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.