Hope is elusive, so look harder

Many of us are exhausted, sad, and angry.  We need strength.  We need hope.  We need God.  When the world is hard, we have to look harder.  We are detectives searching for clues.  Hope does not shout, but if we listen carefully we hear whispers.  Hopeful things are happening, but we have to pay attention.

This week, a child in California gave a firefighter a hug.

A congressperson had second thoughts about assault rifles.

A relief worker in Puerto Rico handed a bottle of water to someone who was thirsty.  He did not throw paper towels.

A diplomat from North Korea and a diplomat from the United States shared a pizza.

A 60-year-old ordered his morning coffee in Spanish for the first time.

A white NFL player asked an African American player why he was kneeling during the anthem, and listened to his response.

A black judge acquitted a white racist of a false murder charge.

A white police officer asked a black teenager how the police could be more helpful.

A Christian minister invited an imam to talk to her church’s youth group.

A senior citizen who has never been to a protest marched in support of immigrants.

An office manager sent a memo to the CEO pointing out that women are still paid less.

A father who thinks of himself as old school told his gay son how proud he is.

A homeless veteran went to Plymouth Church for dinner and a good night’s sleep.

A shopper at a car dealership decided to buy a hybrid.

A neighbor talked to an elderly woman sitting on her stoop.

A sophomore changed his major to social work.

An angry man started to make an angry phone call, but then hung up.

A book group picked Frederick Buechner for their next book.

A fan at a Bruce Springsteen concert believed again.

A scientist who usually watches MSNBC watched Fox News and thought, “I can understand how someone would feel that way.”

A bald man decided that hair is overrated.

A mother gave in and got her eight-year-old a puppy.

A couple going through a divorce decided to put the children first.

An architect received a text from an old friend inviting her to lunch.

A cabdriver picked up a fare in a wheelchair and took her to Key Food for free.

A doctor told an artist that she is going to have a girl.

A retired teacher laughed out loud for the first time since his wife’s death.

The world’s problems are devastating, so we keep looking for hope.  We do not need to pretend everything is okay.  We need to pay attention to the hope that surrounds us.

 

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Children are Miracles

Years ago a Sunday school student asked me for examples of modern day miracles. It was before Google. I was stumped, but managed to remember a few medical miracles I’d heard and read about. The student was clearly not satisfied with my answer. When I asked him what he thought, he quickly responded, “My mother says children are a miracle.” I wondered if she hadn’t been talking about the miracle of childbirth, but let it go.

These times beg for a miracle. Good news has been sparse as one disaster follows another. It’s hard to keep up with the hurricanes, floods and fires; earthquakes no longer make the front pages. The death toll of a mass shooting is as unnerving as the looming threats of war.

It’s hard not to feel guilty when reading the headlines, when looking at the pictures of people suffering on the front pages. It’s hard not to feel distraught, overwhelmed and helpless only to feel guilty again when we’re not directly impacted.

Around three o’clock, the local schools get out. Daily now, I find myself opening my office window a bit more to soak in the laughter, the audible excitement of catching up with friends, heading to the playground, a favorite after school activity or soccer game. Yesterday it struck me that I not only know some of these children, but that they were in Sunday School with me this past week as we tackled some tough subjects. I remember the girl who observed that with each disaster, we seem to forget the victims of the last disaster still struggling to recover. I recall the concern for the helpless animals in the voice of one child and the heartfelt confusion of another who asked what we are all wondering, why do bad things happen?

Then I think of the boy who approached his principal to start a drive to benefit the victims of Hurricane Maria. The girl whose science club is holding bake sales to raise money for climate change awareness. The girl’s friend who wants to learn how to build houses for those who lost theirs and the boy who now wants to become a traveling doctor. And that’s when I feel some glimmer of hope, that’s when I’m reminded that God speaks to us through others and that’s when I realize that Gabo was correct. Children are miracles, each and every one. We need to listen to them.

Julia

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The Face of Jesus

I grew up going to church three times a week, but I was in college before I heard anyone say that Christians have a responsibility to feed the hungry.  What could be more obvious?  If someone you love was starving, you would do everything you could to save his or her life.  The gospel Jesus taught makes it clear that someone God loves is starving.

What do we look like from God’s perspective?  Imagine that you have two children.  One child is trapped in a country where hard-working people are starving.  The second is in a wealthy country and has more than enough.  What would you think if the second child did not try to save his or her sibling?  Would you wonder if the child who does not give is a real Christian?  How is this different from how God views us?

At the close of worship this Sunday we will give an offering to feed the hungry in Cameroon through the Mission School of Hope.  (Click here to see how our gifts will be shared.)  In general, our responses will fall into three categories.

  1. “If only I had read The Plymouth Blog I would have known this was a Sunday to stay home in bed. I don’t come to church to hear ‘If you are a Christian, you will care about these people.’  I refuse to feel guilty because I have more than other people.”
  2. “I can’t think about starving children without breaking down and crying. I feel awful about it, but the problem is so overwhelming.  My heart breaks every time I think about it, but what can I do?”
  3. “I wish I could come up with a good enough excuse not to help, but if I listen to Jesus at all, then I have to admit that the face of each starving child is also the face of Christ. As hard as it is to give, it is even harder to imagine looking Jesus in the face and explaining why I didn’t give.”

The statistics on hunger are overwhelming.  800 million people around the world are hungry.  Every 4 seconds someone dies from hunger.  About 24,000 people die every day from hunger-related causes.  Most of the victims are children.

The statistics are so overwhelming that it is possible to forget that our offering will make a real difference for real children in Cameroon.

The Talmud says:  Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now.  Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

On Sunday, you and I have the opportunity to do the right thing.   Here are the details on how you can make a difference.

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The Sunday Morning Hustle

Getting your young child to church on Sunday is no easy task. I’ve commiserated with many friends who dread the Sunday morning routine. Do these stories sound familiar?

On Sunday morning, my three-year-old son wakes up at 6:00 a.m. and demands breakfast. But he doesn’t want any breakfast, he wants “special breakfast,” which means homemade banana pancakes, center-cut bacon (crispy, but not too crunchy), fresh strawberries cut into equally thick slices, and orange juice – no not from the Captain America cup that is clean, the dirty Spiderman cup that’s been sitting in the dishwasher for three days and growing a fungus forest. After breakfast is on the table, he decides “special breakfast” isn’t that special anymore, and would rather have a Pop-Tart. By the time the family is fed, we already know we are going to be late for 11:00 a.m. worship.

Last Sunday morning my five-year-old daughter and I fought over what she should wear to church. I prefer she wears a dress and nice shoes. She prefers her Paw Patrol bathing suit and flip-flops. After thirty minutes of negotiating, we finally reach a compromise: Cinderella dress and cowboy boots. At least she’s not naked.

We are always coming to church stressed out. Sunday mornings at home are chaotic. There is always some tantrum to handle, mess to clean up or missing shoe to find. When we finally arrive at church we can’t wait for our children to go to Sunday School just so we can get forty-five minutes of peace.

If you relate to any of these events, welcome to the club! Our Parenting in the Pew class last Sunday talked about ways to make the Sunday morning routine easier. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Stop the Comparing Game. That family sitting two pews in front of you who look like they just walked out of a Ralph Lauren ad? Yeah, I guarantee you that mom just lost it on the way to church because her kids had a booger war in the minivan. Perfect families don’t exist, so stop feeling inferior because your kid has a stain on his shirt.
  2. Prepare the Night Before. On Saturday night go ahead and pack up the diaper bag with all Sunday morning essentials: diapers, snacks, change of clean clothes (yes, even one for your potty-trained 3-year-old), and wipes, oh so many wipes. Also on Saturday night, invite your child to pick out Sunday clothes with you. Set your own guidelines, but let them make the final choice. Most kids just want to wear what is comfortable and gives them joy. That is what God wants as well.
  3. Simplify Sunday. Sundays should be a day of rest. When we turn Sundays into days of early-morning workouts, big breakfasts, fancy dresses, and afternoon outings, we neglect God’s command to keep the Sabbath holy. Sunday morning meals should be easy like muffins or bagels. Making Sunday afternoon plans to go to birthday parties or BBQs sounds fun, but the stress of planning those events usually creeps into the morning routine. Make your Sundays about two things: worship and rest.
  4. Teach Worship at Home. Talk to your children about worship. Ask them what they like best about being in church. Ask them what makes worship difficult. Bring home a bulletin and talk about the different parts of the service. Sing your favorite hymn together. Pray together as a family. Remember: children learn to worship by watching their parents worship.

Parenting on Sunday morning is hard. The good news is that you are not alone. Plymouth Church loves and welcomes children. We are here to help you keep Sabbath even in the midst of kids and chaos.

Erica Cooper, Assistant Minister

 

 

 

 

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Our First Week Together

Chris, Rosie and I have lived in Brooklyn Heights for a week. In a way, this week has flashed by in the form of whirling suitcases, teetering moving boxes, and multiple trips to the market for yet another household item. In another way, this week has felt as though God has stretched out the days and filled them with moments of grace. From experiencing the hospitality of Plymouth’s finest cooks and gracious hosts, to hearing the testimonies of God’s faithfulness from parishioners and coworkers, to watching my daughter joyfully recount her experience seeing Aladdin on Broadway, I can confidently say that our family has been profoundly blessed these past seven days.

Chris and I feel like we are in a good dream. We keep looking at each other, and saying “I can’t believe we get to live here!” Every night we walk the Promenade as a family. We look out at the amazing view of Manhattan and breathe in God’s overwhelming gifts. We have been praying for so long to feel a sense of “home” in our lives, and so far (at least in the past seven days), I celebrate that I feel a sense of belonging. Plymouth is an amazing community, in an amazing neighborhood, in an amazing borough, in an amazing city. Your generous call inviting me to serve as your Assistant Minister allows me and my family to experience this Holy place.

In Life Together, Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes:

“The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing vital between us.”

Diversity is important in a church, as it leads to learning new wonders of God’s grace. I am glad that Plymouth has a strong tradition of welcoming new people. There are many who have been a part of Plymouth Church for decades, those who have followed the call of God to lay a beautiful foundation of ministry and mission. For those church mothers and fathers, I am grateful for your dedication and work in this community. And there are those who are newcomers, those who didn’t grow up in Brooklyn, but felt God’s presence here and decided to join in the worship and work of the church. For those new pilgrims, I am grateful for your courage to take the risk of sharing life together and trusting that God is in this place.

Thank you, Plymouth, for calling us here and for providing excellent soil for our family to plant our roots. I look forward to living genuinely and deeply with you. May Christ be the one and only thing vital between us.

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The Birds and Bees (and How They Fly)

I was ten years old, lying on the couch reading an Archie comic book.  (I am embarrassed to admit that I liked Veronica more than Betty.)  My father came in wearing Ward Cleaver’s face: “Brett, put your novel away.  There’s something I should have talked to you about by now, but I’ve been putting it off, because I wasn’t sure you were old enough to understand.  We’re going to have a convebrett-fathers-day-blogrsation I think you’ll always remember.”

I was thinking what you are thinking.  My father just offered Andy Taylor’s introduction to the birds-and-the-bees talk.  What I wanted to say was, “Dad, you gave this speech a month ago.  I don’t want to hear it again.  You said that if I had questions I should check back.  I will never do that, but I appreciate the offer.”

How could my father forget that we already had this discussion? (“Discussion” means he talked and I listened.)  And yet, inexplicably, he had forgotten.  It was going to be at least five tortuous minutes before I learned who Archie was taking to the big dance at Riverdale High.

I expected to hear, “When a man and a woman love each other very much” but Dad opened with, “It’s time to talk about how an airplane flies.”

He had several model airplanes with him.  My father gave a speech that lasted longer than five minutes: “An airplane flies because its wings create lift, the upward force on the plan, as they interact with the flow of air around them.  The wings alter the direction of the flow of air as it passes.”

When I thought he would be getting to “a woman is different from a man” he was saying, “The exact shape of the surface of a wing is critical to its ability to generate lift.  The speed of the airflow and the angle at which the wing meets the oncoming air stream contribute to the amount of lift generated.”

We did not get to first dates or anything interesting, but Dad covered drag, acceleration, and aeronautical theory.

Forty-six years later I more often recall Dad’s “how planes fly” sermon than his “where babies come from” speech.  I appreciate the “everything you always wanted to know about aviation” address, because it was my father at his most authentic.  He worked hard to pass down his love for model airplanes (we tried, but I never got it), the Dallas Cowboys (my teenage rebellion was rooting against America’s Team), westerns (I like The Searchers), and Frank Sinatra (I’m right with dad on Ol’ Blue Eyes).

Good fathers share what they love.  Father’s Day is a chance to be thankful for every good gift our fathers tried to give us — even the flying lessons that never got off the ground.

Note:  The photo above is a clever re-creation of a 1971 conversation.

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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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Movie Nights Aren’t Really About Movies

fullsizerenderMovie Night has become a tradition of children’s programming at Plymouth. On the second
Friday of every month anywhere from 5 to 25 children are dropped off in the gym. The tricycles
come out of the closet. Goldfish crackers are upgraded to pizza and then there’s a movie-
Moana, Frozen, Zootopia to name a few of the favorite blockbusters.

It’s rare to find a movie that every child hasn’t seen. It’s hard to find a movie appropriate for a
three year old who engages her seven year old sister. That’s when I remind myself that it’s really
not about the movie. It’s about so much more.

One Friday there were only five of us.  Reverend Brett stopped by and tried on silly hats
and a clip on tie. He had dinner plans, we had ordered too much pizza and so went from floor to
floor delivering slices to staff members. Most of us had never been to the fourth floor teen room.
Exhausted from our mission, we lay down under the skylight, pretended we were camping and
talked about our dreams. We never got to the movie.

The Friday we showed Frozen, the gym was packed. Every chair was taken. Some kids arrived
in costume. We started the movie almost immediately- the anticipation was so great. Within 15
minutes, kids started to ask if they could play with their friends. They promised to play quiet
basketball, silent soccer….the movie stayed on but no one noticed when it was over.

This past Friday it was so unusually hot in the gym that we decided to show the movie in air
conditioned Storr’s Library. The cool air and comfy couch were not enough though. Most of us spent the evening playing
cars on the wooden floor of the hot hallway. We’d found a box of seven matchbox cars and
there were nine of us. “My car” quickly became “our cars.”

While building a road out of cardboard pieces I studied each child’s face, the soft features, the
sweet expressions not yet scarred by the harsh reality of life. I wondered, as I often do, who
they will be in ten, twenty years and I hoped that when they remember their childhood, they will
remember growing up as part of a church family, as loved and cherished as God wants every
child to be.

 

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Happy Mother’s Day to My Mom, Ginger Rogers

brett-and-momMy mother should be a dancer, but she rolls her eyes when I tell her that.  All of her fundamentalist Christian life, dancing has been as off-limits as rock and roll, Heineken, and liberal Christians, but she could be a ballerina.

My mom has the athleticism of a ballet dancer.  Her brief, but glorious, hoops career is legendary in Northeast Mississippi.  Grandma would not let my mother play basketball for the purple and gold of Itawamba High School because the team’s short pants were two feet too short.  One famous night in 1948, several Lady Indians fouled out in the third quarter of a tight game with their bitter rivals — the Houston Hilltoppers — so the coach went into the stands to beg Clarice Graham to play.  Mom slipped into a borrowed pair of boogie shoes and, in a dress that hit just below the ankles, scored several key baskets, dancing the Indians to a celebrated victory.

My mom has the precision of a ballroom dancer.  Dancers have an extraordinary sense of where their feet, legs, and arms should be at every second. Ginger could not spin with Fred if he showed up one second late.  My mother has a supernatural sense of where everyone should be and has never been less than ten minutes early to anything.  If punctuality was the key to dancing, my entire family would be touring with Alvin Ailey.

My mom has the spirit of a jitterbugger.  The best dancers are passionate. When mom giggles, which she frequently does, she begins to shake, her voice goes to a pitch audible only to dogs, her face turns a beautiful shade of red and her dark blue eyes start dancing.  Her rhythmic exuberance would make Beyonce jealous.

I often irritate my mother by trying to get her to dance with me.  I point out that King David danced, the psalmists tell us to praise God with dance, and Ecclesiastes assures us that there is a time to dance, but she will not waltz, tango, or foxtrot with her son.

Angela Monet writes, “Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music.”

Though she will not admit it, mom hears the music and knows she should be dancing.

Some can only remember the jigs their now-departed mothers danced.  Some mothers are too far away to two-step with their sons.  Only a fortunate few can put their arms around their mothers and dance.

On Mother’s Day, be thankful for every playful step your mother ever took. Any excuse is good enough to trip the light fantastic with our moms, even if it is only in our imaginations.

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Experiencing Easter

Words have been failing Easter since the first Easter.  Words of theological explanation miss the Spirit.  Words of debate miss the point.  The words of poets, like gospel writers, come closest, but even they miss the wonder.  Easter is not meant to be spoken, but experienced.easter1

The first reaction the women had on seeing the stone rolled away was not joy, but confusion.  According to Luke’s version, two men offered the terrified women an explanation they were not sure they could believe.  The women returned to the disciples’ hiding place and took turns trying to present a coherent story.  Their listeners wanted to be polite, but they had never heard such nonsense.  The women’s words about life from death were particularly unconvincing.

What did the women expect?  They may have been upset that the other disciples dismissed their story as foolishness, but they must have understood.  An empty tomb proves nothing.  The last explanation to consider is the one that they gingerly suggested.

Resurrection does not square with anything else we know.  No resurrection makes its way into Gray’s Anatomy or Pontius Pilate’s scribal records.  This is a shaky beginning for the world’s most widespread religion.  Modern Christians, with a modern understanding of what is scientifically possible, are tempted to apologize for Easter.

The writers of the New Testament make it clear that Easter does not happen on the basis of second-hand reports.  Those who believed did so only as they discovered that they were not as alone as they had thought.  Christ was somehow with them—making them braver, kinder, more alive, and more like Christ.  The only reason good enough to believe in the resurrection life is if it happens to you.

easter-2Like the first group that hesitatingly made its way toward Easter, we must make our own way to the tomb, not to analyze its emptiness, but to hear the voice of hope.  Easter cannot be experienced vicariously.  So take a walk to the garden and consider the quiet.  Gather with the church and sing the songs of new life.  Serve the Risen Christ by caring for someone who is hurting.

Look for signs of Grace’s appearing—especially in your own heart.  Are you tired of dusks and yearning for dawn?  Open yourself to the possibility that the Spirit of Christ lives on among us—not as a memory, but as the outlandish presence of the Holy Mystery calling us to celebrate.

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