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.

 

BrettYounger_SignatureTransparent

 

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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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