Hope is elusive, so look harder

Many of us are exhausted, sad, and angry.  We need strength.  We need hope.  We need God.  When the world is hard, we have to look harder.  We are detectives searching for clues.  Hope does not shout, but if we listen carefully we hear whispers.  Hopeful things are happening, but we have to pay attention.

This week, a child in California gave a firefighter a hug.

A congressperson had second thoughts about assault rifles.

A relief worker in Puerto Rico handed a bottle of water to someone who was thirsty.  He did not throw paper towels.

A diplomat from North Korea and a diplomat from the United States shared a pizza.

A 60-year-old ordered his morning coffee in Spanish for the first time.

A white NFL player asked an African American player why he was kneeling during the anthem, and listened to his response.

A black judge acquitted a white racist of a false murder charge.

A white police officer asked a black teenager how the police could be more helpful.

A Christian minister invited an imam to talk to her church’s youth group.

A senior citizen who has never been to a protest marched in support of immigrants.

An office manager sent a memo to the CEO pointing out that women are still paid less.

A father who thinks of himself as old school told his gay son how proud he is.

A homeless veteran went to Plymouth Church for dinner and a good night’s sleep.

A shopper at a car dealership decided to buy a hybrid.

A neighbor talked to an elderly woman sitting on her stoop.

A sophomore changed his major to social work.

An angry man started to make an angry phone call, but then hung up.

A book group picked Frederick Buechner for their next book.

A fan at a Bruce Springsteen concert believed again.

A scientist who usually watches MSNBC watched Fox News and thought, “I can understand how someone would feel that way.”

A bald man decided that hair is overrated.

A mother gave in and got her eight-year-old a puppy.

A couple going through a divorce decided to put the children first.

An architect received a text from an old friend inviting her to lunch.

A cabdriver picked up a fare in a wheelchair and took her to Key Food for free.

A doctor told an artist that she is going to have a girl.

A retired teacher laughed out loud for the first time since his wife’s death.

The world’s problems are devastating, so we keep looking for hope.  We do not need to pretend everything is okay.  We need to pay attention to the hope that surrounds us.

 

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Children are Miracles

Years ago a Sunday school student asked me for examples of modern day miracles. It was before Google. I was stumped, but managed to remember a few medical miracles I’d heard and read about. The student was clearly not satisfied with my answer. When I asked him what he thought, he quickly responded, “My mother says children are a miracle.” I wondered if she hadn’t been talking about the miracle of childbirth, but let it go.

These times beg for a miracle. Good news has been sparse as one disaster follows another. It’s hard to keep up with the hurricanes, floods and fires; earthquakes no longer make the front pages. The death toll of a mass shooting is as unnerving as the looming threats of war.

It’s hard not to feel guilty when reading the headlines, when looking at the pictures of people suffering on the front pages. It’s hard not to feel distraught, overwhelmed and helpless only to feel guilty again when we’re not directly impacted.

Around three o’clock, the local schools get out. Daily now, I find myself opening my office window a bit more to soak in the laughter, the audible excitement of catching up with friends, heading to the playground, a favorite after school activity or soccer game. Yesterday it struck me that I not only know some of these children, but that they were in Sunday School with me this past week as we tackled some tough subjects. I remember the girl who observed that with each disaster, we seem to forget the victims of the last disaster still struggling to recover. I recall the concern for the helpless animals in the voice of one child and the heartfelt confusion of another who asked what we are all wondering, why do bad things happen?

Then I think of the boy who approached his principal to start a drive to benefit the victims of Hurricane Maria. The girl whose science club is holding bake sales to raise money for climate change awareness. The girl’s friend who wants to learn how to build houses for those who lost theirs and the boy who now wants to become a traveling doctor. And that’s when I feel some glimmer of hope, that’s when I’m reminded that God speaks to us through others and that’s when I realize that Gabo was correct. Children are miracles, each and every one. We need to listen to them.

Julia

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The Sunday Morning Hustle

Getting your young child to church on Sunday is no easy task. I’ve commiserated with many friends who dread the Sunday morning routine. Do these stories sound familiar?

On Sunday morning, my three-year-old son wakes up at 6:00 a.m. and demands breakfast. But he doesn’t want any breakfast, he wants “special breakfast,” which means homemade banana pancakes, center-cut bacon (crispy, but not too crunchy), fresh strawberries cut into equally thick slices, and orange juice – no not from the Captain America cup that is clean, the dirty Spiderman cup that’s been sitting in the dishwasher for three days and growing a fungus forest. After breakfast is on the table, he decides “special breakfast” isn’t that special anymore, and would rather have a Pop-Tart. By the time the family is fed, we already know we are going to be late for 11:00 a.m. worship.

Last Sunday morning my five-year-old daughter and I fought over what she should wear to church. I prefer she wears a dress and nice shoes. She prefers her Paw Patrol bathing suit and flip-flops. After thirty minutes of negotiating, we finally reach a compromise: Cinderella dress and cowboy boots. At least she’s not naked.

We are always coming to church stressed out. Sunday mornings at home are chaotic. There is always some tantrum to handle, mess to clean up or missing shoe to find. When we finally arrive at church we can’t wait for our children to go to Sunday School just so we can get forty-five minutes of peace.

If you relate to any of these events, welcome to the club! Our Parenting in the Pew class last Sunday talked about ways to make the Sunday morning routine easier. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Stop the Comparing Game. That family sitting two pews in front of you who look like they just walked out of a Ralph Lauren ad? Yeah, I guarantee you that mom just lost it on the way to church because her kids had a booger war in the minivan. Perfect families don’t exist, so stop feeling inferior because your kid has a stain on his shirt.
  2. Prepare the Night Before. On Saturday night go ahead and pack up the diaper bag with all Sunday morning essentials: diapers, snacks, change of clean clothes (yes, even one for your potty-trained 3-year-old), and wipes, oh so many wipes. Also on Saturday night, invite your child to pick out Sunday clothes with you. Set your own guidelines, but let them make the final choice. Most kids just want to wear what is comfortable and gives them joy. That is what God wants as well.
  3. Simplify Sunday. Sundays should be a day of rest. When we turn Sundays into days of early-morning workouts, big breakfasts, fancy dresses, and afternoon outings, we neglect God’s command to keep the Sabbath holy. Sunday morning meals should be easy like muffins or bagels. Making Sunday afternoon plans to go to birthday parties or BBQs sounds fun, but the stress of planning those events usually creeps into the morning routine. Make your Sundays about two things: worship and rest.
  4. Teach Worship at Home. Talk to your children about worship. Ask them what they like best about being in church. Ask them what makes worship difficult. Bring home a bulletin and talk about the different parts of the service. Sing your favorite hymn together. Pray together as a family. Remember: children learn to worship by watching their parents worship.

Parenting on Sunday morning is hard. The good news is that you are not alone. Plymouth Church loves and welcomes children. We are here to help you keep Sabbath even in the midst of kids and chaos.

Erica Cooper, Assistant Minister

 

 

 

 

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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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Tears

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

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

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

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

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

John J. Scibilia, CCA

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

 

 

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Our First Week Together

Chris, Rosie and I have lived in Brooklyn Heights for a week. In a way, this week has flashed by in the form of whirling suitcases, teetering moving boxes, and multiple trips to the market for yet another household item. In another way, this week has felt as though God has stretched out the days and filled them with moments of grace. From experiencing the hospitality of Plymouth’s finest cooks and gracious hosts, to hearing the testimonies of God’s faithfulness from parishioners and coworkers, to watching my daughter joyfully recount her experience seeing Aladdin on Broadway, I can confidently say that our family has been profoundly blessed these past seven days.

Chris and I feel like we are in a good dream. We keep looking at each other, and saying “I can’t believe we get to live here!” Every night we walk the Promenade as a family. We look out at the amazing view of Manhattan and breathe in God’s overwhelming gifts. We have been praying for so long to feel a sense of “home” in our lives, and so far (at least in the past seven days), I celebrate that I feel a sense of belonging. Plymouth is an amazing community, in an amazing neighborhood, in an amazing borough, in an amazing city. Your generous call inviting me to serve as your Assistant Minister allows me and my family to experience this Holy place.

In Life Together, Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes:

“The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing vital between us.”

Diversity is important in a church, as it leads to learning new wonders of God’s grace. I am glad that Plymouth has a strong tradition of welcoming new people. There are many who have been a part of Plymouth Church for decades, those who have followed the call of God to lay a beautiful foundation of ministry and mission. For those church mothers and fathers, I am grateful for your dedication and work in this community. And there are those who are newcomers, those who didn’t grow up in Brooklyn, but felt God’s presence here and decided to join in the worship and work of the church. For those new pilgrims, I am grateful for your courage to take the risk of sharing life together and trusting that God is in this place.

Thank you, Plymouth, for calling us here and for providing excellent soil for our family to plant our roots. I look forward to living genuinely and deeply with you. May Christ be the one and only thing vital between us.

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Donald Trump Stole My Old Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Modern Love Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How have you survived this?” she asked.

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

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

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

“Sharing the Shame After My Arrest,”

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The Birds and Bees (and How They Fly)

I was ten years old, lying on the couch reading an Archie comic book.  (I am embarrassed to admit that I liked Veronica more than Betty.)  My father came in wearing Ward Cleaver’s face: “Brett, put your novel away.  There’s something I should have talked to you about by now, but I’ve been putting it off, because I wasn’t sure you were old enough to understand.  We’re going to have a convebrett-fathers-day-blogrsation I think you’ll always remember.”

I was thinking what you are thinking.  My father just offered Andy Taylor’s introduction to the birds-and-the-bees talk.  What I wanted to say was, “Dad, you gave this speech a month ago.  I don’t want to hear it again.  You said that if I had questions I should check back.  I will never do that, but I appreciate the offer.”

How could my father forget that we already had this discussion? (“Discussion” means he talked and I listened.)  And yet, inexplicably, he had forgotten.  It was going to be at least five tortuous minutes before I learned who Archie was taking to the big dance at Riverdale High.

I expected to hear, “When a man and a woman love each other very much” but Dad opened with, “It’s time to talk about how an airplane flies.”

He had several model airplanes with him.  My father gave a speech that lasted longer than five minutes: “An airplane flies because its wings create lift, the upward force on the plan, as they interact with the flow of air around them.  The wings alter the direction of the flow of air as it passes.”

When I thought he would be getting to “a woman is different from a man” he was saying, “The exact shape of the surface of a wing is critical to its ability to generate lift.  The speed of the airflow and the angle at which the wing meets the oncoming air stream contribute to the amount of lift generated.”

We did not get to first dates or anything interesting, but Dad covered drag, acceleration, and aeronautical theory.

Forty-six years later I more often recall Dad’s “how planes fly” sermon than his “where babies come from” speech.  I appreciate the “everything you always wanted to know about aviation” address, because it was my father at his most authentic.  He worked hard to pass down his love for model airplanes (we tried, but I never got it), the Dallas Cowboys (my teenage rebellion was rooting against America’s Team), westerns (I like The Searchers), and Frank Sinatra (I’m right with dad on Ol’ Blue Eyes).

Good fathers share what they love.  Father’s Day is a chance to be thankful for every good gift our fathers tried to give us — even the flying lessons that never got off the ground.

Note:  The photo above is a clever re-creation of a 1971 conversation.

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Hub Cap Salad

Hub cap salad, also known as jello mold salad, was a centerpiece at the annual church picnic.  Those round green shaky jello salads with shreds of carrots on the inside and mini marshmallows on the top.  Do you cut it like a cake or spoon it like a pudding?  Mom had a piece of Tupperware, specifically made to carry deviled eggs, which was proudly mustered out for this annual congregation event.  Massive pounds of hotdogs and burgers were waiting for the grill.  No one had heard of kale or thought salmon was a cook-out food group.

To work off the great food there was the marathon softball game when everyone had a chance to play, especially the dads who didn’t walk upright for weeks after the picnic.  Even if you didn’t play, you cheered everyone on.  It didn’t matter how you had voted a week ago about getting the new hymnal.  Everyone cheered, especially when they saw the pastor could swing a bat almost as well as he could preach.  God loves each of us the same, but does not bless everyone with the same softball skills.

We worshipped together every Sunday and attended a variety of monthly meetings.  But it was this once a year expression of community that was the subject of stories all year long.  “Do you remember Sal’s home plate slide?  Wasn’t Marian’s potato salad better than ever?  It was so great to see so many of the new members having a good time.  When is the picnic next year?”

Sunday worship brought us into community with God.  Monthly meetings, not so much.  A reading of the minutes and Roberts Rules gymnastics just didn’t do it.  Remembering our time as a community enjoying one another was fun to talk about.  Valuing each other as children of God was far more important than a pressing issue that wasn’t all that pressing.

In the post church picnic glow we greeted each other on Sundays differently somehow.  We had been together in our humanity sharing softball scrapes and treasured family recipes.  God was in our midst in a real way.  When there was the unavoidable difference of opinion from time to time, the picnic was a reminder of our humanity and community.  It was our common faith, not the hub cap salad that brought us together.  The love of God and our common mission kept us together.

The church picnic was one big passing of the peace in the community that lasted all year.  Church picnics, or whatever those times as a congregation may be called these days, can still be all that.  Pass the peace (and hold the hub cap salad).

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