What I Learned from My Eighth Grade History Teacher

img_0205Mr. McBrayer threw the barista by ordering “a cup of coffee”—which was not on the menu at the Caffeinated Indian.  43 years after the eighth grade, I met my social studies teacher at the only coffee shop in Fulton, Mississippi.

In 1975, Mississippi was ranked 50th in education and was some distance from being 49th.  My school reflected our state’s poverty, racism, and provincialism.  Good teachers like Danny McBrayer fought uphill battles.

During study hall a group of us were discussing the quickest way to make our first million.  Mr. McBrayer told us about driving a school bus, watching the sunrise each morning, and seeing the sunrise change through the year:  “I drive the bus to get paid, but without the sunrise it wouldn’t be worth it.  Your job needs to be worth it.”

In a school that had recently integrated and was painfully divided, Mr. McBrayer went out of his way to spend time with African American students like Ronnie Agnew—the Executive Director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

Checking in after four decades provides a lot to talk about.  Mr. McBrayer knows almost everyone’s story.  My biology teacher continues to believe that she could have married Elvis.  Coach Wright was inducted into the Mississippi Football Hall of Fame.  Our principal, who smoked a pipe, died of throat cancer.  When I asked about my least favorite teacher Mr. McBrayer said, “She just never liked poor kids—and that was most of our kids.”

My old friends have tragic, predictable, and amazing stories.  One of the best athletes in school history is in prison.  Two of the three sisters whose names rhymed died years ago—one with cancer and one in a car accident.  Bobby got into lots of trouble, became a preacher, and died.  Willie has had a hard time:  “His family fell apart and he has no legal income.”

Jimmy and Dorothy surprised everyone by not getting married.  Dorothy ended up with a pro golfer’s cousin.  Jimmy went through a divorce, but his ex-father-in-law liked him so much they went into business together.  (I’m changing the names because I can’t read my writing and am afraid I may announce a divorce where there is only peace and harmony.)

Lori, on whom most of the eighth grade had a crush, married the quarterback, and has done just fine.  Joe, the shooting guard on the basketball team, is selling tires. Goony—a nickname I include because he must have left it behind years ago—runs his dad’s garage.  Peachy—another has-to-have-been-forgotten nickname—is selling satellite dishes.

Craig, the top math student, is an engineer with NASA.  Ken, the center on the basketball team, is a high school principal.  Todd, who was a great best friend, teaches teachers in Nashville.

Mississippian William Faulkner said, “The past is never done with us.  It isn’t even past.”

So much seems capricious—who lives, who dies, who gets a great job, who gets cancer, whose marriage falls apart, whose child is born broken.  Telling who’s who is hard in middle school, and we do not get much better at it.  Even if we could know exactly who someone is we cannot know how far they have come to get there.

Mississippi makes it clear that the playing field is not level.  Some are born with two strikes against them.  Some who seem a step behind have made up a mile.  Some give themselves to lifelong friendships, honest work, and caring for the hurting.  Some who sell tires make more important contributions than some with big corner offices.

Those who create lives out of not much make it seem obvious that we should fill our prisons with politicians who lie to poor people while helping rich people keep their advantages.

As we finished our coffee, Danny said, “I became a Christian in 2001.  I feel bad that I didn’t make that decision sooner.  I might have helped more students.”

“Mr. McBrayer, you told us to think, dream, and do more than was expected.  That sounds like what God would have you say.”

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The NACCC: We are Not Alone

unleashedTwo weeks ago 226 people from 96 churches from 23 states across the country gathered in sunny San Diego, CA for the 64th Annual Meeting and Conference of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. The theme this year was Unleashed, a reference to Acts 1: 8. Those in attendance from Plymouth Church: Grace Faison, Carol Younger, Edith Bartley, Jim Waechter, Julie Johnson Staples, Brett Younger, and myself.
Frequent questions I get asked from Plymouth newcomers are: So what is the NACCC? Is it a denomination? Simply answered, the NA is a voluntary group of churches who follow the Congregational Way, a practice derived from the traditions and beliefs of the Pilgrims, puritan Christians from England who settled in America in the early 1600’s in pursuit of religious freedom. Basic principles of the Congregational Way include:
• Christ alone is the head of the church (kings, popes or bishops can’t tell us how to practice our faith)
• All members of the church are spiritually equal and called to ministry (everyone matters and has a job to do for God)
• Christians are bound to one another by a voluntary covenant (we don’t have a doctrinal statement)
• Every Christian has the freedom to interpret the Bible according to their own conscience (there’s a bunch of theological diversity in a Congregational church)
• The Bible, not a creed or written confession, is our guide for our beliefs and living out our faith (so we have to actually read and study it)
• Every local church is autonomous and complete (no one can tell us what to do…except maybe our own Church Council…with our approval)

Being a Congregationalist is radical. We accept diversity of belief and giftedness. We claim an independence in our faith. We don’t allow other entities to bully us into doing church their way.
This overt religious radicalism allows NA churches to be beautifully unique, irreplaceable members of the larger Body of Christ. So once a year these wonderfully diverse churches gather together to help one another continue and strengthen their separate holy callings to their particular corners of the world. They call this meeting the “Annual Conference.”
There was a bunch of boring business at the conference (Congregationalists like to vote on things). But I don’t want to spend much time on that stuff. In short, we approved a budget, listened to annual reports from various committees, elected new leaders (the most exciting being Jim Waechter as Moderator – yay!), and received a report from Executive Director Michael Chittum. We also adopted a new Mission and Vision Statement.

NACCC Mission Statement:
To nurture fellowship among Congregational Christian Churches and support ministries of the local church in its community and to the world, all in the name of Christ.

NACCC Vision Statement:
Vital and healthy Congregational churches, sharing the love of Jesus the Christ.

My favorite parts of the conference were the moments I realized the true importance of an association like the NACCC. Plymouth Church, being located in a big city and being a healthy, growing congregation, can easily fall into the false belief that we don’t need any other churches to help us do our ministry, and that we have this church thing all figured out. We are at risk of becoming ecclesiastic snobs, turning our noses up at the small, Midwestern NA churches that have nothing to offer large, historical, and successful churches like Plymouth. The moment we start embracing the sin of arrogance and self-reliance is the moment we will begin to fail in our own mission to Know God and Grow Together.

Plymouth has a lot to learn from the rest of the world, even the smallest corners. Plymouth needs to know that a first-year pastor, Rev. Jacob Poindexter, of First Congregational in Anchorage, Alaska is heading up his regions Poor People’s Campaign. Plymouth needs to know that the all-white First Congregational Church in Toulon, IL, a small town of 1,200 people recently called an African American, Rev. Dr. Ron Toliver, as their senior minister. African Americans make up just .21% of Toulon’s population. Plymouth needs to know that Rev. Dr. Elvis Sa Do and his wife Rev. Naw Pale Say work tirelessly in Yangon, Myanmar to bring God’s message of hope and healing to a people who have been isolated and persecuted by an oppressive government. Plymouth needs to know that we are not alone. The churches and ministries of the NACCC are out there carrying God’s love to the rest of the world, and come together to support one another in that mission.
Twenty years ago Plymouth was a struggling church with membership down and finances strained. The NACCC gave Plymouth and its leaders support and strength to continue. We must not forget our own recent history.

As part of the NACCC, we must recognize that we are all in this together. We are a family. We are the keeper of our sister churches. They are our keepers. We need to continue to support one another, pray for one another, and (once a year at least) show up for the reunion.
If you would like to learn more about the NACCC, visit: www.naccc.org.

Erica Cooper

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Hot Dogs

brettcarolnathansWhen you hear the words “American hero” you may think of Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony or Martin Luther King Jr., but a lot of people think of Joey “Jaws” Chestnut. On July 4, the eyes of the world were on the corner of Surf and Stillwell.  Coney Island was host to a gut-busting, Independence Day showdown that provided drama, daring and indigestion.

Two dear friends who relish this outlandish event promised it would be fun. We arrived an hour early, but could not get close enough to smell the nitrates. The smell of America was, nonetheless, in the air.  Thousands of us, many wearing wiener hats, gathered to cheer the dogfight for the mustard yellow belt emblematic of frankfurter eating supremacy.

The Brooklyn Community Choir sang, because someone thought gospel music would be a helpful addition to the festivities.

The announcer, George Shea, is a poet. Here is some notable commentary:

“His good cholesterol is low. His bad cholesterol is high. His BMI is borderline presidential.”

“He stands before us like Hercules himself. Albeit a large, bald Hercules at an eating contest.”

“This is like watching Picasso paint.”

“When all the world’s languages are poured into a single bowl, the word that unites us will be freedom.” (I do not know what this means, but the crowd cheered ecstatically.)

Joey Chestnut, the pride of the red, white and blue, claimed his 11th Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest title. (LeBron James has only won three NBA titles.) Joey inhaled a staggering 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes – a little less than one every eight seconds. In this stupefying act, Joey consumed 22,000 calories and 1,332 grams of fat. The carb count stirred the hearts of patriots – 1,776 carbs.  That’s right – 1776!  (This statistic should ensure Joey’s invitation to the White House.) As the crowd chanted “USA,” this gustatory gladiator processed more beef than a slaughterhouse. The lesser competitors suffered reversals, which are exactly what they sound like.

I love an extravaganza that makes you never want to eat again as much as the next person, but this festival of belching and burping raises questions. Is overindulgence a feat to be celebrated? Should binging be considered a sport? What is the over/under on the date of Joey’s death? Why is he still alive? Should anyone eat 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes while children starve? (Carol mentioned this several times, but the good and clever people at Nathan’s make a point of donating 100,000 hot dogs to the Food Bank of New York City each July 4.) Should a cardiologist be doing the play-by-play? Should Pepto-Bismol be a sponsor? Would this be more appropriate on the Food Network than ESPN? What kind of parents raise their child to compete in a gorge-a-thon?

Gluttony seems particularly unattractive when it is televised. We cheer for the wrong things. Our society gives itself to wretched excess. Our insatiable appetite leaves us without an appreciation for what is truly good.

I am still dealing with my feelings about what I witnessed. For lunch today, I had a salad.

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Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, My Grandmother and Bad Theology

brett-grandmother-blogI have a tiny photograph in my desk drawer.  She is leaning on the fender of a 1930s Plymouth coupe—the kind Warren Beatty drove in Bonnie and Clyde.  My grandmother is wearing a white dress and high heel pumps.  Her hair looks like it is bobby pinned.  She is an attractive woman in her twenties trying unsuccessfully to smile.  Maybe she is looking into the sun or perhaps she cannot quite figure out how to smile.  My grandmother suffered from depression at a time when mental illness was less understood and medication was woefully inadequate.

She has been my favorite grandmother since I learned that she wrote a novel.  Most of my ancestors, including the Methodist preacher, the horse thief, and the railroad boss who “was never convicted of murdering anyone,” were not big on books.  I find it hard to imagine my relatives reading books much less writing them.  When my family members went fishing or hunting and I wanted to stay home and read I thought:  “Grandmother Ruth would understand.”

I have thought about what I would say to this wounded woman whose genes I carry if I could go back in time: “You have a grandson on the way who wants to meet you and talk about books and writing.  You can’t imagine the people who will need you some day.”

When my parents asked what I wanted for Christmas one year, I requested a copy of my grandmother’s novel.  You do not have to read far to understand why it was never published.  The story is painfully autobiographical.  She describes in dark detail the deaths of two of her children.

In one of many anguished passages she blames herself as well as God.  She believes that her baby died because she “clung to the doubt that was forever in the back of my mind.”

As the death of a second child approaches, her mother, the daughter of a Baptist preacher, says, “I can only hope and pray and be ready to reconcile myself to whatever is God’s will.”

My grandmother responds, “If the baby dies, do you think that God will be treating me right?”

“God treats everyone right, you know that.”

God must cringe when a well-meaning person speaks such blasphemy.  No one in the novel ever suggests that God weeps for every grieving parent or that it is not God’s will for children to die.  I do not know all of the reasons my grandmother took her life, but bad theology contributed to her death.

I have been thinking about my grandmother since the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade.  Their tragic deaths have brought much-needed attention to the growing epidemic of suicides.  Some of the fatalities were victims of bad theology.  Some never heard a helpful word from the church.

Mental illness is complicated and the church does not have all of the answers, but at the very least the church has to speak loudly and clearly of God’s love, mercy, and liberation.

I wish someone had said this to my grandmother before she died far too soon: “We can’t imagine the pain you feel, but God can.  God grieves with us.  You can hold on, because God is holding on to you.”

A word of hope might have changed the outcome.

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Thank You, Plymouth Church School

The biggest concern about moving our family to Brooklyn last year was how our (then) four-year-old daughter Rosie would adjust to the change. Rosie, like most everyone, experiences bouts of anxiety when facing the unknown, and moving from Georgia to New York is an especially difficult experience for a child.

Rosie’s entire world changed when we moved to Brooklyn. She went from travelling in a car seat in an SUV to riding on the A Train while standing. She went from having a large playroom in our house, to having a small play “corner” in our apartment. She went from riding her tricycle around our cul-de-sac to riding her scooter down Henry Street. As worried parents, Chris and I constantly prayed that God would send us people in Brooklyn to love, comfort, and guide Rosie during this first year of transition. And wow, did God deliver!

Plymouth Church School has been the best school experience I have ever had, both for my daughter and for myself. From the moment Rosie stepped foot in the Red Room, she was surrounded by joy, wonder, and acceptance. Kate and Annie have given the very best of themselves to my daughter, and to all of the children in the class. By encouraging the children to explore their environment, ask questions, and discover wonder, Kate and Annie are sending off confident, responsible, and curious students into Kindergarten.

Rosie’s favorite part of Plymouth Church School was the new Enrichment Program. The program is designed with a different after-school class each day of the week, and taught by PCS staff. Not only did this program provide much-needed childcare for our family, but it exposed Rosie to a variety of experiences we could not have given her otherwise. Because of the Enrichment Program, Rosie has bonded with children from other classrooms. She knows more people walking around in the neighborhood than I do! Enrichment has also given Rosie a passion for art, dance, and nature.

My appreciation for Plymouth Church School goes beyond the classroom. As a parent, I am forever learning how to listen to and care for my child. It seems once I have this whole “parenting thing” figured out, Rosie moves into a new phase, and all the old tricks stop working. Adrienne Urbanski and Mindy Goldstein have seen me through personal parenting struggles. They have hugged me in my worries and congratulated me in my victories. I could not have survived this first year in transition without them.

When we think of the ministry of Plymouth Church, I encourage everyone to think of the amazing ministry that comes from Plymouth Church School. It is truly God’s work being done through the staff, teachers and administrators that welcome the youngest among us. Thank you, Plymouth Church School, for helping a scared, anxious girl in a new environment find a home (and for helping her daughter, too).

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Big Love

Sometimes people think the big question is, “Do you believe in God?” but it is not.  Jesus says the first question is, “Do you love God?”  Our attention needs to go beyond us, beyond our families, beyond our jobs, and beyond our church to God.

Love God with all that we are, do, feel, and think.  If we make loving God our goal, we will move from the many things to seeking the one grace.  We will be free from the compulsion of the world and set our hearts on the only necessary thing.   Augustine said, “Love God and do what you want.”  If God is at the center, the rest will follow.

Loving God is the central teaching of Christianity.  We open the Bible and read that Matthew writes that Jesus said what he had read in Deuteronomy, which is that Moses said that God said, “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.”

The Bible is not an instruction manual in which each line is of equal importance.  The sayings of scripture spin around the love of God like planets around the sun, and every verse is judged by its proximity to this truth.  Nothing is greater, says Jesus, says Moses, says God.  These words provide the standard within the standard:  “Love God.”  Jesus’ words are the scripture by which scripture is measured.

St. Augustine wrote the first textbook on teaching the Bible.  The scriptures may be confusing, Augustine admits, and preachers make mistakes, but if you interpret in such a way as to build up the love of God, you have the essentials right.  Augustine writes, “If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this love of God, then you have not understood them.”

What you know or think you know, what you do or wish you could do, is measured against this standard:  “Love God.”

We have to find our own best ways.  Some people love God in music, some in the harvesting of a garden, some in sharing freshly baked bread, and others in affectionate words to a friend.  Utter your own prayer, in the language of your own heart.  Set aside a time and place to give God your undivided attention.  Be mad about God in the silence of your own soul.  Tell God that you are crazy about God in words and actions.  Be grateful to God for the closeness of God and the greatness of God.  Do not try to love God like you have heard other people do.  Let your adoration be your own.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength.  Come to Plymouth and worship.  Live as if God is the only one watching.

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Brett’s Annual Report

It is a hard time to be a church.  Goodness is losing on so many fronts.  Our country is flirting with wars and the potential deaths of innocent people are not the biggest story.  Much of our attention is given to sex scandals.  Most of the time it is about men treating women terribly.  Our sexism has made us less aware of growing racism.  The gap between the rich and poor is getting wider.  U.S. students now rank near the middle of the pack.  The trends are heading the wrong directions—toward more division, more self-centeredness, and more despair.  It is a hard time to be a church, but that is when we most need the church.

When the culture says we are becoming more isolated we need a family.  Almost everyone at Plymouth attends coffee hour—which is not the case in most churches.  We “Meet, Greet and Eat.”  We go to the theater together.  We tell the story of Plymouth’s amazing history.  We share the life of the church with our youth.  We have young adult groups, parenting groups, Bible studies, and book studies.  At the heart of these activities is the hope that we will overcome divisions and be family for one another.

When the culture says we are becoming more self-centered, we need to worship God.  Many of us are learning to give ourselves in worship.  We sing.  We pray.  We confess. We listen.  We give.  We engage.  We pass the peace exuberantly.  We celebrate the many children in our congregation.  We baptize.  We observe communion.  We welcome new members.  During Lent, five members inspired us by honestly sharing why they find it hard to be a Christian.  We are growing as worshippers as we move from worship as a spectator event to worship as a shared experience of God’s love.

When the culture says we are less caring, we need the church to help us serve.  We build houses with Habitat for Humanity.  We host conferences on anti-trafficking.  We help parents talk to their children about racism.  We work with the Hope Project, preparing people for job interviews.  We push for bail reform.  We provide shelter for the homeless.  We support the Mission School of Hope in Cameroon.  We share ministry with Plymouth Church School.  We pack groceries for Brooklyn Delivers.  We raise money for hurting women through the Thrift Store.  We need the church, because people are hurting and we need to help.

This is a good time in the life of Plymouth.  We are taking care of old things and trying new things.  God is helping us love one another, worship honestly, and care for the needy.

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Lending a Hand for Mission

Every morning when I drop my daughter Rosie off at the Red Room at Plymouth Church School, I give her a quick hug and kiss and say the words, “Be good.” The phrase comes out of my mouth without even thinking. It has become such a part of the morning routine that I rarely realize I am saying them.

“Be good.” Parents often say these words to their kids in hopes that they will listen to their teachers, be kind to other children, and make good choices. The more I think of this phrase, I don’t think it adequately reflects what I am asking of my daughter. I am not asking her to “be” anything other than who she already is, the person that God created. Instead, I am really asking her to “do” things that reflect who God made her to be.

“Do good.” Now that’s the phrase I should be saying. Share your snack. Play with the lonely kid. Wait for your turn. Help someone who is in trouble. By “doing good,” Rosie reflects the wonder and love of God. And ultimately, that is what I hope for her to do.

Over the past few months, Plymouth Church has spent intentional time “doing good” in our neighborhood, our city and our world through various projects, retreats and special events. In our “doing good” we show others God’s wonder and love in the world.

Amy Anderson and I reflected on these recent events, and here are the good things we witnessed Plymouth doing:

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Feeding the hungry. Eight teenagers and four adults attended the Senior Youth Mission Retreat at YSOP in Manhattan. They prepared and served food to over 300 people. They learned about hunger and homelessness in New York City, and discovered ways to share God’s love to others.

 

 

 

 

 

img_2800Visiting the sick. The Junior Youth Group hosted an Ice Cream Social at Cobble Hill Health Center. Eleven participants served sundaes and spent time sitting down and talking with  around forty residents and patients. They showed God’s gentleness and grace to people who are recovering from illness and injury.

 

 

 

 

img_7023Providing shelter. Plymouth church members and Plymouth Church School teachers partnered with Habitat for Humanity and spent a day rehabilitating affordable housing in southeastern Queens. Plymouth people find joy in lending their hearts and hands to revitalizing neighborhoods and giving families a chance to build stability in a new Habitat home.

 

 

 

 

img_0129Caring for seniors. Plymouth adults and youth added cheer and sunshine to a Senior Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with bright paint and colorful murals as they worked with Habitat NYC’s Brush with Kindness Program.

 

 

 

 

 

photo-apr-26-7-44-36-pmBringing hope. Plymouth welcomed Rev. Charles Sagay and received an update of the great ministry that he is continuing to the Baka people in Cameroon through The Mission School of Hope. Plymouth presented The Mission School of Hope with a grant of $30,000 so they can expand their campus and bring God’s hope to even more students.

 

 

 

 

photo-apr-08-12-34-20-pmEncouraging the disheartened. The Plymouth congregation continued the battle against human-trafficking and worked with Sanctuary for Families to create parenting supply-filled tote bags for mothers receiving services at Sanctuary for Families’ offices. Aiming for a goal of 100 totes, the Plymouth people poured their care and generosity into the project and our final tote count was 175!

 

 

 

 

img_2833Helping the imprisoned. Plymouth’s Racial Justice Ministry organized a Mother’s Day Bail Out event which brought awareness to the unjust practices of bail on the poor and raised over $400 for the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. This fund allows misdemeanor defendants who are awaiting trial to be home with their families.

 

 

 

James 2:26 reminds us, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” Our “doing” informs, nourishes, and shapes our “being.” The things we choose to do vitally impact who we are and what we believe.

As we move forward continuing to lend our hands in mission projects, let us be encouraged and empowered knowing that the good we do not only heals the brokenness in the world, but heals the brokenness inside our own beings.  When we do good to others, we do good to our own souls. And God thinks that is pretty good, too.

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Open wide and sing “La”

Many people have asked me what my philosophy of music is, and my instinctive response is to respond, “My what of what?!?!”  Music is such an integral part of what I do that having a philosophy or game plan seems like a put-on.  I don’t philosophize about music; I do music.  But when I start talking about what I do, explaining what I think I do and how I do it, a clear concept appears.

Music is a link to God in the same way that any gift or talent or grace is a link to God.  People through the ages have used any number of God’s gifts to make contact: sculpture, stained glass windows, poetry, painting, ceramics, hieroglyphics, jogging, sunset-watching, camping, singing, dancing, and transcendental meditation as links to God.  We usually call this contact with God prayer.

We strive so to find our spiritual friend, guide, counselor, confessor, wailing wall, encourage, inspirer, salvation-giver because this is part or our healthy human nature.  We instinctively strive to make contact with our genesis.

Music is one of the first and most readily attainable of the communicative tools we have for making ourselves known to God.  Here at Plymouth, we enjoy a long history of congregational singing dating from Henry Ward Beecher’s tenure as Plymouth’s first pastor.  In the early part of the twentieth century, Henry Pfohl founded the Plymouth Choir, adult singers who regularly lead worship on Sunday mornings.  Over time the choir program has grown to include the Junior Choir, the Seraph Choir, the Cherub Choir, and the Tone Chime Choir.

Each of these groups works on learning and perfecting music for Sunday worship,  learning more about the Christian faith along the way.  Each choir is also a support group in its own way.  As choirs work together, we also come to know each other.  We find out about each other’s lives, sharing good times and sad times and offering a collective shoulder to lean on when it’s needed.  In this way, the choirs emulate the whole body of Christ that is the church.

Choirs at Plymouth are inclusive groups, welcoming all.  Everyone willing to make the commitment to regular rehearsals is gladly welcomed into choir.  So come join us and help make a joyful noise to the Lord!

Did I mention that singing is also good for your health?  It’s true!  Research findings show that singing strengthens the immune system, provides a physical workout, improves posture, helps you sleep, lowers stress level, and is a natural anti-depressant.  Add in that it’s wonderful way to praise God, and what’s not to love about singing?  Open wide and sing “La.”

In music and in Christ, Bruce Oelschlager, Minister of Music

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Paul Ryan and the House Chaplain: Proof that Prayer Works?

Paul Ryan believes in prayer so much that on April 15 he forced the House chaplain to resign.  Ryan has not given a reason for the dismissal, but many are pointing to a prayer Father Patrick Conroy offered while lawmakers were considering tax reform.  The priest prayed that lawmakers would “be mindful” of economic disparities and those “who continue to struggle.”  Ryan’s concern is surprising as the prayer clearly did not work.

Every once in a while scientists who cannot raise money for real research get stuck doing a study on how prayer works.  Non-believers argue that wishful thinking is not a suitable subject for scientific investigation.  Believers argue that the results of prayer are not easily measured.

The outcome of these studies tend to reflect the desires of whoever paid for the research.  Religious researchers often find that praying for another’s well-being reduces one’s own anxiety.  Non-religious researchers point out that prayers for healing are no guarantee that healing will occur.

The scientific study of prayer focuses on the things for which people most often pray—health concerns, financial difficulties, or societal problems—but the prayers we do not pray are the best evidence that prayer works.

Hunger is a subject about which we do not pray.  After Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give it to the poor, we can be fairly certain that young man did not go home and pray about it.

We are careful not to pray seriously for the homeless.  We find it awkward to pray for people who have no home when we have a guest room.

There are so many situations in which we will not pray.  Your boss tells a sexist joke.  You know it is evil and wish someone would point it out, but do you really want to pray, “God, what should I do?  Should I challenge my boss who might not take kindly to my helpful words of correction?”

We have been praying about gun violence, but we are careful.  If you want gun control it is hard to pray honestly about the sense of moral superiority that may be taking up residence in your heart.  If you are a second amendment person it is hard to pray honestly for innocent children who are dying.  If we pray seriously about gun violence, we will do more than wait around for the next election.

We do not want to pray about our careers.  Does the senior pre-law major want to pray about whether God would like for her to be a social worker?  Does the successful businessperson want to ask God if a lower paying job might make more of a contribution to the world?

We are careful about praying for people we do not like.  When Jesus said “Pray for your enemies” he was inviting us to the kind of prayer that will lead us to say something kind that we do not want to say.

Prayers should come with warnings.  Do not pray about the school system.  You may end up tutoring second graders.  Do not pray about human trafficking.  You may end up paying for much-needed supplies for victims.  Do not pray about racial justice.  You may end up working on bail reform.

We like what we have—especially the vices we have gotten used to.  We do not pray about our addictions—eating too much, drinking too much, or spending too much.  St. Augustine prayed, “God, give me chastity, but not yet.”

Most of us, including Paul Ryan, understand that critiquing prayer is easier than truly praying.  We do not avoid praying because our prayers go unanswered.  We avoid praying because we are afraid our prayers will be answered.  The proof that prayer works is the way we choose a life given to comfort over a life given in prayer.

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