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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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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Movie Nights Aren’t Really About Movies

fullsizerenderMovie Night has become a tradition of children’s programming at Plymouth. On the second
Friday of every month anywhere from 5 to 25 children are dropped off in the gym. The tricycles
come out of the closet. Goldfish crackers are upgraded to pizza and then there’s a movie-
Moana, Frozen, Zootopia to name a few of the favorite blockbusters.

It’s rare to find a movie that every child hasn’t seen. It’s hard to find a movie appropriate for a
three year old who engages her seven year old sister. That’s when I remind myself that it’s really
not about the movie. It’s about so much more.

One Friday there were only five of us.  Reverend Brett stopped by and tried on silly hats
and a clip on tie. He had dinner plans, we had ordered too much pizza and so went from floor to
floor delivering slices to staff members. Most of us had never been to the fourth floor teen room.
Exhausted from our mission, we lay down under the skylight, pretended we were camping and
talked about our dreams. We never got to the movie.

The Friday we showed Frozen, the gym was packed. Every chair was taken. Some kids arrived
in costume. We started the movie almost immediately- the anticipation was so great. Within 15
minutes, kids started to ask if they could play with their friends. They promised to play quiet
basketball, silent soccer….the movie stayed on but no one noticed when it was over.

This past Friday it was so unusually hot in the gym that we decided to show the movie in air
conditioned Storr’s Library. The cool air and comfy couch were not enough though. Most of us spent the evening playing
cars on the wooden floor of the hot hallway. We’d found a box of seven matchbox cars and
there were nine of us. “My car” quickly became “our cars.”

While building a road out of cardboard pieces I studied each child’s face, the soft features, the
sweet expressions not yet scarred by the harsh reality of life. I wondered, as I often do, who
they will be in ten, twenty years and I hoped that when they remember their childhood, they will
remember growing up as part of a church family, as loved and cherished as God wants every
child to be.

 

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On Giving

When ministers write about giving, we begin with subtle disclaimers.  I don’t like writing about this!  I don’t mention this often!!  I’M NOT LIKE OTHER MINISTERS WHO ASK FOR MONEY!!!

This Sunday in worship we will be thinking about how we give.  Church fundraising experts point to several keys to effective stewardship—talking about money openly, guiding giving by grace rather than guilt, and not warning church attenders when Sunday’s worship is about giving.

Churches used to come up with corny themes for giving campaigns.  “Stewardships that Fail to Sail,” “Taking the Stew out of Stewardship,” and “The Sermon on the Amount” say something incomprehensible.

The Bible has a lot to say on giving:

“God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

“The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).

“Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life, and money meets every need” (Ecclesiastes 10:19, but that one doesn’t sound right.)

Pithy quotes on giving can be enlightening:

“When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart” (John Wesley).

“Each of us will one day be judged by our measure of giving—not by our measure of wealth” (William Arthur Ward).

“A dead church doesn’t ask for money” (Clara Bess Eikner).

“I’d find the fellow who lost it, and if he was poor, I’d return it” (Yogi Berra—when asked what he would do on finding a million dollars in the street).

I could have written a negative article saying that if you do not give we may play an accordion rather than the organ, stop writing clever columns, or provide no more coffee.

Some of the most interesting articles on giving promise great rewards.  Giving to the church leads to weight loss.  Generosity will make you irresistible.  People who give to the church live longer.  (If it is not true it should be.)

Ministers are reticent to write about giving to the church for a variety of reasons.  I am glad that I can unapologetically encourage people to give to Plymouth.  When I write a check to the church—I’m old enough to still write checks—I’m happy to be part of a holy work.  I believe in our shared ministry.  Many of you already give sacrificially.  Everyone can consider giving more.

As you think about giving, be brave enough to ask, “Do my gifts to Plymouth reflect how much I value this family of God?”

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Teach Us to Pray

Lord, teach us to pray . . .

When life troubles us
and we need a clearer view
of your path.
When we must act now
but need help to act well
with a grace that surprises
and transforms.

Lord, teach us to pray . . .
When our vision of prayer
and our experiences of it
are much too small.
When we use prayer to hide
from your world and you use prayer
to help us engage the world
with compassion and love.

Lord, teach us to pray . . .
As you taught generations of disciples
once filled with fear
who sought your help
and found strength
to do the brave things
you ask your people to do
with courage and faith.

Lord, teach us to pray . . .
Until prayer becomes
the breath that fills and moves us,
the gift that draws us to you,
the way we learn
that all these days we live
are yours.
Amen.

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Asking Big Questions

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
recovery of sight to the blind,
and to let the oppressed go free.
—Luke 4:18

Reflecting Christ’s vision is hard.  Most churches do not have a poverty committee, a prison ministry, an anti-racism task force, an environment ministry, or a world hunger committee.  Every church struggles with the temptation of managing the ministry of the church rather than doing ministry.

We easily forget that the church does not have a mission.  God has a mission in which the church gets to participate.  Churches are at risk of getting stuck in the church.  How can we help people serve God?

The Church Staff and the Church Council have been talking about how to lean into bigger questions—away from business-as-usual church questions and into being-the-people-of-God questions.  Can our committees, ministries, and task forces focus on the questions God might have us ask?  For instance:

Children’s Christian Ed
            From the good question:
How do we lead and support children’s activities?
            To the bigger question:
How can we teach children to live as God’s people?

Christian Help
            From the good question:
How can we best share money with other ministries?
            To the bigger question:
How can we as a church use our gifts to serve God?

Finance
            From the good question:
How can we be responsible fiduciaries?
            To the bigger question:
How do we share who we are and what we have been given?

History
            From the good question:
How can we provide a strong resource sharing our church’s history?
            To the bigger question:
How can we interpret and share the faith that led Plymouth to serve God in courageous ways?

Membership and Fellowship
From the good question:
How can we welcome new people into our church?
To the bigger question:
How can we practice hospitality that invites people to be part of God’s church?

Nominating
From the good question:
How do we find the best person for each responsibility?
To the bigger question:
How can we discover our people’s gifts and help them use those gifts for God’s purpose?

Personnel
            From the good question:
How do we write and implement helpful policies?
            To the bigger question:
How can we help the staff serve God more fully?

Stewardship
            From the good question:
How do we raise the money to fund the church’s ministry?
            To the bigger question:
How do we help people give themselves more fully to God?

Women’s and Men’s Ministries
            From the good question:
How can we provide significant events?
            To the bigger question:
How can we help our people live as God’s people?

Worship and Arts
            From the good question:
How do we improve the events for which we are responsible?
To the bigger question:
How can we use the arts to worship God more seriously and joyfully?

Plymouth will keep looking for ways to move from the good question, “How can we be a good church?” to the bigger question, “How can we be God’s church?”

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