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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Big Love

Sometimes people think the big question is, “Do you believe in God?” but it is not.  Jesus says the first question is, “Do you love God?”  Our attention needs to go beyond us, beyond our families, beyond our jobs, and beyond our church to God.

Love God with all that we are, do, feel, and think.  If we make loving God our goal, we will move from the many things to seeking the one grace.  We will be free from the compulsion of the world and set our hearts on the only necessary thing.   Augustine said, “Love God and do what you want.”  If God is at the center, the rest will follow.

Loving God is the central teaching of Christianity.  We open the Bible and read that Matthew writes that Jesus said what he had read in Deuteronomy, which is that Moses said that God said, “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.”

The Bible is not an instruction manual in which each line is of equal importance.  The sayings of scripture spin around the love of God like planets around the sun, and every verse is judged by its proximity to this truth.  Nothing is greater, says Jesus, says Moses, says God.  These words provide the standard within the standard:  “Love God.”  Jesus’ words are the scripture by which scripture is measured.

St. Augustine wrote the first textbook on teaching the Bible.  The scriptures may be confusing, Augustine admits, and preachers make mistakes, but if you interpret in such a way as to build up the love of God, you have the essentials right.  Augustine writes, “If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this love of God, then you have not understood them.”

What you know or think you know, what you do or wish you could do, is measured against this standard:  “Love God.”

We have to find our own best ways.  Some people love God in music, some in the harvesting of a garden, some in sharing freshly baked bread, and others in affectionate words to a friend.  Utter your own prayer, in the language of your own heart.  Set aside a time and place to give God your undivided attention.  Be mad about God in the silence of your own soul.  Tell God that you are crazy about God in words and actions.  Be grateful to God for the closeness of God and the greatness of God.  Do not try to love God like you have heard other people do.  Let your adoration be your own.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength.  Come to Plymouth and worship.  Live as if God is the only one watching.

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Brett’s Annual Report

It is a hard time to be a church.  Goodness is losing on so many fronts.  Our country is flirting with wars and the potential deaths of innocent people are not the biggest story.  Much of our attention is given to sex scandals.  Most of the time it is about men treating women terribly.  Our sexism has made us less aware of growing racism.  The gap between the rich and poor is getting wider.  U.S. students now rank near the middle of the pack.  The trends are heading the wrong directions—toward more division, more self-centeredness, and more despair.  It is a hard time to be a church, but that is when we most need the church.

When the culture says we are becoming more isolated we need a family.  Almost everyone at Plymouth attends coffee hour—which is not the case in most churches.  We “Meet, Greet and Eat.”  We go to the theater together.  We tell the story of Plymouth’s amazing history.  We share the life of the church with our youth.  We have young adult groups, parenting groups, Bible studies, and book studies.  At the heart of these activities is the hope that we will overcome divisions and be family for one another.

When the culture says we are becoming more self-centered, we need to worship God.  Many of us are learning to give ourselves in worship.  We sing.  We pray.  We confess. We listen.  We give.  We engage.  We pass the peace exuberantly.  We celebrate the many children in our congregation.  We baptize.  We observe communion.  We welcome new members.  During Lent, five members inspired us by honestly sharing why they find it hard to be a Christian.  We are growing as worshippers as we move from worship as a spectator event to worship as a shared experience of God’s love.

When the culture says we are less caring, we need the church to help us serve.  We build houses with Habitat for Humanity.  We host conferences on anti-trafficking.  We help parents talk to their children about racism.  We work with the Hope Project, preparing people for job interviews.  We push for bail reform.  We provide shelter for the homeless.  We support the Mission School of Hope in Cameroon.  We share ministry with Plymouth Church School.  We pack groceries for Brooklyn Delivers.  We raise money for hurting women through the Thrift Store.  We need the church, because people are hurting and we need to help.

This is a good time in the life of Plymouth.  We are taking care of old things and trying new things.  God is helping us love one another, worship honestly, and care for the needy.

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Paul Ryan and the House Chaplain: Proof that Prayer Works?

Paul Ryan believes in prayer so much that on April 15 he forced the House chaplain to resign.  Ryan has not given a reason for the dismissal, but many are pointing to a prayer Father Patrick Conroy offered while lawmakers were considering tax reform.  The priest prayed that lawmakers would “be mindful” of economic disparities and those “who continue to struggle.”  Ryan’s concern is surprising as the prayer clearly did not work.

Every once in a while scientists who cannot raise money for real research get stuck doing a study on how prayer works.  Non-believers argue that wishful thinking is not a suitable subject for scientific investigation.  Believers argue that the results of prayer are not easily measured.

The outcome of these studies tend to reflect the desires of whoever paid for the research.  Religious researchers often find that praying for another’s well-being reduces one’s own anxiety.  Non-religious researchers point out that prayers for healing are no guarantee that healing will occur.

The scientific study of prayer focuses on the things for which people most often pray—health concerns, financial difficulties, or societal problems—but the prayers we do not pray are the best evidence that prayer works.

Hunger is a subject about which we do not pray.  After Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give it to the poor, we can be fairly certain that young man did not go home and pray about it.

We are careful not to pray seriously for the homeless.  We find it awkward to pray for people who have no home when we have a guest room.

There are so many situations in which we will not pray.  Your boss tells a sexist joke.  You know it is evil and wish someone would point it out, but do you really want to pray, “God, what should I do?  Should I challenge my boss who might not take kindly to my helpful words of correction?”

We have been praying about gun violence, but we are careful.  If you want gun control it is hard to pray honestly about the sense of moral superiority that may be taking up residence in your heart.  If you are a second amendment person it is hard to pray honestly for innocent children who are dying.  If we pray seriously about gun violence, we will do more than wait around for the next election.

We do not want to pray about our careers.  Does the senior pre-law major want to pray about whether God would like for her to be a social worker?  Does the successful businessperson want to ask God if a lower paying job might make more of a contribution to the world?

We are careful about praying for people we do not like.  When Jesus said “Pray for your enemies” he was inviting us to the kind of prayer that will lead us to say something kind that we do not want to say.

Prayers should come with warnings.  Do not pray about the school system.  You may end up tutoring second graders.  Do not pray about human trafficking.  You may end up paying for much-needed supplies for victims.  Do not pray about racial justice.  You may end up working on bail reform.

We like what we have—especially the vices we have gotten used to.  We do not pray about our addictions—eating too much, drinking too much, or spending too much.  St. Augustine prayed, “God, give me chastity, but not yet.”

Most of us, including Paul Ryan, understand that critiquing prayer is easier than truly praying.  We do not avoid praying because our prayers go unanswered.  We avoid praying because we are afraid our prayers will be answered.  The proof that prayer works is the way we choose a life given to comfort over a life given in prayer.

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My undelivered stand-up routine for those not likely to come back to church

How is everybody doing tonight? You look great.  You’re less sober than the people I usually talk to.

I’m surprised to be at the Comedy Cellar because — and I know how this sounds — I’m a minister.

Saying that you’re a minister shuts down conversations with barbers, waitresses and the person sitting next to you on the plane. That last one is helpful.

I’m not a minister who thinks he’s cool enough to fit in anywhere. I’m not the Unitarian campus minister at NYU. I don’t wear a tweed jacket and a turtle neck. I don’t run a soup kitchen in Hell’s Kitchen. I don’t do nearly enough of the stuff I tell everyone else to do. I’m not the chaplain for U2 — which is not a real job — but I can dream.

You might be surprised to learn that churches talk about some of you a lot.  How many of you went to church more often when you were 9 years old?  You’re the ones churches talk about. Churches think they can get you back.  Churches are your mother trying to get you to come home for the weekend by promising the beef noodle casserole she insists you loved when you were a kid.

Some churches think they’ll get you to come back with bad drummers.  They believe there are 20-year-olds who wake up early on Sunday mornings and say to themselves, “I feel like singing along with a 60-year-old drummer playing 18 century hymns.”

Some churches have started meeting in pubs for “Theology on Tap,” where they drink beer and talk about God. They hope you’re looking for an inebriated minister to explain the meaning of life.

Some churches have changed their names with you in mind. If a church has a name that sounds like a ’70s band — Journey, Passion, The Bridge — you’re the target audience.

We know the church can be disappointing, but we also know the church can be wonderful. If you decide to give us another chance, we’ll try not to act cooler than we are. We’ll learn your name and ask how you’re doing. We’ll find gracious ways to say that we find hope in believing in something bigger than we are, and think you might, too. You can help us with hard questions about meaning and purpose. You can help us do things rather than just talk about them. You might find that you enjoy being part of a group of friends trying to live better, more authentic lives.

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Stop Making Sense

If our phone counts the number of steps we take, then we need to carry our phone everywhere we go in order to get credit.  Before we pick a movie we have to check the scores on Rotten Tomatoes.  As we read bedtime stories to our children we skip unnecessary paragraphs.

Efficiency is ruining our lives, and we are looking for more of it.   Every day is an exercise in logic.  We have found more efficient ways to do most things—electric toothbrushes, electric razors, driverless cars.  Buying a Big Mac is simpler than cooking a hamburger on the grill.  Permanent press makes all kinds of sense.  We find one pair of shoes we like and order multiple pairs online.  We may never go into a shoe store again.

Why spend an hour making dinner when we could microwave lasagna in nine minutes?  Why vacuum when we can check our email as the rumba wanders around the living room?

How long will it be before we live like “The Jetsons”—calling for Rosie the robot maid to bring our coffee and Astro the robot dog to fetch our slippers?  We just need more moving sidewalks.

What do we lose when we do only what is most efficient?  What are we doing with the time we are saving?  Do the Amish have a point?

Our commitment to convenience keeps us from thinking about what we really want.  When we have a dishwasher, washing dishes by hand feels silly—even if we like washing dishes.  We ignore what is best in favor of what is easiest, but the fastest way to get where we are going may not be the best way to get there.  When we let efficiency decide what we do, we no longer decide what we do.

Sometimes we need to ignore what is efficient and do what is fun.  Take the scenic route.  Eat a Moon Pie.  Grow flowers.  Sit on the grass.  Play the guitar.  Write a letter.

Go to a school play.  Tell someone that you love them.  Listen to music—and not the music we play when we want people to think we have good taste—the music that makes us smile.  Go to lunch with a friend.  Read an extra story—even if it goes five minutes past bedtime.

My doctor looked at the scale and asked, “How much are you exercising?”

Lying to your doctor is like lying to your mother—she knows.

“I run a little, jog really, saunter.”

“Where do you run?”

“Down the street, across the bridge, to the park and back.”

“Your knees are getting older.  You need to start running on a treadmill.  It’s more efficient.”

I think about my doctor as I jog across the Brooklyn Bridge.  It has to be better for me to see the world at five miles an hour than to spend another hour running in place.  I am confident that I will not come to the end of my life and say, “I wish I had been more efficient.”

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Reading the Obituaries for Lent

Some Christians stop eating meat.  Some give up Facebook.  Some read the Psalms.  When I was a young minister in Indiana, I began reading the obituaries for Lent.  The Paoli News-Republican came out on Tuesday and Friday.  A normal edition included two or three obituaries that were written by the newspaper’s staff.  No family was ever charged for an obituary.

The writers interviewed the deceased’s family, friends, and ministers to help them express their gratitude for the person’s life.  These tributes included sentiments like, “He never met a stranger” and “She laughed every day.”  Reading the obituaries reminded me that people are often good and that I need to make my days count.

The obituaries in The New York Times are different from the ones in The Paoli News-Republican.  Most of the people in Paoli would balk at paying $263 for the first four lines and $52 per line thereafter with 28 characters per line.  Most of the people in my old church would not be able to read the tiny seven point san serif font without a magnifying glass.

But it is Lent, so on Sunday I sat down with my hometown newspaper to look for what matters in that day’s obituaries.  Here is what I found—still in alphabetical order:

Lerone Bennett, Jr., 89, wrote Before the Mayflower in which he noted that the first blacks arrived in the colonies in 1619, the year before the Mayflower.  He worked to prepare students to live in a multi-racial society.

Leonard Gubar, 81, was a dedicated fan of the Mets, Giants, Rangers and Knicks.  He was a nationally ranked Scrabble player and a routine finisher of The New York Times crossword puzzle.

Marvin S. Hans, M.D., 91, was a music lover—especially Frank Sinatra.

Robert B. Hiden, Jr., 84, served as a vestryman and Junior Warden of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Zita Kremnitzer was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1922.  She survived the Holocaust and immigrated to New York in 1947.

Elizabeth Landauer, 80, served as a Girl Scout leader for many years.

Patricia Rashkin, 74, chose a career as a guardian for those unable to fend for themselves—spending more than three decades with the City of New York’s protective services.

William Selden, 70, businessman, philanthropist, sportsman, dog-lover, and innate comedian.  He was a long-time supporter of the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.

Alan Lewis Stein, 88, founded the not-for-profit affordable housing entity, Bridge Housing.  Bridge has participated in the development of more than 17,000 units of housing, providing homes for 42,500 people.

Constance Sultan, 84, worked for 30 years at Mt. Sinai Hospital, where she was the charge nurse in the baby nursery.

Reading the obituaries sounds gloomy, but that has not been my experience.  I am glad to be reminded that people are often good.  Being encouraged to make my days count feels like preparing for Easter.

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Ministers Tired of Praying

The first picture many of us saw was of a broken-hearted woman with an Ash Wednesday cross on her forehead holding another woman as they cried together. The tragedy in Parkland, Florida, was the eighth school shooting so far this year—and it is February.

Here is what I was sure would happen next. I was going to get an e-mail from the clergy association. The ministers would organize a prayer vigil where we read the names of the victims. We would grieve for the families of those who died. We would read scripture. We would pray for an end to gun violence.

Here is what actually happened. Nothing. No e-mail. Apparently I am not the only one tired of going to prayer vigils.  We are in danger of growing numb to these horrors and seeing this as the new normal.  We cannot keep feeling the same pain, so one option is to stop feeling it.

But this is the time to work to make it harder to die from gun violence. More than 30 people in our nation are murdered by guns on an average day.

Gun violence is a domestic violence problem. In an average month, 51 women are shot to death by a current or former husband or boyfriend.

Gun violence is a child abuse problem. The number of children and teens killed by guns in one year would fill 126 classrooms of 20 students each.

Gun violence is a mental health problem. There are 21,000 suicides committed using guns each year.

Gun violence is a safety problem. More than 45 people are shot accidentally each day. (Statistics are from faithinpubliclife.org, everytown.org, and childrensdefense.org.)

Gun violence is a faith problem. We have to be broken-hearted by the gun deaths in our country. We cannot pretend we cannot do anything.

We can work to strengthen background checks. Forty percent of the guns sold legally in the United States are bought without a background check. No records are kept. No questions are asked. Criminals buy guns online from unlicensed sellers.

We can insist that background check laws work. Common sense demands we keep guns out of the hands of felons, domestic abusers and those adjudicated as mentally ill. We can regulate guns as closely as we do cars.

We can require locks that make it harder to pull a trigger and lower the number of accidental shootings. We can work to ban the automatic weapons that seem to have no purpose other than mass shootings.

We can disagree on how best to address the epidemic of gun violence, but we cannot disagree on the tragic nature of gun violence. Support courageous politicians. Replace the ones who are not courageous. Speak up for common sense gun laws that make our streets and schools safe. Defend the right of children to live without the risk of being shot.

I keep thinking about the cross imposed with ashes on that mother’s forehead.  The sign of the cross calls us to grieve for those who are hurting, confess our apathy, and work for a time when we have no list of victims to read.

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Eating burgers, sinning boldly

brett-blogIf you are leaving New York to visit Texas, these are socially acceptable comments:

“I could use some warm weather.”

“We’re looking forward to seeing friends.”

“I miss driving more than forty miles an hour.”

“I haven’t seen an armadillo in a long time.”

“I enjoy the jealousy on people’s faces when I say ‘I’m from Brooklyn’.”

This is not a socially acceptable comment:

“I want a Quarter Pounder with fries.”

I know how unsophisticated that makes me sound.  After two years in a culinary mecca, a center for gastronomic delights, and the world’s best pizza, I am supposed to be beyond mass produced fast food, but I am not.  Mine is not a sophisticated pallet.

This is a difficult confession to make.  I know how bad ordering off the dollar menu is.  I saw Supersize Me.  Finger lickin’ good is not good for me.  I can see that the Burger King is creepy.  I have read studies that say that if you eat a bacon cheeseburger, you have a 75% chance of a heart attack before you get to the Frosty.

But I live 250 miles from the nearest Cook Out.  None of the arguments against driving through a drive-thru—and staring at the menu until the guy behind me starts honking—are enough to keep my mouth from watering with anticipation at driving south on IH-35 knowing there are six fast food places at every exit.

Fast food is democratic.  Working people can afford everything that you have to stand in line to order—and you do not have to tip.

There are no surprises.  Every Whataburger tastes exactly like the Whataburger you had five years ago at the Whataburger 500 miles away.  Why have it your way when you can have it the same way every time?

I do not know how to explain to New Yorkers that fast food fountain drinks are better.  Free refills are a right guaranteed somewhere deep in the Constitution.  A liter of Coca Cola from Key Food is a pale imitation of a Cherry Coke at Sonic.  Anyone who has had the pleasure of eating a meal in their car at a Sonic Drive-in knows there is no better ice in all the world.

No one asks, “Are we dressed well enough?” before going to Dairy Queen.  No one worries that their preschoolers might act up at Subway.  Children do not get a toy with their meal at Ruth Chris Steak House.  There is no playground at Del Frisco’s.

As I sat on the plane heading to Texas I thought about the options:  Whataburger’s Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit (sugar and butter make food wonderful); Jack in the Box’s two for $1 tacos, the perfect level of greasiness; KFC’s original recipe anything; the chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-a (the pickle chips are the key); an Oreo blizzard at Dairy Queen (Oreo crumbs are to ice cream what bacon is to everything else).

I ended up thinking inside the bun—a Homestyle burger (an ironic name) and an iced mocha.  This is nothing to write home about—but I’m lovin’ it.  I know that if they served a McDonald’s iced mocha at Starbucks it would cost twice as much.

When Martin Luther wrote, “Love God and sin boldly” he was not in a fast food restaurant, but he could have been.  Luther was calling us to recognize what is important and what is not.  There are times when you should order the salad, but sinning without worrying about it too much is, on occasion, good for your soul.

As Lent approaches some of us are deciding whether to give up soft drinks, sugar, or Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Tacos Supreme.  We would do better to give up envy, anger, and greed.  We have many things about which we should feel guilty—how little we give to feed hungry people, how quickly we dismiss people who dismiss us, and how much time we spend on our own amusement.  Because there is so much about which we should feel guilty, we can feel free—every now and then—to eat curly fries boldly.

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