Thank You, Plymouth Church School

The biggest concern about moving our family to Brooklyn last year was how our (then) four-year-old daughter Rosie would adjust to the change. Rosie, like most everyone, experiences bouts of anxiety when facing the unknown, and moving from Georgia to New York is an especially difficult experience for a child.

Rosie’s entire world changed when we moved to Brooklyn. She went from travelling in a car seat in an SUV to riding on the A Train while standing. She went from having a large playroom in our house, to having a small play “corner” in our apartment. She went from riding her tricycle around our cul-de-sac to riding her scooter down Henry Street. As worried parents, Chris and I constantly prayed that God would send us people in Brooklyn to love, comfort, and guide Rosie during this first year of transition. And wow, did God deliver!

Plymouth Church School has been the best school experience I have ever had, both for my daughter and for myself. From the moment Rosie stepped foot in the Red Room, she was surrounded by joy, wonder, and acceptance. Kate and Annie have given the very best of themselves to my daughter, and to all of the children in the class. By encouraging the children to explore their environment, ask questions, and discover wonder, Kate and Annie are sending off confident, responsible, and curious students into Kindergarten.

Rosie’s favorite part of Plymouth Church School was the new Enrichment Program. The program is designed with a different after-school class each day of the week, and taught by PCS staff. Not only did this program provide much-needed childcare for our family, but it exposed Rosie to a variety of experiences we could not have given her otherwise. Because of the Enrichment Program, Rosie has bonded with children from other classrooms. She knows more people walking around in the neighborhood than I do! Enrichment has also given Rosie a passion for art, dance, and nature.

My appreciation for Plymouth Church School goes beyond the classroom. As a parent, I am forever learning how to listen to and care for my child. It seems once I have this whole “parenting thing” figured out, Rosie moves into a new phase, and all the old tricks stop working. Adrienne Urbanski and Mindy Goldstein have seen me through personal parenting struggles. They have hugged me in my worries and congratulated me in my victories. I could not have survived this first year in transition without them.

When we think of the ministry of Plymouth Church, I encourage everyone to think of the amazing ministry that comes from Plymouth Church School. It is truly God’s work being done through the staff, teachers and administrators that welcome the youngest among us. Thank you, Plymouth Church School, for helping a scared, anxious girl in a new environment find a home (and for helping her daughter, too).

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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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Brett’s Annual Report

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

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

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

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

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

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Open wide and sing “La”

Many people have asked me what my philosophy of music is, and my instinctive response is to respond, “My what of what?!?!”  Music is such an integral part of what I do that having a philosophy or game plan seems like a put-on.  I don’t philosophize about music; I do music.  But when I start talking about what I do, explaining what I think I do and how I do it, a clear concept appears.

Music is a link to God in the same way that any gift or talent or grace is a link to God.  People through the ages have used any number of God’s gifts to make contact: sculpture, stained glass windows, poetry, painting, ceramics, hieroglyphics, jogging, sunset-watching, camping, singing, dancing, and transcendental meditation as links to God.  We usually call this contact with God prayer.

We strive so to find our spiritual friend, guide, counselor, confessor, wailing wall, encourage, inspirer, salvation-giver because this is part or our healthy human nature.  We instinctively strive to make contact with our genesis.

Music is one of the first and most readily attainable of the communicative tools we have for making ourselves known to God.  Here at Plymouth, we enjoy a long history of congregational singing dating from Henry Ward Beecher’s tenure as Plymouth’s first pastor.  In the early part of the twentieth century, Henry Pfohl founded the Plymouth Choir, adult singers who regularly lead worship on Sunday mornings.  Over time the choir program has grown to include the Junior Choir, the Seraph Choir, the Cherub Choir, and the Tone Chime Choir.

Each of these groups works on learning and perfecting music for Sunday worship,  learning more about the Christian faith along the way.  Each choir is also a support group in its own way.  As choirs work together, we also come to know each other.  We find out about each other’s lives, sharing good times and sad times and offering a collective shoulder to lean on when it’s needed.  In this way, the choirs emulate the whole body of Christ that is the church.

Choirs at Plymouth are inclusive groups, welcoming all.  Everyone willing to make the commitment to regular rehearsals is gladly welcomed into choir.  So come join us and help make a joyful noise to the Lord!

Did I mention that singing is also good for your health?  It’s true!  Research findings show that singing strengthens the immune system, provides a physical workout, improves posture, helps you sleep, lowers stress level, and is a natural anti-depressant.  Add in that it’s wonderful way to praise God, and what’s not to love about singing?  Open wide and sing “La.”

In music and in Christ, Bruce Oelschlager, Minister of Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s the Next Big FAANG?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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My undelivered stand-up routine for those not likely to come back to church

How is everybody doing tonight? You look great.  You’re less sober than the people I usually talk to.

I’m surprised to be at the Comedy Cellar because — and I know how this sounds — I’m a minister.

Saying that you’re a minister shuts down conversations with barbers, waitresses and the person sitting next to you on the plane. That last one is helpful.

I’m not a minister who thinks he’s cool enough to fit in anywhere. I’m not the Unitarian campus minister at NYU. I don’t wear a tweed jacket and a turtle neck. I don’t run a soup kitchen in Hell’s Kitchen. I don’t do nearly enough of the stuff I tell everyone else to do. I’m not the chaplain for U2 — which is not a real job — but I can dream.

You might be surprised to learn that churches talk about some of you a lot.  How many of you went to church more often when you were 9 years old?  You’re the ones churches talk about. Churches think they can get you back.  Churches are your mother trying to get you to come home for the weekend by promising the beef noodle casserole she insists you loved when you were a kid.

Some churches think they’ll get you to come back with bad drummers.  They believe there are 20-year-olds who wake up early on Sunday mornings and say to themselves, “I feel like singing along with a 60-year-old drummer playing 18 century hymns.”

Some churches have started meeting in pubs for “Theology on Tap,” where they drink beer and talk about God. They hope you’re looking for an inebriated minister to explain the meaning of life.

Some churches have changed their names with you in mind. If a church has a name that sounds like a ’70s band — Journey, Passion, The Bridge — you’re the target audience.

We know the church can be disappointing, but we also know the church can be wonderful. If you decide to give us another chance, we’ll try not to act cooler than we are. We’ll learn your name and ask how you’re doing. We’ll find gracious ways to say that we find hope in believing in something bigger than we are, and think you might, too. You can help us with hard questions about meaning and purpose. You can help us do things rather than just talk about them. You might find that you enjoy being part of a group of friends trying to live better, more authentic lives.

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Youth Group Shenanigans

On Sunday nights a small group of teenagers and adult volunteers gather together in the Plymouth Church gym. Sometimes we eat pizza and talk about prayer. Sometimes we have burritos and play basketball. Sometimes we dine on spaghetti and do a service project.  No matter what we eat or what we do, the Plymouth Church youth group meets regularly to know God, grow together and live out our faith.

I have enjoyed being with the Plymouth’s youth each week. Teenagers are entertaining people. We laugh a lot. We share stories. We make memories.

Here are some of my favorite memories from our youth group so far:

  • James teaching me how to play Stratego at The Brooklyn Strategist (and watching him revel as he proceeded to kick my behind in the game)
  • Holding hands in silent prayer with Brian, Freja and Aaron in front of the Reception Room fireplace
  • Cason playing corn-hole with Edith Bartley
  • Wilsie making slime with Dick Yancey
  • Amelia giving a thoughtful, spirit-filled answer to “Why should we still pray if it doesn’t change our circumstances?”
  • Clay teaching me how to play basketball
  • Melanie making a ginormous Christmas cookie which took forever to bake in the church oven
  • Anaya and Daisaya talking about the ins and outs of middle school as we walked down Cranberry Street
  • Noah enthusiastically collecting trash in Harry Chapin park
  • Starr and Martin’s kindness and patience when I stressed out over our dinner order not arriving
  • Being envious of Ayo’s boundless energy walking back from the movie theater
  • Natalia, Lulia and Charlie leading the Christmas Eve family worship
  • Everyone asking “Where’s Calder?” and cheering when she comes to youth group late from swim practice
  • Lulu patiently helping her sister when her orthodontics malfunctioned at our Christmas party
  • Being inspired by Lucy’s passion for gun safety in America
  • Bringing the entire youth group to Avery’s house after her surgery
  • Robert doing a cartwheel in Beecher Garden
  • Being moved by Owen’s intelligence and honesty
  • Living vicariously through Kalia’s recent adventures
  • Kai’s agility and strength on the ropes course at the church retreat
  • Paul and Matthew asking difficult theological questions (which I am still unable to answer)
  • Coming to know Emily’s deep desire to own fuzzy slippers during our White Elephant gift exchange at Christmas

Adult Christians often ask the question “What impact does the church have on the lives of young people?”

My experience with the Plymouth youth group has me asking different question: “What impact do young people have on the life of the church?”

Thanks be to God for the youth group here at Plymouth. These young people make the church a better place, and me a better pastor.

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Stop Making Sense

If our phone counts the number of steps we take, then we need to carry our phone everywhere we go in order to get credit.  Before we pick a movie we have to check the scores on Rotten Tomatoes.  As we read bedtime stories to our children we skip unnecessary paragraphs.

Efficiency is ruining our lives, and we are looking for more of it.   Every day is an exercise in logic.  We have found more efficient ways to do most things—electric toothbrushes, electric razors, driverless cars.  Buying a Big Mac is simpler than cooking a hamburger on the grill.  Permanent press makes all kinds of sense.  We find one pair of shoes we like and order multiple pairs online.  We may never go into a shoe store again.

Why spend an hour making dinner when we could microwave lasagna in nine minutes?  Why vacuum when we can check our email as the rumba wanders around the living room?

How long will it be before we live like “The Jetsons”—calling for Rosie the robot maid to bring our coffee and Astro the robot dog to fetch our slippers?  We just need more moving sidewalks.

What do we lose when we do only what is most efficient?  What are we doing with the time we are saving?  Do the Amish have a point?

Our commitment to convenience keeps us from thinking about what we really want.  When we have a dishwasher, washing dishes by hand feels silly—even if we like washing dishes.  We ignore what is best in favor of what is easiest, but the fastest way to get where we are going may not be the best way to get there.  When we let efficiency decide what we do, we no longer decide what we do.

Sometimes we need to ignore what is efficient and do what is fun.  Take the scenic route.  Eat a Moon Pie.  Grow flowers.  Sit on the grass.  Play the guitar.  Write a letter.

Go to a school play.  Tell someone that you love them.  Listen to music—and not the music we play when we want people to think we have good taste—the music that makes us smile.  Go to lunch with a friend.  Read an extra story—even if it goes five minutes past bedtime.

My doctor looked at the scale and asked, “How much are you exercising?”

Lying to your doctor is like lying to your mother—she knows.

“I run a little, jog really, saunter.”

“Where do you run?”

“Down the street, across the bridge, to the park and back.”

“Your knees are getting older.  You need to start running on a treadmill.  It’s more efficient.”

I think about my doctor as I jog across the Brooklyn Bridge.  It has to be better for me to see the world at five miles an hour than to spend another hour running in place.  I am confident that I will not come to the end of my life and say, “I wish I had been more efficient.”

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Reading the Obituaries for Lent

Some Christians stop eating meat.  Some give up Facebook.  Some read the Psalms.  When I was a young minister in Indiana, I began reading the obituaries for Lent.  The Paoli News-Republican came out on Tuesday and Friday.  A normal edition included two or three obituaries that were written by the newspaper’s staff.  No family was ever charged for an obituary.

The writers interviewed the deceased’s family, friends, and ministers to help them express their gratitude for the person’s life.  These tributes included sentiments like, “He never met a stranger” and “She laughed every day.”  Reading the obituaries reminded me that people are often good and that I need to make my days count.

The obituaries in The New York Times are different from the ones in The Paoli News-Republican.  Most of the people in Paoli would balk at paying $263 for the first four lines and $52 per line thereafter with 28 characters per line.  Most of the people in my old church would not be able to read the tiny seven point san serif font without a magnifying glass.

But it is Lent, so on Sunday I sat down with my hometown newspaper to look for what matters in that day’s obituaries.  Here is what I found—still in alphabetical order:

Lerone Bennett, Jr., 89, wrote Before the Mayflower in which he noted that the first blacks arrived in the colonies in 1619, the year before the Mayflower.  He worked to prepare students to live in a multi-racial society.

Leonard Gubar, 81, was a dedicated fan of the Mets, Giants, Rangers and Knicks.  He was a nationally ranked Scrabble player and a routine finisher of The New York Times crossword puzzle.

Marvin S. Hans, M.D., 91, was a music lover—especially Frank Sinatra.

Robert B. Hiden, Jr., 84, served as a vestryman and Junior Warden of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Zita Kremnitzer was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1922.  She survived the Holocaust and immigrated to New York in 1947.

Elizabeth Landauer, 80, served as a Girl Scout leader for many years.

Patricia Rashkin, 74, chose a career as a guardian for those unable to fend for themselves—spending more than three decades with the City of New York’s protective services.

William Selden, 70, businessman, philanthropist, sportsman, dog-lover, and innate comedian.  He was a long-time supporter of the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.

Alan Lewis Stein, 88, founded the not-for-profit affordable housing entity, Bridge Housing.  Bridge has participated in the development of more than 17,000 units of housing, providing homes for 42,500 people.

Constance Sultan, 84, worked for 30 years at Mt. Sinai Hospital, where she was the charge nurse in the baby nursery.

Reading the obituaries sounds gloomy, but that has not been my experience.  I am glad to be reminded that people are often good.  Being encouraged to make my days count feels like preparing for Easter.

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