Modern Love Reflection

I am a big fan of the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times.  I recently had occasion to re-read Brooke Rinehart’s moving story “Sharing the Shame After My Arrest,” which was originally published in April 2011, and I have posted the link below.  In her account, Ms. Rinehart, who had never broken a law in her life, is wakened early one morning, handcuffed, arrested, and hauled off to jail along with her husband of less than a year.  It turns out that her husband has been using her name and identity to embezzle funds in his workplace. To wrap up that part of the story, after 90 days she is exonerated and her husband goes to prison.

But it is her account of those 90 days that struck me.  Devastated – her whole world turned upside down – the 28-year-old Ms. Rinehart moves back home with her parents.  Unable to sleep in the bedroom of her idyllic childhood, she sleeps on the sofa – and her mother sleeps opposite her on the love seat.  Every night.  For 90 days.  Saying few words, but being a constant presence, sharing the heartbreaking load (and the late-night TV) with her daughter. Eventually, her care for her daughter causes her own health to break down.  Ms. Rinehart writes:

“But my mother’s making this about her was actually saving me. To know that someone loved me so much, was willing to feel my pain so intensely that it kept her on the laundry room floor for a day, made me feel encased in a bubble of protection.

“I began to wonder if sadness was this finite thing, a big black mass of which there was only so much in the world.  If so, my mother was sharing it with me so that I did not have to bear the full weight.”

I don’t know if Ms. Rinehart saw her moving tribute to her mom as a metaphorical story – a kind of parable – about God, but I certainly did.

At the end of the account, Ms. Reinhart pours out her story to her doctor:

“Something bad happened to me,” I said, unsure of how to begin.  But then it all came out: my arrest, my husband’s deceit, the charges, the end of my marriage, the loss of my house: the whole harrowing ordeal.  When I finished, her eyes were wet.

“How have you survived this?” she asked.

I thought for a second.  “While the charges were held against me, I slept on the couch in my parents’ house.  I spent 90 nights on that couch.” I paused. “And my mom? She slept for 90 days on the love seat.”

My doctor blinked, unable to hold back her tears. “What a mom,” she said softly.  “What a mom.”

What a God.  What a God.  Emmanuel – God with us.

“Sharing the Shame After My Arrest,”

The Birds and Bees (and How They Fly)

I was ten years old, lying on the couch reading an Archie comic book.  (I am embarrassed to admit that I liked Veronica more than Betty.)  My father came in wearing Ward Cleaver’s face: “Brett, put your novel away.  There’s something I should have talked to you about by now, but I’ve been putting it off, because I wasn’t sure you were old enough to understand.  We’re going to have a convebrett-fathers-day-blogrsation I think you’ll always remember.”

I was thinking what you are thinking.  My father just offered Andy Taylor’s introduction to the birds-and-the-bees talk.  What I wanted to say was, “Dad, you gave this speech a month ago.  I don’t want to hear it again.  You said that if I had questions I should check back.  I will never do that, but I appreciate the offer.”

How could my father forget that we already had this discussion? (“Discussion” means he talked and I listened.)  And yet, inexplicably, he had forgotten.  It was going to be at least five tortuous minutes before I learned who Archie was taking to the big dance at Riverdale High.

I expected to hear, “When a man and a woman love each other very much” but Dad opened with, “It’s time to talk about how an airplane flies.”

He had several model airplanes with him.  My father gave a speech that lasted longer than five minutes: “An airplane flies because its wings create lift, the upward force on the plan, as they interact with the flow of air around them.  The wings alter the direction of the flow of air as it passes.”

When I thought he would be getting to “a woman is different from a man” he was saying, “The exact shape of the surface of a wing is critical to its ability to generate lift.  The speed of the airflow and the angle at which the wing meets the oncoming air stream contribute to the amount of lift generated.”

We did not get to first dates or anything interesting, but Dad covered drag, acceleration, and aeronautical theory.

Forty-six years later I more often recall Dad’s “how planes fly” sermon than his “where babies come from” speech.  I appreciate the “everything you always wanted to know about aviation” address, because it was my father at his most authentic.  He worked hard to pass down his love for model airplanes (we tried, but I never got it), the Dallas Cowboys (my teenage rebellion was rooting against America’s Team), westerns (I like The Searchers), and Frank Sinatra (I’m right with dad on Ol’ Blue Eyes).

Good fathers share what they love.  Father’s Day is a chance to be thankful for every good gift our fathers tried to give us — even the flying lessons that never got off the ground.

Note:  The photo above is a clever re-creation of a 1971 conversation.

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Hub Cap Salad

Hub cap salad, also known as jello mold salad, was a centerpiece at the annual church picnic.  Those round green shaky jello salads with shreds of carrots on the inside and mini marshmallows on the top.  Do you cut it like a cake or spoon it like a pudding?  Mom had a piece of Tupperware, specifically made to carry deviled eggs, which was proudly mustered out for this annual congregation event.  Massive pounds of hotdogs and burgers were waiting for the grill.  No one had heard of kale or thought salmon was a cook-out food group.

To work off the great food there was the marathon softball game when everyone had a chance to play, especially the dads who didn’t walk upright for weeks after the picnic.  Even if you didn’t play, you cheered everyone on.  It didn’t matter how you had voted a week ago about getting the new hymnal.  Everyone cheered, especially when they saw the pastor could swing a bat almost as well as he could preach.  God loves each of us the same, but does not bless everyone with the same softball skills.

We worshipped together every Sunday and attended a variety of monthly meetings.  But it was this once a year expression of community that was the subject of stories all year long.  “Do you remember Sal’s home plate slide?  Wasn’t Marian’s potato salad better than ever?  It was so great to see so many of the new members having a good time.  When is the picnic next year?”

Sunday worship brought us into community with God.  Monthly meetings, not so much.  A reading of the minutes and Roberts Rules gymnastics just didn’t do it.  Remembering our time as a community enjoying one another was fun to talk about.  Valuing each other as children of God was far more important than a pressing issue that wasn’t all that pressing.

In the post church picnic glow we greeted each other on Sundays differently somehow.  We had been together in our humanity sharing softball scrapes and treasured family recipes.  God was in our midst in a real way.  When there was the unavoidable difference of opinion from time to time, the picnic was a reminder of our humanity and community.  It was our common faith, not the hub cap salad that brought us together.  The love of God and our common mission kept us together.

The church picnic was one big passing of the peace in the community that lasted all year.  Church picnics, or whatever those times as a congregation may be called these days, can still be all that.  Pass the peace (and hold the hub cap salad).

Movie Nights Aren’t Really About Movies

fullsizerenderMovie Night has become a tradition of children’s programming at Plymouth. On the second
Friday of every month anywhere from 5 to 25 children are dropped off in the gym. The tricycles
come out of the closet. Goldfish crackers are upgraded to pizza and then there’s a movie-
Moana, Frozen, Zootopia to name a few of the favorite blockbusters.

It’s rare to find a movie that every child hasn’t seen. It’s hard to find a movie appropriate for a
three year old who engages her seven year old sister. That’s when I remind myself that it’s really
not about the movie. It’s about so much more.

One Friday there were only five of us.  Reverend Brett stopped by and tried on silly hats
and a clip on tie. He had dinner plans, we had ordered too much pizza and so went from floor to
floor delivering slices to staff members. Most of us had never been to the fourth floor teen room.
Exhausted from our mission, we lay down under the skylight, pretended we were camping and
talked about our dreams. We never got to the movie.

The Friday we showed Frozen, the gym was packed. Every chair was taken. Some kids arrived
in costume. We started the movie almost immediately- the anticipation was so great. Within 15
minutes, kids started to ask if they could play with their friends. They promised to play quiet
basketball, silent soccer….the movie stayed on but no one noticed when it was over.

This past Friday it was so unusually hot in the gym that we decided to show the movie in air
conditioned Storr’s Library. The cool air and comfy couch were not enough though. Most of us spent the evening playing
cars on the wooden floor of the hot hallway. We’d found a box of seven matchbox cars and
there were nine of us. “My car” quickly became “our cars.”

While building a road out of cardboard pieces I studied each child’s face, the soft features, the
sweet expressions not yet scarred by the harsh reality of life. I wondered, as I often do, who
they will be in ten, twenty years and I hoped that when they remember their childhood, they will
remember growing up as part of a church family, as loved and cherished as God wants every
child to be.

 

People I Don’t Need to Listen to

The New York Times has too many pages.  I download more podcasts than I can play.  I cannot read half of what my friends post on Facebook—particularly one recipe-happy friend.   I cannot hear, read, or notice a significant portion of what is calling for my attention.

People who claim to know such things say that listeners can follow 1.2 conversations at a time.  I can completely follow one conversation and one fifth of another.   I can catch half of two conversations and one fifth of the third.  I can follow three fifths of two conversations.  But I cannot hear it all.

Some news shows feature three conversations going at the same time.  The assumption seems to be that we will listen to whoever shouts the loudest.  I cannot hear over the cacophony, so I have concluded that I need to listen less.

I need to ignore some conversations.  I do not need to hear people who do not listen themselves, who do not empathize, or whose voices are full of hatred.

I should be leery of people who are paid to offer opinions.  People who use their judgments to get wealthier are not the first people I need to hear.

I can stop reading editorials that only repeat what I already think.  I can give a rest to flipping through channels to find someone saying what I want to hear.

I should not listen to people whose job is to defend bad ideas.  I can turn off commentators who tell prejudiced people that they are not prejudiced.

I do not need to hear people who come to conclusions too easily.  Listening to those who do not care is not the best use of my time.

I do not need to hear white people explaining what it is like to be black.  I should listen to the victims of prejudice.

I do not need to hear those who critique Islam without having read the Koran.  I should listen to committed Muslims.

I do not need to hear mean-spirited people with no evidence who enjoy saying that immigrants are the reason their cousin cannot find a job.  I should listen to hard-working immigrants and the children of immigrants.

I do not need to hear wealthy people pontificate on health care.  I should listen to the sick, the elderly, and doctors in underserved areas.

I do not need to hear someone in a two thousand dollar suit telling poor people how to manage their finances.  I should listen to the ones who struggle to put food on the table.

I do not need to hear those who do not care about children escaping from Syria, bigoted people who do not have gay friends, or rich men on their third marriage who want to tell a poor woman what to do about her pregnancy.  I should listen more to refugees, committed gay couples, and those with a uterus.

I need to hear people who do not sound like me.  I need to listen to those who do not have a Twitter account.  If the person I am listening to does not really love, then I am giving myself permission not to listen.  I cannot hear everyone, so I need to listen more to those who are not often heard.

I have been thinking about listening as we prepare for Sunday’s annual meeting.   As always, we need to listen carefully to one another.  We need to listen most carefully to the words that come from loving hearts.

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Happy Mother’s Day to My Mom, Ginger Rogers

brett-and-momMy mother should be a dancer, but she rolls her eyes when I tell her that.  All of her fundamentalist Christian life, dancing has been as off-limits as rock and roll, Heineken, and liberal Christians, but she could be a ballerina.

My mom has the athleticism of a ballet dancer.  Her brief, but glorious, hoops career is legendary in Northeast Mississippi.  Grandma would not let my mother play basketball for the purple and gold of Itawamba High School because the team’s short pants were two feet too short.  One famous night in 1948, several Lady Indians fouled out in the third quarter of a tight game with their bitter rivals — the Houston Hilltoppers — so the coach went into the stands to beg Clarice Graham to play.  Mom slipped into a borrowed pair of boogie shoes and, in a dress that hit just below the ankles, scored several key baskets, dancing the Indians to a celebrated victory.

My mom has the precision of a ballroom dancer.  Dancers have an extraordinary sense of where their feet, legs, and arms should be at every second. Ginger could not spin with Fred if he showed up one second late.  My mother has a supernatural sense of where everyone should be and has never been less than ten minutes early to anything.  If punctuality was the key to dancing, my entire family would be touring with Alvin Ailey.

My mom has the spirit of a jitterbugger.  The best dancers are passionate. When mom giggles, which she frequently does, she begins to shake, her voice goes to a pitch audible only to dogs, her face turns a beautiful shade of red and her dark blue eyes start dancing.  Her rhythmic exuberance would make Beyonce jealous.

I often irritate my mother by trying to get her to dance with me.  I point out that King David danced, the psalmists tell us to praise God with dance, and Ecclesiastes assures us that there is a time to dance, but she will not waltz, tango, or foxtrot with her son.

Angela Monet writes, “Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music.”

Though she will not admit it, mom hears the music and knows she should be dancing.

Some can only remember the jigs their now-departed mothers danced.  Some mothers are too far away to two-step with their sons.  Only a fortunate few can put their arms around their mothers and dance.

On Mother’s Day, be thankful for every playful step your mother ever took. Any excuse is good enough to trip the light fantastic with our moms, even if it is only in our imaginations.

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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.