Lending a Hand for Mission

Every morning when I drop my daughter Rosie off at the Red Room at Plymouth Church School, I give her a quick hug and kiss and say the words, “Be good.” The phrase comes out of my mouth without even thinking. It has become such a part of the morning routine that I rarely realize I am saying them.

“Be good.” Parents often say these words to their kids in hopes that they will listen to their teachers, be kind to other children, and make good choices. The more I think of this phrase, I don’t think it adequately reflects what I am asking of my daughter. I am not asking her to “be” anything other than who she already is, the person that God created. Instead, I am really asking her to “do” things that reflect who God made her to be.

“Do good.” Now that’s the phrase I should be saying. Share your snack. Play with the lonely kid. Wait for your turn. Help someone who is in trouble. By “doing good,” Rosie reflects the wonder and love of God. And ultimately, that is what I hope for her to do.

Over the past few months, Plymouth Church has spent intentional time “doing good” in our neighborhood, our city and our world through various projects, retreats and special events. In our “doing good” we show others God’s wonder and love in the world.

Amy Anderson and I reflected on these recent events, and here are the good things we witnessed Plymouth doing:

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Feeding the hungry. Eight teenagers and four adults attended the Senior Youth Mission Retreat at YSOP in Manhattan. They prepared and served food to over 300 people. They learned about hunger and homelessness in New York City, and discovered ways to share God’s love to others.

 

 

 

 

 

img_2800Visiting the sick. The Junior Youth Group hosted an Ice Cream Social at Cobble Hill Health Center. Eleven participants served sundaes and spent time sitting down and talking with  around forty residents and patients. They showed God’s gentleness and grace to people who are recovering from illness and injury.

 

 

 

 

img_7023Providing shelter. Plymouth church members and Plymouth Church School teachers partnered with Habitat for Humanity and spent a day rehabilitating affordable housing in southeastern Queens. Plymouth people find joy in lending their hearts and hands to revitalizing neighborhoods and giving families a chance to build stability in a new Habitat home.

 

 

 

 

img_0129Caring for seniors. Plymouth adults and youth added cheer and sunshine to a Senior Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with bright paint and colorful murals as they worked with Habitat NYC’s Brush with Kindness Program.

 

 

 

 

 

photo-apr-26-7-44-36-pmBringing hope. Plymouth welcomed Rev. Charles Sagay and received an update of the great ministry that he is continuing to the Baka people in Cameroon through The Mission School of Hope. Plymouth presented The Mission School of Hope with a grant of $30,000 so they can expand their campus and bring God’s hope to even more students.

 

 

 

 

photo-apr-08-12-34-20-pmEncouraging the disheartened. The Plymouth congregation continued the battle against human-trafficking and worked with Sanctuary for Families to create parenting supply-filled tote bags for mothers receiving services at Sanctuary for Families’ offices. Aiming for a goal of 100 totes, the Plymouth people poured their care and generosity into the project and our final tote count was 175!

 

 

 

 

img_2833Helping the imprisoned. Plymouth’s Racial Justice Ministry organized a Mother’s Day Bail Out event which brought awareness to the unjust practices of bail on the poor and raised over $400 for the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. This fund allows misdemeanor defendants who are awaiting trial to be home with their families.

 

 

 

James 2:26 reminds us, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” Our “doing” informs, nourishes, and shapes our “being.” The things we choose to do vitally impact who we are and what we believe.

As we move forward continuing to lend our hands in mission projects, let us be encouraged and empowered knowing that the good we do not only heals the brokenness in the world, but heals the brokenness inside our own beings.  When we do good to others, we do good to our own souls. And God thinks that is pretty good, too.

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Youth Group Shenanigans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ministers Tired of Praying

The first picture many of us saw was of a broken-hearted woman with an Ash Wednesday cross on her forehead holding another woman as they cried together. The tragedy in Parkland, Florida, was the eighth school shooting so far this year—and it is February.

Here is what I was sure would happen next. I was going to get an e-mail from the clergy association. The ministers would organize a prayer vigil where we read the names of the victims. We would grieve for the families of those who died. We would read scripture. We would pray for an end to gun violence.

Here is what actually happened. Nothing. No e-mail. Apparently I am not the only one tired of going to prayer vigils.  We are in danger of growing numb to these horrors and seeing this as the new normal.  We cannot keep feeling the same pain, so one option is to stop feeling it.

But this is the time to work to make it harder to die from gun violence. More than 30 people in our nation are murdered by guns on an average day.

Gun violence is a domestic violence problem. In an average month, 51 women are shot to death by a current or former husband or boyfriend.

Gun violence is a child abuse problem. The number of children and teens killed by guns in one year would fill 126 classrooms of 20 students each.

Gun violence is a mental health problem. There are 21,000 suicides committed using guns each year.

Gun violence is a safety problem. More than 45 people are shot accidentally each day. (Statistics are from faithinpubliclife.org, everytown.org, and childrensdefense.org.)

Gun violence is a faith problem. We have to be broken-hearted by the gun deaths in our country. We cannot pretend we cannot do anything.

We can work to strengthen background checks. Forty percent of the guns sold legally in the United States are bought without a background check. No records are kept. No questions are asked. Criminals buy guns online from unlicensed sellers.

We can insist that background check laws work. Common sense demands we keep guns out of the hands of felons, domestic abusers and those adjudicated as mentally ill. We can regulate guns as closely as we do cars.

We can require locks that make it harder to pull a trigger and lower the number of accidental shootings. We can work to ban the automatic weapons that seem to have no purpose other than mass shootings.

We can disagree on how best to address the epidemic of gun violence, but we cannot disagree on the tragic nature of gun violence. Support courageous politicians. Replace the ones who are not courageous. Speak up for common sense gun laws that make our streets and schools safe. Defend the right of children to live without the risk of being shot.

I keep thinking about the cross imposed with ashes on that mother’s forehead.  The sign of the cross calls us to grieve for those who are hurting, confess our apathy, and work for a time when we have no list of victims to read.

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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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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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Face Time

I rely on my phone a bit too much. It’s my personal assistant, reminding me of appointments I’m prone to forget and birthdays I don’t want to miss. My phone gives me access to the latest news and weather updates- however unpleasant at times. It lifts my spirits. Songs I waited hours to hear on the radio, photos of my family and favorite spots in Brooklyn are a thumb tap or two away.

My phone makes communicating easy and efficient. I can text everything.  Information- on my way- have entire conversations. I can check my work email and gmail and share a moment with friends via Instagram.  Occasionally I’ll even talk to someone, the old fashioned way; but I refuse to face time.

A child whose family had moved came to visit his former Sunday School class a few weeks ago. Every other boy focused on retaining his popularity in the classroom. Bad jokes were made and the laughter was louder than usual. Goldfish crackers and Lego pieces were “accidentally” thrown.

I started the lesson about temptation with a question: “What are you sometimes tempted to do even though you know you shouldn’t?” Not an easy answer to share but a number of hands went up. A number of children were willing to reveal themselves, to take a risk, to trust that their audience would be kind.

The first child cautiously admitted that she wanted to be a couch potato, to watch movies and read all day long. A clever, honest answer.  Well, some of the boys thought that was just too funny. As their laughter took over the room, the child’s tears took over her face.

But they weren’t looking at her face, they were looking at each other for approval. When they did look at her face, when they saw her trembling lips and eyes,  they were horrified. Their intentions had not been bad, but the outcome was.

It’s easy to forget the power of our words and the fragility of others. We need to be reminded that those close to us need to be cared for, need love.  “If we love one another, God lives in us. God’s love is made complete in us.”  (1 John 4:12)

While I will never agree to face time on my phone, I will remember to do face time in life.

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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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An Invitation to Matt Damon

Dear Matt:

Like everyone who loved Ocean’s Eleven (Twelve and Thirteen not so much), I was sorry to hear that St. Ann’s turned down your children.  I know you make $20 million a film, but it must still sting.  No one should blame your kids for Monuments Men.  Maybe you should have given them a Bourne Ultimatum.

This whole ordeal has to be hard on your family.  I’m guessing you are feeling pretty down—like the only person left on Mars, a criminal who has infiltrated the Boston police department, or a private in World War II caught behind enemy lines.

You and Luciana seem like great parents, so you know the importance of surrounding your children with caring people.  You should come to Plymouth Church.  Our congregation works hard to help children learn what it means to live in God’s hope.  You will love our children’s minister.  Julia Rassmann has helped create an environment in which children feel cared for.  (I am sorry that you are moving back to New York too late for your children to attend our preschool.  Plymouth Church School is fantastic.)

We have lots of activities for children.  Each Sunday after the children’s time in worship, they go to Sunday school.  Like St. Ann’s, we don’t give grades.  Our teachers use games, crafts, and music to share the Christian faith.  We have children’s choirs and summer camps.  (As you recently learned, it’s never too early to get on a waiting list.)

We have children’s movie night on September 16.  We are planning to show Milo and Otis, but if you have a DVD of Happy Feet 2 we would be glad to show that.

We will observe Children’s Sabbath on October 2.  We believe the church is an Adjustment Bureau improving the lives of children.

The Blessing of the Animals is October 4.  You would be welcome to share a few lines from We Bought a Zoo.

I have never been to Pumpkinland (October 30), but I hear it’s stellar, if not Interstellar.

Our church shows True Grit in our commitment to social justice.  Our congregation is given to the countercultural way of worship, friendship, and service.  We are a diverse community of faith, coming from many different backgrounds, but unified in God’s grace.

How do you like them apples?  (I bet you get a lot of that.)  I am sure Isabella, Gia, and Stella would find friends at our church.  You and Luciana would, too.  We would love to see your family at Plymouth.  If you see Ethan Hawke or Maggie Gyllenhaal, tell them their children are welcome at Plymouth, too.

Grace and peace,

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