Annoying People and God’s Grace

You and I try to be nice.  We are friendly.  We smile. We are kind.  Some people make it hard.  Some people are annoying.  People who park illegally, and get away with it.  People on the subway who put their phone on speaker—and it is never the conversation you want to listen in on.

I heard a person in line at Five Guys announce he is a vegetarian.  He is annoying.  People who stand in the middle of the escalator.  People who don’t know what a spoiler alert is, who insist on telling you that Bradley Cooper dies in A Star is Born.

People who use the Bible as an instrument of discrimination, self-congratulation, and exclusion are annoying.    Religious fundamentalists who insist that marriage in the Bible is between one man and one woman, while ignoring how many wives Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, David, and Solomon had.  They average more than 100 wives each, and yet no one is saying, “Marriage in the Bible is the sacred covenant between one man and his 100 wives.”

The list of annoying people includes those who do not wait for their turn to speak, because whatever they are saying is so much more important than whatever you are saying, even though they have already said what they are saying four times and it has not been smart any of the four.

Parents who complain when their child does not get the part of Hamilton in the school musical are annoying.  People who say one thing to your face and something else when you are not around.  People who nitpick everything because they have appointed themselves the editors of everything.  People who start sentences with “I’m not a racist, but.”

People who deny climate change.  What part of melting glaciers don’t you get?  2016 sets a global temperature record, which is broken in 2017, and broken again in 2018.  We have alarming increases in drought, flood, and wildfire.  No credible scientists deny global warming, but risking the planet is profitable.

Some, but not most, politicians are hard to take.  Those politicians whose goal is power, who are willing to lie, who mislead people into voting for them, and who sell their votes to organizations who are not helping the ones who need help.

They make it hard, but maybe we should try to stop being so annoyed.  We can live with a sense of mercy that makes our lives better.  We can act with kindness.

It is possible, that on rare occasions, we are annoying.  In those moments we need to remember that love and forgiveness come as gifts.  We need to get out of the judgment business.

The grace offered the disgraceful is the grace we need.  We should accept annoying people, because we have been accepted.  The hard, holy truth is that God’s grace is for everyone.

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“Amy Poehler is ruining my birthday!”

Amy Poehler and Graham, Caleb, Carol and Brett Younger at breakfast
Amy Poehler and Graham, Caleb, Carol and Brett Younger at breakfast

We took Carol to Westville Dumbo, a trendy breakfast spot, for her birthday. I could have ordered seared marinated tofu, but I went with scrambled eggs and toast. As we waited for Carol’s beets with goat cheese and sweet roasted walnuts, we took turns naming things we love about Carol – her intelligence, her infectious laughter, her patience, her editing skills, her reasonable height and her willingness to be the subject of other people’s columns.

Then Amy Poehler came in. We are a “Parks and Rec” family. All of us would love to vote for Leslie Knope, the perky, mid-level bureaucrat in the Parks Department of Pawnee, a fictional town in Indiana we would have visited by now if it existed.

Ron Swanson is our favorite libertarian, Ann Perkins our favorite nurse, Andy Dwyer our favorite shoe shiner and Mouse Rat our favorite band. (We are the kind of fans who know that every Mouse Rat song includes one of these two lyrics – “Spread your wings and fly” or “You deserve to be a champion.”)  Our family cried at Li’l Sebastian’s Memorial Service. We imagine how sweet Sweetums must be. Leslie’s hatred of libraries makes us question our love for libraries.

We have lived in Brooklyn long enough to know that when we see a celebrity, we do not acknowledge their fame. We do not touch them, talk to them, look them in the eye, ask for autographs, follow them into the bathroom or take a picture. If the celebrity happens to be in a picture the waitress takes of your family that is just a coincidence. (You can see Amy just to the left of Graham’s head.)  When this happy coincidence happens, we do not share it, tweet it or Instagram it.

We know stars are just people, so we are as chill as we can be, which is hard when the star is Amy Poehler. What is she eating? Leslie promised to “avoid salad and other disgusting things.” Wouldn’t it be great if she is eating waffles? Leslie taught us, “We have to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles and work. Or waffles, friends, work. But work has to come third.”

What if Amy Poehler says something to us, how should we respond? We do not want to say something she has heard a million times. Carol could say, “Ms. Poehler, Leslie was so right. My husband loves it when I show him I’m better than he is at something he loves.” Amy might like it if we said, “We didn’t want to bother you because Leslie pointed out that ‘One person’s annoying is another person’s inspiring and heroic.’”  After several minutes of working on what we would say if Amy Poehler decided to join us at our table, Carol announced, “Amy Poehler is ruining my birthday!”

Carol is right. If we ignore the person at our table in favor of the celebrity two tables away, then we have a problem. A culture that suggests fame is the ultimate measure of success makes us feel bad that we do not look like Ryan Gosling. Plastic surgery seems reasonable. Reality TV passes for reality. Celebrity news looks like real news. If the mostly unknown believe that being mostly known is the goal that matters most, then they are not going to feel good about themselves.

When we become more interested in fame than reality, then we need to put down Us Weekly and pick up The New York Times. We need to be able to name more senators than “Real Housewives.” We need to know more about the co-worker at the next desk than about Ariana Grande.

When celebrities whine about being famous it seems ridiculous that they are complaining about achieving something so many people want, but they have a point. Fame does not usually lead to happiness. Celebrities often feel trapped by their fame.

And yet, most of us harbor a secret desire to be famous. We crave the tiny reassurance of attention. We wait to be discovered. We are disappointed that we are not more celebrated.

Letting go of our desire to be famous could lead to better birthdays. Admiring people who do things worthy of our admiration – hard workers, loving parents, good listeners, caring teachers – could help us understand that anonymity is okay. The happiest person could be a perky, mid-level bureaucrat who enjoys life and a good breakfast.

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Learning to Love the Google Machine

I got to technology late.  I bought a new electric typewriter cheap right after they were obsolete.  I avoided email until I was the only one who had never heard from a Nigerian prince.  I don’t have a Facebook page, so someone else made one for me without me knowing it.  Did you know they could do that?

But every once in a while, a decade or so after everyone else, I experience the joy of technology.  I walk everywhere.  My office is up two flights of stairs.  Many of the people who come to church are well-dressed and expect their minister to be well-dressed.  About a month ago I put these facts together and googled “black sneakers that look like dress shoes” and found this:

shoes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am so happy with my Skeechers Dress Knit Relaxed Fit Memory Foam Oxford Shoes.  For a while I expected someone to say, “Hey, you’re wearing tennis shoes to work,” but I no longer think it is going to happen.

This has led to a new appreciation of my Google machine.  You can google your way through life.  The possibilities are amazing.

If you want to get up earlier google, “ideas for getting up earlier,” and set your coffee on a timer, put a warm robe by the bed, and tell yourself “getting up is fun.”

Google “things to do on your commute,” and listen to a podcast, make your to-do list, or get your worrying out of the way.

Google “how to get along with a grumpy co-worker,” and stay cool, take a timeout, and say their name.

Google “things to daydream about” and imagine sitting in a bathtub full of bubbles with a good book, going on a road trip with your best friend, or lunch.

Google “cures for an afternoon slump,” and rub peppermint oil on your hands, brush your teeth, or try some yoga.

If you want “ways to kill time on youtube” you can find bad lip reading, honey badger, and sneezing baby panda.

If you can’t sleep, google “when you can’t sleep,” and turn down the thermostat, take a hot shower, and drink some milk.

The Google machine has more applications to church life than you might think.

If you are having trouble “keeping your child quiet during worship,” google it, give them a phone, hand them Goldfish, or let them wear black sneakers.

Google your way to “ideas for livening up a dull Bible study” like turn down the thermostat, paint something, and use pillows instead of chairs.

Google “ideas for adding fun to a church meeting,” and throw stuffed animals at anyone who says anything negative, bring an egg timer, or go to a movie instead.

Google “how to end a column,” and use a relevant quote—“Google is your friend,” a thought-provoking fact—“Google processes 40,000 searches every second,” or echo the introduction—“I get to technology late, so you probably already knew this.”

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Simply Thankful

If we put it off until Thursday, Thanksgiving may not be the spiritual event for which we hope.  Children with families of their own will drive back to Mom and Dad’s.  Warnings will be issued to children in the back seat:  “Don’t talk about the president in front of Grandpa and Grandma.  Not the old president.  Not the new president.  Not any president.”

Parents will make bizarre promises:  “If you will just try everything, even the green stuff, we’ll go to McDonald’s on the way home.”

Wives will warn their husbands:  “If you have to watch the stupid football game, at least have the decency not to cheer.”

A new son-in-law will have the feeling that he walked into the wrong class—English literature instead of the calculus for which he studied.  Everyone else knows all the answers.  There will be names, dates, and stories for which they only use the punch line:  “We know not to let Linda fix the turkey.  Ha!  Ha!”  The poor confused son-in-law will smile stupidly, having no idea what’s going on.

Some in-laws will hope to be a little less confused at Christmas.  A few will spend Thanksgiving trying to make other plans for Christmas.

Several college students will second-guess their decision to shave their feeble attempts at moustaches rather than face the humiliating comments of their fathers.  Homes that have gotten along on ham sandwiches and microwave pizzas will see some pretty fancy cooking on November 22.

For all the trouble we go to, Thanksgiving does not really happen for everyone.  Many of us will be glad that we have what we have, but gladness is not gratefulness.  The people having turkey and dressing will outnumber those having a real experience of gratitude. Thinking about what we want is easier than thinking about what we’ve been given.  For most of us, having more has not made us more grateful.

In a letter to his yuppie nephew, Henri Nouwen writes:  “Increasing prosperity has not made people friendlier toward one another.  They are better off, but that newfound wealth has not resulted in a new sense of community.  I get the impression that people are more preoccupied with themselves than when they didn’t possess so much.  There is less opportunity to relax, get together informally, and enjoy the little things of life.  Success has isolated a lot of people and made them lonely.  The higher up you get on the ladder of prosperity the harder it becomes to be together, sing together, pray together, and celebrate together in the spirit of Thanksgiving.”

God calls us to more than a pause to say thanks.  God invites us to spend our lives gratefully responding to God’s goodness.

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Why Big Bird and Oscar Cannot Retire

carollspinneyseason45Six-year-olds are going to ask, “Does Big Bird have a cold?” “What’s wrong with Oscar?” “Who are they trying to fool?”

Caroll Spinney, the man inside Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, is retiring after nearly fifty years of delivering comforting lines like “Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best” and grouchy lines like “Now leave me alone and get lost!”

Spinney is 84 years old and knows what he is doing, but I keep thinking, “What is he doing?”

Where do you go to retire when you have been on Sesame Street since 1969? What neighborhood is going to have such sunny days? Where is the air going to be so sweet? Where will he find such friendly neighbors? Does he understand that there are not many places where everything’s A-Okay? How can a retirement community be an improvement when you have lived on a street where birds, monsters, and people live in harmony?

Spinney met his wife Debra in 1972 while in the Big Bird costume. What woman would not be impressed? He is going miss wearing bright yellow feathers and being 8 feet, 2 inches tall.

Big Bird danced with the Rockettes. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and his likeness on a stamp. He conducted symphony orchestras. Big Bird starred in his own movie Follow That

Bird and guest starred on Saturday Night Live, The West Wing and The Colbert Report. He has been the BBF (best bird friend) for so many children.

When asked how he could still be six years old after being around for so long Big Bird replied, “Just lucky, I guess.”

Why would anyone want to leave Sesame Street?

Maybe the inside of Big Bird—like Sesame Street itself—is a little claustrophobic. Spinney may feel the need to spread his wings and fly. Perhaps there is a clue in that once, while in an airplane, Big Bird said, “Isn’t flying wonderful? It makes me feel like a bird.”

Do people eventually get tired of sunny days, cloudless skies, and friendly neighbors? Could it be that we can only be kind and sweet for so long?

That is why we need Oscar. What could be more therapeutic than being both Big Bird and Oscar? A tender, nurturing, childlike avian is great, but there is a part of us that is a crabby, trash-talking, green monster. Big Bird and Oscar are yin and yang, Jekyll and Hyde, Mary Kate and Ashley. Oscar’s different perspective reminds us that there are other perspectives.

Big Bird shows us how to be kind, but Oscar teaches us that it is okay to be grouchy. Sometimes we do not want to talk, and that is fine. We can think—even if we should not say—“Scram!” “Get lost!” “Go away!” We can be cranky without being a bad person.

Caroll Spinney may find the world outside his old neighborhood is easier for Oscar than Big Bird. Most places are not as pristine as Sesame Street. Most air is not that sweet. Some neighbors are more irritating than Bert and Ernie.

Most of us have days when we might as well live in a garbage can. We act like Big Bird, while we feel like Oscar. We are gentle, disgruntled and lovable. We need to be in touch with the grouch that stands up for what is right.

We need the joy of a gargantuan canary, but we also need the feistiness of a complaining Muppet. We need to know our bad moods are not the end of the world. That could be how we get to Sesame Street.

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Ministers Telling People How to Vote

Ministers who are sane do not want to tell people how to vote.  If the minister is in the majority of a red or blue congregation, then taking a side is picking on the one guy who wears a MAGA hat to the potluck or the one woman who has an I’m too poor to vote Republican bumper sticker on her Prius.  If the minister is in the minority, then he or she can survive only a limited number of endorsements.  If the congregation is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, then championing candidates is asking for angry emails.

Being a minister has gotten harder since the 2016 election.  When a sermon refers to President Trump by name the preacher has to answer for it during coffee hour.  Mentioning poverty, integrity, or compassion sounds political.  Speaking against greed, violence, xenophobia, homophobia, or sexism is controversial.  Politics is depressing, because some important religious issues are not listed in either party’s talking points.

Caring for the poor is a religious issue.  The world’s great faiths insist on feeding the hungry.  While officials argue over who represents the middle class, only a few put forth policies that offer poor families a real chance.

War is a religious issue.  Many seem to have forgotten that our nation has troops in Afghanistan.  The suggestion that we love our enemies would sound strange on who-can-scream-the-loudest talk shows.

Telling the truth is a religious issue.  Politicians have a shrinking concern for accuracy.  Constituents give their side a free pass.

Few politicians make serious efforts to consider how free trade could alleviate hunger, basic medical coverage could ease suffering, or concern for justice in the international arena could reduce anger towards our country.

Religious people are smart enough to consider issues beyond the last partisan punchline.  Immigration, prison reform, and the environment matter to religious people because our faiths have something to say about hospitality, revenge, and creation.

Imagine how good government could be if those who say God is love took love for the poor, the desire for peace, and an insistence on honesty into the voting booth.  What wonderful things would happen if our values were derived from virtue rather than partisanship?

Sincere people of faith vote for different candidates for reasons deeply rooted in their faith.  They disagree on how to educate children, promote racial understanding, and support gender equality, but they share frustration with politicians who appeal to individual interests, national interests, and special interests.  Religious faith leads away from narrow-mindedness to concern for the good of others.

Religious organizations have no business endorsing candidates, but they have an obligation to share the best of their traditions.  Ministers do not get to avoid the call for justice in order to avoid appearing political.

Religious people disagree on how to care for refugees, but ministers have to preach that it is not acceptable to separate children from their parents.

Religious people disagree on what a prison should look like, but ministers have to preach care for those who are imprisoned.

Religious people disagree on how to respond to victims of sexual assault, but ministers have to preach the necessity of listening.

Religious people can offer ideas beyond politics as usual, speaking for political reform where the insights of faith intersect societal concerns.  The movements for civil rights, women’s suffrage, and child labor laws began with religious people.  When debates focus on which candidate will make voters richest, religious people can be a voice for the oppressed.

The United States is a remarkable country with lofty goals.  Even when disappointed by the choices they have been given, religious people appreciate the privilege of voting.  Ministers should encourage their congregations to pay attention to more than the superficial and vote with concern for all on Tuesday.

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Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

The church has taken centuries to understand that in a world that is asleep, coffee is no doze.  Opening the church to coffee drinkers has been a long, difficult struggle.  Coffee dates back to the fifteenth century and the Sufi monasteries of Yemen.  The legend is that the mystic Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili was traveling in Ethiopia.  He saw birds acting unusually lively, and upon trying the berries that the birds had been eating, experienced the same vitality.  Coffee was soon part of religious practice in the Islamic world.  The Sufis used the beverage to keep themselves alert during nighttime devotions and as a kind of spiritual intoxication when they chanted the name of God.

Because Muslims loved coffee, several Christian groups, including The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, made a big brouhaha and banned coffee.  Mormons still avoid this potion made with magic beans.

Churches need to wake up and smell the coffee.  When we ask Siri to “find coffee” she lists four places within 800 feet of Plymouth.  Our neighborhood has more coffee shops than churches.

Coffee is the most important meal of the day for many.  In the midst of the daily grind, coffee is invigorating.  A yawn is a silent scream for coffee.  Sleep is a symptom of caffeine deprivation.  Coffee smells like freshly ground heaven and tastes like hopes and dreams.

When we are holding a cup of coffee, the warmth radiates through our hands.  The smell drifts through the air.  The cream goes into black coffee and magically changes it into good to the last drop caramel. This sensual experience helps our sleepy selves greet the day with gratitude.  We reflect on what we are worried about and what we now have the energy to achieve.

Worship would be less lively without a cup of joy.  We can tell a lot about a church from how they caffeinate worshippers.  My parents’ Baptist church is Folgers.  Unitarians drink fair trade coffee.  Mennonites have Kuerig committees that wash and recycle those little cups.  Presbyterians have long filled their fellowship halls for the sacrament of coffee hour.  Catholics serve decaf at midnight mass.  Sharing coffee is a way of saying, “We love you a latte.”

The church house at Plymouth was built with coffee money.  In the early 1900s, the Arbuckle Brothers’ coffee factory in Brooklyn roasted more coffee than any other building in the world.  John Arbuckle, “the Coffee King,” changed how coffee was made.  He roasted and ground coffee beans onsite and packaged the coffee in one-pound bags.  Coffee money paid for the Plymouth Institute.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” is an offer of friendship.  Coffee turns a counseling session into a conversation between friends.  Saying “Yes” to coffee at the end of a meal is a promise to hang around.

Here is a question that will begin to percolate one day.  Would coffee be a better symbol for communion?  Grape juice is dull.  Wine puts you to sleep.  Coffee refreshes, revives, and stimulates.  The Lord’s Table could be a coffee table.  If we drank coffee at communion, we could get rid of the tiny shot glasses.  Picture those little communion cup holders on the backs of pews becoming real cup holders.  Coffee would be a fine symbol for the enlivening of the Spirit that happens at the table.

When we celebrate communion it will be with wine and grape juice, but there will be coffee in Hillis so we can fill the church with sweetness and light.

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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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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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