How Churches Contribute to Anti-Semitism

The shooter in the synagogue in Poway, California, in April turned out to be a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  The church released a statement: “We are wounded to the core that such an evil could have gone out from our community.  Such hatred has no place in any part of our beliefs and practices, for we seek to shape our whole lives according to the love and gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“Wounded to the core” is a good start, but where is the word of repentance?  Where is the self-examination that leads to change and different outcomes?  Churches do not often think about how they encourage anti-Semitism.

Harassment of Jews is increasing worldwide.  The U.K. has recorded its highest number of anti-Semitic attacks in each of the last three years.  In the U.S. more than half of religious hate crimes are aimed at Jews, even though Jews represent less than 2% of the population.

The church has contributed a particularly ugly strain of anti-Semitism.  In the twelfth century, Christians came up with the horrible idea of blood libel.  This lie was that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes.  On as many as a hundred occasions Christians massacred Jews in response to the disappearance of a child.

Martin Luther, who may be the most important figure in the last 500 years of Christian history, was anti-Semitic.  He wrote a treatise, The Jews and Their Lies, which includes the line “we are at fault in not slaying them.”  Historians tend to say that Luther was great except for his anti-Semitism—which is embarrassing for the historians.  You cannot be great and anti-Semitic.

A line can be drawn from Martin Luther’s influence to the Holocaust.  Centuries of Christian anti-Semitism made Hitler possible.  In 1936, the Baptist World Alliance met in Berlin under the banner of the swastika and received greetings from Hitler.  Baptists returned to the United States to report on the wonderful things happening in Germany.

The Catholic Church played a role in the rise of Nazism.  John Cornwall’s biography of Pius 12 was titled Hitler’s Pope.  The church has not just been on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of Christianity.

Most churches do not think they are anti-Semitic, but allow small attacks on Judaism that make larger attacks more likely.  Churches should ask, “Would an anti-Semitic person be uncomfortable in our congregation?” because every person in the church should know that anti-Semitism is antithetical to Christianity.

The names “Old Testament” and “New Testament” are themselves unfair, but some Christian preachers suggest the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament, that the Old Testament God is angry while the New Testament God is merciful.  This is not true to Judaism or Christianity.

Christians often fail to recognize that the Gospels describe arguments within Judaism and not arguments between Judaism and Christianity—which did not yet exist.  Jesus is often set in opposition to first century Judaism as though Jesus was the only one who valued women or worked for the oppressed.  Jesus learned to value women and care for the poor from his Jewish context.  When Jesus said, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor,” he was quoting the Hebrew Scriptures.  Putting down Judaism to make Jesus look good makes no sense.

Christians need to see what is at stake.  Anti-Semitism is by definition a repudiation of Christianity as well as of Judaism, and an enemy of pluralism and democracy.  Religious intolerance breeds greater intolerance.

A Christian youth minister takes her middle schoolers to a service at a Jewish synagogue.  Afterwards a fourteen-year-old says, “They do what we do.  They sing.  They read the Bible.  They pray.  They stole our stuff.”

Churches can start with the simple step of remembering that Jesus was Jewish.  Christians should encourage an appreciation for Judaism, because the best Christian values are Jewish.

On most Sundays a few Jewish people worship with Plymouth Church.  You might think that would not change anything, but it does.  I show a greater respect for our Jewish heritage, quote more Jewish scholars, and speak out more often on incidents of anti-Semitism.  I have learned that I need to preach as though there are always Jewish people present.  Congregations need to listen as though there are always Jewish people present.

Last month I preached at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue on a Friday evening and Rabbi Serge Lippe preached at our church on a Sunday morning.  We did this because we need to learn more about and from each other.  I need this to be more Christian.

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Hungering for a Christian response to Mississippi’s veggie burger ban

Right now someone in Mississippi typing on the keyboard an announcement about the church cookout is being forced to take a controversial stand. Does the church follow the new state law or continue to serve “veggie burgers”?

How many churches will have the courage to throw a shroom burger on the grill? How many congregations will be torn apart by this divisive issue?

Mississippi lawmakers recently ended their long, statewide nightmare by banning the marketing of “veggie burgers.” They say the law will put an end to the unfortunate incidents that have ruined the lives of carnivorous consumers who have accidentally tasted tofu. Their argument centers on the thought-provoking question: Why do the makers of these “burgers” become vegan if the first thing they do is make them look and taste like meat?

Lawsuits from vegetarian-friendly groups are trying to overturn the restrictions on the use of meat-related terms for plant-based foods. The lawsuit denounces “meat label censorship” and claims, “The ban serves only to create consumer confusion where none previously existed.”

It is no longer enough for a label to say “100% vegan.” The law, which was passed in March and took effect on July 1, protects meat products (like hamburgers) from being mistaken for plant-based alternatives (like veggie burgers) by barring the use of the term “burger” to refer to veggie burgers. Perpetrators can go to prison – taken away in a patty wagon – for printing the words “veggie burger.”

Prisoner 1: “I robbed a bank. What are you in for?”
Carl Jr.: “I called a burger a Veg-It Thickburger.”

You might wonder if this is a real problem. Is the phrase “veggie burger” unclear? Haven’t we been calling them veggie, vegan and tofu burgers for decades?

Are people going to grocery stores, picking up veggie burgers without reading the label, throwing them on the grill, and biting into them before realizing they are eating vegan fare? God forbid a Mississippi resident should unwittingly taste a plant-based burger thinking they are eating highly processed meat filled with cancer causing nitrates. No one wants to be tricked into a healthier option.

This is complicated. What happens when food scientists come up with cell-based meat products which are identical to meat from animals but grown from stem cells in a factory? Will Jon Hamm and Kevin Bacon have to change their names? Did they consider going further and saying the term “burger” can only be applied to a grilled patty sandwich made in the traditional method within the Hamburg region of Germany? What about calling it a “plantwich” or “planturger”? Or, as a nod to presidential spelling, “hamberder”?

burgerDo people who buy a burger labeled “veggie burger” thinking it comes from a cow have a right to feel misled? Are reasonable consumers deceived by “meatless steaks” and “vegan jerky?” This law raises difficult questions for legislators concerned that hamburgers are not ham, hot dogs are not dogs, circus peanuts are not peanuts, Buffalo wings are not buffalo, and refried beans are not fried twice. What about almond milk?

A cynical person might think the meat industry wants to stifle competition. The Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association, which pushed for the new law, seems to have more political influence than vegans in Mississippi. The state is run by the party of small government, but being a vegetarian is as un-American as reducing gun violence.

Churches afraid to bite into the veggie burger issue could divert attention by pointing out a long list of problems bigger than lentil burgers that Mississippi lawmakers might have addressed. The state is ranked near the bottom in terms of poverty, high school graduation rates, infant mortality, racial conflict and obesity (which makes the new law ironic as well as silly). Arguing over what to call a plant-based burger should not be a legislative priority.

The church should see this as an opportunity to be courageous. Christians could protect the marginalized by defending “meatless meatballs,” “vegan bacon” and “beefless burgers.” How amazing would it be if Mississippi prisons were overrun with church people who put “veggie burgers” on the Wednesday night supper menu? How surprising would it be if a church put “Vegetarians are welcome” on the marquee?

Or maybe this story is a total nothingburger. Can I say that?

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Noah’s lawsuit: Is God trying to say something?

The headline reads like a punchline: “Owners of Noah’s Ark sue over rain damage.” Does God have a sense of humor or what? In the case of Irony v. This Has to Be a Joke, Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky, is suing its insurance carriers.

 

The administrators of the life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark, 300 cubits/510 feet long, claim that heavy rains, while not reaching biblical proportions, caused a landslide on their access road. The ark itself was not damaged by the flood, nor did the park close; but for a time it looked like people who wanted to get into the ark could not because of the water, just like in the Bible.

 

The 77-page lawsuit seeks not only compensatory damages, but punitive damages, presumably because someone made fun of Ark Encounter – which also happened to Noah. The suit asks for a jury trial. They will need to find 12 people with no sense of humor.

 

Ark Encounter is rumored to have cost $100 million. It opened on July 7, 2016, a date (7/7) that was selected because of Genesis 7:7, “Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood.”

 

They claim to have 1 million visitors a year. Tickets cost between $15 and $48. Imagine how much money Noah could have made selling tickets.

 

This story is why Twitter was invented:

 

“The Onion has gone too far.”

 

“Thoughts and prayers!”

 

“Now I believe in God.”

 

“All right . . . who prayed for rain?”

 

“I hope the penguins who walked from Antarctica are safe!”

 

“Looks like God doesn’t want anybody to go see it.”

 

“And on the eighth day God created tort reform.”

 

Oh, there’s more:

 

“Seriously, shouldn’t Yahweh have prevented this?”

 

“Noah’s replica will have to start an http://godfund.me.”

 

“So biblical . . . just like in Genesis when Noah sued the Lord God for the flood damage to the Earth.”

 

“Mitch McConnell’s state. Go figure. Shocker.”

 

“It only carried a 40-day warranty.”

 

“God’s will.”

 

If this is a publicity stunt, it is genius. Aren’t you tempted to visit? You could be the person who asks too many questions:

 

Where are the dinosaurs?

 

How did they fit that many animals in a space that is not big enough for that many animals?

 

How could there be enough water to cover the whole world?

 

How did the dogs and cats get along, or the mice and the elephants?

 

Why didn’t the lions eat the bunnies?

 

Were the bunnies still creating other bunnies?

 

Were the animals in a coma?

 

After a month did Noah wish he was in a coma?

 

Do you consider the recent rainfall an act of God?

 

Did you think about suing God and not the insurance company?

 

How did a story about the annihilation of most of the world’s population – men, women and children drowning, heads bobbing up and down in the water – become an amusement park?

 

Do you think you might be missing the point?

 

Noah’s ark is not a children’s story, a funny story or even a story concerned with history.  This story is true even if it never happened.

 

If you get past the strangeness, it sounds like recent events. Terrible things are happening to God’s good creation. Violence is rampant. Terrorism is on the rise. War is considered a solution. Politicians refuse to listen to their enemies. Hungry children are starving.

 

We understand their situation. We have had 13 school shootings this year. We have gotten used to walking past the homeless. Innocent teenagers die in our prisons.

 

How will God deal with the brokenness of the world? God responds not as an angry architect whose building has been ruined, but as a grieving parent whose heart has been broken.

 

God sees the violence in the world and decides to turn away, to forget the whole experience, and walk away. God decides to return creation to the chaos from which God called creation. God will let the waters cover the earth.

 

But there is one person whom God cannot forget. God’s love for Noah changes the plan. The story which up to now is all darkness takes a turn to the light.

 

The grieving God decides to save the world. God will stay with creation, notwithstanding the sorry state of humankind.

 

After the rain has stopped, God points to the rainbow in the sky and promises never to give up on us. God says, “I take my warrior’s bow and restring it not as a weapon, but with the colors of creation.”

 

We travel through waters that threaten to engulf us, but none of the suffering we know comes from God’s displeasure. God is doing everything God can do to offer hope, end our heartaches and bring us home.

 

That is no joke.

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Penitential Pancakes: Sin Soaked in Syrup

Pancake Day at Plymouth ChurchMy paper plate was not designed to hold syrup, but I covered it with fluffy golden layers drenched in melted butter and soaked in a sweet amber river of maple deliciousness.  Whoever decided overeating should be the prelude to penitence was a genius. Why didn’t the churches of my youth know about this? Those churches excelled at food-centered faith, but somehow missed out on the spiritual implications of pancakes.

Who wouldn’t want to belong to a church that confesses sins by eating copious quantities of sugar? How much different would my faith be if I had grown up with a full-blown pancake racing tradition? How much fuller would my experience of repentance be if I had learned to run while flipping hotcakes? How would it improve the reputation of Christians if every church had these wonderful, ridiculous events? Who wouldn’t want to join a group of people running around a gym in their Sunday best with flapjack-laden skillets?

I have attended three years of Pancake Races at Plymouth. Our races, which take place on the Sunday before Lent, include hairnets, oven mitts, spatulas and aprons. The early races were not particularly competitive. Women ran in heels.  But by 2017 the decision was made to slow down the children’s races by having participants run backwards. This rules change was reversed one race later.

Pancake Day at Plymouth ChurchIn 2018, a few elbows flew.  There were casualties.  Some questioned whether one winner’s pancake was flipped the requisite number of times.

At this year’s extravaganza, we limited the carnage and the chicanery. We made it clear there would be no hiding pancakes in pockets to replace dropped pancakes. We let spectators know that gambling would not be allowed.  We treated the races with the respect they deserve. The competition was fierce, but there were no injuries. There were accusation of PEDs, but no proof.  One gridiron gladiator hid the others’ aprons, but felt bad about it afterwards.  The runners ran with dignity.

Six centuries ago churches in England began having pancake lunches on the day before Lent to use up the butter, milk, eggs, sugar and fat that were forbidden during Lent. On Pancake Tuesday in 1445 a woman in Olney, England – whose name was lost to history but whose influence was not – was so intent on making pancakes that she did not notice the time until she heard the church bell ring. She raced out of the house and down the street to the church still wearing her apron, pancakes still in her frying pan, tossing them to prevent burning.

Women were soon racing through the streets flipping pancakes. The first woman to complete the course, arrive at the church, serve her pancake to the bell ringer and be kissed by him was declared the winner.

There is not much biblical precedent for pancake races. Cakes were offered in the temple (Exodus 29:2), but cakes offered to the “queen of heaven” were idolatrous (Jeremiah 7:18). Well-intentioned interpreters who look for theological meaning in the ingredients are on shaky ground. Some see eggs as a symbol for creation, flour as the staff of life, salt as wholesomeness and milk as purity. These commentators are trying way too hard.

Experts in dream interpretation say pancakes are spiritual in nature. Dreams of serving pancakes indicate a longing for joy. Dreams of eating pancakes suggest the desire for a closer family. Some associate pancakes with belonging, because their grandparents made blueberry buttermilk pancakes.

March 5 was the day of preparation for Lent this year. Shrove Tuesday is more fun than it sounds. “Shrove” means to hear the confession of sins, assure forgiveness and give spiritual advice. This does not sound like a party, but Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras does suggest “Let the good times roll!” In Iceland, Pancake Day is known as Bursting Day – an apt name for a day of stuffing ourselves.

The point of Pancake Day is not to get the partying out of our system before Lent begins. Feast days remind us to live in gratitude. Celebration, reveling in the pleasures of life, helps us pay attention. We need to thank God for the laughter of a good church, the joy of forgiveness and the taste of pancakes soaked in syrup.

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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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