Thank You, Plymouth Church School

The biggest concern about moving our family to Brooklyn last year was how our (then) four-year-old daughter Rosie would adjust to the change. Rosie, like most everyone, experiences bouts of anxiety when facing the unknown, and moving from Georgia to New York is an especially difficult experience for a child.

Rosie’s entire world changed when we moved to Brooklyn. She went from travelling in a car seat in an SUV to riding on the A Train while standing. She went from having a large playroom in our house, to having a small play “corner” in our apartment. She went from riding her tricycle around our cul-de-sac to riding her scooter down Henry Street. As worried parents, Chris and I constantly prayed that God would send us people in Brooklyn to love, comfort, and guide Rosie during this first year of transition. And wow, did God deliver!

Plymouth Church School has been the best school experience I have ever had, both for my daughter and for myself. From the moment Rosie stepped foot in the Red Room, she was surrounded by joy, wonder, and acceptance. Kate and Annie have given the very best of themselves to my daughter, and to all of the children in the class. By encouraging the children to explore their environment, ask questions, and discover wonder, Kate and Annie are sending off confident, responsible, and curious students into Kindergarten.

Rosie’s favorite part of Plymouth Church School was the new Enrichment Program. The program is designed with a different after-school class each day of the week, and taught by PCS staff. Not only did this program provide much-needed childcare for our family, but it exposed Rosie to a variety of experiences we could not have given her otherwise. Because of the Enrichment Program, Rosie has bonded with children from other classrooms. She knows more people walking around in the neighborhood than I do! Enrichment has also given Rosie a passion for art, dance, and nature.

My appreciation for Plymouth Church School goes beyond the classroom. As a parent, I am forever learning how to listen to and care for my child. It seems once I have this whole “parenting thing” figured out, Rosie moves into a new phase, and all the old tricks stop working. Adrienne Urbanski and Mindy Goldstein have seen me through personal parenting struggles. They have hugged me in my worries and congratulated me in my victories. I could not have survived this first year in transition without them.

When we think of the ministry of Plymouth Church, I encourage everyone to think of the amazing ministry that comes from Plymouth Church School. It is truly God’s work being done through the staff, teachers and administrators that welcome the youngest among us. Thank you, Plymouth Church School, for helping a scared, anxious girl in a new environment find a home (and for helping her daughter, too).

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Lending a Hand for Mission

Every morning when I drop my daughter Rosie off at the Red Room at Plymouth Church School, I give her a quick hug and kiss and say the words, “Be good.” The phrase comes out of my mouth without even thinking. It has become such a part of the morning routine that I rarely realize I am saying them.

“Be good.” Parents often say these words to their kids in hopes that they will listen to their teachers, be kind to other children, and make good choices. The more I think of this phrase, I don’t think it adequately reflects what I am asking of my daughter. I am not asking her to “be” anything other than who she already is, the person that God created. Instead, I am really asking her to “do” things that reflect who God made her to be.

“Do good.” Now that’s the phrase I should be saying. Share your snack. Play with the lonely kid. Wait for your turn. Help someone who is in trouble. By “doing good,” Rosie reflects the wonder and love of God. And ultimately, that is what I hope for her to do.

Over the past few months, Plymouth Church has spent intentional time “doing good” in our neighborhood, our city and our world through various projects, retreats and special events. In our “doing good” we show others God’s wonder and love in the world.

Amy Anderson and I reflected on these recent events, and here are the good things we witnessed Plymouth doing:

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Feeding the hungry. Eight teenagers and four adults attended the Senior Youth Mission Retreat at YSOP in Manhattan. They prepared and served food to over 300 people. They learned about hunger and homelessness in New York City, and discovered ways to share God’s love to others.

 

 

 

 

 

img_2800Visiting the sick. The Junior Youth Group hosted an Ice Cream Social at Cobble Hill Health Center. Eleven participants served sundaes and spent time sitting down and talking with  around forty residents and patients. They showed God’s gentleness and grace to people who are recovering from illness and injury.

 

 

 

 

img_7023Providing shelter. Plymouth church members and Plymouth Church School teachers partnered with Habitat for Humanity and spent a day rehabilitating affordable housing in southeastern Queens. Plymouth people find joy in lending their hearts and hands to revitalizing neighborhoods and giving families a chance to build stability in a new Habitat home.

 

 

 

 

img_0129Caring for seniors. Plymouth adults and youth added cheer and sunshine to a Senior Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with bright paint and colorful murals as they worked with Habitat NYC’s Brush with Kindness Program.

 

 

 

 

 

photo-apr-26-7-44-36-pmBringing hope. Plymouth welcomed Rev. Charles Sagay and received an update of the great ministry that he is continuing to the Baka people in Cameroon through The Mission School of Hope. Plymouth presented The Mission School of Hope with a grant of $30,000 so they can expand their campus and bring God’s hope to even more students.

 

 

 

 

photo-apr-08-12-34-20-pmEncouraging the disheartened. The Plymouth congregation continued the battle against human-trafficking and worked with Sanctuary for Families to create parenting supply-filled tote bags for mothers receiving services at Sanctuary for Families’ offices. Aiming for a goal of 100 totes, the Plymouth people poured their care and generosity into the project and our final tote count was 175!

 

 

 

 

img_2833Helping the imprisoned. Plymouth’s Racial Justice Ministry organized a Mother’s Day Bail Out event which brought awareness to the unjust practices of bail on the poor and raised over $400 for the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. This fund allows misdemeanor defendants who are awaiting trial to be home with their families.

 

 

 

James 2:26 reminds us, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” Our “doing” informs, nourishes, and shapes our “being.” The things we choose to do vitally impact who we are and what we believe.

As we move forward continuing to lend our hands in mission projects, let us be encouraged and empowered knowing that the good we do not only heals the brokenness in the world, but heals the brokenness inside our own beings.  When we do good to others, we do good to our own souls. And God thinks that is pretty good, too.

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Open wide and sing “La”

Many people have asked me what my philosophy of music is, and my instinctive response is to respond, “My what of what?!?!”  Music is such an integral part of what I do that having a philosophy or game plan seems like a put-on.  I don’t philosophize about music; I do music.  But when I start talking about what I do, explaining what I think I do and how I do it, a clear concept appears.

Music is a link to God in the same way that any gift or talent or grace is a link to God.  People through the ages have used any number of God’s gifts to make contact: sculpture, stained glass windows, poetry, painting, ceramics, hieroglyphics, jogging, sunset-watching, camping, singing, dancing, and transcendental meditation as links to God.  We usually call this contact with God prayer.

We strive so to find our spiritual friend, guide, counselor, confessor, wailing wall, encourage, inspirer, salvation-giver because this is part or our healthy human nature.  We instinctively strive to make contact with our genesis.

Music is one of the first and most readily attainable of the communicative tools we have for making ourselves known to God.  Here at Plymouth, we enjoy a long history of congregational singing dating from Henry Ward Beecher’s tenure as Plymouth’s first pastor.  In the early part of the twentieth century, Henry Pfohl founded the Plymouth Choir, adult singers who regularly lead worship on Sunday mornings.  Over time the choir program has grown to include the Junior Choir, the Seraph Choir, the Cherub Choir, and the Tone Chime Choir.

Each of these groups works on learning and perfecting music for Sunday worship,  learning more about the Christian faith along the way.  Each choir is also a support group in its own way.  As choirs work together, we also come to know each other.  We find out about each other’s lives, sharing good times and sad times and offering a collective shoulder to lean on when it’s needed.  In this way, the choirs emulate the whole body of Christ that is the church.

Choirs at Plymouth are inclusive groups, welcoming all.  Everyone willing to make the commitment to regular rehearsals is gladly welcomed into choir.  So come join us and help make a joyful noise to the Lord!

Did I mention that singing is also good for your health?  It’s true!  Research findings show that singing strengthens the immune system, provides a physical workout, improves posture, helps you sleep, lowers stress level, and is a natural anti-depressant.  Add in that it’s wonderful way to praise God, and what’s not to love about singing?  Open wide and sing “La.”

In music and in Christ, Bruce Oelschlager, Minister of Music

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Youth Group Shenanigans

On Sunday nights a small group of teenagers and adult volunteers gather together in the Plymouth Church gym. Sometimes we eat pizza and talk about prayer. Sometimes we have burritos and play basketball. Sometimes we dine on spaghetti and do a service project.  No matter what we eat or what we do, the Plymouth Church youth group meets regularly to know God, grow together and live out our faith.

I have enjoyed being with the Plymouth’s youth each week. Teenagers are entertaining people. We laugh a lot. We share stories. We make memories.

Here are some of my favorite memories from our youth group so far:

  • James teaching me how to play Stratego at The Brooklyn Strategist (and watching him revel as he proceeded to kick my behind in the game)
  • Holding hands in silent prayer with Brian, Freja and Aaron in front of the Reception Room fireplace
  • Cason playing corn-hole with Edith Bartley
  • Wilsie making slime with Dick Yancey
  • Amelia giving a thoughtful, spirit-filled answer to “Why should we still pray if it doesn’t change our circumstances?”
  • Clay teaching me how to play basketball
  • Melanie making a ginormous Christmas cookie which took forever to bake in the church oven
  • Anaya and Daisaya talking about the ins and outs of middle school as we walked down Cranberry Street
  • Noah enthusiastically collecting trash in Harry Chapin park
  • Starr and Martin’s kindness and patience when I stressed out over our dinner order not arriving
  • Being envious of Ayo’s boundless energy walking back from the movie theater
  • Natalia, Lulia and Charlie leading the Christmas Eve family worship
  • Everyone asking “Where’s Calder?” and cheering when she comes to youth group late from swim practice
  • Lulu patiently helping her sister when her orthodontics malfunctioned at our Christmas party
  • Being inspired by Lucy’s passion for gun safety in America
  • Bringing the entire youth group to Avery’s house after her surgery
  • Robert doing a cartwheel in Beecher Garden
  • Being moved by Owen’s intelligence and honesty
  • Living vicariously through Kalia’s recent adventures
  • Kai’s agility and strength on the ropes course at the church retreat
  • Paul and Matthew asking difficult theological questions (which I am still unable to answer)
  • Coming to know Emily’s deep desire to own fuzzy slippers during our White Elephant gift exchange at Christmas

Adult Christians often ask the question “What impact does the church have on the lives of young people?”

My experience with the Plymouth youth group has me asking different question: “What impact do young people have on the life of the church?”

Thanks be to God for the youth group here at Plymouth. These young people make the church a better place, and me a better pastor.

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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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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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God Listens to Lists

On February 1st, my daughter called to tell me she was thinking about transferring schools. She’s a freshman in college. The news did not come as a surprise to me so I encouraged her to apply.  “Wait,” she said. “First I have to make a list of pros and cons.  I’ll text it to you in a few hours.” “Emily, the application is due tomorrow,” I yelled. “Forget the list- just do it!” We hung up on each other.

I have little patience for the thoughtful planning process. I prefer acting, often reacting. For instance, as strict and formal as my upbringing was at home, in school and at church, my daughter’s was intentionally informal.  I refused to push manners or dress. I wanted my daughter to understand that it’s not about appearances but what’s on the inside. I didn’t care about her grades. I wanted her to value and love learning.  But, most of all, I wanted Emily to know God, God’s unconditional love and grace. I wanted her to have a personal relationship with God. I wanted her to turn to God in times of trouble, in times of joy. I hoped she would get there through prayer; not the rote memorized prayers of my childhood but individual, spontaneous, relevant, daily prayer and I encouraged her as best I could.

I am not good at praying.  We’ve been working on prayer in Sunday School.  After modeling closing prayers, I started asking for volunteers.  Initially, the same child raised his hand every week.  He was a natural- a hard act to follow.  Finally, in his absence, a different child raised his hand, only to promptly lower it and avert his eyes.  “Think of prayer as a sandwich,” I encouraged him.  “Dear God” and “Amen” are the bread.  All you need is the middle and as long as it’s from your heart, it’s fine.” He still wouldn’t look at me.  Thankfully, another child gave it a shot: Dear God, thank you for today.  Amen. Short and sweet.  Easy and inspirational.

I was certain this would encourage others- and it did!  I had to wait a few weeks for my initially frozen second volunteer to raise his hand again, but it was worth the wait.  Two weeks ago, he closed our discussion with: Dear God thank you for letting children have Sunday School.  Amen.  I was so proud and happy.  This week, a once reserved girl ended class with: Dear God, thank you for your son, Jesus.  Help us listen better to you and Jesus.  Amen.

On February 2nd, I texted my daughter asking if she had submitted her transfer applications.  Yes, she replied, because unlike you God was willing to listen to my lists.  I probably should have felt hurt or guilty, but I didn’t.  I felt good.

Julia

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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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Marching On

marching-baby

The crowd was spectacular: fathers donning pink hats with ears, women holding bright signs inscribed with colorful language, and little girls wearing t-shirts that said things like “Future President” and “My daddy is a feminist.” Last Saturday’s Women’s March on New York City drew over 200,000. Women, men, children and even some dogs started gathering at Columbus Circle and lined up all along Central Park West, reaching as far north as 72nd Street.

Going to the March was a last minute decision after receiving an invitation to go with a friend. I hadn’t gone to any of the marches last year, mostly because I am claustrophobic and can’t stand being trapped in a sea of people (the 8 am A Train is my living hell). This year I thought I would brave the crowds and see what this marching is all about.

After getting out of the oh-so-congested subway at Columbus Circle, we were greeted by law enforcement instructing us to walk up Broadway. We walked past the Trump International Hotel and Tower. We walked past Lincoln Center, home of The Metropolitan Opera. We walked past a number of male street vendors selling buttons that said things like “Stay Strong, Stay Nasty” and “Girls just wanna have Fun-damental human rights.” Just when it started to feel like we were journeying on a sexual assault trail of tears, we finally arrived at ABC studios, where we could cross over 66th Street toward the park.

“Is this the march?” I heard one woman ask as we turned the corner.

“No,” said her friend. “We are marching to the march.”

Right before we got to the end of the intersection of 66th and Central Park West, the crowd had come to a stand still. Police kept us from joining the rest of protestors. Stuck and frustrated on 66th, we followed the lead of an elderly woman holding a poster that read “My arms are tired from holding this sign since the 1960s” and busted through a side barricade when the police officer was looking the other way.

We were finally on Central Park West and headed north to find an opening that would allow us to cross the park side of the street. Once we crossed, I felt like I was able to breathe again as there was a bit of elbow room. Now that we were done marching to the march, it was time to stand in line for the march. It was tough for me to find the perfect standing and waiting spot. I needed a place where I could feel a part of the crowd, while still maintaining my personal bubble.

We walked down the sidewalk through the crowd and finally stopped by a stone wall that bordered the park. The journey from the subway exit to this resting place had taken us a little less than two hours. We finally claimed a spot and waited for the crowd to start marching.

As we waited, we took it all in. Looking at all the signs, the t-shirts, the various costumes of lady liberty and female genitalia, I was surprised by how many causes were represented: immigration rights, racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s empowerment groups, disability rights, women’s reproductive rights, women’s and children’s healthcare, peace and reconciliation, environmental protection, science education, anti-human trafficking, domestic violence prevention, sexual harassment and abuse prevention, and children’s rights. There were so many voices shouting in the chorus, “We will not be silent, and we are not going away.”

The intersectionality of the Women’s March was undeniable. People of all races, genders, ages, sexual orientations, religions, education levels and apartment sizes came together as one group to say, “This Matters.”  Yet, in the clamor of it all, I felt lost.

I had journeyed for two hours to this place, only to feel empty. I felt like an outsider, a spectator. It didn’t make sense. I care about these causes. I, too, am angry with the current administration’s negligence towards human rights. I whole-hearted believe in the impact of organizing for social and political change. I am glad we live in a country that gives us the freedom to peacefully protest and speak our minds. But I wanted more. I wanted something that a march just couldn’t provide.

Last Sunday a group of parents got together at Plymouth Church to learn how to talk to our children about racism. This Sunday a group of Plymouth people will watch a documentary and learn how to end human trafficking in Brooklyn. The first Sunday of February, volunteers will pack food bags to give to hungry families through Brooklyn Delivers. When I think of these and the other Plymouth ministries, I realize that social and political activism doesn’t just happen in the streets. It happens in the pews, in the prayer circles, in the baptismal font, in the pulpit, in the offering plate, in Hillis hall, and in the Sunday School classroom.

Church isn’t just a house of worship. Church is an auditorium for the voiceless, an assembly of protest, an incubator for activism, a forum for forgiveness and a place of peace. The Church is continuously marching. There are no barricades to keep people out. There is no waiting around for things to get started. The march is here and now and always.

 

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Prince Harry and Me

brett-harryWe questioned their judgment when the Coopers asked us to take care of Harry for a week.  We are good people, but we are not dog people.  I have not lived with a dog since my Chihuahua Catastrophe lived up to his name in an encounter with a brand new 1968 Ford Mustang.

Our only goal was to keep Harry alive until his family got home.  We were so afraid that something would happen, but Harry slept most of the time.  He disappears like Harry Houdini into blankets and pillows.

Harry is a combination of Harry Styles and Harry Truman—hip, but wise.  He’s a little Toto, a little Benji, and a lot Ewok.  He is nine years old, so if he was human he would be seven years older than I am.  Harry is a Shih Tzu, a breed not meant to hunt, herd, or protect.  If I fall into a well, Harry will keep the news to himself.

I want us to be Turner and Hooch, but Harry sees our walks as an opportunity to train me to take orders.  My attempts at “Sit,” “Stay,” and “Heel” are met with Harry’s you-don’t-know-what-you’re-doing look.  Several of our walks take place in freezing weather, but Harry likes being a chili dog—though he does not care for that joke.

Harry walks faster than I do so that he can pretend I am not there.  He is fascinated with finding the right pile of leaves, hibernating squirrels, and the backsides of other dogs.  Walking with Harry is interactive.  We speed up.  We slow down.  We move from side to side.  We get excited about parked cars.

New Yorkers ask, “What’s your dog’s name?” more often than “What’s your name?”  I wonder why these people did not talk to me before I borrowed a dog, but I like the subculture of dog people.  They may not speak to one another if they do not have their dog, but there is not a lot of judgment.

I assume Harry and I are friends after our week together, but he could be thinking Cujo thoughts and I would never know.  Though Harry seems unimpressed with me that does not keep me from being wild about Harry.  Petting Harry is like singing the blues.  You feel better though you are not sure why.

Hanging around Harry is good for my soul.  Politics is ugly.  Work is stressful.  People can be difficult.  Harry does not care about any of that.

I talk to Harry a lot.  He is not attentive, but he does not interrupt.  Talking to Harry is like talking to myself, which is just a little bit like praying.

Abraham Lincoln said, “I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog is not the better for it.”

Caring for animals may seem unimportant with all of the problems in the world, but the message of loving one another, loving animals, and loving creation is a hopeful word in a troubled time.  When good churches have food drives they include dog food.  They take pets to visit the sick and host adoption events.

When St. Francis talked to animals they talked back, but I can only imagine what Harry is thinking:  “You could learn a lot from me.  The past is gone.  The future isn’t here yet.  Enjoy the moment.  I appreciate what I have.  I don’t sit around wishing I was Lassie.  I don’t want to be a terrier or a boxer or a poodle.  I am fine with who I am.  Be happy with who you are.  There’s a reason all dogs go to heaven.  We don’t care about money.  We don’t worry ourselves to death.  Dogs don’t hold grudges.  We aren’t judgmental, like cats.  You are too easily frustrated.  You should chase things.  Jump for joy when you’re happy.  Get excited about whatever is in front of you.  Wag your tail because life is good.”

We grow in our faith in a variety of ways.  We worship.  We read.  We pray.  We listen.  We walk the dog.

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