Tears

On 9/10/2017 I attended evening Jazz Vespers at Saint Peter’s.  During the service, each worshipper was invited to pray individually with one of the worship leaders.  I prayed with my pastor at the baptistery where 16 years earlier countless people, fearful and stunned, washed the soot from their faces and sat together in the presence of God.  He prayed with me and for me.  The anointing oil he placed on my forehead released tears from my eyes.  They dropped on my jacket and his vestments as if God was cleansing me from the pain I was feeling.  When the amen ended the prayer, he embraced me, an embrace that said, “I know.  I feel it too.”  My tears then mingled in the same baptismal waters that comforted on 9/11/2001.

Hearing the names of victims who died on 9/11 during this 16th anniversary observance I feel a skin crawling chill when hearing the name of someone I knew personally or feel like I knew all my life through the remembrances of family, friends and colleagues. I want to know them all.  I wish I had.  Voices of readers crack.  Faces seek composure.  Pictures are held.  Buttons are worn.  They pay tribute to family members they knew or have come to know as I have. The tears are raw and real.  For some the tears are ever present.  For others, they flow annually during these 102 minutes.

The tears of today didn’t begin on 9/11/2001.  For many there was travel through stages of grief before ever getting to tears.  Today is a reminder the journey is not over.  Very quickly after 9/11 some wanted to bypass the tears and move on.  There was a call to shut the interfaith respite outreach ministry at St. Paul’s Chapel in March 2002 as if the response had ended and it was time to move on.  Time to get Easter finery ready and take down banners of thanks to recovery workers hung in the sanctuary and bicycles locked to street sign poles abandoned by messengers who never returned from their rounds at the towers.  Thankfully the haunting blank stares of recovery workers coming off the pile with their expressions of craving comfort and assurance were heard over the few calls to “get over it.”  These workers had not begun to cry – not even close.

There was false hope it would be time for the tears to stop after the 5th anniversary, then 10th, then 15th. Is it over for more than 1,000 families who have received no remains to bury?  There are no identified remains for 40% of World Trade Center (WTC) victims. I shared this horrific fact with someone the other day and the person was shocked and had no idea.  When will the tears stop for thousands of 9/11 responders and survivors who have at least one illness from 9/11 or for over 6,500 who have at least one certified WTC-related cancer?  It is estimated in just a few years the WTC death toll could more than double since 2001.

Some are old tears, some new.  There is a time to cry.  Today is one of them. It is also a day to pray for families of all 9/11 victims – to be present and catch their tears.  It is a day to say thank you to all who responded and continue to respond in this long-term recovery.  It is a day for our tears to bring us to action in supporting victims of hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and injustice and those responding to their needs.  I pray we remember that just as there is a time for tears, there is a time to build up, a time to heal and a time for peace.

John J. Scibilia, CCA

(2001-2006 Executive Director of Lutheran Disaster Response of New York at Ground Zero)

 

 

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Hub Cap Salad

Hub cap salad, also known as jello mold salad, was a centerpiece at the annual church picnic.  Those round green shaky jello salads with shreds of carrots on the inside and mini marshmallows on the top.  Do you cut it like a cake or spoon it like a pudding?  Mom had a piece of Tupperware, specifically made to carry deviled eggs, which was proudly mustered out for this annual congregation event.  Massive pounds of hotdogs and burgers were waiting for the grill.  No one had heard of kale or thought salmon was a cook-out food group.

To work off the great food there was the marathon softball game when everyone had a chance to play, especially the dads who didn’t walk upright for weeks after the picnic.  Even if you didn’t play, you cheered everyone on.  It didn’t matter how you had voted a week ago about getting the new hymnal.  Everyone cheered, especially when they saw the pastor could swing a bat almost as well as he could preach.  God loves each of us the same, but does not bless everyone with the same softball skills.

We worshipped together every Sunday and attended a variety of monthly meetings.  But it was this once a year expression of community that was the subject of stories all year long.  “Do you remember Sal’s home plate slide?  Wasn’t Marian’s potato salad better than ever?  It was so great to see so many of the new members having a good time.  When is the picnic next year?”

Sunday worship brought us into community with God.  Monthly meetings, not so much.  A reading of the minutes and Roberts Rules gymnastics just didn’t do it.  Remembering our time as a community enjoying one another was fun to talk about.  Valuing each other as children of God was far more important than a pressing issue that wasn’t all that pressing.

In the post church picnic glow we greeted each other on Sundays differently somehow.  We had been together in our humanity sharing softball scrapes and treasured family recipes.  God was in our midst in a real way.  When there was the unavoidable difference of opinion from time to time, the picnic was a reminder of our humanity and community.  It was our common faith, not the hub cap salad that brought us together.  The love of God and our common mission kept us together.

The church picnic was one big passing of the peace in the community that lasted all year.  Church picnics, or whatever those times as a congregation may be called these days, can still be all that.  Pass the peace (and hold the hub cap salad).

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On Not Going through Life without Goals

brett-and-carolAs part of our pursuit of all things New York, Carol and I recently experienced the thrill and excitement of professional hockey.  Our seats were not the best.  We were well out of range of the Kiss Cam.  We had to look down to see the championship banners.  I wanted to shout “Hey, Zebras!  What game are you watching?” but was not sure that made sense from section 209, row 22.

We saw our friends John and Jill Scibilia on the Jumbotron reading the fans’ code of conduct.  I believe the Islanders asked John to do this because he is a fan who needs to be reminded of the fans’ code of conduct.

Hockey is not a big sport in Georgia, so my knowledge is not extensive.  The Islanders’ mascot, an underpaid person in a colossal blue and orange head, is, for reasons I do not understand, Sparky the Dragon.  I also do not understand offsides or icing—which seem to comprise about 2/3 of the referees’ calls.

Hockey has better nicknames than other sports.  Islanders opponents include Blues, Blue Jackets, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Ducks, Devils, Penguins, Maple Leafs (shouldn’t it be leaves?) and Predators (actually “Predators” seems like an unfortunate choice).

Hockey is a little like soccer on skates and a little like human pinball. There were beautiful moments when a skater would turn, spin, and glide majestically across the ice.  Those moments often ended with a huge person knocking the graceful skater into a wall.  Michele Kwan, meet John Cena.  Dentists must love hockey.

I tried to sing along with the tribute to the New York Rangers, “If you know the Rangers suck, clap your hands.”  I offered to buy Carol tickets for Mother’s Day, but she wants to consider other possibilities.

This leads to the perfunctory theological insight that closes church e-news columns.  (I admit this is a stretch and if you only read this column because you love hockey stop now.  You do not need to check this—which may be the worst hockey pun in this column.)  The deep, profound insight is: “We don’t have to stay with what we’ve always known.”  Hockey is now my favorite sport on ice.  (Curling is also a cool sport).

We are tempted to decide what we will do by its proximity to what we have already done.  Maturity is learning that “haven’t been there” doesn’t need to mean “won’t go there.”  There are chess fans who would love hockey if they gave it a chance.  If today is just like yesterday, it may be because we are not seeing the possibilities.

BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

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Take a Number

img_5217My earliest recollection of hearing “take a number” was growing up in Mineola on Long Island.  It was at dad’s favorite Italian deli – Ardito’s.  Those who did not appreciate the finer aroma of Italian cheeses referred to this palace of pasta as the smelly deli.  The “take a number” machine was too high for me to reach, so dad pulled the number, gave me the ticket and quizzed me on how to read the number.  He engaged me in counting down as we walked among delicacies and an occasional creeping snail that escaped the basket.  “How many to go before us, John?”  When our number was called I grabbed the gold ring, which in this case was a slice of Genoa salami to be savored as dad was rattling off his wish list to the clerk.  We were rewarded for waiting our turn, knowing when our number was called our wishes would be granted.

Caterina Scibilia was #100186130413 and assigned to Line #19 on Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century.  (Imagine having that number called?!)  It was a long wait.  At the end she grabbed her gold ring – entry into the USA.  More than 22 million people took a number at Ellis Island through 1954.  Many left their homes due to war, drought, famine, persecution and genocide.  Coming to America was rarely a situation of going from good to better.  These refugees saw the Lady’s torch and were aching to take their number and get in line.  The Statue their eyes embraced, originally erected to recognize America’s friendship with France, celebrate democracy and to honor the end of slavery, became known as the “mother of exiles” thanks to a poem written by Emma Lazarus in hopes of welcoming persecuted Russian Jews.

It’s as if Emma Lazarus heard God’s word to the Israelites, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)  Perhaps she was channeling Jesus’ words in Matthew when he says when you feed, visit and welcome the “least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40b)  How many will we prohibit from taking a number because of how they pray?  Whose numbers will be taken away because of our fear?  Are we willing to forget the Egypt of our past and the numbers and lines of our heritage?  Will we welcome the stranger and live the words with the silent lips of the Lady,

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

Will we lift a lamp beside our door?  Will all be welcome (really)?

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Merry Christmas….still?

“In America do you say Merry Christmas or Happy New Year on December 27?”  A friend of mine asked me this question after she was rudely chastised that after December 25 the proper salutation relates to the New Year coming up.

For weeks (in retail for months) we prepare for Christmas.  Gifts are purchased, decorations displayed, and parties seem endless.  THE DAY comes and goes, and we move immediately to the next thing.  Looking back on the year that was and making resolutions for the upcoming year fills the news and our conversations beginning on December 26.  Whatever happened to the season of Christmas?  Yes, Virginia, there is such a season.

The season of Christmas is filled with fun traditions, odd celebrations, and folklore.  Some historians contend the Twelve Days of Christmas poem and song is filled with hidden meanings passed along for centuries due to religious persecution.  I wonder if 10 Lords-A-Leaping really does stand for the 10 commandments.  Maybe?  Maybe not.  The NY Times made its annual report on the cost of purchasing everything from the partridge to the drummers.  $44,602 – a slight increase over last year.  (Note: leave out the golden rings for a big cost savings.)  Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was written to close the Christmas season on January 6.  Many church staffs are beginning serious planning this week for Lent and Easter.  Why don’t we bask in the manger’s perfect light before heading down the road to the cross?

I fear too often we live in anticipation without experiencing the joy when we arrive.  There is a letdown the day after Christmas when there ought to be continued celebration.  Ripped wrapping paper and left overs should remind us of the day we kicked off the Christmas season.  Even the celebration of administrative professionals has grown from one day to a full week.

A couple of days ago we celebrated Emmanuel, God with us.  Is it possible to use these 12 days to reflect on what incarnation means in our lives?  God the son took on human flesh and human nature.  Epiphany will be here soon enough when the proclamation of the Gospel begins.  We know how the story of Jesus’ earthly life ends.  There will be time to observe those solemn days with the incredible ending.  For now I’m going to do what is so difficult and rewarding.  Join me in living in the moment, in the season of Christmas.  Keep singing Joy to the Word and saying Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas, still!

John

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Where were you?

There are events of great importance that we mark in our memories by remembering where we were when we witnessed the event in person or by word of mouth.  My mom and dad used to talk about where they were when unlikely hero Bobby Thompson hit a home run against cross town rivals Brooklyn Dodgers giving the New York Giants the pennant.  Mom was a Dodger fan and dad a Giants fan.  The conversation was animated ‘til the day they died.  I can remember hearing President Kennedy was shot from Mrs. Hashagen, my third grade teacher.  We were dismissed early that day for fear it was the beginning of a Cold War attack.  Despite watching every space launch, I was camping in a field when Neil Armstrong took his small step and giant leap.  Those were days of camping without electricity and mobile phones and I didn’t get to actually see it for another week.

Where were you on September 11, 2001?  The towers?  Downtown?  New York City?  Another state or country?  Wherever you were, I’m guessing you remember with the same crystal clear memory as the sky was a cloudless crystal blue that day.  Each of us has a story to tell.  The stories all have value wherever you may have been.  For those who had physical or highly emotional connections, these stories were painful to tell and painful to hear.  I must have lived 9/11 vicariously through other people hundreds of times for five years in my role in the immediate response and long term recovery at Ground Zero.  The stories are still told today among strangers in the subway and family at gatherings.  Stories of tragedy and heroism; fear and bravery; isolation and community; hatred and love.  I would also ask them, “Where are you now?”

“Where are you now?” is a question just as meaningful as “where were you fifteen years ago?”  What’s been your journey since that Tuesday?  There is a visual from 9/11 that best describes where I am now.  Churches throughout the City opened their doors as places of refuge and prayer.  One of those churches at the base of a high profile building (and potential target), has a large baptistery as you enter the sanctuary.  Hundreds of people came in who were walking away from the collapsed buildings.  They were frightened, in a panic and covered in dust and ash.  They stopped at the baptistery and washed their hands and faces in the waters.  I was reminded of this when a Plymouth member told me his story and his stop at that baptistery.  It is at the baptismal font where I find myself today.  Bathed in the cleansing and healing waters of baptism and the grace of God poured out in those waters.  Where are you now?  All are welcome.

John

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A Month of Anniversaries

Last week marked the 70th anniversary of the martyrdom of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, murdered by the Nazis for opposing the Reich. One week later, 70 years ago this week, was the final liberation of Nazi death camps in Europe, universally known as Yom HaShoah. And this is the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This is also the one year anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnapping of hundreds of girls. The cry of “Bring Back Our Girls” seems almost faded even as 219 of the girls remain missing. Continued hate crimes, wars and senseless destruction of lives are stark reminders that the issues of those days sadly remain with us.

This famous statement and provocative poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) began circulating soon after he was released in 1945 from Dachau after his 8 year confinement in concentration camps.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Just a couple of weeks ago we celebrated another anniversary. An anniversary celebrated each year with shouts of Alleluia. An anniversary celebrated every Sunday. Easter brings with it the message of hope and resurrection. Rev. Lenhart recently wrote Easter brings the message of “love and forgiveness, new life and new starts.”

Our challenge and call is to put arms and legs on our faith. To give a voice to the message of hope. To stand up and speak up for and with those who desperately are in need of justice and peace. Our everyday faith sends us into the neighborhood and the world to make whatever difference we are able. We live out our faith together, everyday! What difference will you make, will we make, today?

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Acts of God

The other day I was reading through an insurance document and was again struck by the “Acts of God” clause. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods – all of which render the agreement useless. These are acts of God? Really? We permit the world out there to refer to God as one who wreaks havoc and brings ruin. In fact, many scientists would argue these natural disasters are increasing because of the world’s awful stewardship of a magnificent creation which is an act of God. The rainbow which followed the great flood was an act of God serving as a reminder of God’s promise to us, God’s covenant with every living creature.

We pray for acts of God all the time. For healing, strength, patience, answers. We pray in thanksgiving as we do this week especially for the wonderful act of God named Dorris Cain. We pray for an act of God to bring understanding, peace and justice in these especially unsettled times at home and throughout the world. These acts of God bring hope and comfort, not destruction.

During Advent we prepare to celebrate the most amazing act of God, the birth of our Savior – the Prince of Peace. Emanuel means God is with us. It is that Emanuel who grows up for an even more awesome act. His trip to the cross is followed by the most ultimate act of God. It is in that act of God’s grace that we find ourselves nestled in God’s arms forever. So, you see, contracts have it all wrong. Acts of God don’t ruin. It is the acts of God which lift us up, give us hope, comfort us, and will stay with us for all time.

May your Advent be blessed as your heart is prepared to welcome this ultimate act, Christ the King!

 

 

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Yankee Fair – Lora Churcher Q&A

With Yankee Fair only weeks away, Lora Churcher, a leader of Yankee Fair, took a few minutes from her busy schedule to share with me how the planning is going.

Yankee Fair takes place Nov. 8, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Q: How is this year’s fair different or the same?

LC: It’s our hope that this year’s Yankee Fair evokes the same warm feelings of a community gathering as it did when it first started so many years ago. We’re also trying to mix it up by adding some fun new elements, but want to keep that retro feel of an old fashioned fair.

Q: Any special/new features not previously offered? 

LC: We have a dress-up photo booth that should be fun for everyone, a local children’s band (Niko’s Kids) is playing a family folk concert, and our booths inside selling homemade items, (gently used) children’s clothing, books and collectibles are going to have must-have items as well. Country Kitchen is also selling frozen entrees and meals, and Luke’s Lobster has donated lobster stew meals.

Q: How many hours have you put into the planning? 

LC: Too many to count … in a good way,

Q: Tell me about the committee.

LC: We have a wonderful group of people helping this year. It includes a mix of church members, school parents and staff members. There are people who’ve been to 15 Yankee Fairs and those who will be coming for the first time. Everyone who has been asked has jumped into the project with both feet and is happy to go above and beyond to make it a successful day.

Q: How will the money raised be used?

LC: Monies raised by Yankee Fair 2014 will go to the restoration and maintenance of our historic buildings, playground improvements (first purchase: new picnic tables), and to St. John’s Bread and Life, the Brooklyn-based initiative that fights hunger and poverty right here in our community.

Q: What’s for lunch?

LC: Chili is making a return appearance with cornbread. We’re also going to have sandwiches, children’s meals and fresh fruit.

Q: If Henry Ward Beecher could attend, what would he say?

LC: “I love that the tradition of Yankee Fair is still being continued.”

Q: Any way to quantify how many skeins of yard have gone into 

the knitted projects? 

LC: We have a craft group that meets once a week to cut/sew/assemble all items, plus many people have taken home kits to cut. I’d guess at least 100.

Q: Any new or unique homemade items this year? 

LC: We have an amazing collection of handmade pillows (holiday and year round decor), retro felt ornaments, aprons, and gift tags. We have young children making some special gifts as well.  Everything looks like it belongs on Etsy.

Q: Anything else you want to say or people need to know?

LC: Our church historian told us that Plymouth Church actually had — and was involved with Fairs dating back to the Civil War — to raise funds for the war effort. There was a Country Kitchen, which was called the New England Kitchen back then. On display will be Mrs. Beecher’s apron from one of those fairs.

Thank you, Lora, and the committee, for all the work that went into making Yankee Fair a dream come true.

Get more Yankee Fair details here

 

 

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