Me and Captain Morgan

In The Perfect Storm, George Clooney dies when the ship sinks.  In Titanic, Leonardo Dicaprio dies when the ship sinks.  In All is Lost—spoiler alert—Robert Redford makes it, but just barely.  When I get on a boat I think about these movies, because I cannot swim.  I have come to believe that water, more than any other place, is where people drown.  I understand why “seasick” is a word and “landsick” is not.  I do not even go to Old Navy. I have biblical support for my attitude.  In the Psalms, the Leviathan is lurking beneath the boat just like Jaws.  No thinking parent would tell the stories of Noah or Jonah at bedtime.  Egyptian children have bad dreams about crossing the Red Sea.

I have historical support for my attitude—the Bismarck, the Lusitania, the Poseidon, the Voyage of the Damned, and the Sloop John B, as well as pirates with hooks for hands and pegs for legs.

Carol and I are, nonetheless, delighted when Peter and Lee Scott take us on the S.S. Alabama for a “three hour tour”—just like Gilligan’s.  This is another chance to learn to love the ocean.

I count the people on board—thirty—and the seats on the lifeboat—twelve.  These are not the odds for which you hope.  A guy from Michigan—not me—asks about life jackets.  The life preservers are in the bottom of the boat.  If the boat starts to sink, they expect me to run downstairs.  I am humming “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

The barefoot crew of the S.S. Alabama is made up of teenagers.  The Captain’s name—I am not making this up—is Morgan.  This does not inspire confidence.  Captain Morgan warns us to watch out for the boom, as it could kill us.

After thirty minutes, I stop staring at the boom.  We eat ham sandwiches and mint fudge.  (I prefer regular fudge, but sea life is hard.)  I start saying things like, “That’s a good-looking flying jib.”  I tell Carol, “I’m getting sunburned on my starboard side.”

Lee makes friends with everybody on board.  She gets Maureen’s email address, so she can send her recipe for spinach pie.

After two hours, I am scanning the horizon while I steer the Alabama.  I am looking for boats with bad names—Ahoy Vey, Yacht Sea, Gravyboat, She Got the House, Buoys in the Hood.  Then again—I wish I was the first one to say this—if it doesn’t come when you call it, why name it?

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is sleeping below deck when a storm shows up.  The frightened disciples wake him up.  When he has gotten his eyes open, Jesus speaks first to the wind rather than the disciples, “Cut that out!”  He is gentler with the sea, “Take it easy.  Quiet down.”  As Mary Oliver writes, “the sea lays down, silky and sorry.”

Sometimes it makes sense to feel nervous.  At other times we just need to be still.  We cannot always decide how afraid or hopeful we will be, but we get to choose which way we will lean.  We get to decide if we will share our fears with God.  We may still feel nervous, but we can know that we are not alone.  We can eat a sandwich and try some fudge.


Dreaming the Church

For some of us, the phrase “church planning” elicits the same weeping and gnashing of teeth as the phrase “root canal.”  Long-range planning committees have for many years identified purposes, stated objectives, and determined goals.  The mission of traditional long-range planning was to have lots of long, excruciatingly dull committee meetings and produce a long, excruciatingly dull spiral-bound report filled with dates, dollar amounts and ideas like increase Sunday morning attendance by 18% and reversible choir robes with Velcro stoles.  These reports were put on the shelf with The New York/New Jersey Association of Congregational Christian Churches Annual 1999 and the last long-range planning committee report.   

An increasingly popular form of long-range church planning is market-driven planning.  This form carefully studies the competition.  The competition has traditionally been understood to be the Episcopalians.  After scouting the opposition, the church looks for a niche among people groups.  Where do left-handed people go to worship? Is there a church reaching out to dentists?  Can we be the church for displaced Luxembourgers?

A third form of planning is known as reality based planning (as opposed to fantasy based planning).  When planners utilize this system they work for incremental changes: increase the Sunday morning attendance by 1.8%, begin a fund for Velcro stoles, and write a note to Dr. Stein—the left-handed dentist from Luxembourg.

Multiple-scenario planning lays out a series of possibilities and forms a contingency plan for each.  What will we do if our Sunday morning attendance suddenly increases 18%?   What if someone leaves money for ceiling fans, but we want reversible choir robes?  What if Dr. Stein brings lots of dentists with him?

Visionary leader planning is one person announcing, “I have been to the mountain top.  Follow me.”  This approach is particularly unpopular with ministers who have raced halfway up Everest only to turn and see that no one else has broken camp.  The opposite approach does not work any better.  Ministers with their ears to the ground get run over.

On Sunday morning Plymouth will engage in planning of a different sort.  For the next three Sundays at 9:45, we will gather in the Reception Room to ask, “If we really believe that the church is God’s, how will that change the way we act as the church?” “How do we approach issues with a sense of grace?”  “How can the church be on the side of the hurting—no matter why they are hurting?”

We need to plan for the future in more-holy-than-ordinary ways.  We need to keep asking, “How can Plymouth live as God’s people?”


Where were you?

There are events of great importance that we mark in our memories by remembering where we were when we witnessed the event in person or by word of mouth.  My mom and dad used to talk about where they were when unlikely hero Bobby Thompson hit a home run against cross town rivals Brooklyn Dodgers giving the New York Giants the pennant.  Mom was a Dodger fan and dad a Giants fan.  The conversation was animated ‘til the day they died.  I can remember hearing President Kennedy was shot from Mrs. Hashagen, my third grade teacher.  We were dismissed early that day for fear it was the beginning of a Cold War attack.  Despite watching every space launch, I was camping in a field when Neil Armstrong took his small step and giant leap.  Those were days of camping without electricity and mobile phones and I didn’t get to actually see it for another week.

Where were you on September 11, 2001?  The towers?  Downtown?  New York City?  Another state or country?  Wherever you were, I’m guessing you remember with the same crystal clear memory as the sky was a cloudless crystal blue that day.  Each of us has a story to tell.  The stories all have value wherever you may have been.  For those who had physical or highly emotional connections, these stories were painful to tell and painful to hear.  I must have lived 9/11 vicariously through other people hundreds of times for five years in my role in the immediate response and long term recovery at Ground Zero.  The stories are still told today among strangers in the subway and family at gatherings.  Stories of tragedy and heroism; fear and bravery; isolation and community; hatred and love.  I would also ask them, “Where are you now?”

“Where are you now?” is a question just as meaningful as “where were you fifteen years ago?”  What’s been your journey since that Tuesday?  There is a visual from 9/11 that best describes where I am now.  Churches throughout the City opened their doors as places of refuge and prayer.  One of those churches at the base of a high profile building (and potential target), has a large baptistery as you enter the sanctuary.  Hundreds of people came in who were walking away from the collapsed buildings.  They were frightened, in a panic and covered in dust and ash.  They stopped at the baptistery and washed their hands and faces in the waters.  I was reminded of this when a Plymouth member told me his story and his stop at that baptistery.  It is at the baptismal font where I find myself today.  Bathed in the cleansing and healing waters of baptism and the grace of God poured out in those waters.  Where are you now?  All are welcome.


An Invitation to Matt Damon

Dear Matt:

Like everyone who loved Ocean’s Eleven (Twelve and Thirteen not so much), I was sorry to hear that St. Ann’s turned down your children.  I know you make $20 million a film, but it must still sting.  No one should blame your kids for Monuments Men.  Maybe you should have given them a Bourne Ultimatum.

This whole ordeal has to be hard on your family.  I’m guessing you are feeling pretty down—like the only person left on Mars, a criminal who has infiltrated the Boston police department, or a private in World War II caught behind enemy lines.

You and Luciana seem like great parents, so you know the importance of surrounding your children with caring people.  You should come to Plymouth Church.  Our congregation works hard to help children learn what it means to live in God’s hope.  You will love our children’s minister.  Julia Rassmann has helped create an environment in which children feel cared for.  (I am sorry that you are moving back to New York too late for your children to attend our preschool.  Plymouth Church School is fantastic.)

We have lots of activities for children.  Each Sunday after the children’s time in worship, they go to Sunday school.  Like St. Ann’s, we don’t give grades.  Our teachers use games, crafts, and music to share the Christian faith.  We have children’s choirs and summer camps.  (As you recently learned, it’s never too early to get on a waiting list.)

We have children’s movie night on September 16.  We are planning to show Milo and Otis, but if you have a DVD of Happy Feet 2 we would be glad to show that.

We will observe Children’s Sabbath on October 2.  We believe the church is an Adjustment Bureau improving the lives of children.

The Blessing of the Animals is October 4.  You would be welcome to share a few lines from We Bought a Zoo.

I have never been to Pumpkinland (October 30), but I hear it’s stellar, if not Interstellar.

Our church shows True Grit in our commitment to social justice.  Our congregation is given to the countercultural way of worship, friendship, and service.  We are a diverse community of faith, coming from many different backgrounds, but unified in God’s grace.

How do you like them apples?  (I bet you get a lot of that.)  I am sure Isabella, Gia, and Stella would find friends at our church.  You and Luciana would, too.  We would love to see your family at Plymouth.  If you see Ethan Hawke or Maggie Gyllenhaal, tell them their children are welcome at Plymouth, too.

Grace and peace,


Too Busy To Sing

I came to work on Tuesday with a detailed to-do list.  If everything went perfectly, I would end the day writing something for the e-news.  If I got through six of the ten items, it would be a productive day.  If I got through five, I would have kept up.  If I only got through four, I would be seriously behind.

I got off to a good start, but made the mistake of checking e-mail.  (Don’t look at your e-mail if you want to get things done.)  I had seven e-mails to which I needed to respond.  The wonderful sermon ideas I had written on Monday night were now clearly unacceptable.  I remembered something that I was supposed to have done a week ago.

Someone I really wanted to talk to dropped by.  I had several conversations with children who were at Vacation Bible Camp.  Carol was with the youth, so I was on my own for lunch—which I should have realized before I went home at noon.

On Tuesday afternoon, we have worship planning and staff meetings.  I enjoy both, even when they go long.  At 6:00, I had gotten through three of the ten items on my to-do list.

I wanted to work late, but I had told Jacque Jones that I would go to the hymn sing at 7:00.  I did not have time to sing, but I took my bad attitude with me to the choir room.

Bruce Oelschlager had chosen international hymns.  We started with a Spanish tune, “Come Christians, Join to Sing.”

The people in attendance were smart enough to know that if we do not want to sing, then we have lost our way.  Music is yoga for people who do not want to wear yoga pants.

We sang a Brazilian hymn, “O Sing to the Lord/Cantad al Senor”—which is Spanish, though they speak Portuguese in Brazil.  I briefly considered raising my hand to complain.

We sang a Scottish song with the wonderful line, “The house of faith has many rooms where we have never been.”

People who sing are happier than people who do not.  Singing makes it hard to stay frustrated.

We sang “Christ beside Me,” a Gaelic hymn based on the Prayer of St. Patrick from the fifth century.

I was no longer thinking about what I should have gotten done.

We sang the Ghanaian hymn “Jesu, Jesu” and asked God to “fill us with your love.”

Singing reminds us of things that are not on our to-do list.

Some of us will gather in the choir room to sing hymns at 7:00 on August 23 and 30.  If you are too busy to sing, you should come.  If you are too tired to sing, you should try.  If you think you are too important to sing, you need to sing.


Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Adam Sandler

Years ago when attendance had gotten small, Plymouth Church brought in a consultant who said, “You can either be a museum or a church.”   The consultant had been going to the wrong museums.  A good church is like a good children’s museum—a place to learn, explore, and discover.

On Monday night I met with eighteen members of our church’s history ministry.  They know how good a museum can be.  Plymouth’s tour guides are better than the ones who wander down Orange Street.

I have interrupted five tours in front of the church.  One thing those guides do well is fit the tour to whatever tourists have paid the thirty bucks.  When the tour was filled with teenagers, the guide talked about Adam Sandler making a movie here.  When the tour was an African American choir, the guide described the Fisk University Choir singing here in 1871.  When the tour was a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the guide pointed to 74 Hicks Street where Charles Taze Russell’s cousin lived.  (Who knew?)

We share an amazing history, so touch Plymouth Rock and give thanks.  Sit in pew 89 and wonder what Abraham Lincoln prayed when he sat there.  Turn off the lights in the basement and imagine what it feels like to run for your life.  Visit the Senior Minister’s office and think of Branch Rickey praying there until he decided that God wanted him to ask Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball.

Some of our heritage is complicated.  The sculptor of the statues in Beecher Garden, Gutzon Borglum, was in the Klan.  Our founding pastor was a gifted minister who fought courageously against slavery.  His adultery trial sold a lot of newspapers and ended in a hung jury.  Look at the portrait of Henry Ward Beecher in the arcade and ask yourself if he is attractive.  Mark Twain wrote:  “Mr. Beecher is a remarkably handsome man when he is in the full tide of sermonizing, and his face is lit up with animation, but he is as homely as a singed cat when he isn’t doing anything.”

The list of people who have been in our building is surprising—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Elliott Spitzer, Colin Kaepernick, Norah Jones, and Sarah Jessica Parker.

A couple of years ago our Senior Minister Search Committee was asked to fill out a form that asked for the three biggest moments in the church’s history.  They picked Henry Ward Beecher’s tenure as the first pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching an early version of his “I Have a Dream” sermon at Plymouth, and the church recommitting itself to Jesus Christ in 2004.  Plymouth’s resurgence is part of the story.

We do not have to choose between being a museum and a church.  We think about what God has done to remind us that God is still at work.


The Theological Implications of Barbecue

To the casual observer those gathered for the Plymouth men’s barbecue had merely found an excuse to eat meat and drink beer, but to serious students of the Bible and church history, we were doing God’s work.

Deuteronomy 12:15 says, “Nevertheless, you may slaughter your animals in any of your towns and eat as much of the meat as you want, according to the blessing the Lord your God gives you.  Both the ceremonially unclean and the clean may eat it.”  You may want to crochet 12:20 on an apron for someone you love, “When the Lord your God has enlarged your territory as God promised you, and you crave meat and say, ‘I would like some meat,’ then you may eat as much of it as you want.”’

Ezekiel 24:10 offers a simple recipe, “Heap on the wood and kindle the fire.  Cook the meat well, mixing in the spices; and let the bones be charred.”

This is the Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Barbecue brings people together.  The perfect combination of smoke, meat, and fire creates a meal and a moment when we taste and see that God is good.  Church barbecue has a long, rich history.  In the first half of the 19th century, evangelists enticed crowds to camp meetings by serving barbecue.  Before grocery stores and restaurants, you could not order a single barbecue sandwich.  You ate barbecue only when an entire animal was cooked.  In order to avoid waste, everyone was welcome at a barbecue.  For some poor people, revival barbecue was one of the few times there was more than enough food.

Barbecue is still a religious experience—especially in African American churches in the South.  In Texas, there are church-connected barbecue restaurants, like New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue in Huntsville.  Pit masters are called “preachers” and their barbecue pits “pulpits” from which the holy word is served.  One barbecue joint trying to avoid the sectarian divisions that divide Texas barbecue from North Carolina barbecue claims to serve “nondenominational barbecue.”

In a 1902 article about a Methodist church barbecue, the chef said, “This method of serving meat is descended from the sacrificial altars of the time of Moses when the priests of the temple got their fingers greasy and dared not wipe them on their Sunday clothes.  They discovered then the rare, sweet taste of meat flavored with the smoke of its own juices.”

Praise the Lord and pass the sauce.


Stay Awake to the End: The Benediction You will Hear Most Sundays at Plymouth

On most Saturdays Jesus attended a Sabbath synagogue service that ended with this benediction from Numbers 6:24-26:

May God bless you and keep you.
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God look upon you with kindness and give you peace.

Did the priest ever feeling like closing with something different: “May God look upon you with a look that says ‘I’m watching you’”?

The Sunday morning benediction at the churches of my childhood went like this:

The nursery workers asked me to remind you to pick up your children as soon as this service is over.  Youth, don’t forget to bring a sweet or salty snack to the ping pong party on Friday.   Anybody got anything else?  We’ll see y’all back here at 6:00.    

On my first Sunday as a college student far from home, the minister offered this benediction:

May the Lord Christ walk ahead of you to prepare your way.
May Christ be beside you as companion on your journey.
May Christ be beneath you to support you when you fall.
May Christ be within you giving peace and joy.
May Christ be behind you to finish what you must leave undone.
May the Lord Christ be over you, watching, calling, guiding, challenging now and forevermore.

I had never heard such a thing in worship.  I learned to look forward to this weekly reminder of Christ’s presence.

What would be the reaction if a minister offered this Irish blessing?

May your glass be ever full.
May the roof over your head be always strong.
And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

Would worshippers be amused if this were the benediction?

May those who love us love us and those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts.  And if God doesn’t turn their hearts, may God turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.

A few years ago I heard a prayer and scribbled a rough, paraphrased version on the back of an offering envelope.  I tried unsuccessfully to find the source, but used it many times before a seminary student recognized it as part of a Franciscan prayer:

May God bless you with distaste for superficial worship so that you will live deep within your soul. 
May God bless you with anger at prejudice so that you will work for justice.
May God bless you with tears for those who sorrow so that you will share a word of comfort.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world.

This is the benediction I will offer most Sundays at Plymouth because I need the reminder to live deeply into God’s blessings—and think you might, too.  One Sunday I may add:

May God bless you with dissatisfaction at just hearing a benediction so that you will truly feel God’s blessing.


No Easy Answers

I had just finished teaching “The Parables in Luke” at my middle class white suburban church, so when I was asked to lead a Bible study for fifteen homeless African American men with drug or alcohol addictions in inner city New Orleans, I said, “Sure.”  Ex-convicts, victims of abuse, and only a few high school graduates made it a Saturday night crowd rather than one of the Sunday morning groups with whom I usually share Bible study.

On the first day, while discussing the Parable of the Good Samaritan, I said something like:  “It’s hard to know what to teach our children about strangers.  I know that they can’t trust everyone, but if we teach them to be afraid, we may also be teaching them to hate.  We can’t teach our children to avoid every stranger.”

Max shouted, “You don’t know what it’s like in my world.”

Max was the only one standing:  “I was eight years old the first time I saw a man murdered.  I’ve lost count of how many murders I’ve seen since then.”

A vein on his forehead looked like it was about to burst:  “I have an eleven-year-old daughter.  I’m going to teach her to fear everyone.  If hating them keeps her alive, then I hope she hates them.”

For just a moment I wished that there were metal detectors on the doors of the Salvation Army.  A few participants who had only been marginally aware of our Bible study were suddenly interested.

I shakily admitted, “I really don’t know what it’s like in your world.  You’re right.  If I lived with your concerns I’d raise my children differently.”

During the week, Max and I talked about the way our environment shapes our attitudes.  Our conversations led us to the conclusion that poor and wealthy, white and black, church attenders and those who would rather be anywhere else often start with the faulty assumption that everyone on the other side is less trustworthy.

Max made me think about the wisdom that comes from struggles beyond my experience, the dignity born of suffering, and the spiritual strength that comes with genuinely thanking God for getting through another day.

During the past week it has become clear that our country still has a long way to go.  We thought we were farther along.  Our hearts have been broken again by the news of white police officers shooting African Americans, and a black sniper killing five white police officers.   Some of the subsequent protests have been charged with the kind of racism with which we hoped we were done.

We will not find easy answers, but we can listen, learn, and ask God to help us with our fears.


The Third Time across the Brooklyn Bridge

Brett on BridgeI like running to Manhattan and I love running back to Brooklyn—though running may not be the right word.  I have trotted across the Brooklyn Bridge three times.  I go slow enough not to miss much.

According to an unreliable source, more than 4,000 pedestrians and 3,000 bicyclists cross the bridge each day.  No one is counting the scooters, skaters, and skateboarders.  The great majority are not from around here.  The parents wear Yankees caps they bought 15 minutes earlier.  The children wear foam Statue of Liberty headdresses.  They debate the merits of a New York key ring versus a New York key chain—which I’m pretty sure are the same thing.  They gawk, gaze, and ogle.  Their eyes are wide.  Their jaws are slack.

My third trip across the bridge was on July 4th.  For the first time I reacted like many real New Yorkers.  I was annoyed.

The lanes are clearly marked.  Distracted pedestrians to the left, racing bicycles to the right, and sluggish joggers on the line that divides them.  There is room for three people to walk side-by-side, so tourists tend to spread out in groups of six.  This puts the slow-moving runners on a collision course with the fast-moving bicyclists.

Tourists take lots of pictures.  The selfies are bad enough, but the selfie sticks are infuriating.  These monopods allow the photographers and their enraptured subjects to be six feet apart and send everyone into the high-speed lane.

When I pass a shutterbug I wave.  I am part of several Iowans’ photo albums of their trip to New York.  These omnipresent tourists make you understand why New Yorkers keep selling the bridge to them.

I want to say, “If you want a New York experience, don’t rent a pedicab, get in line at Grimaldi’s, or buy an Empire State Building mug.  Get a bagel at Cranberry’s and read The New York Times.”

I am at my most annoyed when, a block from home, a family from Czechoslovakia has their smiling seven-year-old—whose English must be the strongest—ask, “Where to walk Brooklyn Bridge?”

I am jealous.  They are more excited about the bridge than I am.

Here’s the problem.  On your third trip across the Brooklyn Bridge you might not notice how many love-struck couples write the date and their initials on a padlock, latch it on to a cable, and throw the key in the East River.  This romantic act represents the love that will last until the city sends workers to cut the locks off.

On your third trip across the bridge you may cease to be curious about the bridge on which you saunter.  If you don’t read the historical marker the first time you may never read it.   You might not notice that the bridge is 133 years old.  At the opening, they had a band, fireworks and President Chester Arthur.  The bridge cost $15 million.  27 people died during its construction.

On your third trip across the bridge you might not even care that early on there were rumors the bridge was going to collapse, so P.T. Barnum led a parade of 21 elephants over the bridge, or that they used to store wine under the Manhattan end, because it was easy to keep at 60 degrees.

What if I stop being amazed by this amazing bridge?

I live in the greatest city in the world.  What if I start taking it for granted?  What if I stop hearing the multiplicity of languages?  What if I cease to be astonished by the ethnic restaurants?  What if I stop noticing the Statue of Liberty?

I want to be a tourist—wide-eyed, slack-jawed, and surprised.  People come all over the world to visit my hometown, because New York is busy and beautiful and something astounding is going on all of the time.

My hometown has coffee places not named Starbucks, book stores not named Barnes and Noble, and pizza places not named Domino’s.  We have neighborhoods that do not look like the next neighborhood.  I want to feel surprise when I see dogs in baby strollers and feel peace when I sit on my stoop.  I want to be a sightseer.

We get so used to the extraordinary that we stop seeing.

To be a person of faith is to be a tourist.  In some ways, the longer Christians are at the business of being Christians, the more difficult it is.  We are dulled by our familiarity with what we have been given.  We do not feel the excitement a visitor feels.

When the community of Jesus’ followers acts the way Christ dreamed we would, there is nothing like it.  We pay attention to those around us.  We listen carefully, speak kindly, and overcome differences.  We find grace in welcoming strangers.  We are amazed.

I plan to keep running on the Brooklyn Bridge, so the tourists can teach me to see.


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