Reading the Paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Simply Thankful

If we put it off until Thursday, Thanksgiving may not be the spiritual event for which we hope.  Children with families of their own will drive back to Mom and Dad’s.  Warnings will be issued to children in the back seat:  “Don’t talk about the president in front of Grandpa and Grandma.  Not the old president.  Not the new president.  Not any president.”

Parents will make bizarre promises:  “If you will just try everything, even the green stuff, we’ll go to McDonald’s on the way home.”

Wives will warn their husbands:  “If you have to watch the stupid football game, at least have the decency not to cheer.”

A new son-in-law will have the feeling that he walked into the wrong class—English literature instead of the calculus for which he studied.  Everyone else knows all the answers.  There will be names, dates, and stories for which they only use the punch line:  “We know not to let Linda fix the turkey.  Ha!  Ha!”  The poor confused son-in-law will smile stupidly, having no idea what’s going on.

Some in-laws will hope to be a little less confused at Christmas.  A few will spend Thanksgiving trying to make other plans for Christmas.

Several college students will second-guess their decision to shave their feeble attempts at moustaches rather than face the humiliating comments of their fathers.  Homes that have gotten along on ham sandwiches and microwave pizzas will see some pretty fancy cooking on November 22.

For all the trouble we go to, Thanksgiving does not really happen for everyone.  Many of us will be glad that we have what we have, but gladness is not gratefulness.  The people having turkey and dressing will outnumber those having a real experience of gratitude. Thinking about what we want is easier than thinking about what we’ve been given.  For most of us, having more has not made us more grateful.

In a letter to his yuppie nephew, Henri Nouwen writes:  “Increasing prosperity has not made people friendlier toward one another.  They are better off, but that newfound wealth has not resulted in a new sense of community.  I get the impression that people are more preoccupied with themselves than when they didn’t possess so much.  There is less opportunity to relax, get together informally, and enjoy the little things of life.  Success has isolated a lot of people and made them lonely.  The higher up you get on the ladder of prosperity the harder it becomes to be together, sing together, pray together, and celebrate together in the spirit of Thanksgiving.”

God calls us to more than a pause to say thanks.  God invites us to spend our lives gratefully responding to God’s goodness.

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Why Big Bird and Oscar Cannot Retire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would anyone want to leave Sesame Street?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ministers Telling People How to Vote

Ministers who are sane do not want to tell people how to vote.  If the minister is in the majority of a red or blue congregation, then taking a side is picking on the one guy who wears a MAGA hat to the potluck or the one woman who has an I’m too poor to vote Republican bumper sticker on her Prius.  If the minister is in the minority, then he or she can survive only a limited number of endorsements.  If the congregation is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, then championing candidates is asking for angry emails.

Being a minister has gotten harder since the 2016 election.  When a sermon refers to President Trump by name the preacher has to answer for it during coffee hour.  Mentioning poverty, integrity, or compassion sounds political.  Speaking against greed, violence, xenophobia, homophobia, or sexism is controversial.  Politics is depressing, because some important religious issues are not listed in either party’s talking points.

Caring for the poor is a religious issue.  The world’s great faiths insist on feeding the hungry.  While officials argue over who represents the middle class, only a few put forth policies that offer poor families a real chance.

War is a religious issue.  Many seem to have forgotten that our nation has troops in Afghanistan.  The suggestion that we love our enemies would sound strange on who-can-scream-the-loudest talk shows.

Telling the truth is a religious issue.  Politicians have a shrinking concern for accuracy.  Constituents give their side a free pass.

Few politicians make serious efforts to consider how free trade could alleviate hunger, basic medical coverage could ease suffering, or concern for justice in the international arena could reduce anger towards our country.

Religious people are smart enough to consider issues beyond the last partisan punchline.  Immigration, prison reform, and the environment matter to religious people because our faiths have something to say about hospitality, revenge, and creation.

Imagine how good government could be if those who say God is love took love for the poor, the desire for peace, and an insistence on honesty into the voting booth.  What wonderful things would happen if our values were derived from virtue rather than partisanship?

Sincere people of faith vote for different candidates for reasons deeply rooted in their faith.  They disagree on how to educate children, promote racial understanding, and support gender equality, but they share frustration with politicians who appeal to individual interests, national interests, and special interests.  Religious faith leads away from narrow-mindedness to concern for the good of others.

Religious organizations have no business endorsing candidates, but they have an obligation to share the best of their traditions.  Ministers do not get to avoid the call for justice in order to avoid appearing political.

Religious people disagree on how to care for refugees, but ministers have to preach that it is not acceptable to separate children from their parents.

Religious people disagree on what a prison should look like, but ministers have to preach care for those who are imprisoned.

Religious people disagree on how to respond to victims of sexual assault, but ministers have to preach the necessity of listening.

Religious people can offer ideas beyond politics as usual, speaking for political reform where the insights of faith intersect societal concerns.  The movements for civil rights, women’s suffrage, and child labor laws began with religious people.  When debates focus on which candidate will make voters richest, religious people can be a voice for the oppressed.

The United States is a remarkable country with lofty goals.  Even when disappointed by the choices they have been given, religious people appreciate the privilege of voting.  Ministers should encourage their congregations to pay attention to more than the superficial and vote with concern for all on Tuesday.

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Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

The church has taken centuries to understand that in a world that is asleep, coffee is no doze.  Opening the church to coffee drinkers has been a long, difficult struggle.  Coffee dates back to the fifteenth century and the Sufi monasteries of Yemen.  The legend is that the mystic Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili was traveling in Ethiopia.  He saw birds acting unusually lively, and upon trying the berries that the birds had been eating, experienced the same vitality.  Coffee was soon part of religious practice in the Islamic world.  The Sufis used the beverage to keep themselves alert during nighttime devotions and as a kind of spiritual intoxication when they chanted the name of God.

Because Muslims loved coffee, several Christian groups, including The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, made a big brouhaha and banned coffee.  Mormons still avoid this potion made with magic beans.

Churches need to wake up and smell the coffee.  When we ask Siri to “find coffee” she lists four places within 800 feet of Plymouth.  Our neighborhood has more coffee shops than churches.

Coffee is the most important meal of the day for many.  In the midst of the daily grind, coffee is invigorating.  A yawn is a silent scream for coffee.  Sleep is a symptom of caffeine deprivation.  Coffee smells like freshly ground heaven and tastes like hopes and dreams.

When we are holding a cup of coffee, the warmth radiates through our hands.  The smell drifts through the air.  The cream goes into black coffee and magically changes it into good to the last drop caramel. This sensual experience helps our sleepy selves greet the day with gratitude.  We reflect on what we are worried about and what we now have the energy to achieve.

Worship would be less lively without a cup of joy.  We can tell a lot about a church from how they caffeinate worshippers.  My parents’ Baptist church is Folgers.  Unitarians drink fair trade coffee.  Mennonites have Kuerig committees that wash and recycle those little cups.  Presbyterians have long filled their fellowship halls for the sacrament of coffee hour.  Catholics serve decaf at midnight mass.  Sharing coffee is a way of saying, “We love you a latte.”

The church house at Plymouth was built with coffee money.  In the early 1900s, the Arbuckle Brothers’ coffee factory in Brooklyn roasted more coffee than any other building in the world.  John Arbuckle, “the Coffee King,” changed how coffee was made.  He roasted and ground coffee beans onsite and packaged the coffee in one-pound bags.  Coffee money paid for the Plymouth Institute.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” is an offer of friendship.  Coffee turns a counseling session into a conversation between friends.  Saying “Yes” to coffee at the end of a meal is a promise to hang around.

Here is a question that will begin to percolate one day.  Would coffee be a better symbol for communion?  Grape juice is dull.  Wine puts you to sleep.  Coffee refreshes, revives, and stimulates.  The Lord’s Table could be a coffee table.  If we drank coffee at communion, we could get rid of the tiny shot glasses.  Picture those little communion cup holders on the backs of pews becoming real cup holders.  Coffee would be a fine symbol for the enlivening of the Spirit that happens at the table.

When we celebrate communion it will be with wine and grape juice, but there will be coffee in Hillis so we can fill the church with sweetness and light.

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What I Learned from My Eighth Grade History Teacher

img_0205Mr. McBrayer threw the barista by ordering “a cup of coffee”—which was not on the menu at the Caffeinated Indian.  43 years after the eighth grade, I met my social studies teacher at the only coffee shop in Fulton, Mississippi.

In 1975, Mississippi was ranked 50th in education and was some distance from being 49th.  My school reflected our state’s poverty, racism, and provincialism.  Good teachers like Danny McBrayer fought uphill battles.

During study hall a group of us were discussing the quickest way to make our first million.  Mr. McBrayer told us about driving a school bus, watching the sunrise each morning, and seeing the sunrise change through the year:  “I drive the bus to get paid, but without the sunrise it wouldn’t be worth it.  Your job needs to be worth it.”

In a school that had recently integrated and was painfully divided, Mr. McBrayer went out of his way to spend time with African American students like Ronnie Agnew—the Executive Director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

Checking in after four decades provides a lot to talk about.  Mr. McBrayer knows almost everyone’s story.  My biology teacher continues to believe that she could have married Elvis.  Coach Wright was inducted into the Mississippi Football Hall of Fame.  Our principal, who smoked a pipe, died of throat cancer.  When I asked about my least favorite teacher Mr. McBrayer said, “She just never liked poor kids—and that was most of our kids.”

My old friends have tragic, predictable, and amazing stories.  One of the best athletes in school history is in prison.  Two of the three sisters whose names rhymed died years ago—one with cancer and one in a car accident.  Bobby got into lots of trouble, became a preacher, and died.  Willie has had a hard time:  “His family fell apart and he has no legal income.”

Jimmy and Dorothy surprised everyone by not getting married.  Dorothy ended up with a pro golfer’s cousin.  Jimmy went through a divorce, but his ex-father-in-law liked him so much they went into business together.  (I’m changing the names because I can’t read my writing and am afraid I may announce a divorce where there is only peace and harmony.)

Lori, on whom most of the eighth grade had a crush, married the quarterback, and has done just fine.  Joe, the shooting guard on the basketball team, is selling tires. Goony—a nickname I include because he must have left it behind years ago—runs his dad’s garage.  Peachy—another has-to-have-been-forgotten nickname—is selling satellite dishes.

Craig, the top math student, is an engineer with NASA.  Ken, the center on the basketball team, is a high school principal.  Todd, who was a great best friend, teaches teachers in Nashville.

Mississippian William Faulkner said, “The past is never done with us.  It isn’t even past.”

So much seems capricious—who lives, who dies, who gets a great job, who gets cancer, whose marriage falls apart, whose child is born broken.  Telling who’s who is hard in middle school, and we do not get much better at it.  Even if we could know exactly who someone is we cannot know how far they have come to get there.

Mississippi makes it clear that the playing field is not level.  Some are born with two strikes against them.  Some who seem a step behind have made up a mile.  Some give themselves to lifelong friendships, honest work, and caring for the hurting.  Some who sell tires make more important contributions than some with big corner offices.

Those who create lives out of not much make it seem obvious that we should fill our prisons with politicians who lie to poor people while helping rich people keep their advantages.

As we finished our coffee, Danny said, “I became a Christian in 2001.  I feel bad that I didn’t make that decision sooner.  I might have helped more students.”

“Mr. McBrayer, you told us to think, dream, and do more than was expected.  That sounds like what God would have you say.”

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The NACCC: We are Not Alone

unleashedTwo weeks ago 226 people from 96 churches from 23 states across the country gathered in sunny San Diego, CA for the 64th Annual Meeting and Conference of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. The theme this year was Unleashed, a reference to Acts 1: 8. Those in attendance from Plymouth Church: Grace Faison, Carol Younger, Edith Bartley, Jim Waechter, Julie Johnson Staples, Brett Younger, and myself.
Frequent questions I get asked from Plymouth newcomers are: So what is the NACCC? Is it a denomination? Simply answered, the NA is a voluntary group of churches who follow the Congregational Way, a practice derived from the traditions and beliefs of the Pilgrims, puritan Christians from England who settled in America in the early 1600’s in pursuit of religious freedom. Basic principles of the Congregational Way include:
• Christ alone is the head of the church (kings, popes or bishops can’t tell us how to practice our faith)
• All members of the church are spiritually equal and called to ministry (everyone matters and has a job to do for God)
• Christians are bound to one another by a voluntary covenant (we don’t have a doctrinal statement)
• Every Christian has the freedom to interpret the Bible according to their own conscience (there’s a bunch of theological diversity in a Congregational church)
• The Bible, not a creed or written confession, is our guide for our beliefs and living out our faith (so we have to actually read and study it)
• Every local church is autonomous and complete (no one can tell us what to do…except maybe our own Church Council…with our approval)

Being a Congregationalist is radical. We accept diversity of belief and giftedness. We claim an independence in our faith. We don’t allow other entities to bully us into doing church their way.
This overt religious radicalism allows NA churches to be beautifully unique, irreplaceable members of the larger Body of Christ. So once a year these wonderfully diverse churches gather together to help one another continue and strengthen their separate holy callings to their particular corners of the world. They call this meeting the “Annual Conference.”
There was a bunch of boring business at the conference (Congregationalists like to vote on things). But I don’t want to spend much time on that stuff. In short, we approved a budget, listened to annual reports from various committees, elected new leaders (the most exciting being Jim Waechter as Moderator – yay!), and received a report from Executive Director Michael Chittum. We also adopted a new Mission and Vision Statement.

NACCC Mission Statement:
To nurture fellowship among Congregational Christian Churches and support ministries of the local church in its community and to the world, all in the name of Christ.

NACCC Vision Statement:
Vital and healthy Congregational churches, sharing the love of Jesus the Christ.

My favorite parts of the conference were the moments I realized the true importance of an association like the NACCC. Plymouth Church, being located in a big city and being a healthy, growing congregation, can easily fall into the false belief that we don’t need any other churches to help us do our ministry, and that we have this church thing all figured out. We are at risk of becoming ecclesiastic snobs, turning our noses up at the small, Midwestern NA churches that have nothing to offer large, historical, and successful churches like Plymouth. The moment we start embracing the sin of arrogance and self-reliance is the moment we will begin to fail in our own mission to Know God and Grow Together.

Plymouth has a lot to learn from the rest of the world, even the smallest corners. Plymouth needs to know that a first-year pastor, Rev. Jacob Poindexter, of First Congregational in Anchorage, Alaska is heading up his regions Poor People’s Campaign. Plymouth needs to know that the all-white First Congregational Church in Toulon, IL, a small town of 1,200 people recently called an African American, Rev. Dr. Ron Toliver, as their senior minister. African Americans make up just .21% of Toulon’s population. Plymouth needs to know that Rev. Dr. Elvis Sa Do and his wife Rev. Naw Pale Say work tirelessly in Yangon, Myanmar to bring God’s message of hope and healing to a people who have been isolated and persecuted by an oppressive government. Plymouth needs to know that we are not alone. The churches and ministries of the NACCC are out there carrying God’s love to the rest of the world, and come together to support one another in that mission.
Twenty years ago Plymouth was a struggling church with membership down and finances strained. The NACCC gave Plymouth and its leaders support and strength to continue. We must not forget our own recent history.

As part of the NACCC, we must recognize that we are all in this together. We are a family. We are the keeper of our sister churches. They are our keepers. We need to continue to support one another, pray for one another, and (once a year at least) show up for the reunion.
If you would like to learn more about the NACCC, visit: www.naccc.org.

Erica Cooper

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Hot Dogs

brettcarolnathansWhen you hear the words “American hero” you may think of Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony or Martin Luther King Jr., but a lot of people think of Joey “Jaws” Chestnut. On July 4, the eyes of the world were on the corner of Surf and Stillwell.  Coney Island was host to a gut-busting, Independence Day showdown that provided drama, daring and indigestion.

Two dear friends who relish this outlandish event promised it would be fun. We arrived an hour early, but could not get close enough to smell the nitrates. The smell of America was, nonetheless, in the air.  Thousands of us, many wearing wiener hats, gathered to cheer the dogfight for the mustard yellow belt emblematic of frankfurter eating supremacy.

The Brooklyn Community Choir sang, because someone thought gospel music would be a helpful addition to the festivities.

The announcer, George Shea, is a poet. Here is some notable commentary:

“His good cholesterol is low. His bad cholesterol is high. His BMI is borderline presidential.”

“He stands before us like Hercules himself. Albeit a large, bald Hercules at an eating contest.”

“This is like watching Picasso paint.”

“When all the world’s languages are poured into a single bowl, the word that unites us will be freedom.” (I do not know what this means, but the crowd cheered ecstatically.)

Joey Chestnut, the pride of the red, white and blue, claimed his 11th Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest title. (LeBron James has only won three NBA titles.) Joey inhaled a staggering 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes – a little less than one every eight seconds. In this stupefying act, Joey consumed 22,000 calories and 1,332 grams of fat. The carb count stirred the hearts of patriots – 1,776 carbs.  That’s right – 1776!  (This statistic should ensure Joey’s invitation to the White House.) As the crowd chanted “USA,” this gustatory gladiator processed more beef than a slaughterhouse. The lesser competitors suffered reversals, which are exactly what they sound like.

I love an extravaganza that makes you never want to eat again as much as the next person, but this festival of belching and burping raises questions. Is overindulgence a feat to be celebrated? Should binging be considered a sport? What is the over/under on the date of Joey’s death? Why is he still alive? Should anyone eat 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes while children starve? (Carol mentioned this several times, but the good and clever people at Nathan’s make a point of donating 100,000 hot dogs to the Food Bank of New York City each July 4.) Should a cardiologist be doing the play-by-play? Should Pepto-Bismol be a sponsor? Would this be more appropriate on the Food Network than ESPN? What kind of parents raise their child to compete in a gorge-a-thon?

Gluttony seems particularly unattractive when it is televised. We cheer for the wrong things. Our society gives itself to wretched excess. Our insatiable appetite leaves us without an appreciation for what is truly good.

I am still dealing with my feelings about what I witnessed. For lunch today, I had a salad.

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Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, My Grandmother and Bad Theology

brett-grandmother-blogI have a tiny photograph in my desk drawer.  She is leaning on the fender of a 1930s Plymouth coupe—the kind Warren Beatty drove in Bonnie and Clyde.  My grandmother is wearing a white dress and high heel pumps.  Her hair looks like it is bobby pinned.  She is an attractive woman in her twenties trying unsuccessfully to smile.  Maybe she is looking into the sun or perhaps she cannot quite figure out how to smile.  My grandmother suffered from depression at a time when mental illness was less understood and medication was woefully inadequate.

She has been my favorite grandmother since I learned that she wrote a novel.  Most of my ancestors, including the Methodist preacher, the horse thief, and the railroad boss who “was never convicted of murdering anyone,” were not big on books.  I find it hard to imagine my relatives reading books much less writing them.  When my family members went fishing or hunting and I wanted to stay home and read I thought:  “Grandmother Ruth would understand.”

I have thought about what I would say to this wounded woman whose genes I carry if I could go back in time: “You have a grandson on the way who wants to meet you and talk about books and writing.  You can’t imagine the people who will need you some day.”

When my parents asked what I wanted for Christmas one year, I requested a copy of my grandmother’s novel.  You do not have to read far to understand why it was never published.  The story is painfully autobiographical.  She describes in dark detail the deaths of two of her children.

In one of many anguished passages she blames herself as well as God.  She believes that her baby died because she “clung to the doubt that was forever in the back of my mind.”

As the death of a second child approaches, her mother, the daughter of a Baptist preacher, says, “I can only hope and pray and be ready to reconcile myself to whatever is God’s will.”

My grandmother responds, “If the baby dies, do you think that God will be treating me right?”

“God treats everyone right, you know that.”

God must cringe when a well-meaning person speaks such blasphemy.  No one in the novel ever suggests that God weeps for every grieving parent or that it is not God’s will for children to die.  I do not know all of the reasons my grandmother took her life, but bad theology contributed to her death.

I have been thinking about my grandmother since the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade.  Their tragic deaths have brought much-needed attention to the growing epidemic of suicides.  Some of the fatalities were victims of bad theology.  Some never heard a helpful word from the church.

Mental illness is complicated and the church does not have all of the answers, but at the very least the church has to speak loudly and clearly of God’s love, mercy, and liberation.

I wish someone had said this to my grandmother before she died far too soon: “We can’t imagine the pain you feel, but God can.  God grieves with us.  You can hold on, because God is holding on to you.”

A word of hope might have changed the outcome.

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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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