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.