Fair of The Plymouth Church

“Fair of The Plymouth Church – Tomorrow, at 10 o’clock p.m., the ladies of the Plymouth church open their fair in the rooms devoted to the meetings of the ‘Social Circle,’ over the lecture room of the new church, in Cranberry street.  We learn that the ladies of this church have had their fair in contemplation for a long time, and have wrought a great variety of useful articles which will be for sale at fair prices….”

When Whitney and I began our planning last Spring, we knew we had a big shoes to fill and big expectations to satisfy.  We kicked off with a lunch for former YF chairs hosted by Sharon Humphries, which yielded over 10 pages of notes of many wonderful ideas, sage advice and warnings, as well as hilarious YF stories and finally (and thankfully) offers to help!  One big take away from that meeting was that a Yankee Fair is really only as great as the sum of its booth chair. With that in mind, Whitney and I buckled down recruiting our leadership level volunteers.  Many coffees, emails and meetings later we were staffed.

Historically, the leadership at Yankee Fair has tended toward the female, but given all the dedicated men in our community, we wanted to expand our volunteer base, so we asked David Burrell to lead the men’s group in the service of lunch.  A daring task which he nonetheless accomplished with fierce determination.  We applaud the men who served lunch on November 4 and we pity those who did not.  David Burrell has your number and knows where you live!

Much of what happens at Yankee Fair, comes together at the last minute of activity. However some things, such as the coordination of the children’s programming, or lunch, or the creation of all the handmade items, happens for months leading up to the fair. For example, Penelope Kulko served many pots of delicious soups which warmed the stomachs of many crafters on many late nights spent cutting and glueing.

Which leads me to this most important observation: fellowship, whether it be found in the sorting of collectibles, toys, books, the serving of lunch, the hanging of buntings or in the flitting about coffee hour with a clipboard to sign up unsuspecting potential volunteers, is the true result of a Yankee Fair well planned. In fact, the best part of Yankee Fair is not the fair, but the collaborative work that makes the fair an actual fair.  What Whitney and I eventually learned on November 4, 2017, is that Yankee Fair is not so much an event to be chaired, as it is a vital part of the church which requires faithful stewardship.  You take your turn at the helm, and leave good notes for those who will follow you.

The first fair of 1849 was a benefit to furnish the rooms of the church. Since those early days it has become the tradition of Yankee Fair to find a charity recipient that the entire Church, Church School and neighborhood can all feel comfortable supporting together.  This year, while our neighborhoods undergo significant changes in the affordability in a place that everyone can call home, we thought Habitat for Humanity provided a perfect balance for these various constituents – and it helped that our Christian Help Ministry already had a long standing relationship with the organization.  Having their staff come and participate in the fair with an educational craft event for children in the gym only added to the festivities.  We are very grateful to be able to present them with a check for approximately $9,000!

So now as Whitney and I upload the last of our notes to the Yankee Fair Dropbox, we do so with knowledge that Yankee Fair 2019 will be every bit as wonderful as was the Yankee Fair of 2017 due to the strength and vibrancy of our entire community. Thank you to everyone for making it such a success!

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Questions Ginsburg should ask the baker’s lawyer

The most famous bakery in Lakewood, Colorado, is focusing on birthday cakes for a while. In 2012, Dave Mullins and Charlie Craig walked into Masterpiece Cakeshop to purchase a cake for their wedding reception. The owner refused to serve them because they are a same-sex couple.

Jack Phillips’ lawyers will soon be before the Supreme Court. Their argument is that Christians should be allowed to discriminate against those who do not agree with their interpretation of the Bible. Phillips is now a favorite of the right-wing for standing up for Christian business owners’ right to say who should be married.

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission thinks it would be simpler to treat everyone equally under the law. They argue that acting like a bigot is not a right, and that since Phillips’ shop serves the public he has to serve all the public.

Most assume that the Supreme Court’s job in this case is to decide if religious beliefs are a license to discriminate, but there is another way to look at this. If Phillips is really committed to biblical laws, then he should be committed to all of them. Instead of asking if it should be legal to run a heterosexuals only bakery, we should ask who else a biblical legalist should turn away. Refusing to make devil’s food cakes for gay couples may not be enough.

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for the weddings of divorced people? Jesus never mentions gay people, but he says, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery (Matthew 19:9).” If Phillips is claiming a Christian exemption from U.S. law, how can the baker enforce shaky interpretations of a few obscure texts and ignore the words of Christ?

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for people who are overweight? “The glutton shall come to poverty” (Proverbs 23:21). Should the bakery be encouraging sinful behavior?

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for people with tattoos?  “You shall not … tattoo any marks upon you” (Leviticus 19:28). Recognizing tattooed customers is easier than recognizing gay customers.

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for witches? “You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live” (Exodus 22:18). The bakery’s order form could include the question, “Are you a female sorcerer?”

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for people who wear jewelry (1 Timothy 2:9), own a gun (Isaiah 2:4), or say the Pledge of Allegiance (Matthew 5:34-35)?

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission on December 5. The Court should not let prejudiced people use the name Christian as an excuse to act in opposition to God’s love. Christians should be the first in line to argue for equality for all.

When Christians go to court to defend their own bigotry, they should be forced to admit the inconsistency of what they claim to believe. Citizens are allowed to have deeply held beliefs that make no sense, but citizens should not get to discriminate.

Religious freedom is the freedom to worship without fear of persecution. Religious freedom is not the freedom to decide who gets angel food cake.

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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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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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Tears

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

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

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

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

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

John J. Scibilia, CCA

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

 

 

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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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Donald Trump Stole My Old Church

When I was a high school senior I became angry with my church.  The story of Jesus was leading me away from what they taught me.  I wondered if they had read the Bible they kept telling me to read.

Here is a partial list of things I stopped believing.  Christians are going to fly up into the sky any minute.  The earth is 6000 years old.  Budweiser is the devil’s poison.  Women are disqualified from telling the Christian story if there is a pulpit in front of them.  Gay organists can serve the church only if they are not seen in public with their partners.  The Pope is the anti-Christ.  My Jewish friends are going to burn in hell forever.  Everyone who smokes marijuana should be executed.  Kindergarten teachers should carry handguns.  Poor people get what they deserve.  I decided that my church was filled with narrow-minded fundamentalists who were not worthy of my new enlightened state.

But as time passed, I made peace with the church of my childhood.  I have been growing more appreciative.  They may have taught me a few terrible things, but they also introduced me to Jesus.  I defended them by saying that my old church is a victim of the culture.

Here is a partial list of the lies I told myself.  The people in my old church are not against women, but actually believe they are defending the family.  They sound racist because they are afraid.  They appear homophobic only because they do not know gay people.  They will stop being prejudiced against Muslims as soon as they meet Muslims.  They defend gun ownership because they love hunting.  Their hostility towards the poor is a misunderstanding of the American dream.

I convinced myself that while much of what they believe goes against the teachings of Christ, they are Christians at heart.  I was wrong.

Two weeks ago, I went to my parents’ church.  I had not been to a service there in thirty-five years.  The peace I had made with my childhood church began to fall apart.

The pickups in the parking lot had Trump/Pence bumper stickers.  American flags were in the front yard, the front of the sanctuary, and on the front of the order of worship.  The congregation sang God Bless America, My Country Tis of Thee, and Onward Christian Soldiers.  I heard, “We could use more fire and brimstone,” “We finally have a president who is doing what needs to be done,” and “We have to get rid of Obamacare right now.”

87% of my parents’ church-infested county voted for Trump.  Donald Trump has made it obvious that my old church is not filled with followers of Christ.  You cannot follow Jesus and support a tax cut for the rich that would end health care to millions of the oldest, poorest, and sickest people.  You cannot follow Jesus and hate minorities.  You cannot follow Jesus and treat women as inferior.

When faced with the choice of following Christ by caring for the hungry or supporting a politician who promises to make the rich richer, my old church ignores the faith they profess.  When given the opportunity to extend hospitality to refugees, my old church chooses bigotry.  When responding to a dishonest President, my old church defends the lies.

I have come to the painful realization that God is not the point of my old church.  My old church is shaped more by Fox News than Jesus’ Good News.  My old church is a chaplain to nationalism, patriarchy, and nostalgia.  My old church is the enemy of the environment, science, and equality.

I am not going to defend my old church any more.  If you are acting like a racist, homophobe, or misogynist in 2017, then you are a racist, homophobe, or misogynist.

How can anyone think that a church that celebrates Donald Trump is what Jesus had in mind?

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Modern Love Reflection

I am a big fan of the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times.  I recently had occasion to re-read Brooke Rinehart’s moving story “Sharing the Shame After My Arrest,” which was originally published in April 2011, and I have posted the link below.  In her account, Ms. Rinehart, who had never broken a law in her life, is wakened early one morning, handcuffed, arrested, and hauled off to jail along with her husband of less than a year.  It turns out that her husband has been using her name and identity to embezzle funds in his workplace. To wrap up that part of the story, after 90 days she is exonerated and her husband goes to prison.

But it is her account of those 90 days that struck me.  Devastated – her whole world turned upside down – the 28-year-old Ms. Rinehart moves back home with her parents.  Unable to sleep in the bedroom of her idyllic childhood, she sleeps on the sofa – and her mother sleeps opposite her on the love seat.  Every night.  For 90 days.  Saying few words, but being a constant presence, sharing the heartbreaking load (and the late-night TV) with her daughter. Eventually, her care for her daughter causes her own health to break down.  Ms. Rinehart writes:

“But my mother’s making this about her was actually saving me. To know that someone loved me so much, was willing to feel my pain so intensely that it kept her on the laundry room floor for a day, made me feel encased in a bubble of protection.

“I began to wonder if sadness was this finite thing, a big black mass of which there was only so much in the world.  If so, my mother was sharing it with me so that I did not have to bear the full weight.”

I don’t know if Ms. Rinehart saw her moving tribute to her mom as a metaphorical story – a kind of parable – about God, but I certainly did.

At the end of the account, Ms. Reinhart pours out her story to her doctor:

“Something bad happened to me,” I said, unsure of how to begin.  But then it all came out: my arrest, my husband’s deceit, the charges, the end of my marriage, the loss of my house: the whole harrowing ordeal.  When I finished, her eyes were wet.

“How have you survived this?” she asked.

I thought for a second.  “While the charges were held against me, I slept on the couch in my parents’ house.  I spent 90 nights on that couch.” I paused. “And my mom? She slept for 90 days on the love seat.”

My doctor blinked, unable to hold back her tears. “What a mom,” she said softly.  “What a mom.”

What a God.  What a God.  Emmanuel – God with us.

“Sharing the Shame After My Arrest,”

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