Christmas Lights

Every once in a while I see a jogger and react in a way that is incomprehensible to thinking people.  I say to myself, “I should start jogging.”  One spring a few years ago, during such a period of insanity, I began running around a couple of blocks.  The highlight of my stroll was passing an out of the ordinary yard not far from our house.  At night, when the lights are on, it can’t be missed.  The most striking feature is the Christmas lights.  The lights, which cover a Mulberry tree, are a startling variety of colors.  A red birdhouse with a black roof invites passersby to “See Rock City.”  A big red bow adorns a holly wreath.  It’s hard not to smile at the yard.

In a conversation with someone who lived a few doors down I asked, “What’s the story with your neighbor’s Christmas lights?  That’s an interesting yard.”

The yard is not as amusing to him as it is to me:  “Those stupid Christmas lights have been up for years.  It makes me furious when I think about what that yard does to my property values.  I am sorely tempted to buy a BB gun just to shoot those &%$* lights!”

I started to rethink my feelings.  Perhaps the yard wasn’t as wonderful as I originally thought.  Maybe I would feel differently if I lived next door.  Then one evening, as I was leisurely making my way I saw a woman working in “the yard” just up ahead.  I sped up so that ten minutes later, when I was in need of a break anyway, I was able to stop and say:  “Your yard is really interesting.  Is there a story behind the Christmas lights?”

She smiled, “Yes, there is.”

She pointed to the house across the street and identified a particular window:  “The elderly woman who lives there came to stay with her children seven years ago.  She’s in her nineties now and seldom leaves her room.  After her first Christmas here she went on and on about how much she enjoyed looking at the lights and bright colors in our yard.  We’re the only view she has.  When Christmas was over, we didn’t have the heart to take the lights down.  We decided that as long as she’s around, we’d leave the lights on.”

In a world full of darkness, we need to leave the lights on.

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Questions Ginsburg should ask the baker’s lawyer

The most famous bakery in Lakewood, Colorado, is focusing on birthday cakes for a while. In 2012, Dave Mullins and Charlie Craig walked into Masterpiece Cakeshop to purchase a cake for their wedding reception. The owner refused to serve them because they are a same-sex couple.

Jack Phillips’ lawyers will soon be before the Supreme Court. Their argument is that Christians should be allowed to discriminate against those who do not agree with their interpretation of the Bible. Phillips is now a favorite of the right-wing for standing up for Christian business owners’ right to say who should be married.

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission thinks it would be simpler to treat everyone equally under the law. They argue that acting like a bigot is not a right, and that since Phillips’ shop serves the public he has to serve all the public.

Most assume that the Supreme Court’s job in this case is to decide if religious beliefs are a license to discriminate, but there is another way to look at this. If Phillips is really committed to biblical laws, then he should be committed to all of them. Instead of asking if it should be legal to run a heterosexuals only bakery, we should ask who else a biblical legalist should turn away. Refusing to make devil’s food cakes for gay couples may not be enough.

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for the weddings of divorced people? Jesus never mentions gay people, but he says, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery (Matthew 19:9).” If Phillips is claiming a Christian exemption from U.S. law, how can the baker enforce shaky interpretations of a few obscure texts and ignore the words of Christ?

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for people who are overweight? “The glutton shall come to poverty” (Proverbs 23:21). Should the bakery be encouraging sinful behavior?

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for people with tattoos?  “You shall not … tattoo any marks upon you” (Leviticus 19:28). Recognizing tattooed customers is easier than recognizing gay customers.

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for witches? “You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live” (Exodus 22:18). The bakery’s order form could include the question, “Are you a female sorcerer?”

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for people who wear jewelry (1 Timothy 2:9), own a gun (Isaiah 2:4), or say the Pledge of Allegiance (Matthew 5:34-35)?

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission on December 5. The Court should not let prejudiced people use the name Christian as an excuse to act in opposition to God’s love. Christians should be the first in line to argue for equality for all.

When Christians go to court to defend their own bigotry, they should be forced to admit the inconsistency of what they claim to believe. Citizens are allowed to have deeply held beliefs that make no sense, but citizens should not get to discriminate.

Religious freedom is the freedom to worship without fear of persecution. Religious freedom is not the freedom to decide who gets angel food cake.

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Someone’s praying, Lord, that we sing Kum ba Yah

The next time someone says, “We don’t need a Kum ba Yah moment,” tell them, “I think we do.”

Musicians who did not know how to play Kum ba Yah were once afraid to take their guitars to camp.  Many of us remember sitting in front of a crackling fire, trying to find the distance at which our front side was not about to burst into flames and our backside was not frozen.  At a deep Kum ba Yah level, the warmth of the fire was catching.  Singing “Someone’s praying, Lord” felt like praying, “Someone’s crying, Lord” felt like shared sorrow, and “Someone’s singing, Lord,” felt like hope.  Lots of us felt that way—and we thought it was cool to sing an African song—even if that was not actually the case.

I learned Kum ba Yah with hand motions.  You can guess the movements for “Someone’s praying,” “Someone’s crying,” and “Someone’s singing.”  I wrote new lyrics for which the motions write themselves:  “Someone’s fishing, Lord,” “Someone’s itching, Lord,” and “Someone’s bowling, Lord.”

Children of the sixties sang Kum ba Yah with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Joan Baez’ version included the stanza, “No more wars, my Lord.”  Raffi recorded it for his Baby Beluga album.  There is a mashup involving Ozzy Osbourne that is not helpful, and a rap metal version Kumba Yo! that ministers cannot recommend.  Lots of singers have pleaded for God to “Come by here.”

We do not know who to thank for Kum ba Yah.  One story is that Rev. Martin Frey of New York wrote Come by Here in 1939 and taught it to an eleven-year-old boy.  The boy’s missionary family carried it to Africa where it was put into the Angolan dialect and brought back to the United States.  The problem is that no word close to Kum ba Yah exists in any language spoken in Angola.

Versions of the song were recorded in South Carolina as early as 1926.  The phrase “Kum ba yah” may be a Gullah version of “Come by here.”  The first ones to sing “Someone’s crying, Lord” were African Americans suffering under Jim Crow.  (Indefensibly, most hymnals continue to give Martin Frey credit.)

When people mention Kum ba Yah today it is usually with cynicism.  An African American spiritual in which hurting people plead for God’s help has been turned into a term of derision.  You have to wonder if racism is at work when someone says “I’m not interested in holding hands and singing Kum ba Yah.”

Our culture tends to denigrate compassion.  To join hands and sing Kum ba Yah is to pray together asking God to care for the hurting.  Who decided it was helpful to mock the longing for God or the history of an oppressed people?  Far from pretending everything is fine, Kum ba Yah springs from a much-tested faith.  Someone’s crying and yet they are still strong enough to sing.

In the civil rights era, Kum ba Yah was a call to action.  Kum ba Yah is now shorthand for hopefulness that should not be trusted.  A song about looking to God for courage is laughed at for being naïve.

I have grown weary of the way our culture considers cynicism smart and optimism naïve.  We have more than enough skepticism, sarcasm, and negativism.  We need more compassion, warmth and hopefulness.  We need to debate less and care more.  We need to impress each other not with how many facts we know, but with how honest we are about what we are feeling.

The older I get the more I long for Kum ba Yah moments.  I have spent years learning to be suspicious of warm feelings.  Now I ache for genuine love.

We do not need sharper reasoning nearly so much as we need new hearts.  When we get tired of words, we need to pray for God to fill our souls.  We need hope that pushes bitterness away.

Last weekend at our church retreat, we sat around a campfire and sang Kum ba Yah.  It felt real, and the s’mores were delicious.

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Hope is elusive, so look harder

Many of us are exhausted, sad, and angry.  We need strength.  We need hope.  We need God.  When the world is hard, we have to look harder.  We are detectives searching for clues.  Hope does not shout, but if we listen carefully we hear whispers.  Hopeful things are happening, but we have to pay attention.

This week, a child in California gave a firefighter a hug.

A congressperson had second thoughts about assault rifles.

A relief worker in Puerto Rico handed a bottle of water to someone who was thirsty.  He did not throw paper towels.

A diplomat from North Korea and a diplomat from the United States shared a pizza.

A 60-year-old ordered his morning coffee in Spanish for the first time.

A white NFL player asked an African American player why he was kneeling during the anthem, and listened to his response.

A black judge acquitted a white racist of a false murder charge.

A white police officer asked a black teenager how the police could be more helpful.

A Christian minister invited an imam to talk to her church’s youth group.

A senior citizen who has never been to a protest marched in support of immigrants.

An office manager sent a memo to the CEO pointing out that women are still paid less.

A father who thinks of himself as old school told his gay son how proud he is.

A homeless veteran went to Plymouth Church for dinner and a good night’s sleep.

A shopper at a car dealership decided to buy a hybrid.

A neighbor talked to an elderly woman sitting on her stoop.

A sophomore changed his major to social work.

An angry man started to make an angry phone call, but then hung up.

A book group picked Frederick Buechner for their next book.

A fan at a Bruce Springsteen concert believed again.

A scientist who usually watches MSNBC watched Fox News and thought, “I can understand how someone would feel that way.”

A bald man decided that hair is overrated.

A mother gave in and got her eight-year-old a puppy.

A couple going through a divorce decided to put the children first.

An architect received a text from an old friend inviting her to lunch.

A cabdriver picked up a fare in a wheelchair and took her to Key Food for free.

A doctor told an artist that she is going to have a girl.

A retired teacher laughed out loud for the first time since his wife’s death.

The world’s problems are devastating, so we keep looking for hope.  We do not need to pretend everything is okay.  We need to pay attention to the hope that surrounds us.

 

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The Face of Jesus

I grew up going to church three times a week, but I was in college before I heard anyone say that Christians have a responsibility to feed the hungry.  What could be more obvious?  If someone you love was starving, you would do everything you could to save his or her life.  The gospel Jesus taught makes it clear that someone God loves is starving.

What do we look like from God’s perspective?  Imagine that you have two children.  One child is trapped in a country where hard-working people are starving.  The second is in a wealthy country and has more than enough.  What would you think if the second child did not try to save his or her sibling?  Would you wonder if the child who does not give is a real Christian?  How is this different from how God views us?

At the close of worship this Sunday we will give an offering to feed the hungry in Cameroon through the Mission School of Hope.  (Click here to see how our gifts will be shared.)  In general, our responses will fall into three categories.

  1. “If only I had read The Plymouth Blog I would have known this was a Sunday to stay home in bed. I don’t come to church to hear ‘If you are a Christian, you will care about these people.’  I refuse to feel guilty because I have more than other people.”
  2. “I can’t think about starving children without breaking down and crying. I feel awful about it, but the problem is so overwhelming.  My heart breaks every time I think about it, but what can I do?”
  3. “I wish I could come up with a good enough excuse not to help, but if I listen to Jesus at all, then I have to admit that the face of each starving child is also the face of Christ. As hard as it is to give, it is even harder to imagine looking Jesus in the face and explaining why I didn’t give.”

The statistics on hunger are overwhelming.  800 million people around the world are hungry.  Every 4 seconds someone dies from hunger.  About 24,000 people die every day from hunger-related causes.  Most of the victims are children.

The statistics are so overwhelming that it is possible to forget that our offering will make a real difference for real children in Cameroon.

The Talmud says:  Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now.  Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

On Sunday, you and I have the opportunity to do the right thing.   Here are the details on how you can make a difference.

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Sanctuary

Mother Neff Church had one room, six pews, the organ we received when the funeral home closed, a communion table that used to be a desk, and me, a college sophomore for a pastor.  We were in Central Texas, six miles from any town with enough people to have a church.

I always arrived two hours before worship to get everything ready.  In the winter I started a fire in the wood stove.  In the spring I opened the windows.  In the summer I turned on the fans.

I swept every Sunday.  The rhythm of the broom made sweeping feel holy.

Before anyone else came, when it was just me and God, we had a worship service.  I preached the sermon, prayed the prayers, and sang the hymns.  Preaching a sermon with only God in attendance felt less self-serving.  Praying with only God listening felt more like praying.  Singing without the fear of someone hearing felt like praise.

I pictured the people who would be there at 11:00.  Ruth was the undisputed  matriarch.  She offered me the job of pastor and got church approval later.  Betty, Ruth’s daughter-in-law, raised three good children, worked at the furniture factory, and longed for her mother-in-law’s approval.  Clay, who operated at half-speed after his heart attack, was my first hospital visit.  I prayed that he wouldn’t die, because I was afraid to preach his funeral.

Preaching to the empty sanctuary was easier than preaching after they arrived.  When I imagined them sitting there, they hung on my every word.

Thirty-seven years of ministry later, I am not sure a nineteen-year-old should be a pastor.  Should a congregation have to raise the minister?  Still, sometimes when I sweep, and it’s just me and God, I remember how I learned to worship.

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Trump is Lying, and We Have to Keep Listening

We cannot live in community if lies carry the same weight as truth, if bad words are allowed to destroy good ones.  We cannot get used to the President’s lies.  We cannot accept alternative facts.  We cannot stop insisting on honesty.

Lots of people who have the Ten Commandments hanging on their wall are tempted to ignore the ninth one, but we have to keep paying attention.  Presidents have been dishonest for a long time, but it has always been our job to hold them accountable.  Our work is harder now, because no president of either party has had so little regard for reality.  Presidents need to get in trouble when they lie.

Trump lies about the tremendous size of his electoral victory, the amazing number of people at his inauguration, and the huge number of times he has been on the cover of Time.  He lies about health care, voter fraud, wiretapping, his tax returns, trade deficits, vetting for immigrants, terror attacks in Sweden, and a non-existent apology from The New York Times.  He lies about things that are easily checked—like a non-existent phone call from Mexico’s president calling to praise Trump’s immigration policy.

If Donald Trump had been our first president, he would claim the cherry tree is still standing while holding an ax and eating cherries.  Kellyanne Conway would roll her eyes and back him up.

We cannot say, “That’s Trump being Trump.”  We cannot believe that truth does not matter, because truth is bigger than the presidency.

Conventional wisdom is that the lies are hurting Trump and his policies, but the truth is that lies set everyone’s pants on fire.  Trump may have been elected president not in spite of his lies, but because of them.  His presidency may be the result of our lack of integrity.

We have to understand that justice depends on people telling the truth.  Lies are matches that destroy forests that have been growing for decades.  Lies turn harmony into hatred.  Lies makes us forget how good honesty is.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “There is no God higher than truth.”  Lying hurts everyone by distancing us from the higher truth.  When our leaders love partisan politics more than truth, the whole country loses its way.

We need to be indignant when the President lies.  We cannot let untruths pass unchallenged without damage to our souls.  We need to defend truth, because truth is our best defense.

The words we hear affect our hearts—even when we wish they did not.  We are what we hear.  We need leaders who know how to bless us with what they say.  We need words that heal.  We need words that make us better.

We need to make America honest again.

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Donald Trump Stole My Old Church

When I was a high school senior I became angry with my church.  The story of Jesus was leading me away from what they taught me.  I wondered if they had read the Bible they kept telling me to read.

Here is a partial list of things I stopped believing.  Christians are going to fly up into the sky any minute.  The earth is 6000 years old.  Budweiser is the devil’s poison.  Women are disqualified from telling the Christian story if there is a pulpit in front of them.  Gay organists can serve the church only if they are not seen in public with their partners.  The Pope is the anti-Christ.  My Jewish friends are going to burn in hell forever.  Everyone who smokes marijuana should be executed.  Kindergarten teachers should carry handguns.  Poor people get what they deserve.  I decided that my church was filled with narrow-minded fundamentalists who were not worthy of my new enlightened state.

But as time passed, I made peace with the church of my childhood.  I have been growing more appreciative.  They may have taught me a few terrible things, but they also introduced me to Jesus.  I defended them by saying that my old church is a victim of the culture.

Here is a partial list of the lies I told myself.  The people in my old church are not against women, but actually believe they are defending the family.  They sound racist because they are afraid.  They appear homophobic only because they do not know gay people.  They will stop being prejudiced against Muslims as soon as they meet Muslims.  They defend gun ownership because they love hunting.  Their hostility towards the poor is a misunderstanding of the American dream.

I convinced myself that while much of what they believe goes against the teachings of Christ, they are Christians at heart.  I was wrong.

Two weeks ago, I went to my parents’ church.  I had not been to a service there in thirty-five years.  The peace I had made with my childhood church began to fall apart.

The pickups in the parking lot had Trump/Pence bumper stickers.  American flags were in the front yard, the front of the sanctuary, and on the front of the order of worship.  The congregation sang God Bless America, My Country Tis of Thee, and Onward Christian Soldiers.  I heard, “We could use more fire and brimstone,” “We finally have a president who is doing what needs to be done,” and “We have to get rid of Obamacare right now.”

87% of my parents’ church-infested county voted for Trump.  Donald Trump has made it obvious that my old church is not filled with followers of Christ.  You cannot follow Jesus and support a tax cut for the rich that would end health care to millions of the oldest, poorest, and sickest people.  You cannot follow Jesus and hate minorities.  You cannot follow Jesus and treat women as inferior.

When faced with the choice of following Christ by caring for the hungry or supporting a politician who promises to make the rich richer, my old church ignores the faith they profess.  When given the opportunity to extend hospitality to refugees, my old church chooses bigotry.  When responding to a dishonest President, my old church defends the lies.

I have come to the painful realization that God is not the point of my old church.  My old church is shaped more by Fox News than Jesus’ Good News.  My old church is a chaplain to nationalism, patriarchy, and nostalgia.  My old church is the enemy of the environment, science, and equality.

I am not going to defend my old church any more.  If you are acting like a racist, homophobe, or misogynist in 2017, then you are a racist, homophobe, or misogynist.

How can anyone think that a church that celebrates Donald Trump is what Jesus had in mind?

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The Birds and Bees (and How They Fly)

I was ten years old, lying on the couch reading an Archie comic book.  (I am embarrassed to admit that I liked Veronica more than Betty.)  My father came in wearing Ward Cleaver’s face: “Brett, put your novel away.  There’s something I should have talked to you about by now, but I’ve been putting it off, because I wasn’t sure you were old enough to understand.  We’re going to have a convebrett-fathers-day-blogrsation I think you’ll always remember.”

I was thinking what you are thinking.  My father just offered Andy Taylor’s introduction to the birds-and-the-bees talk.  What I wanted to say was, “Dad, you gave this speech a month ago.  I don’t want to hear it again.  You said that if I had questions I should check back.  I will never do that, but I appreciate the offer.”

How could my father forget that we already had this discussion? (“Discussion” means he talked and I listened.)  And yet, inexplicably, he had forgotten.  It was going to be at least five tortuous minutes before I learned who Archie was taking to the big dance at Riverdale High.

I expected to hear, “When a man and a woman love each other very much” but Dad opened with, “It’s time to talk about how an airplane flies.”

He had several model airplanes with him.  My father gave a speech that lasted longer than five minutes: “An airplane flies because its wings create lift, the upward force on the plan, as they interact with the flow of air around them.  The wings alter the direction of the flow of air as it passes.”

When I thought he would be getting to “a woman is different from a man” he was saying, “The exact shape of the surface of a wing is critical to its ability to generate lift.  The speed of the airflow and the angle at which the wing meets the oncoming air stream contribute to the amount of lift generated.”

We did not get to first dates or anything interesting, but Dad covered drag, acceleration, and aeronautical theory.

Forty-six years later I more often recall Dad’s “how planes fly” sermon than his “where babies come from” speech.  I appreciate the “everything you always wanted to know about aviation” address, because it was my father at his most authentic.  He worked hard to pass down his love for model airplanes (we tried, but I never got it), the Dallas Cowboys (my teenage rebellion was rooting against America’s Team), westerns (I like The Searchers), and Frank Sinatra (I’m right with dad on Ol’ Blue Eyes).

Good fathers share what they love.  Father’s Day is a chance to be thankful for every good gift our fathers tried to give us — even the flying lessons that never got off the ground.

Note:  The photo above is a clever re-creation of a 1971 conversation.

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People I Don’t Need to Listen to

The New York Times has too many pages.  I download more podcasts than I can play.  I cannot read half of what my friends post on Facebook—particularly one recipe-happy friend.   I cannot hear, read, or notice a significant portion of what is calling for my attention.

People who claim to know such things say that listeners can follow 1.2 conversations at a time.  I can completely follow one conversation and one fifth of another.   I can catch half of two conversations and one fifth of the third.  I can follow three fifths of two conversations.  But I cannot hear it all.

Some news shows feature three conversations going at the same time.  The assumption seems to be that we will listen to whoever shouts the loudest.  I cannot hear over the cacophony, so I have concluded that I need to listen less.

I need to ignore some conversations.  I do not need to hear people who do not listen themselves, who do not empathize, or whose voices are full of hatred.

I should be leery of people who are paid to offer opinions.  People who use their judgments to get wealthier are not the first people I need to hear.

I can stop reading editorials that only repeat what I already think.  I can give a rest to flipping through channels to find someone saying what I want to hear.

I should not listen to people whose job is to defend bad ideas.  I can turn off commentators who tell prejudiced people that they are not prejudiced.

I do not need to hear people who come to conclusions too easily.  Listening to those who do not care is not the best use of my time.

I do not need to hear white people explaining what it is like to be black.  I should listen to the victims of prejudice.

I do not need to hear those who critique Islam without having read the Koran.  I should listen to committed Muslims.

I do not need to hear mean-spirited people with no evidence who enjoy saying that immigrants are the reason their cousin cannot find a job.  I should listen to hard-working immigrants and the children of immigrants.

I do not need to hear wealthy people pontificate on health care.  I should listen to the sick, the elderly, and doctors in underserved areas.

I do not need to hear someone in a two thousand dollar suit telling poor people how to manage their finances.  I should listen to the ones who struggle to put food on the table.

I do not need to hear those who do not care about children escaping from Syria, bigoted people who do not have gay friends, or rich men on their third marriage who want to tell a poor woman what to do about her pregnancy.  I should listen more to refugees, committed gay couples, and those with a uterus.

I need to hear people who do not sound like me.  I need to listen to those who do not have a Twitter account.  If the person I am listening to does not really love, then I am giving myself permission not to listen.  I cannot hear everyone, so I need to listen more to those who are not often heard.

I have been thinking about listening as we prepare for Sunday’s annual meeting.   As always, we need to listen carefully to one another.  We need to listen most carefully to the words that come from loving hearts.

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