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.

BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

Share

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

Share

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.

BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

Share

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

 

 

 

 

Share

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.

BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

Share

On Giving

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

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

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

The Bible has a lot to say on giving:

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

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

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

Pithy quotes on giving can be enlightening:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

Share

Experiencing Easter

Words have been failing Easter since the first Easter.  Words of theological explanation miss the Spirit.  Words of debate miss the point.  The words of poets, like gospel writers, come closest, but even they miss the wonder.  Easter is not meant to be spoken, but experienced.easter1

The first reaction the women had on seeing the stone rolled away was not joy, but confusion.  According to Luke’s version, two men offered the terrified women an explanation they were not sure they could believe.  The women returned to the disciples’ hiding place and took turns trying to present a coherent story.  Their listeners wanted to be polite, but they had never heard such nonsense.  The women’s words about life from death were particularly unconvincing.

What did the women expect?  They may have been upset that the other disciples dismissed their story as foolishness, but they must have understood.  An empty tomb proves nothing.  The last explanation to consider is the one that they gingerly suggested.

Resurrection does not square with anything else we know.  No resurrection makes its way into Gray’s Anatomy or Pontius Pilate’s scribal records.  This is a shaky beginning for the world’s most widespread religion.  Modern Christians, with a modern understanding of what is scientifically possible, are tempted to apologize for Easter.

The writers of the New Testament make it clear that Easter does not happen on the basis of second-hand reports.  Those who believed did so only as they discovered that they were not as alone as they had thought.  Christ was somehow with them—making them braver, kinder, more alive, and more like Christ.  The only reason good enough to believe in the resurrection life is if it happens to you.

easter-2Like the first group that hesitatingly made its way toward Easter, we must make our own way to the tomb, not to analyze its emptiness, but to hear the voice of hope.  Easter cannot be experienced vicariously.  So take a walk to the garden and consider the quiet.  Gather with the church and sing the songs of new life.  Serve the Risen Christ by caring for someone who is hurting.

Look for signs of Grace’s appearing—especially in your own heart.  Are you tired of dusks and yearning for dawn?  Open yourself to the possibility that the Spirit of Christ lives on among us—not as a memory, but as the outlandish presence of the Holy Mystery calling us to celebrate.

BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

Share

Teach Us to Pray

Lord, teach us to pray . . .

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

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

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

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

Share

Worship Receiving Line Etiquette

photo-feb-19-12-01-40-pmAfter Jesus’ first sermon, the congregation tried to throw him off a cliff.  Since then churches have instituted a receiving line as a way to avoid an unfortunate end to a worship service.  The preacher at Plymouth is stationed at the door through which most people exit, but we leave room for the disgruntled to escape without comment.

This Sunday after she preaches, Liz will have the joy of these conversations.  Most of you are quite good at this exchange, but, nonetheless, just to be helpful, here are a few comments you should not make after the sermon:

“Good try.”

“Do you have a cold?”

“I’m just saying it’s 12:30.”

“Why don’t you preach on Revelation?”

“Every sermon you preach is better than the next one.”

“That used to be one of my favorite texts.”

“Where do you get your hair cut?”

“I’ll give you five bucks if you say the word zamboni next Sunday.”

“Do you know if we’re using real eggs for the Easter egg hunt this year?”

“Here’s what I would have done with the sermon.”

“I don’t come to church to be preached at.”

“Let me respond to the tiniest bit of minutiae from your sermon.”

The receiving line is your opportunity to be the preacher’s favorite—and with so little effort.  There are so many good things to say.  Try one of these on Sunday:

“If you had been my preacher twenty years ago I wouldn’t be so corrupt.”

“You almost make me want to read the Bible.”

“I never thought about that text in that way.”

“I like the Jesus you preach more than the Jesus I grew up with.”

“I talk about prayer a lot, but today I prayed.”

“I feel less tired than when I got here.”

“I remembered some things that matter.”

“I did not enjoy the sermon, but I will think about it.”

“I have a neighbor I haven’t spoken to in ten years.  I’m going to talk to her this afternoon.”

“Thank you for being honest.”

“I want our church to do more for hungry children.  How should I start?”

“I am going to be more aware of God this week.”

“I think I heard the Spirit invite me to do more.”

The best response to a sermon is not the words you offer the preacher, but a renewed openness to God.  As you leave church on Sunday consider shaking Liz’ hand and saying, “I want to be a Christian more than I did an hour ago.”

BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

Share

What is Lent for you?

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush writes of Lent, “some will fast from mindless consumption of what distracts us; others will offer radical service to neighbor; but what is most important about Lent is that we make time and space for an awareness that God is with us and loves us—even right here and now.”

I love Lent.  I’m glad to be part of a Protestant tradition that doesn’t skip or gloss over it.  I’ve spent some time reflecting this week about why I love it and I think I’ve come to a conclusion.  Praise and joy feel shallow without first having faced the hard stuff.  Easter is only joyous because of Good Friday.  And this mystery of Cross and Resurrection is a reflection of the rhythm of life that is hard for us name.  But if I try to name it, it will sound something like this: Lent is a reset when we get to reflect on the hard stuff that makes the great stuff recognizably great.  And we get there by different means.

About this time each year, we hear people asking one another, “What are you doing for Lent?”  Giving up chocolate, or Facebook, or worrying, or booze are a common response.  We give up something that is a regular part of our day so that each time we reach for it, our attention is turned back to Christ in the wilderness.  We connect with our temptations.  And chocolate might be a daily, less significant one, but hopefully by God’s grace we start forming an awareness of bigger temptations we contend with in life.

Others of us choose to do something for Lent; volunteer at the soup kitchen on Saturdays, add a special, extra time of prayer into our busy day, drop by and talk with our elderly neighbor who we know to be lonely twice each week.  We take up a burden and are reminded of the burden Christ took up for us.  And, hopefully, by God’s grace, we become people who embrace that burden until it no longer feels like such.  It becomes a joy.

Whatever we do to honor Lent, let us do this: hold fast to the why.  Be aware of God’s love and compassion for us.  Connect with things God is calling us to or away from.  Listen hard and be willing to see the things within ourselves that we prefer to overlook.  The great mystery of God-work is happening all the time.  So, may we go into Lent looking for how it is happening in us.  The journey to the Cross is difficult.  But Sunday, God has promised, is indeed coming.  And, it will mean more, Easter will mean so much more, if we have embraced the season of Lent.  Welcome to the season of the night, but go into knowing that joy comes in the morning.

Share