Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

The church has taken centuries to understand that in a world that is asleep, coffee is no doze.  Opening the church to coffee drinkers has been a long, difficult struggle.  Coffee dates back to the fifteenth century and the Sufi monasteries of Yemen.  The legend is that the mystic Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili was traveling in Ethiopia.  He saw birds acting unusually lively, and upon trying the berries that the birds had been eating, experienced the same vitality.  Coffee was soon part of religious practice in the Islamic world.  The Sufis used the beverage to keep themselves alert during nighttime devotions and as a kind of spiritual intoxication when they chanted the name of God.

Because Muslims loved coffee, several Christian groups, including The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, made a big brouhaha and banned coffee.  Mormons still avoid this potion made with magic beans.

Churches need to wake up and smell the coffee.  When we ask Siri to “find coffee” she lists four places within 800 feet of Plymouth.  Our neighborhood has more coffee shops than churches.

Coffee is the most important meal of the day for many.  In the midst of the daily grind, coffee is invigorating.  A yawn is a silent scream for coffee.  Sleep is a symptom of caffeine deprivation.  Coffee smells like freshly ground heaven and tastes like hopes and dreams.

When we are holding a cup of coffee, the warmth radiates through our hands.  The smell drifts through the air.  The cream goes into black coffee and magically changes it into good to the last drop caramel. This sensual experience helps our sleepy selves greet the day with gratitude.  We reflect on what we are worried about and what we now have the energy to achieve.

Worship would be less lively without a cup of joy.  We can tell a lot about a church from how they caffeinate worshippers.  My parents’ Baptist church is Folgers.  Unitarians drink fair trade coffee.  Mennonites have Kuerig committees that wash and recycle those little cups.  Presbyterians have long filled their fellowship halls for the sacrament of coffee hour.  Catholics serve decaf at midnight mass.  Sharing coffee is a way of saying, “We love you a latte.”

The church house at Plymouth was built with coffee money.  In the early 1900s, the Arbuckle Brothers’ coffee factory in Brooklyn roasted more coffee than any other building in the world.  John Arbuckle, “the Coffee King,” changed how coffee was made.  He roasted and ground coffee beans onsite and packaged the coffee in one-pound bags.  Coffee money paid for the Plymouth Institute.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” is an offer of friendship.  Coffee turns a counseling session into a conversation between friends.  Saying “Yes” to coffee at the end of a meal is a promise to hang around.

Here is a question that will begin to percolate one day.  Would coffee be a better symbol for communion?  Grape juice is dull.  Wine puts you to sleep.  Coffee refreshes, revives, and stimulates.  The Lord’s Table could be a coffee table.  If we drank coffee at communion, we could get rid of the tiny shot glasses.  Picture those little communion cup holders on the backs of pews becoming real cup holders.  Coffee would be a fine symbol for the enlivening of the Spirit that happens at the table.

When we celebrate communion it will be with wine and grape juice, but there will be coffee in Hillis so we can fill the church with sweetness and light.

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Kindness and the Servant Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacque Jones

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

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What I Learned from My Eighth Grade History Teacher

img_0205Mr. McBrayer threw the barista by ordering “a cup of coffee”—which was not on the menu at the Caffeinated Indian.  43 years after the eighth grade, I met my social studies teacher at the only coffee shop in Fulton, Mississippi.

In 1975, Mississippi was ranked 50th in education and was some distance from being 49th.  My school reflected our state’s poverty, racism, and provincialism.  Good teachers like Danny McBrayer fought uphill battles.

During study hall a group of us were discussing the quickest way to make our first million.  Mr. McBrayer told us about driving a school bus, watching the sunrise each morning, and seeing the sunrise change through the year:  “I drive the bus to get paid, but without the sunrise it wouldn’t be worth it.  Your job needs to be worth it.”

In a school that had recently integrated and was painfully divided, Mr. McBrayer went out of his way to spend time with African American students like Ronnie Agnew—the Executive Director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

Checking in after four decades provides a lot to talk about.  Mr. McBrayer knows almost everyone’s story.  My biology teacher continues to believe that she could have married Elvis.  Coach Wright was inducted into the Mississippi Football Hall of Fame.  Our principal, who smoked a pipe, died of throat cancer.  When I asked about my least favorite teacher Mr. McBrayer said, “She just never liked poor kids—and that was most of our kids.”

My old friends have tragic, predictable, and amazing stories.  One of the best athletes in school history is in prison.  Two of the three sisters whose names rhymed died years ago—one with cancer and one in a car accident.  Bobby got into lots of trouble, became a preacher, and died.  Willie has had a hard time:  “His family fell apart and he has no legal income.”

Jimmy and Dorothy surprised everyone by not getting married.  Dorothy ended up with a pro golfer’s cousin.  Jimmy went through a divorce, but his ex-father-in-law liked him so much they went into business together.  (I’m changing the names because I can’t read my writing and am afraid I may announce a divorce where there is only peace and harmony.)

Lori, on whom most of the eighth grade had a crush, married the quarterback, and has done just fine.  Joe, the shooting guard on the basketball team, is selling tires. Goony—a nickname I include because he must have left it behind years ago—runs his dad’s garage.  Peachy—another has-to-have-been-forgotten nickname—is selling satellite dishes.

Craig, the top math student, is an engineer with NASA.  Ken, the center on the basketball team, is a high school principal.  Todd, who was a great best friend, teaches teachers in Nashville.

Mississippian William Faulkner said, “The past is never done with us.  It isn’t even past.”

So much seems capricious—who lives, who dies, who gets a great job, who gets cancer, whose marriage falls apart, whose child is born broken.  Telling who’s who is hard in middle school, and we do not get much better at it.  Even if we could know exactly who someone is we cannot know how far they have come to get there.

Mississippi makes it clear that the playing field is not level.  Some are born with two strikes against them.  Some who seem a step behind have made up a mile.  Some give themselves to lifelong friendships, honest work, and caring for the hurting.  Some who sell tires make more important contributions than some with big corner offices.

Those who create lives out of not much make it seem obvious that we should fill our prisons with politicians who lie to poor people while helping rich people keep their advantages.

As we finished our coffee, Danny said, “I became a Christian in 2001.  I feel bad that I didn’t make that decision sooner.  I might have helped more students.”

“Mr. McBrayer, you told us to think, dream, and do more than was expected.  That sounds like what God would have you say.”

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Hot Dogs

brettcarolnathansWhen you hear the words “American hero” you may think of Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony or Martin Luther King Jr., but a lot of people think of Joey “Jaws” Chestnut. On July 4, the eyes of the world were on the corner of Surf and Stillwell.  Coney Island was host to a gut-busting, Independence Day showdown that provided drama, daring and indigestion.

Two dear friends who relish this outlandish event promised it would be fun. We arrived an hour early, but could not get close enough to smell the nitrates. The smell of America was, nonetheless, in the air.  Thousands of us, many wearing wiener hats, gathered to cheer the dogfight for the mustard yellow belt emblematic of frankfurter eating supremacy.

The Brooklyn Community Choir sang, because someone thought gospel music would be a helpful addition to the festivities.

The announcer, George Shea, is a poet. Here is some notable commentary:

“His good cholesterol is low. His bad cholesterol is high. His BMI is borderline presidential.”

“He stands before us like Hercules himself. Albeit a large, bald Hercules at an eating contest.”

“This is like watching Picasso paint.”

“When all the world’s languages are poured into a single bowl, the word that unites us will be freedom.” (I do not know what this means, but the crowd cheered ecstatically.)

Joey Chestnut, the pride of the red, white and blue, claimed his 11th Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest title. (LeBron James has only won three NBA titles.) Joey inhaled a staggering 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes – a little less than one every eight seconds. In this stupefying act, Joey consumed 22,000 calories and 1,332 grams of fat. The carb count stirred the hearts of patriots – 1,776 carbs.  That’s right – 1776!  (This statistic should ensure Joey’s invitation to the White House.) As the crowd chanted “USA,” this gustatory gladiator processed more beef than a slaughterhouse. The lesser competitors suffered reversals, which are exactly what they sound like.

I love an extravaganza that makes you never want to eat again as much as the next person, but this festival of belching and burping raises questions. Is overindulgence a feat to be celebrated? Should binging be considered a sport? What is the over/under on the date of Joey’s death? Why is he still alive? Should anyone eat 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes while children starve? (Carol mentioned this several times, but the good and clever people at Nathan’s make a point of donating 100,000 hot dogs to the Food Bank of New York City each July 4.) Should a cardiologist be doing the play-by-play? Should Pepto-Bismol be a sponsor? Would this be more appropriate on the Food Network than ESPN? What kind of parents raise their child to compete in a gorge-a-thon?

Gluttony seems particularly unattractive when it is televised. We cheer for the wrong things. Our society gives itself to wretched excess. Our insatiable appetite leaves us without an appreciation for what is truly good.

I am still dealing with my feelings about what I witnessed. For lunch today, I had a salad.

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Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, My Grandmother and Bad Theology

brett-grandmother-blogI have a tiny photograph in my desk drawer.  She is leaning on the fender of a 1930s Plymouth coupe—the kind Warren Beatty drove in Bonnie and Clyde.  My grandmother is wearing a white dress and high heel pumps.  Her hair looks like it is bobby pinned.  She is an attractive woman in her twenties trying unsuccessfully to smile.  Maybe she is looking into the sun or perhaps she cannot quite figure out how to smile.  My grandmother suffered from depression at a time when mental illness was less understood and medication was woefully inadequate.

She has been my favorite grandmother since I learned that she wrote a novel.  Most of my ancestors, including the Methodist preacher, the horse thief, and the railroad boss who “was never convicted of murdering anyone,” were not big on books.  I find it hard to imagine my relatives reading books much less writing them.  When my family members went fishing or hunting and I wanted to stay home and read I thought:  “Grandmother Ruth would understand.”

I have thought about what I would say to this wounded woman whose genes I carry if I could go back in time: “You have a grandson on the way who wants to meet you and talk about books and writing.  You can’t imagine the people who will need you some day.”

When my parents asked what I wanted for Christmas one year, I requested a copy of my grandmother’s novel.  You do not have to read far to understand why it was never published.  The story is painfully autobiographical.  She describes in dark detail the deaths of two of her children.

In one of many anguished passages she blames herself as well as God.  She believes that her baby died because she “clung to the doubt that was forever in the back of my mind.”

As the death of a second child approaches, her mother, the daughter of a Baptist preacher, says, “I can only hope and pray and be ready to reconcile myself to whatever is God’s will.”

My grandmother responds, “If the baby dies, do you think that God will be treating me right?”

“God treats everyone right, you know that.”

God must cringe when a well-meaning person speaks such blasphemy.  No one in the novel ever suggests that God weeps for every grieving parent or that it is not God’s will for children to die.  I do not know all of the reasons my grandmother took her life, but bad theology contributed to her death.

I have been thinking about my grandmother since the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade.  Their tragic deaths have brought much-needed attention to the growing epidemic of suicides.  Some of the fatalities were victims of bad theology.  Some never heard a helpful word from the church.

Mental illness is complicated and the church does not have all of the answers, but at the very least the church has to speak loudly and clearly of God’s love, mercy, and liberation.

I wish someone had said this to my grandmother before she died far too soon: “We can’t imagine the pain you feel, but God can.  God grieves with us.  You can hold on, because God is holding on to you.”

A word of hope might have changed the outcome.

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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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Brett’s Annual Report

It is a hard time to be a church.  Goodness is losing on so many fronts.  Our country is flirting with wars and the potential deaths of innocent people are not the biggest story.  Much of our attention is given to sex scandals.  Most of the time it is about men treating women terribly.  Our sexism has made us less aware of growing racism.  The gap between the rich and poor is getting wider.  U.S. students now rank near the middle of the pack.  The trends are heading the wrong directions—toward more division, more self-centeredness, and more despair.  It is a hard time to be a church, but that is when we most need the church.

When the culture says we are becoming more isolated we need a family.  Almost everyone at Plymouth attends coffee hour—which is not the case in most churches.  We “Meet, Greet and Eat.”  We go to the theater together.  We tell the story of Plymouth’s amazing history.  We share the life of the church with our youth.  We have young adult groups, parenting groups, Bible studies, and book studies.  At the heart of these activities is the hope that we will overcome divisions and be family for one another.

When the culture says we are becoming more self-centered, we need to worship God.  Many of us are learning to give ourselves in worship.  We sing.  We pray.  We confess. We listen.  We give.  We engage.  We pass the peace exuberantly.  We celebrate the many children in our congregation.  We baptize.  We observe communion.  We welcome new members.  During Lent, five members inspired us by honestly sharing why they find it hard to be a Christian.  We are growing as worshippers as we move from worship as a spectator event to worship as a shared experience of God’s love.

When the culture says we are less caring, we need the church to help us serve.  We build houses with Habitat for Humanity.  We host conferences on anti-trafficking.  We help parents talk to their children about racism.  We work with the Hope Project, preparing people for job interviews.  We push for bail reform.  We provide shelter for the homeless.  We support the Mission School of Hope in Cameroon.  We share ministry with Plymouth Church School.  We pack groceries for Brooklyn Delivers.  We raise money for hurting women through the Thrift Store.  We need the church, because people are hurting and we need to help.

This is a good time in the life of Plymouth.  We are taking care of old things and trying new things.  God is helping us love one another, worship honestly, and care for the needy.

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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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Paul Ryan and the House Chaplain: Proof that Prayer Works?

Paul Ryan believes in prayer so much that on April 15 he forced the House chaplain to resign.  Ryan has not given a reason for the dismissal, but many are pointing to a prayer Father Patrick Conroy offered while lawmakers were considering tax reform.  The priest prayed that lawmakers would “be mindful” of economic disparities and those “who continue to struggle.”  Ryan’s concern is surprising as the prayer clearly did not work.

Every once in a while scientists who cannot raise money for real research get stuck doing a study on how prayer works.  Non-believers argue that wishful thinking is not a suitable subject for scientific investigation.  Believers argue that the results of prayer are not easily measured.

The outcome of these studies tend to reflect the desires of whoever paid for the research.  Religious researchers often find that praying for another’s well-being reduces one’s own anxiety.  Non-religious researchers point out that prayers for healing are no guarantee that healing will occur.

The scientific study of prayer focuses on the things for which people most often pray—health concerns, financial difficulties, or societal problems—but the prayers we do not pray are the best evidence that prayer works.

Hunger is a subject about which we do not pray.  After Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give it to the poor, we can be fairly certain that young man did not go home and pray about it.

We are careful not to pray seriously for the homeless.  We find it awkward to pray for people who have no home when we have a guest room.

There are so many situations in which we will not pray.  Your boss tells a sexist joke.  You know it is evil and wish someone would point it out, but do you really want to pray, “God, what should I do?  Should I challenge my boss who might not take kindly to my helpful words of correction?”

We have been praying about gun violence, but we are careful.  If you want gun control it is hard to pray honestly about the sense of moral superiority that may be taking up residence in your heart.  If you are a second amendment person it is hard to pray honestly for innocent children who are dying.  If we pray seriously about gun violence, we will do more than wait around for the next election.

We do not want to pray about our careers.  Does the senior pre-law major want to pray about whether God would like for her to be a social worker?  Does the successful businessperson want to ask God if a lower paying job might make more of a contribution to the world?

We are careful about praying for people we do not like.  When Jesus said “Pray for your enemies” he was inviting us to the kind of prayer that will lead us to say something kind that we do not want to say.

Prayers should come with warnings.  Do not pray about the school system.  You may end up tutoring second graders.  Do not pray about human trafficking.  You may end up paying for much-needed supplies for victims.  Do not pray about racial justice.  You may end up working on bail reform.

We like what we have—especially the vices we have gotten used to.  We do not pray about our addictions—eating too much, drinking too much, or spending too much.  St. Augustine prayed, “God, give me chastity, but not yet.”

Most of us, including Paul Ryan, understand that critiquing prayer is easier than truly praying.  We do not avoid praying because our prayers go unanswered.  We avoid praying because we are afraid our prayers will be answered.  The proof that prayer works is the way we choose a life given to comfort over a life given in prayer.

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What’s the Next Big FAANG?

You know – FAANG.  Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google!  What’s the next big FAANG, and why should you care?

I wonder if they gathered in the local Brau Haus pondering what would follow Gutenberg’s printing press?  Henry Ford’s move from hand crafted to line produced was a game changer.  Ever think about what will take the place of Al Gore’s invention of the internet?  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates initially helped to automate tasks that might have taken hours or days down to minutes.  The blessings and curses seemed discernable regarding mass production, easy accessibility of goods, accelerated forms of communications and quality of life.  Automation and speed were the name of the game.

I was excited to find I would be required to learn FORTRAN computer programming when attending Gettysburg College, a strong liberal arts college (we also were required to swim).  We ran data on stacks of punch cards to generate results from research.  That beast of a machine automated the data I compiled and fed to it.   I still needed to interpret what the results meant.  Just a few years before 2001: A Space Odyssey was all the rage in the movies.  This 1968 film tells a different story.  HAL (aka IBM) starts calling the shots with astronaut Dave.  HAL was not simply a machine for automation, HAL was autonomous.  Truth be told, I did try to talk to the computer at school but never got a response.

Then there is Joshua, the computer Matthew Broderick, David, used to play War Games in the 1983 film.  Ultimately nobody won and Joshua invited David to a “nice game of chess.”  Joshua, like HAL, was not simply a machine going through its paces.  Joshua, C-P30 and R2-D2 make us feel somewhat comfortable with autonomous machines.  They’re cute in their own way.  (HAL is definitely not warm and fuzzy.)

What’s the next big FAANG?  Boston Dynamics would tell you drones are yesterday’s technology.  They are building “thinking” robots with names like Spot and Sand Flea.  They are leaps above the Jetson’s Rosie the Robot.  While Lyft drivers still get lost even using Waze, smart cars will be perfected and automate driving at some point.  Will a line be crossed for you when you get into the car and the car decides where you are going to go rather than you making the call?

Artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, goes far beyond automation.  We all want help with our schedules.  We want more time.  Imagine everything you could get done in the passenger seat if the car was in charge of the driving and knows how you like your coffee.  The United States is in a race with other super powers to make lethal action a matter of AI decision making.  Should Siri or Alexa be deciding how nations relate to one another?  (Honestly, Alexa doesn’t always get my music right.)  Currently the U.S. requires at least one human intervention before potentially lethal action is taken by any war machine.  That isn’t true for every nation.  Will human intervention always be true for the U.S.? The next really big FAANGs are not headed to your kitchen and not hitting the road.  AI will begin “deciding” acceptable numbers of human casualties unless we take a deep breath and consider what that means.

We are facing issues requiring ethical thought and socially responsible consideration.  Who decides?  I think Dave would caution us and Joshua would tell us to play chess.  How does our faith inform our thinking?  How do your beliefs inform your thinking?  I don’t have the answers, and I’m not asking Siri.  I do know I’ll continue to ask the questions and look carefully for the next big FAANG.  I hope you’ll join me.

 

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