Reading the Paper

As a retiree, I am fortunate to be able to indulge in a slow beginning to my morning, drinking my coffee and reading assorted online newspapers. Of late, the news has been depressing. But on November 30, there was a confluence of news that made me smile with appreciation and gratitude, with awe and wonder.

First, there was an article in the NY Times about a Dutch church in The Hague which has taken in a family of asylum-seekers, a family from Armenia which has been in Holland for 9 years. Exploiting a centuries old tradition that government authorities cannot enter a church during worship, the church is holding round-the-clock worship to protect this family. This continuous cycle of worship had been going on for a month as of the day the article was published.

The closing of the article read, “… after initially using local preachers to deliver the service, the church has now reached out to others and has received offers of help from some 500 people from different churches as far away as Belgium. That support gives the locals strength to carry on, hoping that they can open talks with lawmakers and the government about the family’s plight. ‘As long as it’s useful to contribute to the dialogue, we will continue with the church service…’”  The article did not mention God by name, but I felt like God’s fingerprints were all over the story.

I am addicted to the weekly essays called “Modern Love” in the NY Times. Some weeks are better than others – some stories are appalling and others are profoundly moving. On November 30, a young woman wrote about being confronted with a diagnosis of bowel cancer in her 33-year-old partner and, looking for a distraction, she immersed herself in a British TV program called “Love Island.” On this “reality’ program, assorted people are assembled in a remote place in hopes they will fall in love, and the TV audience gets to vote on the best couple. The writer was looking for love and hope.

“It gave me comfort to see these love stories taking place outside of the dirty context of reality. May you never see the person you love with tubes running out of their body, I wished for them, these beautiful couples who were all years younger than me, though I considered myself young, and too young for what was happening…”

The story concluded, “I believed in the radical possibility of love, the radical stupidity of it, of letting myself fall. I believed, too, in the maelstrom of emotional energy that my screen had been transmitting nightly, restoring my faith, or something like it. To see that even under the most cynical of circumstances, love would find a way through adversity.” She never said what “faith” had been restored, and she never, in fact, mentioned God – for all we know she might be an atheist – but whether she would acknowledge it or not, I saw God’s fingerprints all over her story.

In The Washington Post, again on November 30, my eye was caught by an article entitled, “Astrophysicists Count all the Starlight in the Universe.”  I will never be an astrophysicist or even a physicist – I cannot get my head around what they do. But the article gave me goosebumps.

“The universe shines with the light of some billion trillion stars. A team of astrophysicists recently used a satellite to sum up all these stars’ light, measured in particles called photons. Let there be numbers: By their estimate, over the history of the universe, stars have emitted 4 times 10-to-the-84th-power photons into the visible universe (that’s a 4 followed by 84 zeros).”

Yes, the author really said, “Let there be numbers” – I didn’t put that there. But if his report does not evoke awe and wonder, try this: “The team used 739 blazars to survey starlight across history. The closest blazar was created 200 million years ago. The most distant blazar gave the scientists a view as long ago as 11.6 billion years. (The universe is about 13.8 billion years old.) The stars really began to bloom when the universe was just 2 billion years old. Star formation reached its peak a billion years later and then began a slow decline as it aged.”  God’s fingerprints again? Sometimes I wonder if even God is awe struck by the sheer extravagance of creation – a billion stars would have been amazing on their own, but there are a billion trillion stars out there – and we are the beneficiaries of their light.

All of this is to say that I think I will keep reading the papers, but I will also keep looking for the glimmers of good news that are buried there.

 

If anyone would like to read the articles, they can be found at:

https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2018/11/30/world/europe/ap-eu-netherlands-church-asylum-seekers.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/30/style/modern-love-marooned-on-love-island.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2018/11/29/astrophysicists-count-all-starlight-universe/?utm_term=.d49b616b0910

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Why Big Bird and Oscar Cannot Retire

carollspinneyseason45Six-year-olds are going to ask, “Does Big Bird have a cold?” “What’s wrong with Oscar?” “Who are they trying to fool?”

Caroll Spinney, the man inside Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, is retiring after nearly fifty years of delivering comforting lines like “Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best” and grouchy lines like “Now leave me alone and get lost!”

Spinney is 84 years old and knows what he is doing, but I keep thinking, “What is he doing?”

Where do you go to retire when you have been on Sesame Street since 1969? What neighborhood is going to have such sunny days? Where is the air going to be so sweet? Where will he find such friendly neighbors? Does he understand that there are not many places where everything’s A-Okay? How can a retirement community be an improvement when you have lived on a street where birds, monsters, and people live in harmony?

Spinney met his wife Debra in 1972 while in the Big Bird costume. What woman would not be impressed? He is going miss wearing bright yellow feathers and being 8 feet, 2 inches tall.

Big Bird danced with the Rockettes. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and his likeness on a stamp. He conducted symphony orchestras. Big Bird starred in his own movie Follow That

Bird and guest starred on Saturday Night Live, The West Wing and The Colbert Report. He has been the BBF (best bird friend) for so many children.

When asked how he could still be six years old after being around for so long Big Bird replied, “Just lucky, I guess.”

Why would anyone want to leave Sesame Street?

Maybe the inside of Big Bird—like Sesame Street itself—is a little claustrophobic. Spinney may feel the need to spread his wings and fly. Perhaps there is a clue in that once, while in an airplane, Big Bird said, “Isn’t flying wonderful? It makes me feel like a bird.”

Do people eventually get tired of sunny days, cloudless skies, and friendly neighbors? Could it be that we can only be kind and sweet for so long?

That is why we need Oscar. What could be more therapeutic than being both Big Bird and Oscar? A tender, nurturing, childlike avian is great, but there is a part of us that is a crabby, trash-talking, green monster. Big Bird and Oscar are yin and yang, Jekyll and Hyde, Mary Kate and Ashley. Oscar’s different perspective reminds us that there are other perspectives.

Big Bird shows us how to be kind, but Oscar teaches us that it is okay to be grouchy. Sometimes we do not want to talk, and that is fine. We can think—even if we should not say—“Scram!” “Get lost!” “Go away!” We can be cranky without being a bad person.

Caroll Spinney may find the world outside his old neighborhood is easier for Oscar than Big Bird. Most places are not as pristine as Sesame Street. Most air is not that sweet. Some neighbors are more irritating than Bert and Ernie.

Most of us have days when we might as well live in a garbage can. We act like Big Bird, while we feel like Oscar. We are gentle, disgruntled and lovable. We need to be in touch with the grouch that stands up for what is right.

We need the joy of a gargantuan canary, but we also need the feistiness of a complaining Muppet. We need to know our bad moods are not the end of the world. That could be how we get to Sesame Street.

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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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Big Love

Sometimes people think the big question is, “Do you believe in God?” but it is not.  Jesus says the first question is, “Do you love God?”  Our attention needs to go beyond us, beyond our families, beyond our jobs, and beyond our church to God.

Love God with all that we are, do, feel, and think.  If we make loving God our goal, we will move from the many things to seeking the one grace.  We will be free from the compulsion of the world and set our hearts on the only necessary thing.   Augustine said, “Love God and do what you want.”  If God is at the center, the rest will follow.

Loving God is the central teaching of Christianity.  We open the Bible and read that Matthew writes that Jesus said what he had read in Deuteronomy, which is that Moses said that God said, “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.”

The Bible is not an instruction manual in which each line is of equal importance.  The sayings of scripture spin around the love of God like planets around the sun, and every verse is judged by its proximity to this truth.  Nothing is greater, says Jesus, says Moses, says God.  These words provide the standard within the standard:  “Love God.”  Jesus’ words are the scripture by which scripture is measured.

St. Augustine wrote the first textbook on teaching the Bible.  The scriptures may be confusing, Augustine admits, and preachers make mistakes, but if you interpret in such a way as to build up the love of God, you have the essentials right.  Augustine writes, “If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this love of God, then you have not understood them.”

What you know or think you know, what you do or wish you could do, is measured against this standard:  “Love God.”

We have to find our own best ways.  Some people love God in music, some in the harvesting of a garden, some in sharing freshly baked bread, and others in affectionate words to a friend.  Utter your own prayer, in the language of your own heart.  Set aside a time and place to give God your undivided attention.  Be mad about God in the silence of your own soul.  Tell God that you are crazy about God in words and actions.  Be grateful to God for the closeness of God and the greatness of God.  Do not try to love God like you have heard other people do.  Let your adoration be your own.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength.  Come to Plymouth and worship.  Live as if God is the only one watching.

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Marching On

marching-baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Helping the Holiday Hurt

The Christmas season can be a time of celebration for many people in our community. Twinkling lights on Montague Street, Christmas carols played by street musicians, and bedazzled storefront windows can stir feelings of wonder and joy. While it is easy for us to get caught up in the splendor of Advent, we must remember that for many people Christmas is a time of sadness, stress and grief.

The holidays make pain more painful. For those facing the recent death of a loved one, the loss of a job, financial hardship, the breakdown of a relationship, or a physical or mental illness, Christmas festivities serve as reminders of loneliness and want. If you are someone who hurts during the holidays, here are some suggestions to find some peace while in pain.

Admit the Hurt
Trying to gloss over your hardship or pretend that the pain isn’t there will only create frustration. People are emotional pressure cookers.  If you continuously stuff down uncomfortable feelings, eventually the pressure builds and those emotions will come out one way or the other, usually in bursts of rage or anxiety. During the holidays, make sure that you give yourself moments to express your feelings in healthy ways: take time to cry, talk with a minister or counselor, or write in a journal.

Change Traditions
Holiday traditions are never the same when there is a major change to your life situation. Trying to recreate the happy moments of the past will leave you deeply disappointed. Doing something different for the holidays can ease some of the pain. Some ideas would be to go on a trip, decorate your house differently (or not at all), or plan to eat out on Christmas rather than cooking at home. Even small changes to your holiday routine can make big differences in your emotional state.

Play it by Ear
December is filled with invitations to happy holiday gatherings. Rather than avoid the parties altogether, tell your friends that you hope to attend, but will not be sure how you are feeling that day. Ask if it would be ok if they could plan on you coming, but know that you might have to cancel last minute if you are having a bad day. Friends that are worth your friendship will understand.

Find Support
There is a world of support available to people in pain in the city. Now is the time to seek out that support. You can find grief and emotional support groups online. Multiple AA and Al-Anon groups meet throughout the city each day of the week. There are holiday dinner meet-up groups for those who are alone. Many churches, like Plymouth, will have Blue Christmas services, which are worship services specifically designed to help people cope. If you need help finding support, talk to a minister or counselor and they can give you a list of resources.

Hope in What Really Matters
While the secular world tells us that Christmas is about family, presents, laughter, and fun, we must remember what it is truly about. God entered into the world to give hope to people in pain. Jesus came to earth to teach us that God’s love, peace and joy are available to us at all times, no matter what life throws at us. God’s love is more comforting, God’s peace is more healing, and God’s joy is more igniting than any carol, twinkling light, or adorned window.

Much hope, peace, joy and love to you this Christmas season.

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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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500 – What’s the Big Deal?

luther-nailingOctober 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  The Reformation poster I grew up with pictured Martin Luther nailing 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door.  The sound of the hammer hitting those nails spread throughout Europe.

We know Martin was the son of a copper miner who became very successful in the business.  Martin went to law school.   Some legend creeps in at this point.  He was riding back to school from visiting his parents when he was caught in a thunder storm, thrown to the ground and cried out that he would become a monk if he survived.  The storm part of the story is shaky at best.  Luther leaving law school and becoming an Augustinian monk is true.  The 95 thesis?  Probably never nailed to a door, but rather sent in a letter.  Martin wrote to a close friend he never intended these to be published.  What is true is Martin Luther unleashed a dialogue about God’s grace, church corruption and a Papal fund raiser gone very badly.  Martin Luther and other reformers of the time were not subscribing to buying your way to heaven with indulgences and believed all people had a direct line to God and salvation by grace through faith.

The Reformation gave birth to new expressions of the Christian faith. They looked different, but with the saving grace of Jesus Christ being central.  Today the traditions are distinctive and subtle.  Communion with wine or grape juice.  Baptism by dabbing or dunking.  Praying with hands raised or folded.  Psalms chanted or spoken.  Worship in ornate sanctuaries with Bible story windows or simple worship spaces with heritage or clear windows.  Music led with guitar or praise band or piano or organ.  Favorite hymn A Mighty Fortress or The Shining Shore.  The richness of diversity should not serve to divide, but rather celebrate how God’s gift of grace is lifted up in relevant languages and practices to the people.

What’s the big deal?  Denominations from Roman Catholics to the Reformed are celebrating our Christian faith as followers of Jesus and not carrying our denominational IDs.  “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.”  (1 Corinthians 12:12)  The focus today is moving beyond conflict and toward communion.

This prayer was presented to me when I was called in 2001 to lead a disaster response agency at Ground Zero.  It has significance in my life every day and is a reminder of God’s never ending presence.  Pray this for our future together as followers of Jesus.  God’s grace is the big deal.

Eternal God,

You call us to ventures

Of which we cannot see the ending,

By paths as yet untrodden,

Through perils unknown.

Give us faith to go out with courage,

Not knowing where we go,

But only that your hand is leading us

And your love supporting us,

In Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen

 

John J. Scibilia

 

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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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Sanctuary

Mother Neff Church had one room, six pews, the organ we received when the funeral home closed, a communion table that used to be a desk, and me, a college sophomore for a pastor.  We were in Central Texas, six miles from any town with enough people to have a church.

I always arrived two hours before worship to get everything ready.  In the winter I started a fire in the wood stove.  In the spring I opened the windows.  In the summer I turned on the fans.

I swept every Sunday.  The rhythm of the broom made sweeping feel holy.

Before anyone else came, when it was just me and God, we had a worship service.  I preached the sermon, prayed the prayers, and sang the hymns.  Preaching a sermon with only God in attendance felt less self-serving.  Praying with only God listening felt more like praying.  Singing without the fear of someone hearing felt like praise.

I pictured the people who would be there at 11:00.  Ruth was the undisputed  matriarch.  She offered me the job of pastor and got church approval later.  Betty, Ruth’s daughter-in-law, raised three good children, worked at the furniture factory, and longed for her mother-in-law’s approval.  Clay, who operated at half-speed after his heart attack, was my first hospital visit.  I prayed that he wouldn’t die, because I was afraid to preach his funeral.

Preaching to the empty sanctuary was easier than preaching after they arrived.  When I imagined them sitting there, they hung on my every word.

Thirty-seven years of ministry later, I am not sure a nineteen-year-old should be a pastor.  Should a congregation have to raise the minister?  Still, sometimes when I sweep, and it’s just me and God, I remember how I learned to worship.

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