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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Advent Peace

During my senior year in high school I was a columnist for the school newspaper.  For one issue, I got the idea to write an entire column that was just one sentence and to see if anyone noticed.  What topic was so broad, so vague and nebulous, as to permit such a ruse?  Peace, I decided.  I composed a draft which some poor student teacher accidentally graded, thinking it was serious.  I eventually wrote the column about something else and won an award for it, but I still occasionally wonder at the utter drivel I must have written the first time.

But it occurs to me peace is a temporal state that has a clear forerunner and clear descendant (hey, I’m always up to pontificate on this topic).  The forerunner of peace is truth, or rather, truth is the origin of peace. I remember being rather amazed at the truth and reconciliation commissions of the past decades. You mean they just openly discuss all the crimes they did, and review the past, in an attempt to move past it and heal?  But from all accounts it worked.  That alchemical quality of a real solution, of an answer, drawn not from any specific “side,” but only from God.  Only God knows truth, and when pure truth, or as pure as we get here on Earth, comes into play amazing things happen.  However, truth is hard.  It is also surprisingly quotidian, unremarkable, and complex.  As any fiction reader knows, there is a lot of truth to be unpacked at any moment within anyone, and counterintuitively reading widely in serious literature will only deepen your knowledge of truth.

But peace is temporary unless people work to preserve it.  It is subject to entropy.  Peace requires mission.  It requires vigilance, and renewal of covenantal values.  It requires adults adulting, which is not in vogue. I was watching a 60 Minutes report about a school that took on teens at risk for gang violence.  A graduate reported the school, which had saved his life, would no longer accept a kid like he once was.  It had turned away from its mission, he claimed.  Mission work, like truth, is also quotidian, unremarkable, and complex.  My main memory from volunteering is not glory but all the joyful toil.

Peace does not come from the proverbial sky, it is created and preserved on earth by us, if we so wish.

John Leighton

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There are a couple of ways to look at it….

From the outside, Plymouth Church appears to be a very wealthy church.  It has beautiful buildings occupying valuable land.  It has a robust endowment.  It has generous congregation.  In all of these areas and more, Plymouth is indeed a wealthy church.

But if you look at it another way, Plymouth possesses nothing.  That’s right, nothing.  Plymouth does not own anything – it does not own its building, its land, and its endowment.  Plymouth is the steward of these material goods, entrusted to Plymouth over the years by dedicated members and generous donors.  They do not belong to Plymouth.  They belong to God.  Plymouth is entrusted with the stewardship and wise use of these blessings.  Plymouth, as a Congregational Church, elects its representative leadership, and asks that leadership to set priorities for how to manage the gifts in Plymouth’s custody. That is why, every year, Plymouth makes and votes on a budget.  The budget is the clear indicator of how Plymouth is choosing to use the resources with which it has been entrusted.  The budget is created by the leadership and voted on by the congregation.  We are in this together.

Plymouth Church operates in good faith, attempting to employ these resources where they can do the most good in forwarding the Kingdom of God.  Some resources go directly to help those most vulnerable and in need – victims of human trafficking, casualties of natural disasters, children in need of education and food.  Other resources go to help those in spiritual need, and for this reason, Plymouth engages a top-notch staff, maintains a welcoming building, empowers a confident choir, all of which support the work of the community that gathers around Plymouth.

Every story is complicated, and this one is no exception.  Some donors have made very generous gifts to Plymouth that carried restrictions in how they may be used, and the income from those gifts can only be spent on specific things.  To act with integrity, the leadership must deploy those resources in accordance with the wishes of the donor.  Plymouth might wish to use those funds in other ways, but it must keep faith with the donors

The gifts that bless Plymouth the most are the one that have no restrictions. Given from the heart, they allow the leadership and the congregation to set the priories of the church and use its resources advancing those priorities.  And those priorities, in Brooklyn Heights and beyond, will advance the Kingdom of God.

The Stewardship Ministry invites you to prayerfully consider what you are able to give to support the work of Plymouth Church in the upcoming year.  Plymouth’s year begins in July, and we know that seems like a lifetime away, but it is important for you to go on record now. Please take a few minutes to make your commitment this week – before Anniversary Sunday.  Help us celebrate our 170th Anniversary but contemplating what we can accomplish before our 171st Anniversary.

Please be generous in your support of the work of Plymouth Church.  Click Here to Make Your Commitment.

In Christian Fellowship,

Jacque Jones

Stewardship Chair

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Reflections on “On Common Ground” Women’s Retreat

What makes us unique? What do we share?

These were the two questions Jane Huber set before 45 women on Saturday, January 30th during the Annual Women’s Retreat. This year, the theme was “On Common Ground.” Had super storm Jonas not come through, it would have been the weekend after the Church’s Anti-Human Trafficking event however, instead it almost divinely preceded the current challenge to our congregation.

To be honest, I’ve been struggling with my experience of the retreat, to no fault of Jane or any participant, but I think because I came in with too much of an ego mindset. I was identifying more with what I’d get out of it, rather than being open to what would happen. I was also therefore identifying with whether or not other people would enjoy it. That anxiety got translated into, “what did I get from it? What did others? And where would it lead me/them?”

Throughout the weekend, I found myself wondering: did I learn more about how to find Common Ground? If so, what did I learn? If not, does that mean I didn’t get the benefit of Jane’s amazingly well thought-out program?

In the first part of the morning, Jane had us look at a passage from Acts 17:22-31 in which Paul is able to get the attention of the Athenians and explain the concept of his God versus theirs. She asked us to look at where we saw Paul establishing common ground and who, or what, is Paul’s God. The passage ends with him using the words of the Athenians’ own poets to explain his concept of his (and our) God saying, “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being…For we too are his offspring.’” In other words, God is in each of us, not in a shrine.

In Tom’s sermon the next day, just before the anti-trafficking event, he explained: “the core of our faith is to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. It’s not that we are to think poorly of ourselves, but that we are to think of others, and want for them the best out of life, just as we seek that for ourselves. In other words, true prophecy is characterized by being propelled as much for the love of others, as by the love of self.”

Taken together, this is a powerful new notion of God that I now have as a result of this retreat. I have already been learning that if God is in each of us, then knowing my uniqueness is a way of knowing God. But what I got from Jane on Saturday was that if knowing my uniqueness allows me to know what you and I share, then it is a compassionate way of learning how to love you and want for you, as I love and want for myself. And if I can get myself there, then I have expanded my visceral knowing of God. I imagine this is what it feels like as a parent, that your identity increases in each child. As your identify increases, so too does your connection.

As I find more common ground with others, can my connection to God increase?

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Live Out Holy Week “In the Moment”

The problem with our observance of Holy Week is that we see it through the lens of Easter. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is risen – we know that good overcame evil and that the story has a “happy ending.”

Is there a way for us to disconnect from that knowledge? To put that sure and certain knowledge away for a few days, and try to live out Holy Week “in the moment” as the followers of Jesus did, with all its joy and horror?

Jesus had told his followers that he would suffer and die, and he would be raised. They didn’t hear him. They didn’t get it. And who can fault them? We probably wouldn’t either. So when they saw him flogged, when they saw him carrying his cross, when they saw him die, it was an ending – a horrific, crushing conclusion – and not a beginning. It was a time of personal loss, gut-wrenching despair, and hopelessness for what could have been.

In his book, The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill discusses at length the Biblical account of what we sometimes refer to as the sacrifice of Isaac. His analysis is riveting, built around a raw translation of the scripture. In his conclusion he says, “At the outset of this harrowing episode, the narrator, knowing that poor human readers could never bear the suspense, tells us that this will be a ‘test,’ so we know that Yitzhak will not actually be sacrificed, however difficult it is to keep that in mind during the ensuing action. It is a test for us as well. Can we open ourselves to the God who cannot be understood..? … Avraham passes the test. His faith – his belief in God – is stronger than his fear. But he now knows he is dealing with the Unthinkable, beyond all expectation.”

Can we close our minds to Easter for a few hours, even though we know the ending? Even though we know that the sacrifice of Yitzhak was a ‘test,’ Cahill continues, “… the narrator’s skill is great, leaving the reader speechless at the impending horror.” The gospel writers’ skill is no less evocative.

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