The Power of Story

The headline on the Guardian website caught my eye:  Bread is Practically Sacred: How the Taste of Home Sustained My Refugee Parents.” The article that followed was an edited extract from the book My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon. On the topic of bread being sacred there are many ways to go so I followed the link. As it turns out, this piece is a moving and often humorous account of how his parents approached food in their homeland of Bosnia and how food sustained them when they fled Bosnia to live in Canada.

But while the subject of sacred bread drew me into the article, there was a particular paragraph that jumped out at me in a totally different context. Mr. Hemon brings his narrative to a conclusion with an effort to explain a process that is almost impossible to comprehend for those who have never experienced it. Ordinary words failing him, he illustrates this difficult point with a story, which he introduces in this way:

“This idea is best expressed in a story I heard in Sarajevo from someone who had heard it from someone else, who, in turn, knew the person who knew the person to whom all this happened. In short, the story is true as can be, even if I fact-checked none of it, because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people.”

He then goes on to tell a brief story, the events of which are plausible; they probably never happened exactly as written, and yet they probably happen all the time. The story line has been enriched through multiple re-tellings which added layers of meaning. By the end of Mr. Hemon’s  story, we have a clear visual image, and certainly understand more fully the futility of immigrants’ quest to recreate the food of their homeland in their new land. Score one for the power of story.

The Gospels were written anywhere from 50 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. Over the years, when I have envisioned the Gospels being written, I have imagined that there were four wise sages who carried the stories of Jesus in their heads as oral history. At some point, they went off in a room by themselves, they took out a pen and scroll, dumped their recollections onto the papyrus and sent it off to the publisher.

Modern Biblical scholarship says that the gospels, while attributed to one person, were probably written by and for particular communities of Christians. Those communities may have included a couple of people who had personally encountered Jesus of Nazareth, along with many others who had encountered the risen Christ. And there was probably a healthy collection of folks who knew someone who knew someone who had heard the stories from someone else who knew the person who was there when it happened. To this wonderful mix, you add the movement of the Spirit in these communities and literary skills of the writer collecting the stories. What comes to us are stories of events that are enriched by personal experience and deepening faith. The stories are not only true, but they are packed with layer upon layer of even larger truth. They are more than true.

I like to imagine these communities gathering by oil lamps discussing over and over their own accounts of, for instance, the feeding of the 5,000. Everyone in the room remembers the story differently, with different details and nuances of meaning. Mark’s community remembers the event one way, and later the communities of Matthew, Luke, and John add their own details and nuances. They were writing by and for their own communities, but their story is so much richer  “because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people,” and as such it more than enriches us today.

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I Have Other Feet to Wash

Here I am,
Judas,
with a towel and a basin of water
to wash your feet.
You.
Among the twelve.

I called you to me.
You stood beside me with your passion and your zeal
day after day.
I trusted you
then.
Someone must betray me
but why is it you?

When I said love your enemies
I did not know
it would be you
someone I already loved.

I cannot be any more vulnerable to you than I am right now
and you sit
calm? coiled?
silent
distant
while I pour water over your travel-worn feet.

You are disappointed.
I am not who you wanted me to be.
Why punish me for that?
Why not just say “your way is not my way”
and continue your search for God’s chosen one?

Think again think again think again
I beg you to think again –
think of everything I have said and done
and try again to find truth in it
for there is truth.

What you are about to do should never be done
and yet it must be done –
on this evil act hangs my next step.

It is not too late to change.
You could give me a few more months
weeks
even
even days.

Look into my eyes
and then
look into your heart.
No?
No.
So be it.
If not you someone else.

I could stop you –
block the door,
they would help.
But your choice is made and
I
choose
not to stop you.
The door stays open.
Evil will have its way
for now.

You will betray.
Others will deny,
flee,
go into hiding.
You are not alone in blindness.
I know I will be alone.
There will be regrets,
perhaps –
little good can come of regrets.

I have other feet to wash.

I sensed early on that it would be you.
I thought I could reach you.
I hoped.
But
if not you
someone else.

Perhaps I am wrong –
but I think not.

Your feet are dry now
and I move on
for I have other feet to wash.

The water in the basin is murky,
clouded with sand ashes and dust
accumulated on the long road to Jerusalem.

And I have other feet to wash.

Go now and do what you must do.
I will forgive you from the cross
but not before.
No
I forgive you now.

I have other feet to wash.

Don’t go yet.
Wait for me at the table.
I have bread and wine for you
before you go
to nourish you
on your way.

Wait a few moments more
for I have other
feet
to wash
before I serve you.

Before we part.

Before you go.

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Looking Jesus in the Eye

The first century Jew that we know as Jesus of Nazareth was undoubtedly a charismatic presence. People flocked to him. They listened to him. They put their lives on hold and at risk to follow him. What made them do that? Certainly there were many factors, but I like to think his eyes were very important.

In my imagination, when Jesus of Nazareth looked someone in the eye, that person knew they were dealing with something they had never encountered before. They knew that this man was an enigma, and they knew that they felt his look in their bones. But his was not a look that was alarming or painful, but rather was one which was determined, wise, compassionate, and stubborn.

As far as I know, the Gospels are silent on whether or not Jesus looked people directly in the eye, but I have a couple of favorite scriptures where I like to think that was what happened. One of them is in the scripture lesson from Sunday, March 17 – Luke 5:1-11.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.

This scripture always makes me smile. Luke leaves us to imagine what might have transpired between Peter’s words “… but have caught nothing” and “yet if you say so….”.  Something important happens in that moment, yet we find a big yawning gap in Luke’s narrative. If I was writing this as a script I would write it as follows:

Jesus:          Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.

Simon:        (exhausted, not really paying attention) Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. (Simon looks at Jesus in exasperation. Jesus looks Simon in the eye and holds his gaze. There is a pause. Simon fidgets. Looks at his feet. Looks at the others. Looks back at Jesus. Sighs.) Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.

Moments later, the nets are full of fish and Simon is on the ground at Jesus’s feet. Luke records, “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees…” Simon saw in the nets what he had failed to see in the eyes of Jesus.

It is easy to believe that there was authority in the gaze of this mysterious yet approachable man. We can imagine that his eyes demonstrated a power that did not subvert free will, but rather invited the seer into a new way of thinking, into a new kind of trust, and then invited the seer to come along on a journey. Simon had a choice, and the script could have gone another way. But Jesus – and his riveting, compelling gaze – did not give up easily.  At the beginning of this narrative, the fisherman is called Simon. While crumpled at Jesus’s feet Luke calls him Simon Peter. A few verses later in chapter 6, he is called “Simon, whom he named Peter.”  Simon the fisherman has become Peter the rock, almost before our eyes.

I like to think that when Jesus looked people in the eye, he also smiled – knowingly, lovingly, and with wry amusement – otherwise his look, alive with his passion, drive, and commitment, might have been too much to bear. As a matter of fact, I can imagine that Jesus chuckled as he spoke to the man at his feet. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And so, as the story continues, “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

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Reading the Paper

As a retiree, I am fortunate to be able to indulge in a slow beginning to my morning, drinking my coffee and reading assorted online newspapers. Of late, the news has been depressing. But on November 30, there was a confluence of news that made me smile with appreciation and gratitude, with awe and wonder.

First, there was an article in the NY Times about a Dutch church in The Hague which has taken in a family of asylum-seekers, a family from Armenia which has been in Holland for 9 years. Exploiting a centuries old tradition that government authorities cannot enter a church during worship, the church is holding round-the-clock worship to protect this family. This continuous cycle of worship had been going on for a month as of the day the article was published.

The closing of the article read, “… after initially using local preachers to deliver the service, the church has now reached out to others and has received offers of help from some 500 people from different churches as far away as Belgium. That support gives the locals strength to carry on, hoping that they can open talks with lawmakers and the government about the family’s plight. ‘As long as it’s useful to contribute to the dialogue, we will continue with the church service…’”  The article did not mention God by name, but I felt like God’s fingerprints were all over the story.

I am addicted to the weekly essays called “Modern Love” in the NY Times. Some weeks are better than others – some stories are appalling and others are profoundly moving. On November 30, a young woman wrote about being confronted with a diagnosis of bowel cancer in her 33-year-old partner and, looking for a distraction, she immersed herself in a British TV program called “Love Island.” On this “reality’ program, assorted people are assembled in a remote place in hopes they will fall in love, and the TV audience gets to vote on the best couple. The writer was looking for love and hope.

“It gave me comfort to see these love stories taking place outside of the dirty context of reality. May you never see the person you love with tubes running out of their body, I wished for them, these beautiful couples who were all years younger than me, though I considered myself young, and too young for what was happening…”

The story concluded, “I believed in the radical possibility of love, the radical stupidity of it, of letting myself fall. I believed, too, in the maelstrom of emotional energy that my screen had been transmitting nightly, restoring my faith, or something like it. To see that even under the most cynical of circumstances, love would find a way through adversity.” She never said what “faith” had been restored, and she never, in fact, mentioned God – for all we know she might be an atheist – but whether she would acknowledge it or not, I saw God’s fingerprints all over her story.

In The Washington Post, again on November 30, my eye was caught by an article entitled, “Astrophysicists Count all the Starlight in the Universe.”  I will never be an astrophysicist or even a physicist – I cannot get my head around what they do. But the article gave me goosebumps.

“The universe shines with the light of some billion trillion stars. A team of astrophysicists recently used a satellite to sum up all these stars’ light, measured in particles called photons. Let there be numbers: By their estimate, over the history of the universe, stars have emitted 4 times 10-to-the-84th-power photons into the visible universe (that’s a 4 followed by 84 zeros).”

Yes, the author really said, “Let there be numbers” – I didn’t put that there. But if his report does not evoke awe and wonder, try this: “The team used 739 blazars to survey starlight across history. The closest blazar was created 200 million years ago. The most distant blazar gave the scientists a view as long ago as 11.6 billion years. (The universe is about 13.8 billion years old.) The stars really began to bloom when the universe was just 2 billion years old. Star formation reached its peak a billion years later and then began a slow decline as it aged.”  God’s fingerprints again? Sometimes I wonder if even God is awe struck by the sheer extravagance of creation – a billion stars would have been amazing on their own, but there are a billion trillion stars out there – and we are the beneficiaries of their light.

All of this is to say that I think I will keep reading the papers, but I will also keep looking for the glimmers of good news that are buried there.

 

If anyone would like to read the articles, they can be found at:

https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2018/11/30/world/europe/ap-eu-netherlands-church-asylum-seekers.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/30/style/modern-love-marooned-on-love-island.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2018/11/29/astrophysicists-count-all-starlight-universe/?utm_term=.d49b616b0910

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Kindness and the Servant Song

“Won’t you let me be your servant,
let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant, too.”

Brett preached movingly on the topic of kindness on Sunday. At the end of the service we sang Richard Gillard’s lovely hymn, often called The Servant Song, which extends the conversation on kindness. One of the many messages in The Servant Song is that while we should strive be kind to one another, we should also recognize that kindness is a two-way street. Along with being kind to others, we should also be willing to receive acts of kindness when they are offered to us.

We are a tough lot, and when someone says to us, “Here, let me help you carry that,” we tend to respond with, “Thanks, but I can manage.” When we respond with, “Yes, thank-you,” both the giver and the receiver are blessed.

Accepting kindness requires grace, and the hymn writer includes a prayer for this grace. Grace allows us to accept an act of kindness when it is offered, however well or awkwardly it is delivered, and to see it for the gift that it is. And sometimes grace opens us to accepting a kindness even when it is not needed, knowing that it will bring joy to the giver. I cannot begin to count the number of times I said to my mother, “Have the grace to allow me to do this for you!” – but that is another blog post for another time.

Accepting kindness also requires humility. We are a stubborn lot and our tendency is to insist on going it alone. Accepting help from someone feels like a confession that we might actually need help, that we are not self-sufficient and self-reliant. An open-hearted acceptance of kindness allows us to say, “Yes, I could use some help.” We have an opportunity to set aside our independence and acknowledge our interdependence – and to confess that at times in our lives, a little kindness will go a long way.

And, of course, there are the times when someone does a kindness for us and we don’t notice because we are distracted or rushed or otherwise engaged (Shocking, I know, but it happens). We received a gift and we didn’t even know it! Fortunately for our distracted selves, if a kindness is offered in the spirit of Christian faith, it neither expects or seeks a thank-you. In that spirit, if a kindness goes unnoticed, is not a bad thing. But it means we should whisper a prayer of thanksgiving each day for the kindness we received in the course of the day – both the observed and the unobserved – and for the opportunities to offer kindness that came our way.

“We are pilgrims on a journey,
we are travelers on the road,
we are here to help each other
go the mile and bear the load.”

Jacque Jones

Texts quoted are from The Servant Song (Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant?)
By Robert Galliard, Copywrite 1977 by Scripture in Song

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Modern Love Reflection

I am a big fan of the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times.  I recently had occasion to re-read Brooke Rinehart’s moving story “Sharing the Shame After My Arrest,” which was originally published in April 2011, and I have posted the link below.  In her account, Ms. Rinehart, who had never broken a law in her life, is wakened early one morning, handcuffed, arrested, and hauled off to jail along with her husband of less than a year.  It turns out that her husband has been using her name and identity to embezzle funds in his workplace. To wrap up that part of the story, after 90 days she is exonerated and her husband goes to prison.

But it is her account of those 90 days that struck me.  Devastated – her whole world turned upside down – the 28-year-old Ms. Rinehart moves back home with her parents.  Unable to sleep in the bedroom of her idyllic childhood, she sleeps on the sofa – and her mother sleeps opposite her on the love seat.  Every night.  For 90 days.  Saying few words, but being a constant presence, sharing the heartbreaking load (and the late-night TV) with her daughter. Eventually, her care for her daughter causes her own health to break down.  Ms. Rinehart writes:

“But my mother’s making this about her was actually saving me. To know that someone loved me so much, was willing to feel my pain so intensely that it kept her on the laundry room floor for a day, made me feel encased in a bubble of protection.

“I began to wonder if sadness was this finite thing, a big black mass of which there was only so much in the world.  If so, my mother was sharing it with me so that I did not have to bear the full weight.”

I don’t know if Ms. Rinehart saw her moving tribute to her mom as a metaphorical story – a kind of parable – about God, but I certainly did.

At the end of the account, Ms. Reinhart pours out her story to her doctor:

“Something bad happened to me,” I said, unsure of how to begin.  But then it all came out: my arrest, my husband’s deceit, the charges, the end of my marriage, the loss of my house: the whole harrowing ordeal.  When I finished, her eyes were wet.

“How have you survived this?” she asked.

I thought for a second.  “While the charges were held against me, I slept on the couch in my parents’ house.  I spent 90 nights on that couch.” I paused. “And my mom? She slept for 90 days on the love seat.”

My doctor blinked, unable to hold back her tears. “What a mom,” she said softly.  “What a mom.”

What a God.  What a God.  Emmanuel – God with us.

“Sharing the Shame After My Arrest,”

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Antonio’s Biscuits and Spoons

We closed the shelter at the end of October.  It moved to Grace Church for November. I paused to chat with Antonio as we were putting things away. He told me he was born at Long Island Jewish Hospital and lived all his life in New York. Most of his life he worked as a school security guard.  He rattled off the names of schools spanning several boroughs and several decades where he worked. I watched in fascination as he pulled out his overstuffed wallet. It was shaped more like a rounded fist than a wallet. It was jammed with ID cards and business cards. He kept the ID cards from every place he worked, schools and other employers, making his wallet a portable scrapbook of his working years. He shuffled through the stack and pulled out one from the Andrew Jackson School, with a photo showing him in younger days. Antonio told me he never married and never had children, but he loved being around children. Security guard jobs were perfect for him. He is retired now, and spends most of his time helping his ageing father and looking for a place to live he can afford.

I don’t remember how we got on to the topic of music.  He told me about his uncle who had been the musical heart of his family. His uncle was a natural musician. He played and built guitars. There was music in the room and in the family when he was around. Among other things, this uncle had coached a local baseball team. One night at a celebratory party for the team, he intervened in a fight between two people and was shot and killed. Antonio said there was still music in the family, but it hadn’t been the same since.

I cooked chicken stew with biscuits on top for the shelter dinner the night before.  Slaw, zucchini bread and brownies made the dinner complete. It was a popular meal.  They liked the stew very much.  They REALLY liked the biscuits. Unfortunately, demand for the biscuits exceeded the supply. The slaw was less popular. The zucchini bread was regarded with some skepticism. The brownies vanished quickly. Next morning our guests packed the left over stew and slaw in takeout containers for their lunch. Antonio fixed himself some takeout.  He noticed there was food left in the pans after the other guests packed their lunches. He asked if it would be OK for him to pack a second lunch to take to other people who are hungry. He also asked if he could have a few of the plastic spoons we have at Plymouth. He said they were easier for his father to handle than the spoons he usually uses.  He meticulously wrapped four of them in a napkin for his dad.

We talked a bit longer, until he realized all the other guests left. He headed to the door toting his bag of food. There was a hand shake and a thank you.  Then he paused to look up with what I presumed to be a kind of hat tip to God.

I made a note to myself – the next time I cook for the shelter, whatever else I cook, make a ton of biscuits.

Jacque Jones

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There are a couple of ways to look at it….

From the outside, Plymouth Church appears to be a very wealthy church.  It has beautiful buildings occupying valuable land.  It has a robust endowment.  It has generous congregation.  In all of these areas and more, Plymouth is indeed a wealthy church.

But if you look at it another way, Plymouth possesses nothing.  That’s right, nothing.  Plymouth does not own anything – it does not own its building, its land, and its endowment.  Plymouth is the steward of these material goods, entrusted to Plymouth over the years by dedicated members and generous donors.  They do not belong to Plymouth.  They belong to God.  Plymouth is entrusted with the stewardship and wise use of these blessings.  Plymouth, as a Congregational Church, elects its representative leadership, and asks that leadership to set priorities for how to manage the gifts in Plymouth’s custody. That is why, every year, Plymouth makes and votes on a budget.  The budget is the clear indicator of how Plymouth is choosing to use the resources with which it has been entrusted.  The budget is created by the leadership and voted on by the congregation.  We are in this together.

Plymouth Church operates in good faith, attempting to employ these resources where they can do the most good in forwarding the Kingdom of God.  Some resources go directly to help those most vulnerable and in need – victims of human trafficking, casualties of natural disasters, children in need of education and food.  Other resources go to help those in spiritual need, and for this reason, Plymouth engages a top-notch staff, maintains a welcoming building, empowers a confident choir, all of which support the work of the community that gathers around Plymouth.

Every story is complicated, and this one is no exception.  Some donors have made very generous gifts to Plymouth that carried restrictions in how they may be used, and the income from those gifts can only be spent on specific things.  To act with integrity, the leadership must deploy those resources in accordance with the wishes of the donor.  Plymouth might wish to use those funds in other ways, but it must keep faith with the donors

The gifts that bless Plymouth the most are the one that have no restrictions. Given from the heart, they allow the leadership and the congregation to set the priories of the church and use its resources advancing those priorities.  And those priorities, in Brooklyn Heights and beyond, will advance the Kingdom of God.

The Stewardship Ministry invites you to prayerfully consider what you are able to give to support the work of Plymouth Church in the upcoming year.  Plymouth’s year begins in July, and we know that seems like a lifetime away, but it is important for you to go on record now. Please take a few minutes to make your commitment this week – before Anniversary Sunday.  Help us celebrate our 170th Anniversary but contemplating what we can accomplish before our 171st Anniversary.

Please be generous in your support of the work of Plymouth Church.  Click Here to Make Your Commitment.

In Christian Fellowship,

Jacque Jones

Stewardship Chair

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Free is Better Than Half Price

A couple of years ago, I purchased a membership to a local arts organization.  It was a modest membership but it bought me some small graces.  I get advance notice of events and I can purchase movie tickets for half-price.  I suppose I know that a few dollars of my membership goes to support the work of that organization, but that was not my motive in joining.  I joined for the benefits I receive.

The Kingdom of God runs on a different operating principal.  As Christians, we believe that the grace of God is freely given – it can never be bought and it can never be sold.  To loosely quote Philip Yancy – there is nothing we can do that will make God love us more, and there is nothing we can do that will make God love us less.  Isn’t that amazing?  Doesn’t that take your breath away?

But that extravagant grace comes with an invitation.  God has invited us to continue Christ’s work on earth and that is what Plymouth Church exists to do.  How can we not gratefully support the work of the church as an act of our God-given free will?  We can never match the extravagance of God, and we shouldn’t try, but we can give generously from our personal resources to support the faithful work of this community of Christians.

The Plymouth Stewardship Ministry is inviting you to go on record with your commitment for 2016-2017, and to do this prior to May 1. You can go online to make your commitment or use a commitment card available at the Stewardship table in Fellowship Hour. Alternatively, you can speak to a member of the Stewardship Ministry or staff who will be happy to assist you.

Please be generous in your support of the work of Plymouth Church.  Click Here to Make Your Commitment.

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Live Out Holy Week “In the Moment”

The problem with our observance of Holy Week is that we see it through the lens of Easter. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is risen – we know that good overcame evil and that the story has a “happy ending.”

Is there a way for us to disconnect from that knowledge? To put that sure and certain knowledge away for a few days, and try to live out Holy Week “in the moment” as the followers of Jesus did, with all its joy and horror?

Jesus had told his followers that he would suffer and die, and he would be raised. They didn’t hear him. They didn’t get it. And who can fault them? We probably wouldn’t either. So when they saw him flogged, when they saw him carrying his cross, when they saw him die, it was an ending – a horrific, crushing conclusion – and not a beginning. It was a time of personal loss, gut-wrenching despair, and hopelessness for what could have been.

In his book, The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill discusses at length the Biblical account of what we sometimes refer to as the sacrifice of Isaac. His analysis is riveting, built around a raw translation of the scripture. In his conclusion he says, “At the outset of this harrowing episode, the narrator, knowing that poor human readers could never bear the suspense, tells us that this will be a ‘test,’ so we know that Yitzhak will not actually be sacrificed, however difficult it is to keep that in mind during the ensuing action. It is a test for us as well. Can we open ourselves to the God who cannot be understood..? … Avraham passes the test. His faith – his belief in God – is stronger than his fear. But he now knows he is dealing with the Unthinkable, beyond all expectation.”

Can we close our minds to Easter for a few hours, even though we know the ending? Even though we know that the sacrifice of Yitzhak was a ‘test,’ Cahill continues, “… the narrator’s skill is great, leaving the reader speechless at the impending horror.” The gospel writers’ skill is no less evocative.

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