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)?

Fear or Fear Not?

Three men were walking together from lunch one day.  Two of the men were not religious.  One of the men was religious.  Along came a stranger in their direction.  He was wearing biker gear, had a shaved head with tattoos covering his neck, and a chain wallet.  Once the menacing looking fellow was out of earshot, one of the non-religious men looks at the other two and says, “Man, that guy looked like trouble.”  The other responds, “Yeah, he was a scary.”  The religious fellow responds to his friends, “What man?”

As people of faith we are called to fear less. The command not to fear is given 365 times in the Bible.  Over and over again that’s what God is saying across the ages.   But, we fear anyway.  We fear all kinds of things.   Nomophobia is a fear of losing cell phone contact.  Gamophobia is the fear of getting married.  We joke about scary in-laws, but syngenesophobia refers to the fear of relatives.  And, this one is risky to mention, but ecclesiophobia is the fear of going to church.  (Not one of you better use this one next time you miss worship.)

Thankfully most of us don’t fear cheese, birds, or the moon because there would be some pretty difficult implications for our lives.  But, we do fear civil unrest, political strife, personal rejection, loss, financial insecurity, and making big mistakes.  The truth is that our biggest mistakes are often the result of fear.  God has been trying to help us see that since the beginning of time.  When we choose fear over love, despair over hope, exclusivity over inclusivity, we are at odds with the good news of the Gospel and we are succumbing to fears.

National fear and unrest is at all-time high.  What do we, Gospel-people, do in times like these?  One temptation is paralysis; to lay low and wait for the storm of unrest to blow over.  Another temptation is to blame and point and proclaim that “I” am not the problem; to pass off responsibility.  But, we are reminded 365 times, to fear not.  Why?  Most often the answer follows the “fear not” and has something to do with God being with us, something to do with good news, something to do with God.

“Fear not,” is also used when there’s hard work to be done that nobody wants to do or knows how to do.  “Fear not,” is what gets communicated to us before a burden gets laid on us.  We are keenly aware of menacing forces in our world, our country, and our own lives that tempt us to forget the call to fear less as people of faith.

The man of faith responded to the fear of his friends, “what man?”  He didn’t see what there was to be afraid of because he looked at the world through a different lens.  He looked through eyes that knew God; knew God doesn’t have strangers, knew God doesn’t see our differences the same way we do; knew God loves us beyond the surface, beyond ethnicity, beyond nationality, beyond religion—all of us.

To Jesus-followers, partisan isn’t most important.  People are.  We get to fear not and love hard.  We get to not make our biggest mistakes because of fear.  We get to stand on the foundation of God-with-us and do the work God calls us to.  That’s the beauty of faith and it’s a gift for which we can be grateful.

A Letter to the President

Dear President Trump:

I am sure you are getting letters from groups that feel like they are being mistreated.  Muslims, Hispanics, African Americans, women, Jews, the poor, and the LGBTQ community have legitimate concerns, but have you also thought about how you are making life more difficult for preachers?  Ministers are not usually considered an oppressed group, but preaching was easier before you became president.

Most preachers are not looking for trouble.  We do not want to offend church members.  We have no interest in partisan politics.  We try to be respectful of those who do not vote as we do.  Preachers say things like “We are not all going to agree,” “Good people have different opinions,” and “My mother never votes like I do and she’s a fine person.”

But you are making it hard.  On the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I was preaching on racism.  I finished preparing the sermon on Friday afternoon.  On Saturday you sent a tweet insulting John Lewis, “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results.  Sad!”  How could I preach on bigotry on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend and not mention the President picking a fight with a Civil Rights hero?  If you feel like you have to do things like this, it would be helpful if you would do them early in the week so preachers do not have to rewrite their sermons on Saturday night.

How can ministers preach on telling the truth without using the phrase “alternative facts”?  How can we preach on equality without noting that you have said horrible things about women?  How can we preach on caring for the hurting without pointing out that you are cancelling health insurance for twenty million people?  How can we preach on the biblical command to welcome strangers without commenting on the wall and the ban on immigration?

Preachers do not have a choice.  We have to preach that God loves all people and does not believe in America first.  If we preach the Gospel, some are going to think we are taking shots at you.

You are forcing preachers to mention you or look hopelessly out of touch.  If we do not respond to the things you say, then some are going to assume we are asleep in the pulpit.  Do we risk offending church members or feel like cowards?

You could make our lives easier.  You could replace the Affordable Care Act with the More Affordable Care Act.  You could work to alleviate hunger.  You could strengthen our commitment to education.  You could diminish the spread of terrorism by lessening the causes of terrorism.  You could make the lives of so many people better.  Some of them are preachers.

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Rev.  Brett Younger
Plymouth Church, Senior Minister

Life is so daily

Pete Valentine has held court on her Willow Street stoop for years.  She tells about her encounter with Cher during the filming of Moonstruck on Cranberry Street with delighted tourists.  Tales of her magical childhood in Brooklyn Heights- roller skating to school and being given a horse by her God father- resonate with locals old and new.  Neighborhood dogs pull their owners to her stoop for a treat.  Every time I see Pete, she reminds me “Life is so daily.” Every time I hear it, I think I get it, maybe.

This past Sunday, I benefited from false advertising.  Crafting for a Cause was meeting for the first time.  Based on past classes, I prepared for a handful of older children, many of them girls.  The class started at 1; by 1:10, there were fifteen six and seven year olds in the room, all but two of them boys!  Odd, I thought as I scrambled to come up with more age appropriate activities.  Rolling pins and paint brushes replaced sewing needles and weaving looms.  I was a bit disappointed.

My announcement that we would begin crafting was met with an unexpected cheer.  Several children shouted “I love Mine Craft!” Mystery solved.  Mine Craft is a popular video game, not the activity I had planned.  I started to explain what we were doing and why, when a fight over a sword and some small animal figures- three raccoons and two mice- ensued.  Feeling more and more defeated, I began negotiations.  Mid-negotiation, one of the children asked, “Will we be painting?”  He had noticed the brushes. “Yes” derailed the negotiations (which were at a pathetic stalemate.) Everyone charged to the tables.  Crafting began.

fullsizerender1While our creations will not be sold on Etsy or displayed on Pinterest, I could not have felt happier.  For almost an hour, we worked diligently on bird houses and Easter bunnies.  Most of us used too much paint.  Many of the Easter bunnies heads are bigger than their bodies.  Everyone was happy.  As the kids talked and laughed while they worked, I finally allowed myself to enjoy the moment.  It was not about the end product but the process that included new friendships being formed and old ones being strengthened.

At pick up, two of the fathers peered into the Bowling Alley and reminisced about their childhoods at Plymouth.  It struck me that as parents, they had returned to Plymouth.  I hoped their children would one day do the same.

If the day had turned out as I had planned it, none of this would have happened.  We try so hard to control our lives but we are not in charge.  God gives us small reminders of who is and why.  Pete is right, “Life is so daily.”

 

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