  Sail around the world.  Plant a tree.  Swim without holding my nose.  Eat more of everything.

Over one thousand Before I Die walls have been created in 35 languages and 70 countries.  I stood in front of one of those walls and thought about the people whose goal before they die is nothing more than to . . . Do a cartwheel.  Swim in a pool of golden retriever puppies.  Go to a World Series game at Wrigley Field.  Proudly wear a bikini.  Get my picture in The New York Post.

Those answers are interesting, but because we remember the pain of 9-11, because we live in a world filled with tragedy, we should do better.  Before I die I want to . . .  Care for my family.  Care for someone else’s family.  Work for justice.  Remember those who grieve.  Comfort the broken-hearted.  Love someone enough to weep when they weep.  Show someone who has almost given up how to hope again.  Give God my sorrows and my dreams.

BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

Share

How Churches Contribute to Anti-Semitism

The shooter in the synagogue in Poway, California, in April turned out to be a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  The church released a statement: “We are wounded to the core that such an evil could have gone out from our community.  Such hatred has no place in any part of our beliefs and practices, for we seek to shape our whole lives according to the love and gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“Wounded to the core” is a good start, but where is the word of repentance?  Where is the self-examination that leads to change and different outcomes?  Churches do not often think about how they encourage anti-Semitism.

Harassment of Jews is increasing worldwide.  The U.K. has recorded its highest number of anti-Semitic attacks in each of the last three years.  In the U.S. more than half of religious hate crimes are aimed at Jews, even though Jews represent less than 2% of the population.

The church has contributed a particularly ugly strain of anti-Semitism.  In the twelfth century, Christians came up with the horrible idea of blood libel.  This lie was that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes.  On as many as a hundred occasions Christians massacred Jews in response to the disappearance of a child.

Martin Luther, who may be the most important figure in the last 500 years of Christian history, was anti-Semitic.  He wrote a treatise, The Jews and Their Lies, which includes the line “we are at fault in not slaying them.”  Historians tend to say that Luther was great except for his anti-Semitism—which is embarrassing for the historians.  You cannot be great and anti-Semitic.

A line can be drawn from Martin Luther’s influence to the Holocaust.  Centuries of Christian anti-Semitism made Hitler possible.  In 1936, the Baptist World Alliance met in Berlin under the banner of the swastika and received greetings from Hitler.  Baptists returned to the United States to report on the wonderful things happening in Germany.

The Catholic Church played a role in the rise of Nazism.  John Cornwall’s biography of Pius 12 was titled Hitler’s Pope.  The church has not just been on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of Christianity.

Most churches do not think they are anti-Semitic, but allow small attacks on Judaism that make larger attacks more likely.  Churches should ask, “Would an anti-Semitic person be uncomfortable in our congregation?” because every person in the church should know that anti-Semitism is antithetical to Christianity.

The names “Old Testament” and “New Testament” are themselves unfair, but some Christian preachers suggest the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament, that the Old Testament God is angry while the New Testament God is merciful.  This is not true to Judaism or Christianity.

Christians often fail to recognize that the Gospels describe arguments within Judaism and not arguments between Judaism and Christianity—which did not yet exist.  Jesus is often set in opposition to first century Judaism as though Jesus was the only one who valued women or worked for the oppressed.  Jesus learned to value women and care for the poor from his Jewish context.  When Jesus said, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor,” he was quoting the Hebrew Scriptures.  Putting down Judaism to make Jesus look good makes no sense.

Christians need to see what is at stake.  Anti-Semitism is by definition a repudiation of Christianity as well as of Judaism, and an enemy of pluralism and democracy.  Religious intolerance breeds greater intolerance.

A Christian youth minister takes her middle schoolers to a service at a Jewish synagogue.  Afterwards a fourteen-year-old says, “They do what we do.  They sing.  They read the Bible.  They pray.  They stole our stuff.”

Churches can start with the simple step of remembering that Jesus was Jewish.  Christians should encourage an appreciation for Judaism, because the best Christian values are Jewish.

On most Sundays a few Jewish people worship with Plymouth Church.  You might think that would not change anything, but it does.  I show a greater respect for our Jewish heritage, quote more Jewish scholars, and speak out more often on incidents of anti-Semitism.  I have learned that I need to preach as though there are always Jewish people present.  Congregations need to listen as though there are always Jewish people present.

Last month I preached at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue on a Friday evening and Rabbi Serge Lippe preached at our church on a Sunday morning.  We did this because we need to learn more about and from each other.  I need this to be more Christian.

BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

Share

Hungering for a Christian response to Mississippi’s veggie burger ban

Right now someone in Mississippi typing on the keyboard an announcement about the church cookout is being forced to take a controversial stand. Does the church follow the new state law or continue to serve “veggie burgers”?

How many churches will have the courage to throw a shroom burger on the grill? How many congregations will be torn apart by this divisive issue?

Mississippi lawmakers recently ended their long, statewide nightmare by banning the marketing of “veggie burgers.” They say the law will put an end to the unfortunate incidents that have ruined the lives of carnivorous consumers who have accidentally tasted tofu. Their argument centers on the thought-provoking question: Why do the makers of these “burgers” become vegan if the first thing they do is make them look and taste like meat?

Lawsuits from vegetarian-friendly groups are trying to overturn the restrictions on the use of meat-related terms for plant-based foods. The lawsuit denounces “meat label censorship” and claims, “The ban serves only to create consumer confusion where none previously existed.”

It is no longer enough for a label to say “100% vegan.” The law, which was passed in March and took effect on July 1, protects meat products (like hamburgers) from being mistaken for plant-based alternatives (like veggie burgers) by barring the use of the term “burger” to refer to veggie burgers. Perpetrators can go to prison – taken away in a patty wagon – for printing the words “veggie burger.”

Prisoner 1: “I robbed a bank. What are you in for?”
Carl Jr.: “I called a burger a Veg-It Thickburger.”

You might wonder if this is a real problem. Is the phrase “veggie burger” unclear? Haven’t we been calling them veggie, vegan and tofu burgers for decades?

Are people going to grocery stores, picking up veggie burgers without reading the label, throwing them on the grill, and biting into them before realizing they are eating vegan fare? God forbid a Mississippi resident should unwittingly taste a plant-based burger thinking they are eating highly processed meat filled with cancer causing nitrates. No one wants to be tricked into a healthier option.

This is complicated. What happens when food scientists come up with cell-based meat products which are identical to meat from animals but grown from stem cells in a factory? Will Jon Hamm and Kevin Bacon have to change their names? Did they consider going further and saying the term “burger” can only be applied to a grilled patty sandwich made in the traditional method within the Hamburg region of Germany? What about calling it a “plantwich” or “planturger”? Or, as a nod to presidential spelling, “hamberder”?

burgerDo people who buy a burger labeled “veggie burger” thinking it comes from a cow have a right to feel misled? Are reasonable consumers deceived by “meatless steaks” and “vegan jerky?” This law raises difficult questions for legislators concerned that hamburgers are not ham, hot dogs are not dogs, circus peanuts are not peanuts, Buffalo wings are not buffalo, and refried beans are not fried twice. What about almond milk?

A cynical person might think the meat industry wants to stifle competition. The Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association, which pushed for the new law, seems to have more political influence than vegans in Mississippi. The state is run by the party of small government, but being a vegetarian is as un-American as reducing gun violence.

Churches afraid to bite into the veggie burger issue could divert attention by pointing out a long list of problems bigger than lentil burgers that Mississippi lawmakers might have addressed. The state is ranked near the bottom in terms of poverty, high school graduation rates, infant mortality, racial conflict and obesity (which makes the new law ironic as well as silly). Arguing over what to call a plant-based burger should not be a legislative priority.

The church should see this as an opportunity to be courageous. Christians could protect the marginalized by defending “meatless meatballs,” “vegan bacon” and “beefless burgers.” How amazing would it be if Mississippi prisons were overrun with church people who put “veggie burgers” on the Wednesday night supper menu? How surprising would it be if a church put “Vegetarians are welcome” on the marquee?

Or maybe this story is a total nothingburger. Can I say that?

BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

Share

The Power of Story

The headline on the Guardian website caught my eye:  Bread is Practically Sacred: How the Taste of Home Sustained My Refugee Parents.” The article that followed was an edited extract from the book My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon. On the topic of bread being sacred there are many ways to go so I followed the link. As it turns out, this piece is a moving and often humorous account of how his parents approached food in their homeland of Bosnia and how food sustained them when they fled Bosnia to live in Canada.

But while the subject of sacred bread drew me into the article, there was a particular paragraph that jumped out at me in a totally different context. Mr. Hemon brings his narrative to a conclusion with an effort to explain a process that is almost impossible to comprehend for those who have never experienced it. Ordinary words failing him, he illustrates this difficult point with a story, which he introduces in this way:

“This idea is best expressed in a story I heard in Sarajevo from someone who had heard it from someone else, who, in turn, knew the person who knew the person to whom all this happened. In short, the story is true as can be, even if I fact-checked none of it, because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people.”

He then goes on to tell a brief story, the events of which are plausible; they probably never happened exactly as written, and yet they probably happen all the time. The story line has been enriched through multiple re-tellings which added layers of meaning. By the end of Mr. Hemon’s  story, we have a clear visual image, and certainly understand more fully the futility of immigrants’ quest to recreate the food of their homeland in their new land. Score one for the power of story.

The Gospels were written anywhere from 50 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. Over the years, when I have envisioned the Gospels being written, I have imagined that there were four wise sages who carried the stories of Jesus in their heads as oral history. At some point, they went off in a room by themselves, they took out a pen and scroll, dumped their recollections onto the papyrus and sent it off to the publisher.

Modern Biblical scholarship says that the gospels, while attributed to one person, were probably written by and for particular communities of Christians. Those communities may have included a couple of people who had personally encountered Jesus of Nazareth, along with many others who had encountered the risen Christ. And there was probably a healthy collection of folks who knew someone who knew someone who had heard the stories from someone else who knew the person who was there when it happened. To this wonderful mix, you add the movement of the Spirit in these communities and literary skills of the writer collecting the stories. What comes to us are stories of events that are enriched by personal experience and deepening faith. The stories are not only true, but they are packed with layer upon layer of even larger truth. They are more than true.

I like to imagine these communities gathering by oil lamps discussing over and over their own accounts of, for instance, the feeding of the 5,000. Everyone in the room remembers the story differently, with different details and nuances of meaning. Mark’s community remembers the event one way, and later the communities of Matthew, Luke, and John add their own details and nuances. They were writing by and for their own communities, but their story is so much richer  “because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people,” and as such it more than enriches us today.

Share

Noah’s lawsuit: Is God trying to say something?

The headline reads like a punchline: “Owners of Noah’s Ark sue over rain damage.” Does God have a sense of humor or what? In the case of Irony v. This Has to Be a Joke, Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky, is suing its insurance carriers.

 

The administrators of the life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark, 300 cubits/510 feet long, claim that heavy rains, while not reaching biblical proportions, caused a landslide on their access road. The ark itself was not damaged by the flood, nor did the park close; but for a time it looked like people who wanted to get into the ark could not because of the water, just like in the Bible.

 

The 77-page lawsuit seeks not only compensatory damages, but punitive damages, presumably because someone made fun of Ark Encounter – which also happened to Noah. The suit asks for a jury trial. They will need to find 12 people with no sense of humor.

 

Ark Encounter is rumored to have cost $100 million. It opened on July 7, 2016, a date (7/7) that was selected because of Genesis 7:7, “Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood.”

 

They claim to have 1 million visitors a year. Tickets cost between $15 and $48. Imagine how much money Noah could have made selling tickets.

 

This story is why Twitter was invented:

 

“The Onion has gone too far.”

 

“Thoughts and prayers!”

 

“Now I believe in God.”

 

“All right . . . who prayed for rain?”

 

“I hope the penguins who walked from Antarctica are safe!”

 

“Looks like God doesn’t want anybody to go see it.”

 

“And on the eighth day God created tort reform.”

 

Oh, there’s more:

 

“Seriously, shouldn’t Yahweh have prevented this?”

 

“Noah’s replica will have to start an http://godfund.me.”

 

“So biblical . . . just like in Genesis when Noah sued the Lord God for the flood damage to the Earth.”

 

“Mitch McConnell’s state. Go figure. Shocker.”

 

“It only carried a 40-day warranty.”

 

“God’s will.”

 

If this is a publicity stunt, it is genius. Aren’t you tempted to visit? You could be the person who asks too many questions:

 

Where are the dinosaurs?

 

How did they fit that many animals in a space that is not big enough for that many animals?

 

How could there be enough water to cover the whole world?

 

How did the dogs and cats get along, or the mice and the elephants?

 

Why didn’t the lions eat the bunnies?

 

Were the bunnies still creating other bunnies?

 

Were the animals in a coma?

 

After a month did Noah wish he was in a coma?

 

Do you consider the recent rainfall an act of God?

 

Did you think about suing God and not the insurance company?

 

How did a story about the annihilation of most of the world’s population – men, women and children drowning, heads bobbing up and down in the water – become an amusement park?

 

Do you think you might be missing the point?

 

Noah’s ark is not a children’s story, a funny story or even a story concerned with history.  This story is true even if it never happened.

 

If you get past the strangeness, it sounds like recent events. Terrible things are happening to God’s good creation. Violence is rampant. Terrorism is on the rise. War is considered a solution. Politicians refuse to listen to their enemies. Hungry children are starving.

 

We understand their situation. We have had 13 school shootings this year. We have gotten used to walking past the homeless. Innocent teenagers die in our prisons.

 

How will God deal with the brokenness of the world? God responds not as an angry architect whose building has been ruined, but as a grieving parent whose heart has been broken.

 

God sees the violence in the world and decides to turn away, to forget the whole experience, and walk away. God decides to return creation to the chaos from which God called creation. God will let the waters cover the earth.

 

But there is one person whom God cannot forget. God’s love for Noah changes the plan. The story which up to now is all darkness takes a turn to the light.

 

The grieving God decides to save the world. God will stay with creation, notwithstanding the sorry state of humankind.

 

After the rain has stopped, God points to the rainbow in the sky and promises never to give up on us. God says, “I take my warrior’s bow and restring it not as a weapon, but with the colors of creation.”

 

We travel through waters that threaten to engulf us, but none of the suffering we know comes from God’s displeasure. God is doing everything God can do to offer hope, end our heartaches and bring us home.

 

That is no joke.

Share

I Have Other Feet to Wash

Here I am,
Judas,
with a towel and a basin of water
to wash your feet.
You.
Among the twelve.

I called you to me.
You stood beside me with your passion and your zeal
day after day.
I trusted you
then.
Someone must betray me
but why is it you?

When I said love your enemies
I did not know
it would be you
someone I already loved.

I cannot be any more vulnerable to you than I am right now
and you sit
calm? coiled?
silent
distant
while I pour water over your travel-worn feet.

You are disappointed.
I am not who you wanted me to be.
Why punish me for that?
Why not just say “your way is not my way”
and continue your search for God’s chosen one?

Think again think again think again
I beg you to think again –
think of everything I have said and done
and try again to find truth in it
for there is truth.

What you are about to do should never be done
and yet it must be done –
on this evil act hangs my next step.

It is not too late to change.
You could give me a few more months
weeks
even
even days.

Look into my eyes
and then
look into your heart.
No?
No.
So be it.
If not you someone else.

I could stop you –
block the door,
they would help.
But your choice is made and
I
choose
not to stop you.
The door stays open.
Evil will have its way
for now.

You will betray.
Others will deny,
flee,
go into hiding.
You are not alone in blindness.
I know I will be alone.
There will be regrets,
perhaps –
little good can come of regrets.

I have other feet to wash.

I sensed early on that it would be you.
I thought I could reach you.
I hoped.
But
if not you
someone else.

Perhaps I am wrong –
but I think not.

Your feet are dry now
and I move on
for I have other feet to wash.

The water in the basin is murky,
clouded with sand ashes and dust
accumulated on the long road to Jerusalem.

And I have other feet to wash.

Go now and do what you must do.
I will forgive you from the cross
but not before.
No
I forgive you now.

I have other feet to wash.

Don’t go yet.
Wait for me at the table.
I have bread and wine for you
before you go
to nourish you
on your way.

Wait a few moments more
for I have other
feet
to wash
before I serve you.

Before we part.

Before you go.

Share

Looking Jesus in the Eye

The first century Jew that we know as Jesus of Nazareth was undoubtedly a charismatic presence. People flocked to him. They listened to him. They put their lives on hold and at risk to follow him. What made them do that? Certainly there were many factors, but I like to think his eyes were very important.

In my imagination, when Jesus of Nazareth looked someone in the eye, that person knew they were dealing with something they had never encountered before. They knew that this man was an enigma, and they knew that they felt his look in their bones. But his was not a look that was alarming or painful, but rather was one which was determined, wise, compassionate, and stubborn.

As far as I know, the Gospels are silent on whether or not Jesus looked people directly in the eye, but I have a couple of favorite scriptures where I like to think that was what happened. One of them is in the scripture lesson from Sunday, March 17 – Luke 5:1-11.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.

This scripture always makes me smile. Luke leaves us to imagine what might have transpired between Peter’s words “… but have caught nothing” and “yet if you say so….”.  Something important happens in that moment, yet we find a big yawning gap in Luke’s narrative. If I was writing this as a script I would write it as follows:

Jesus:          Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.

Simon:        (exhausted, not really paying attention) Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. (Simon looks at Jesus in exasperation. Jesus looks Simon in the eye and holds his gaze. There is a pause. Simon fidgets. Looks at his feet. Looks at the others. Looks back at Jesus. Sighs.) Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.

Moments later, the nets are full of fish and Simon is on the ground at Jesus’s feet. Luke records, “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees…” Simon saw in the nets what he had failed to see in the eyes of Jesus.

It is easy to believe that there was authority in the gaze of this mysterious yet approachable man. We can imagine that his eyes demonstrated a power that did not subvert free will, but rather invited the seer into a new way of thinking, into a new kind of trust, and then invited the seer to come along on a journey. Simon had a choice, and the script could have gone another way. But Jesus – and his riveting, compelling gaze – did not give up easily.  At the beginning of this narrative, the fisherman is called Simon. While crumpled at Jesus’s feet Luke calls him Simon Peter. A few verses later in chapter 6, he is called “Simon, whom he named Peter.”  Simon the fisherman has become Peter the rock, almost before our eyes.

I like to think that when Jesus looked people in the eye, he also smiled – knowingly, lovingly, and with wry amusement – otherwise his look, alive with his passion, drive, and commitment, might have been too much to bear. As a matter of fact, I can imagine that Jesus chuckled as he spoke to the man at his feet. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And so, as the story continues, “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

Share

Penitential Pancakes: Sin Soaked in Syrup

Pancake Day at Plymouth ChurchMy paper plate was not designed to hold syrup, but I covered it with fluffy golden layers drenched in melted butter and soaked in a sweet amber river of maple deliciousness.  Whoever decided overeating should be the prelude to penitence was a genius. Why didn’t the churches of my youth know about this? Those churches excelled at food-centered faith, but somehow missed out on the spiritual implications of pancakes.

Who wouldn’t want to belong to a church that confesses sins by eating copious quantities of sugar? How much different would my faith be if I had grown up with a full-blown pancake racing tradition? How much fuller would my experience of repentance be if I had learned to run while flipping hotcakes? How would it improve the reputation of Christians if every church had these wonderful, ridiculous events? Who wouldn’t want to join a group of people running around a gym in their Sunday best with flapjack-laden skillets?

I have attended three years of Pancake Races at Plymouth. Our races, which take place on the Sunday before Lent, include hairnets, oven mitts, spatulas and aprons. The early races were not particularly competitive. Women ran in heels.  But by 2017 the decision was made to slow down the children’s races by having participants run backwards. This rules change was reversed one race later.

Pancake Day at Plymouth ChurchIn 2018, a few elbows flew.  There were casualties.  Some questioned whether one winner’s pancake was flipped the requisite number of times.

At this year’s extravaganza, we limited the carnage and the chicanery. We made it clear there would be no hiding pancakes in pockets to replace dropped pancakes. We let spectators know that gambling would not be allowed.  We treated the races with the respect they deserve. The competition was fierce, but there were no injuries. There were accusation of PEDs, but no proof.  One gridiron gladiator hid the others’ aprons, but felt bad about it afterwards.  The runners ran with dignity.

Six centuries ago churches in England began having pancake lunches on the day before Lent to use up the butter, milk, eggs, sugar and fat that were forbidden during Lent. On Pancake Tuesday in 1445 a woman in Olney, England – whose name was lost to history but whose influence was not – was so intent on making pancakes that she did not notice the time until she heard the church bell ring. She raced out of the house and down the street to the church still wearing her apron, pancakes still in her frying pan, tossing them to prevent burning.

Women were soon racing through the streets flipping pancakes. The first woman to complete the course, arrive at the church, serve her pancake to the bell ringer and be kissed by him was declared the winner.

There is not much biblical precedent for pancake races. Cakes were offered in the temple (Exodus 29:2), but cakes offered to the “queen of heaven” were idolatrous (Jeremiah 7:18). Well-intentioned interpreters who look for theological meaning in the ingredients are on shaky ground. Some see eggs as a symbol for creation, flour as the staff of life, salt as wholesomeness and milk as purity. These commentators are trying way too hard.

Experts in dream interpretation say pancakes are spiritual in nature. Dreams of serving pancakes indicate a longing for joy. Dreams of eating pancakes suggest the desire for a closer family. Some associate pancakes with belonging, because their grandparents made blueberry buttermilk pancakes.

March 5 was the day of preparation for Lent this year. Shrove Tuesday is more fun than it sounds. “Shrove” means to hear the confession of sins, assure forgiveness and give spiritual advice. This does not sound like a party, but Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras does suggest “Let the good times roll!” In Iceland, Pancake Day is known as Bursting Day – an apt name for a day of stuffing ourselves.

The point of Pancake Day is not to get the partying out of our system before Lent begins. Feast days remind us to live in gratitude. Celebration, reveling in the pleasures of life, helps us pay attention. We need to thank God for the laughter of a good church, the joy of forgiveness and the taste of pancakes soaked in syrup.

BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

 

Share

Annoying People and God’s Grace

You and I try to be nice.  We are friendly.  We smile. We are kind.  Some people make it hard.  Some people are annoying.  People who park illegally, and get away with it.  People on the subway who put their phone on speaker—and it is never the conversation you want to listen in on.

I heard a person in line at Five Guys announce he is a vegetarian.  He is annoying.  People who stand in the middle of the escalator.  People who don’t know what a spoiler alert is, who insist on telling you that Bradley Cooper dies in A Star is Born.

People who use the Bible as an instrument of discrimination, self-congratulation, and exclusion are annoying.    Religious fundamentalists who insist that marriage in the Bible is between one man and one woman, while ignoring how many wives Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, David, and Solomon had.  They average more than 100 wives each, and yet no one is saying, “Marriage in the Bible is the sacred covenant between one man and his 100 wives.”

The list of annoying people includes those who do not wait for their turn to speak, because whatever they are saying is so much more important than whatever you are saying, even though they have already said what they are saying four times and it has not been smart any of the four.

Parents who complain when their child does not get the part of Hamilton in the school musical are annoying.  People who say one thing to your face and something else when you are not around.  People who nitpick everything because they have appointed themselves the editors of everything.  People who start sentences with “I’m not a racist, but.”

People who deny climate change.  What part of melting glaciers don’t you get?  2016 sets a global temperature record, which is broken in 2017, and broken again in 2018.  We have alarming increases in drought, flood, and wildfire.  No credible scientists deny global warming, but risking the planet is profitable.

Some, but not most, politicians are hard to take.  Those politicians whose goal is power, who are willing to lie, who mislead people into voting for them, and who sell their votes to organizations who are not helping the ones who need help.

They make it hard, but maybe we should try to stop being so annoyed.  We can live with a sense of mercy that makes our lives better.  We can act with kindness.

It is possible, that on rare occasions, we are annoying.  In those moments we need to remember that love and forgiveness come as gifts.  We need to get out of the judgment business.

The grace offered the disgraceful is the grace we need.  We should accept annoying people, because we have been accepted.  The hard, holy truth is that God’s grace is for everyone.

 BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

Share

“It’s not Black History. It’s American History.”

A week before Christmas I found myself in the basement below Hillis Hall holding the hand of a visitor who told me that this place felt safe. She had just learned that she was a 4th-generation family member of Anna Maria Weems, a young woman who had fled slavery via the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. Along the way Anna Maria had been taken in by Plymouth member Lewis Tappan, who made sure she was fed and sheltered before she continued her journey to Canada where she would be reunited with her family. Over the past three years I have given tours of Plymouth to people from all walks of life, but this flesh and blood connection to the story brought it to life in new and powerful way.

Just a few weeks before this moment, a producer had contacted Plymouth about making a short film that focused on the Underground Railroad. At first, the details were fuzzy: their plan was to work with genealogists to trace the descendants of people who had escaped slavery through New York, or who had helped to support and facilitate that network. This research led them straight to Plymouth, which became the heart of the film.

Shooting at Plymouth
Shooting at Plymouth

The timeline was short. In order to have the film ready by their target premiere date in late January, they would have to shoot it the week before Christmas – a serious logistical challenge for a busy church like ours! And it so it happened that I returned to the Sanctuary just hours after our annual Carol Concert ended to meet six special visitors: the descendants who would be the subjects of this story. As the day unfolded, they would learn how they were connected to the place and to one another. My role was to appear on-camera giving a tour of Plymouth and in interviews that would fill in historical context about New York in the years before the Civil War, particularly focusing on how Henry Ward Beecher and the people of Plymouth worked to end slavery through their words and actions. The day of filming was deeply moving. I was humbled in a new way by the perseverance of the African American people and inspired by the very real impact the members of Plymouth had made on history.

A few days after Christmas, the film’s producers contacted me again. The reason they had been in such a hurry to film this piece was that they were planning to premiere it at the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford’s annual gathering indie filmmakers and media distributors in Park City, Utah. They wondered if they could bring me to the festival to speak on a panel following the screening. The other historian who would be speaking at the event was none other than the Harvard historian, Emmy-winning filmmaker, and creator/host of the PBS series Finding Your Roots, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.! Equal parts starstruck, intimidated and excited, I happily accepted their offer.

Two weeks ago, I made my way to Utah. I was fortunate that my sister was able to drive out from Colorado to act as my stylist/personal assistant/manager for the weekend. We went to parties and premieres, mingled with people from every aspect of the film industry and occasionally reached for the same cocktail as an A-list actor. SundanceTV did not skimp on its treatment for the representative of the Plymouth History Ministry!

Railroad Ties panel at Sundance
Railroad Ties panel at Sundance

Of course, my purpose there was to talk about Plymouth and the experience of making this film. I talked about how my relationship to the church has grown since I first started as singer in the choir, and how this congregation continues to believe it can make a difference in the lives of those seeking freedom. I encouraged people to visit us – to step into history by sitting where Abraham Lincoln sat and visiting the basement where people hid while escaping to freedom.

 

The resulting film, Railroad Ties, is beautiful and moving. It will air on AMC and SundanceTV in February and available to view online. Although its release is tied to Black History Month, the film’s director, Sacha Jenkins, made an important point during our panel discussion: “It’s not Black history. It’s American history.”

~ Melissa

Share