Surprised by Peace

Oh dear God – how do I go from here?

This was my prayer of panic in the 2 AM dark in the waiting room of the cardiac building of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.  I suddenly realized I was hunched over a small round table, my hands and face wet with tears that finally poured out of me following the most bizarre and incomprehensible 24 hour period of my life.  Standing over me were my parents-in-law, and the heart surgeon who had just informed me that my husband of only four weeks had survived the seven hour surgery to repair a massive aneurysm and dissected valve that had been found in his ascending aorta the day before.  Although my face was hidden, I was keenly aware that the people above me – the only other people still left in the dark waiting room at 2 AM – were watching me with intensity.  It was a moment of total suspension.

The preceding day, Martin had called me to say he was on his way to the ER and I should meet him there immediately.   I had forgotten that he’d gone to see a cardiologist that afternoon, as a precautionary measure, because his brother had had a procedure a few months prior.  We hadn’t paid much attention to it, because we were busy being happy and excited for our wedding over Thanksgiving, and were filled with the promise of the new life we would create together.

So when I received the phone call and Martin used unfamiliar words like ‘massive aortic aneurysm’ I didn’t fully understand what they meant, or why it was so urgent that I get myself from Brooklyn to upper Manhattan that instant.

When I arrived at the hospital, Martin looked completely fine, the same as always.  He had no symptoms of any kind.  Indeed, he had his gym bag with him because he’d intended to lift weights after that doctor’s appointment, just as he did several times each week.

As word of his condition spread throughout the ER, several interns came to look at Martin, curious to see a 43 year old man with an aorta 5 times the size it was supposed to be.  “Wow,” they all said with the enthusiasm of finalists at a national high school level science competition. “It’s amazing – you are actually alive!”

When the surgeon came in, he said, “I have never seen this condition.  Somebody must want you to be here because, medically speaking, you should have died last summer.”  “It’s my wife,” Martin said, which was supposed to be a joke, but I knew he meant it.

I could not fully comprehend what was happening.  Aneurysms, dissected valves and cardio-thoracic surgery are not things newly wedded couples spend time thinking about.  When one speaks vows of “in sickness and in health” and “until death part us,” one doesn’t think those words apply to RIGHT NOW – surely they are meant for much later.

“What if it doesn’t go well?”  I asked Martin.  “I need to know what you want me to do.”

Later, in the 2 AM darkness, after hearing the successful result of surgery, after finally falling into weeping, after feeling the eyes of Martin’s parents and the surgeon watching me intently for what I would do next, after knowing they were waiting for some kind of cue from me, which I could not give, I prayed . . .

Oh dear God.  How do I go from here?  How do I move?  Because I do not understand any of this.  How do I physically make the journey from this moment into the next?  And what on Earth will the next moment bring?

There was no noise.  There was no light in the room.  Nothing remarkable happened.  Very simply, peacefully – I sat up.  And the next moment began, and life moved on.

I often think of that moment in my life.  In the chaos and confusion of a real emergency, that simple movement – from here into there, supported by God’s peace – was the bridge that upheld me as I entered the next unknown.

Maggie Fales
Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, NY
December 10, 2017

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Christmas Lights

Every once in a while I see a jogger and react in a way that is incomprehensible to thinking people.  I say to myself, “I should start jogging.”  One spring a few years ago, during such a period of insanity, I began running around a couple of blocks.  The highlight of my stroll was passing an out of the ordinary yard not far from our house.  At night, when the lights are on, it can’t be missed.  The most striking feature is the Christmas lights.  The lights, which cover a Mulberry tree, are a startling variety of colors.  A red birdhouse with a black roof invites passersby to “See Rock City.”  A big red bow adorns a holly wreath.  It’s hard not to smile at the yard.

In a conversation with someone who lived a few doors down I asked, “What’s the story with your neighbor’s Christmas lights?  That’s an interesting yard.”

The yard is not as amusing to him as it is to me:  “Those stupid Christmas lights have been up for years.  It makes me furious when I think about what that yard does to my property values.  I am sorely tempted to buy a BB gun just to shoot those &%$* lights!”

I started to rethink my feelings.  Perhaps the yard wasn’t as wonderful as I originally thought.  Maybe I would feel differently if I lived next door.  Then one evening, as I was leisurely making my way I saw a woman working in “the yard” just up ahead.  I sped up so that ten minutes later, when I was in need of a break anyway, I was able to stop and say:  “Your yard is really interesting.  Is there a story behind the Christmas lights?”

She smiled, “Yes, there is.”

She pointed to the house across the street and identified a particular window:  “The elderly woman who lives there came to stay with her children seven years ago.  She’s in her nineties now and seldom leaves her room.  After her first Christmas here she went on and on about how much she enjoyed looking at the lights and bright colors in our yard.  We’re the only view she has.  When Christmas was over, we didn’t have the heart to take the lights down.  We decided that as long as she’s around, we’d leave the lights on.”

In a world full of darkness, we need to leave the lights on.

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Someone’s praying, Lord, that we sing Kum ba Yah

The next time someone says, “We don’t need a Kum ba Yah moment,” tell them, “I think we do.”

Musicians who did not know how to play Kum ba Yah were once afraid to take their guitars to camp.  Many of us remember sitting in front of a crackling fire, trying to find the distance at which our front side was not about to burst into flames and our backside was not frozen.  At a deep Kum ba Yah level, the warmth of the fire was catching.  Singing “Someone’s praying, Lord” felt like praying, “Someone’s crying, Lord” felt like shared sorrow, and “Someone’s singing, Lord,” felt like hope.  Lots of us felt that way—and we thought it was cool to sing an African song—even if that was not actually the case.

I learned Kum ba Yah with hand motions.  You can guess the movements for “Someone’s praying,” “Someone’s crying,” and “Someone’s singing.”  I wrote new lyrics for which the motions write themselves:  “Someone’s fishing, Lord,” “Someone’s itching, Lord,” and “Someone’s bowling, Lord.”

Children of the sixties sang Kum ba Yah with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Joan Baez’ version included the stanza, “No more wars, my Lord.”  Raffi recorded it for his Baby Beluga album.  There is a mashup involving Ozzy Osbourne that is not helpful, and a rap metal version Kumba Yo! that ministers cannot recommend.  Lots of singers have pleaded for God to “Come by here.”

We do not know who to thank for Kum ba Yah.  One story is that Rev. Martin Frey of New York wrote Come by Here in 1939 and taught it to an eleven-year-old boy.  The boy’s missionary family carried it to Africa where it was put into the Angolan dialect and brought back to the United States.  The problem is that no word close to Kum ba Yah exists in any language spoken in Angola.

Versions of the song were recorded in South Carolina as early as 1926.  The phrase “Kum ba yah” may be a Gullah version of “Come by here.”  The first ones to sing “Someone’s crying, Lord” were African Americans suffering under Jim Crow.  (Indefensibly, most hymnals continue to give Martin Frey credit.)

When people mention Kum ba Yah today it is usually with cynicism.  An African American spiritual in which hurting people plead for God’s help has been turned into a term of derision.  You have to wonder if racism is at work when someone says “I’m not interested in holding hands and singing Kum ba Yah.”

Our culture tends to denigrate compassion.  To join hands and sing Kum ba Yah is to pray together asking God to care for the hurting.  Who decided it was helpful to mock the longing for God or the history of an oppressed people?  Far from pretending everything is fine, Kum ba Yah springs from a much-tested faith.  Someone’s crying and yet they are still strong enough to sing.

In the civil rights era, Kum ba Yah was a call to action.  Kum ba Yah is now shorthand for hopefulness that should not be trusted.  A song about looking to God for courage is laughed at for being naïve.

I have grown weary of the way our culture considers cynicism smart and optimism naïve.  We have more than enough skepticism, sarcasm, and negativism.  We need more compassion, warmth and hopefulness.  We need to debate less and care more.  We need to impress each other not with how many facts we know, but with how honest we are about what we are feeling.

The older I get the more I long for Kum ba Yah moments.  I have spent years learning to be suspicious of warm feelings.  Now I ache for genuine love.

We do not need sharper reasoning nearly so much as we need new hearts.  When we get tired of words, we need to pray for God to fill our souls.  We need hope that pushes bitterness away.

Last weekend at our church retreat, we sat around a campfire and sang Kum ba Yah.  It felt real, and the s’mores were delicious.

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Loving as Jesus Loved

 

Last Sunday our youth group learned about hunger and food insecurity. We played games and ate a meal that taught us about hunger and clean water issues around the world. My favorite part of the evening was when a spontaneous discussion occurred in the middle of our games. We all sat down on the gym floor and talked about our experience serving those who are hungry and food insecure in our city. Many youth shared their personal stories of helping people through Brooklyn Delivers, the Plymouth Shelter, and food drives at their schools.

One particular story has been circling my thoughts since the youth met. A middle schooler talked about the time she saw a homeless man on the street asking people for money. She had some food with her, and generously gave her meal to this man. He accepted the gift. After walking halfway down the block, she turned back to look at him, only to see that he was throwing away the food she gave him. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked the group.

This teenager’s story has me wondering if Jesus ever had someone snub his gifts of kindness. Was there anyone in the crowd of the 5000 who turned their nose up to the fish and bread he supplied? Did a wedding guest complain that the water-turned-wine had too many tannins? Did the owner of the herd of pigs file a lawsuit against Jesus, claiming coerced porcine suicide?  The stories don’t tell us. But I’m sure not everyone thought Jesus’ miracles were all that great.

What are we supposed to do when our gifts of Christian charity and acts of kindness are met with bad attitudes and ungrateful hearts? This question was answered best by one of our youth leaders who said, “We’re not in this to feel good about ourselves. Jesus calls us to love as he loved. Besides, we have no idea what people are going through. They might just be having a bad day.”

I’d like to think that my own generosity doesn’t hinge upon recognition or reward, but if I am honest, I really want people to view me as a charitable person. I enjoy receiving “thank-yous” and “good jobs.”  But Jesus didn’t love others for his own reward. He loved others because he wanted people to know about God’s love. When Jesus fed, healed and welcomed others, he did so without expectation to receive anything in return. Jesus’ ministry was not for his own sake, but for Love’s sake.

Sometimes our acts of service are met with rejection. Sometimes we don’t receive a thank-you note. And sometimes our well-intended gifts are not the most helpful in meeting someone else’s needs in the first place. I am glad that I have teenagers and youth leaders in my life to remind me that our attempts to love our neighbors isn’t about earning heavenly brownie points or boosting our self-esteem. It’s about offering another human a small glimpse of the Holy God, however dim a reflection it might be.

Erica

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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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