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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On Giving

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

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

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

The Bible has a lot to say on giving:

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

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

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

Pithy quotes on giving can be enlightening:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Teach Us to Pray

Lord, teach us to pray . . .

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

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

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

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

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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.”

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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.

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Life Abundant

As we close out this season we are (just as Mary and Joseph were when the wise men left) forced back into the real world.  The twinkling lights get put away.  The trees and wrapping are put out on the curb.  The garland has dried out and the red and green are fading from the city.  Carols are gone from stores and elevators and, maybe, from our spirits.  We get back into the daily grind.  Back to regular work and school schedules.   And, if we aren’t careful, our sense of awe at God’s love for us might fade right along with the lights over Court Street.

We are, with the close of the Christmas season, being ushered back to reality.  We’ve taken twelve days and then some to reflect on what it means that God came among us in the flesh.  We’ve thought about why God came, incarnate in Jesus, to be born into the lowliest of circumstances.  It’s like God choosing to be born to immigrant parents in Queens who can’t qualify for a Habitat house and struggle to keep the heat on in the winter.  Why would God choose that?  Hopefully, in these twelve days we’ve come to the conclusion that it is because those circumstances show us that there is no place God’s love can’t dwell.  There is no person it cannot envelope.  There is no space God’s love won’t go.

The wise men brought gifts symbolic of the importance of Jesus’ birth.  The gold representing his royal standing; frankincense his divine birth; and myrrh his mortality.  Jesus’ three pronged identity as royal, divine, and mortal threatened the existing power, and ultimately, the reigning way of life.  Pray that Jesus continues to threaten our way of life beyond these twelve days of Christmas.  Pray that this Christmas has shaken up our tendency toward existential dread, toward mundane attitudes, toward blindness of what God is doing.  Pray that the wonder and awe of this season will not die with the lights and that we will continue into 2017 with a keen sense of God-with-us.

Jesus talks about having come so that we might have life and have it abundantly.  As we move out of the Christmas season and into Epiphany, may we live as though life is a feast every day.  May we recognize the table of goodness spread before us.  May we see twinkling light in the eyes of our children, beauty in the morning sky, and the glow of our friends’ smiles.  Above all, may we have life abundant because we love and are loved, so, so loved, by God.

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Merry Christmas….still?

“In America do you say Merry Christmas or Happy New Year on December 27?”  A friend of mine asked me this question after she was rudely chastised that after December 25 the proper salutation relates to the New Year coming up.

For weeks (in retail for months) we prepare for Christmas.  Gifts are purchased, decorations displayed, and parties seem endless.  THE DAY comes and goes, and we move immediately to the next thing.  Looking back on the year that was and making resolutions for the upcoming year fills the news and our conversations beginning on December 26.  Whatever happened to the season of Christmas?  Yes, Virginia, there is such a season.

The season of Christmas is filled with fun traditions, odd celebrations, and folklore.  Some historians contend the Twelve Days of Christmas poem and song is filled with hidden meanings passed along for centuries due to religious persecution.  I wonder if 10 Lords-A-Leaping really does stand for the 10 commandments.  Maybe?  Maybe not.  The NY Times made its annual report on the cost of purchasing everything from the partridge to the drummers.  $44,602 – a slight increase over last year.  (Note: leave out the golden rings for a big cost savings.)  Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was written to close the Christmas season on January 6.  Many church staffs are beginning serious planning this week for Lent and Easter.  Why don’t we bask in the manger’s perfect light before heading down the road to the cross?

I fear too often we live in anticipation without experiencing the joy when we arrive.  There is a letdown the day after Christmas when there ought to be continued celebration.  Ripped wrapping paper and left overs should remind us of the day we kicked off the Christmas season.  Even the celebration of administrative professionals has grown from one day to a full week.

A couple of days ago we celebrated Emmanuel, God with us.  Is it possible to use these 12 days to reflect on what incarnation means in our lives?  God the son took on human flesh and human nature.  Epiphany will be here soon enough when the proclamation of the Gospel begins.  We know how the story of Jesus’ earthly life ends.  There will be time to observe those solemn days with the incredible ending.  For now I’m going to do what is so difficult and rewarding.  Join me in living in the moment, in the season of Christmas.  Keep singing Joy to the Word and saying Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas, still!

John

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Skipping Christmas

For centuries, Christians have celebrated the birth of Jesus by coming to church to sing, pray, remember, give thanks, and recommit our lives to God.  What were we thinking?

This year, with Christmas falling on Sunday, many churches have decided that the best way to celebrate the coming of Christ is to cancel worship.  The primary reason given is that attendance will be sparse.  When did we decide that the purpose of worship is to draw a crowd?  Attendance at the first Christmas was not big, but God decided to go ahead with it.

A second reason offered is that canceling worship is in keeping with a “family friendly” approach.  A pastor in Melbourne, Florida, says: “Christmas is a big family day, and we’re focused on the family.  We should be able to worship the Lord in our homes, also.”

Huh?  Should churches encourage members to gather with their family for brunch on Easter or go bowling on Good Friday?  When did we get the idea that the primary purpose of the church is to support the family?  The New Testament teaches that the church is our family.  Christians put God ahead of their family.  Jesus felt this so strongly that he said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters cannot be my disciple.” (This verse is not going to make it on to anybody’s Christmas card.)

What about the people without a family—the elderly, singles, lonely people, those a long distance from family?  Isn’t it possible that those who are alone at Christmas need to worship God?

The real issue is not that people will skip church on Sunday.  The problem is that churches are failing to tell the truth about Christmas.  It is hard to read the Gospels and see how our modern Christmas celebration could have begun with the ancient story.  In the Bible, Christmas is not about big crowds, family gatherings, or expensive presents.

The first Christmas marks the beginning of a small, counter-cultural community that puts their trust in God’s way and none of their faith in materialism.  Christmas invites us to have different standards, hopes and dreams than those who do not know the meaning of Christ’s coming.

If we believe that Jesus’ birth changes the world, then we will change the way we see our world.  The work of Christ’s hands will be continued in the work of our hands.  We will have compassion for all people—especially those that are usually left out.  Because Jesus has come, we will walk out of step with the rhythms of the world.

On Sunday morning at 11:00 at Plymouth, we will gather to sing, pray, and listen to the story.  We will celebrate by remembering the first Christmas and giving ourselves again to the hope born in Bethlehem.

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