Helping the Holiday Hurt

The Christmas season can be a time of celebration for many people in our community. Twinkling lights on Montague Street, Christmas carols played by street musicians, and bedazzled storefront windows can stir feelings of wonder and joy. While it is easy for us to get caught up in the splendor of Advent, we must remember that for many people Christmas is a time of sadness, stress and grief.

The holidays make pain more painful. For those facing the recent death of a loved one, the loss of a job, financial hardship, the breakdown of a relationship, or a physical or mental illness, Christmas festivities serve as reminders of loneliness and want. If you are someone who hurts during the holidays, here are some suggestions to find some peace while in pain.

Admit the Hurt
Trying to gloss over your hardship or pretend that the pain isn’t there will only create frustration. People are emotional pressure cookers.  If you continuously stuff down uncomfortable feelings, eventually the pressure builds and those emotions will come out one way or the other, usually in bursts of rage or anxiety. During the holidays, make sure that you give yourself moments to express your feelings in healthy ways: take time to cry, talk with a minister or counselor, or write in a journal.

Change Traditions
Holiday traditions are never the same when there is a major change to your life situation. Trying to recreate the happy moments of the past will leave you deeply disappointed. Doing something different for the holidays can ease some of the pain. Some ideas would be to go on a trip, decorate your house differently (or not at all), or plan to eat out on Christmas rather than cooking at home. Even small changes to your holiday routine can make big differences in your emotional state.

Play it by Ear
December is filled with invitations to happy holiday gatherings. Rather than avoid the parties altogether, tell your friends that you hope to attend, but will not be sure how you are feeling that day. Ask if it would be ok if they could plan on you coming, but know that you might have to cancel last minute if you are having a bad day. Friends that are worth your friendship will understand.

Find Support
There is a world of support available to people in pain in the city. Now is the time to seek out that support. You can find grief and emotional support groups online. Multiple AA and Al-Anon groups meet throughout the city each day of the week. There are holiday dinner meet-up groups for those who are alone. Many churches, like Plymouth, will have Blue Christmas services, which are worship services specifically designed to help people cope. If you need help finding support, talk to a minister or counselor and they can give you a list of resources.

Hope in What Really Matters
While the secular world tells us that Christmas is about family, presents, laughter, and fun, we must remember what it is truly about. God entered into the world to give hope to people in pain. Jesus came to earth to teach us that God’s love, peace and joy are available to us at all times, no matter what life throws at us. God’s love is more comforting, God’s peace is more healing, and God’s joy is more igniting than any carol, twinkling light, or adorned window.

Much hope, peace, joy and love to you this Christmas season.


Questions Ginsburg should ask the baker’s lawyer

The most famous bakery in Lakewood, Colorado, is focusing on birthday cakes for a while. In 2012, Dave Mullins and Charlie Craig walked into Masterpiece Cakeshop to purchase a cake for their wedding reception. The owner refused to serve them because they are a same-sex couple.

Jack Phillips’ lawyers will soon be before the Supreme Court. Their argument is that Christians should be allowed to discriminate against those who do not agree with their interpretation of the Bible. Phillips is now a favorite of the right-wing for standing up for Christian business owners’ right to say who should be married.

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission thinks it would be simpler to treat everyone equally under the law. They argue that acting like a bigot is not a right, and that since Phillips’ shop serves the public he has to serve all the public.

Most assume that the Supreme Court’s job in this case is to decide if religious beliefs are a license to discriminate, but there is another way to look at this. If Phillips is really committed to biblical laws, then he should be committed to all of them. Instead of asking if it should be legal to run a heterosexuals only bakery, we should ask who else a biblical legalist should turn away. Refusing to make devil’s food cakes for gay couples may not be enough.

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for the weddings of divorced people? Jesus never mentions gay people, but he says, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery (Matthew 19:9).” If Phillips is claiming a Christian exemption from U.S. law, how can the baker enforce shaky interpretations of a few obscure texts and ignore the words of Christ?

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for people who are overweight? “The glutton shall come to poverty” (Proverbs 23:21). Should the bakery be encouraging sinful behavior?

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for people with tattoos?  “You shall not … tattoo any marks upon you” (Leviticus 19:28). Recognizing tattooed customers is easier than recognizing gay customers.

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for witches? “You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live” (Exodus 22:18). The bakery’s order form could include the question, “Are you a female sorcerer?”

Should Masterpiece Cakeshop make cakes for people who wear jewelry (1 Timothy 2:9), own a gun (Isaiah 2:4), or say the Pledge of Allegiance (Matthew 5:34-35)?

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission on December 5. The Court should not let prejudiced people use the name Christian as an excuse to act in opposition to God’s love. Christians should be the first in line to argue for equality for all.

When Christians go to court to defend their own bigotry, they should be forced to admit the inconsistency of what they claim to believe. Citizens are allowed to have deeply held beliefs that make no sense, but citizens should not get to discriminate.

Religious freedom is the freedom to worship without fear of persecution. Religious freedom is not the freedom to decide who gets angel food cake.




Hard to believe, but it was a conversation I overheard when I was just five that helped form my ideas on giving.  I was hanging around the house one day, trying to amuse myself while my mom hosted the Women’s Fellowship. They had tea and cookies, conversation and that day, a visiting speaker.  I lingered in the next room, curious, and heard the visitor talk about giving to church missions.   She was what was called a ‘circuit rider’, a minister who travels among rural parishes, and I knew my parents admired her. She told the gathered ladies, “Last week I bought a sweater; paid $7 for it.”  [In the 1950’s $7 was a lot.]  She continued, “I didn’t need that sweater; it was just something I saw and wanted.  Afterwards I realized that if I could afford to spend $7 on something I didn’t need, then I could certainly afford $7 for something that was terribly needed.  So I scraped together another $7 and gave it to the mission fund.”

I’m not sure why the sweater story made such an impression on me.  But in fact it became a touchstone:  something that still comes back to me.  What did it say to me at age 5?  That there’s a larger world out there besides my own wants and needs.  That I have a responsibility to think about those other needs.  And that money can do good.

Another touchstone came when I was in my 20’s:  Bill Coffin, former pastor of Riverside Church, used to say “There are two ways to be rich.  One is to have a lot of money.  The other is to have few needs!”  He’d also say that an advantage of having fewer needs is that one can be more generous with others.

So I try to think carefully about my needs.  When I spend money on things I don’t really need (and I do that), the ‘circuit rider’ still asks me what I am doing for others.  And what are my needs, anyway?  Some of the things I value most are not things money can buy, but other important things do cost money.  One of those is having a church that can help me grow into the person God wants me to be.  Plymouth Church is an important part of my life, and I want to make sure it’s there, both for me and for others, including those who haven’t found it yet.  I also want Plymouth to grow in its ability to do God’s work in the world.   So I count Plymouth as an important need, and supporting Plymouth financially as an important response to God’s generosity.

Wendy Reitmeier


Someone’s praying, Lord, that we sing Kum ba Yah

The next time someone says, “We don’t need a Kum ba Yah moment,” tell them, “I think we do.”

Musicians who did not know how to play Kum ba Yah were once afraid to take their guitars to camp.  Many of us remember sitting in front of a crackling fire, trying to find the distance at which our front side was not about to burst into flames and our backside was not frozen.  At a deep Kum ba Yah level, the warmth of the fire was catching.  Singing “Someone’s praying, Lord” felt like praying, “Someone’s crying, Lord” felt like shared sorrow, and “Someone’s singing, Lord,” felt like hope.  Lots of us felt that way—and we thought it was cool to sing an African song—even if that was not actually the case.

I learned Kum ba Yah with hand motions.  You can guess the movements for “Someone’s praying,” “Someone’s crying,” and “Someone’s singing.”  I wrote new lyrics for which the motions write themselves:  “Someone’s fishing, Lord,” “Someone’s itching, Lord,” and “Someone’s bowling, Lord.”

Children of the sixties sang Kum ba Yah with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Joan Baez’ version included the stanza, “No more wars, my Lord.”  Raffi recorded it for his Baby Beluga album.  There is a mashup involving Ozzy Osbourne that is not helpful, and a rap metal version Kumba Yo! that ministers cannot recommend.  Lots of singers have pleaded for God to “Come by here.”

We do not know who to thank for Kum ba Yah.  One story is that Rev. Martin Frey of New York wrote Come by Here in 1939 and taught it to an eleven-year-old boy.  The boy’s missionary family carried it to Africa where it was put into the Angolan dialect and brought back to the United States.  The problem is that no word close to Kum ba Yah exists in any language spoken in Angola.

Versions of the song were recorded in South Carolina as early as 1926.  The phrase “Kum ba yah” may be a Gullah version of “Come by here.”  The first ones to sing “Someone’s crying, Lord” were African Americans suffering under Jim Crow.  (Indefensibly, most hymnals continue to give Martin Frey credit.)

When people mention Kum ba Yah today it is usually with cynicism.  An African American spiritual in which hurting people plead for God’s help has been turned into a term of derision.  You have to wonder if racism is at work when someone says “I’m not interested in holding hands and singing Kum ba Yah.”

Our culture tends to denigrate compassion.  To join hands and sing Kum ba Yah is to pray together asking God to care for the hurting.  Who decided it was helpful to mock the longing for God or the history of an oppressed people?  Far from pretending everything is fine, Kum ba Yah springs from a much-tested faith.  Someone’s crying and yet they are still strong enough to sing.

In the civil rights era, Kum ba Yah was a call to action.  Kum ba Yah is now shorthand for hopefulness that should not be trusted.  A song about looking to God for courage is laughed at for being naïve.

I have grown weary of the way our culture considers cynicism smart and optimism naïve.  We have more than enough skepticism, sarcasm, and negativism.  We need more compassion, warmth and hopefulness.  We need to debate less and care more.  We need to impress each other not with how many facts we know, but with how honest we are about what we are feeling.

The older I get the more I long for Kum ba Yah moments.  I have spent years learning to be suspicious of warm feelings.  Now I ache for genuine love.

We do not need sharper reasoning nearly so much as we need new hearts.  When we get tired of words, we need to pray for God to fill our souls.  We need hope that pushes bitterness away.

Last weekend at our church retreat, we sat around a campfire and sang Kum ba Yah.  It felt real, and the s’mores were delicious.



500 – What’s the Big Deal?

luther-nailingOctober 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  The Reformation poster I grew up with pictured Martin Luther nailing 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door.  The sound of the hammer hitting those nails spread throughout Europe.

We know Martin was the son of a copper miner who became very successful in the business.  Martin went to law school.   Some legend creeps in at this point.  He was riding back to school from visiting his parents when he was caught in a thunder storm, thrown to the ground and cried out that he would become a monk if he survived.  The storm part of the story is shaky at best.  Luther leaving law school and becoming an Augustinian monk is true.  The 95 thesis?  Probably never nailed to a door, but rather sent in a letter.  Martin wrote to a close friend he never intended these to be published.  What is true is Martin Luther unleashed a dialogue about God’s grace, church corruption and a Papal fund raiser gone very badly.  Martin Luther and other reformers of the time were not subscribing to buying your way to heaven with indulgences and believed all people had a direct line to God and salvation by grace through faith.

The Reformation gave birth to new expressions of the Christian faith. They looked different, but with the saving grace of Jesus Christ being central.  Today the traditions are distinctive and subtle.  Communion with wine or grape juice.  Baptism by dabbing or dunking.  Praying with hands raised or folded.  Psalms chanted or spoken.  Worship in ornate sanctuaries with Bible story windows or simple worship spaces with heritage or clear windows.  Music led with guitar or praise band or piano or organ.  Favorite hymn A Mighty Fortress or The Shining Shore.  The richness of diversity should not serve to divide, but rather celebrate how God’s gift of grace is lifted up in relevant languages and practices to the people.

What’s the big deal?  Denominations from Roman Catholics to the Reformed are celebrating our Christian faith as followers of Jesus and not carrying our denominational IDs.  “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.”  (1 Corinthians 12:12)  The focus today is moving beyond conflict and toward communion.

This prayer was presented to me when I was called in 2001 to lead a disaster response agency at Ground Zero.  It has significance in my life every day and is a reminder of God’s never ending presence.  Pray this for our future together as followers of Jesus.  God’s grace is the big deal.

Eternal God,

You call us to ventures

Of which we cannot see the ending,

By paths as yet untrodden,

Through perils unknown.

Give us faith to go out with courage,

Not knowing where we go,

But only that your hand is leading us

And your love supporting us,

In Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen


John J. Scibilia



Loving as Jesus Loved


Last Sunday our youth group learned about hunger and food insecurity. We played games and ate a meal that taught us about hunger and clean water issues around the world. My favorite part of the evening was when a spontaneous discussion occurred in the middle of our games. We all sat down on the gym floor and talked about our experience serving those who are hungry and food insecure in our city. Many youth shared their personal stories of helping people through Brooklyn Delivers, the Plymouth Shelter, and food drives at their schools.

One particular story has been circling my thoughts since the youth met. A middle schooler talked about the time she saw a homeless man on the street asking people for money. She had some food with her, and generously gave her meal to this man. He accepted the gift. After walking halfway down the block, she turned back to look at him, only to see that he was throwing away the food she gave him. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked the group.

This teenager’s story has me wondering if Jesus ever had someone snub his gifts of kindness. Was there anyone in the crowd of the 5000 who turned their nose up to the fish and bread he supplied? Did a wedding guest complain that the water-turned-wine had too many tannins? Did the owner of the herd of pigs file a lawsuit against Jesus, claiming coerced porcine suicide?  The stories don’t tell us. But I’m sure not everyone thought Jesus’ miracles were all that great.

What are we supposed to do when our gifts of Christian charity and acts of kindness are met with bad attitudes and ungrateful hearts? This question was answered best by one of our youth leaders who said, “We’re not in this to feel good about ourselves. Jesus calls us to love as he loved. Besides, we have no idea what people are going through. They might just be having a bad day.”

I’d like to think that my own generosity doesn’t hinge upon recognition or reward, but if I am honest, I really want people to view me as a charitable person. I enjoy receiving “thank-yous” and “good jobs.”  But Jesus didn’t love others for his own reward. He loved others because he wanted people to know about God’s love. When Jesus fed, healed and welcomed others, he did so without expectation to receive anything in return. Jesus’ ministry was not for his own sake, but for Love’s sake.

Sometimes our acts of service are met with rejection. Sometimes we don’t receive a thank-you note. And sometimes our well-intended gifts are not the most helpful in meeting someone else’s needs in the first place. I am glad that I have teenagers and youth leaders in my life to remind me that our attempts to love our neighbors isn’t about earning heavenly brownie points or boosting our self-esteem. It’s about offering another human a small glimpse of the Holy God, however dim a reflection it might be.



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.





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.



The Face of Jesus

I grew up going to church three times a week, but I was in college before I heard anyone say that Christians have a responsibility to feed the hungry.  What could be more obvious?  If someone you love was starving, you would do everything you could to save his or her life.  The gospel Jesus taught makes it clear that someone God loves is starving.

What do we look like from God’s perspective?  Imagine that you have two children.  One child is trapped in a country where hard-working people are starving.  The second is in a wealthy country and has more than enough.  What would you think if the second child did not try to save his or her sibling?  Would you wonder if the child who does not give is a real Christian?  How is this different from how God views us?

At the close of worship this Sunday we will give an offering to feed the hungry in Cameroon through the Mission School of Hope.  (Click here to see how our gifts will be shared.)  In general, our responses will fall into three categories.

  1. “If only I had read The Plymouth Blog I would have known this was a Sunday to stay home in bed. I don’t come to church to hear ‘If you are a Christian, you will care about these people.’  I refuse to feel guilty because I have more than other people.”
  2. “I can’t think about starving children without breaking down and crying. I feel awful about it, but the problem is so overwhelming.  My heart breaks every time I think about it, but what can I do?”
  3. “I wish I could come up with a good enough excuse not to help, but if I listen to Jesus at all, then I have to admit that the face of each starving child is also the face of Christ. As hard as it is to give, it is even harder to imagine looking Jesus in the face and explaining why I didn’t give.”

The statistics on hunger are overwhelming.  800 million people around the world are hungry.  Every 4 seconds someone dies from hunger.  About 24,000 people die every day from hunger-related causes.  Most of the victims are children.

The statistics are so overwhelming that it is possible to forget that our offering will make a real difference for real children in Cameroon.

The Talmud says:  Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now.  Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

On Sunday, you and I have the opportunity to do the right thing.   Here are the details on how you can make a difference.



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