Open wide and sing “La”

Many people have asked me what my philosophy of music is, and my instinctive response is to respond, “My what of what?!?!”  Music is such an integral part of what I do that having a philosophy or game plan seems like a put-on.  I don’t philosophize about music; I do music.  But when I start talking about what I do, explaining what I think I do and how I do it, a clear concept appears.

Music is a link to God in the same way that any gift or talent or grace is a link to God.  People through the ages have used any number of God’s gifts to make contact: sculpture, stained glass windows, poetry, painting, ceramics, hieroglyphics, jogging, sunset-watching, camping, singing, dancing, and transcendental meditation as links to God.  We usually call this contact with God prayer.

We strive so to find our spiritual friend, guide, counselor, confessor, wailing wall, encourage, inspirer, salvation-giver because this is part or our healthy human nature.  We instinctively strive to make contact with our genesis.

Music is one of the first and most readily attainable of the communicative tools we have for making ourselves known to God.  Here at Plymouth, we enjoy a long history of congregational singing dating from Henry Ward Beecher’s tenure as Plymouth’s first pastor.  In the early part of the twentieth century, Henry Pfohl founded the Plymouth Choir, adult singers who regularly lead worship on Sunday mornings.  Over time the choir program has grown to include the Junior Choir, the Seraph Choir, the Cherub Choir, and the Tone Chime Choir.

Each of these groups works on learning and perfecting music for Sunday worship,  learning more about the Christian faith along the way.  Each choir is also a support group in its own way.  As choirs work together, we also come to know each other.  We find out about each other’s lives, sharing good times and sad times and offering a collective shoulder to lean on when it’s needed.  In this way, the choirs emulate the whole body of Christ that is the church.

Choirs at Plymouth are inclusive groups, welcoming all.  Everyone willing to make the commitment to regular rehearsals is gladly welcomed into choir.  So come join us and help make a joyful noise to the Lord!

Did I mention that singing is also good for your health?  It’s true!  Research findings show that singing strengthens the immune system, provides a physical workout, improves posture, helps you sleep, lowers stress level, and is a natural anti-depressant.  Add in that it’s wonderful way to praise God, and what’s not to love about singing?  Open wide and sing “La.”

In music and in Christ, Bruce Oelschlager, Minister of Music

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Paul Ryan and the House Chaplain: Proof that Prayer Works?

Paul Ryan believes in prayer so much that on April 15 he forced the House chaplain to resign.  Ryan has not given a reason for the dismissal, but many are pointing to a prayer Father Patrick Conroy offered while lawmakers were considering tax reform.  The priest prayed that lawmakers would “be mindful” of economic disparities and those “who continue to struggle.”  Ryan’s concern is surprising as the prayer clearly did not work.

Every once in a while scientists who cannot raise money for real research get stuck doing a study on how prayer works.  Non-believers argue that wishful thinking is not a suitable subject for scientific investigation.  Believers argue that the results of prayer are not easily measured.

The outcome of these studies tend to reflect the desires of whoever paid for the research.  Religious researchers often find that praying for another’s well-being reduces one’s own anxiety.  Non-religious researchers point out that prayers for healing are no guarantee that healing will occur.

The scientific study of prayer focuses on the things for which people most often pray—health concerns, financial difficulties, or societal problems—but the prayers we do not pray are the best evidence that prayer works.

Hunger is a subject about which we do not pray.  After Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give it to the poor, we can be fairly certain that young man did not go home and pray about it.

We are careful not to pray seriously for the homeless.  We find it awkward to pray for people who have no home when we have a guest room.

There are so many situations in which we will not pray.  Your boss tells a sexist joke.  You know it is evil and wish someone would point it out, but do you really want to pray, “God, what should I do?  Should I challenge my boss who might not take kindly to my helpful words of correction?”

We have been praying about gun violence, but we are careful.  If you want gun control it is hard to pray honestly about the sense of moral superiority that may be taking up residence in your heart.  If you are a second amendment person it is hard to pray honestly for innocent children who are dying.  If we pray seriously about gun violence, we will do more than wait around for the next election.

We do not want to pray about our careers.  Does the senior pre-law major want to pray about whether God would like for her to be a social worker?  Does the successful businessperson want to ask God if a lower paying job might make more of a contribution to the world?

We are careful about praying for people we do not like.  When Jesus said “Pray for your enemies” he was inviting us to the kind of prayer that will lead us to say something kind that we do not want to say.

Prayers should come with warnings.  Do not pray about the school system.  You may end up tutoring second graders.  Do not pray about human trafficking.  You may end up paying for much-needed supplies for victims.  Do not pray about racial justice.  You may end up working on bail reform.

We like what we have—especially the vices we have gotten used to.  We do not pray about our addictions—eating too much, drinking too much, or spending too much.  St. Augustine prayed, “God, give me chastity, but not yet.”

Most of us, including Paul Ryan, understand that critiquing prayer is easier than truly praying.  We do not avoid praying because our prayers go unanswered.  We avoid praying because we are afraid our prayers will be answered.  The proof that prayer works is the way we choose a life given to comfort over a life given in prayer.

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What’s the Next Big FAANG?

You know – FAANG.  Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google!  What’s the next big FAANG, and why should you care?

I wonder if they gathered in the local Brau Haus pondering what would follow Gutenberg’s printing press?  Henry Ford’s move from hand crafted to line produced was a game changer.  Ever think about what will take the place of Al Gore’s invention of the internet?  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates initially helped to automate tasks that might have taken hours or days down to minutes.  The blessings and curses seemed discernable regarding mass production, easy accessibility of goods, accelerated forms of communications and quality of life.  Automation and speed were the name of the game.

I was excited to find I would be required to learn FORTRAN computer programming when attending Gettysburg College, a strong liberal arts college (we also were required to swim).  We ran data on stacks of punch cards to generate results from research.  That beast of a machine automated the data I compiled and fed to it.   I still needed to interpret what the results meant.  Just a few years before 2001: A Space Odyssey was all the rage in the movies.  This 1968 film tells a different story.  HAL (aka IBM) starts calling the shots with astronaut Dave.  HAL was not simply a machine for automation, HAL was autonomous.  Truth be told, I did try to talk to the computer at school but never got a response.

Then there is Joshua, the computer Matthew Broderick, David, used to play War Games in the 1983 film.  Ultimately nobody won and Joshua invited David to a “nice game of chess.”  Joshua, like HAL, was not simply a machine going through its paces.  Joshua, C-P30 and R2-D2 make us feel somewhat comfortable with autonomous machines.  They’re cute in their own way.  (HAL is definitely not warm and fuzzy.)

What’s the next big FAANG?  Boston Dynamics would tell you drones are yesterday’s technology.  They are building “thinking” robots with names like Spot and Sand Flea.  They are leaps above the Jetson’s Rosie the Robot.  While Lyft drivers still get lost even using Waze, smart cars will be perfected and automate driving at some point.  Will a line be crossed for you when you get into the car and the car decides where you are going to go rather than you making the call?

Artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, goes far beyond automation.  We all want help with our schedules.  We want more time.  Imagine everything you could get done in the passenger seat if the car was in charge of the driving and knows how you like your coffee.  The United States is in a race with other super powers to make lethal action a matter of AI decision making.  Should Siri or Alexa be deciding how nations relate to one another?  (Honestly, Alexa doesn’t always get my music right.)  Currently the U.S. requires at least one human intervention before potentially lethal action is taken by any war machine.  That isn’t true for every nation.  Will human intervention always be true for the U.S.? The next really big FAANGs are not headed to your kitchen and not hitting the road.  AI will begin “deciding” acceptable numbers of human casualties unless we take a deep breath and consider what that means.

We are facing issues requiring ethical thought and socially responsible consideration.  Who decides?  I think Dave would caution us and Joshua would tell us to play chess.  How does our faith inform our thinking?  How do your beliefs inform your thinking?  I don’t have the answers, and I’m not asking Siri.  I do know I’ll continue to ask the questions and look carefully for the next big FAANG.  I hope you’ll join me.

 

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My undelivered stand-up routine for those not likely to come back to church

How is everybody doing tonight? You look great.  You’re less sober than the people I usually talk to.

I’m surprised to be at the Comedy Cellar because — and I know how this sounds — I’m a minister.

Saying that you’re a minister shuts down conversations with barbers, waitresses and the person sitting next to you on the plane. That last one is helpful.

I’m not a minister who thinks he’s cool enough to fit in anywhere. I’m not the Unitarian campus minister at NYU. I don’t wear a tweed jacket and a turtle neck. I don’t run a soup kitchen in Hell’s Kitchen. I don’t do nearly enough of the stuff I tell everyone else to do. I’m not the chaplain for U2 — which is not a real job — but I can dream.

You might be surprised to learn that churches talk about some of you a lot.  How many of you went to church more often when you were 9 years old?  You’re the ones churches talk about. Churches think they can get you back.  Churches are your mother trying to get you to come home for the weekend by promising the beef noodle casserole she insists you loved when you were a kid.

Some churches think they’ll get you to come back with bad drummers.  They believe there are 20-year-olds who wake up early on Sunday mornings and say to themselves, “I feel like singing along with a 60-year-old drummer playing 18 century hymns.”

Some churches have started meeting in pubs for “Theology on Tap,” where they drink beer and talk about God. They hope you’re looking for an inebriated minister to explain the meaning of life.

Some churches have changed their names with you in mind. If a church has a name that sounds like a ’70s band — Journey, Passion, The Bridge — you’re the target audience.

We know the church can be disappointing, but we also know the church can be wonderful. If you decide to give us another chance, we’ll try not to act cooler than we are. We’ll learn your name and ask how you’re doing. We’ll find gracious ways to say that we find hope in believing in something bigger than we are, and think you might, too. You can help us with hard questions about meaning and purpose. You can help us do things rather than just talk about them. You might find that you enjoy being part of a group of friends trying to live better, more authentic lives.

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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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Stop Making Sense

If our phone counts the number of steps we take, then we need to carry our phone everywhere we go in order to get credit.  Before we pick a movie we have to check the scores on Rotten Tomatoes.  As we read bedtime stories to our children we skip unnecessary paragraphs.

Efficiency is ruining our lives, and we are looking for more of it.   Every day is an exercise in logic.  We have found more efficient ways to do most things—electric toothbrushes, electric razors, driverless cars.  Buying a Big Mac is simpler than cooking a hamburger on the grill.  Permanent press makes all kinds of sense.  We find one pair of shoes we like and order multiple pairs online.  We may never go into a shoe store again.

Why spend an hour making dinner when we could microwave lasagna in nine minutes?  Why vacuum when we can check our email as the rumba wanders around the living room?

How long will it be before we live like “The Jetsons”—calling for Rosie the robot maid to bring our coffee and Astro the robot dog to fetch our slippers?  We just need more moving sidewalks.

What do we lose when we do only what is most efficient?  What are we doing with the time we are saving?  Do the Amish have a point?

Our commitment to convenience keeps us from thinking about what we really want.  When we have a dishwasher, washing dishes by hand feels silly—even if we like washing dishes.  We ignore what is best in favor of what is easiest, but the fastest way to get where we are going may not be the best way to get there.  When we let efficiency decide what we do, we no longer decide what we do.

Sometimes we need to ignore what is efficient and do what is fun.  Take the scenic route.  Eat a Moon Pie.  Grow flowers.  Sit on the grass.  Play the guitar.  Write a letter.

Go to a school play.  Tell someone that you love them.  Listen to music—and not the music we play when we want people to think we have good taste—the music that makes us smile.  Go to lunch with a friend.  Read an extra story—even if it goes five minutes past bedtime.

My doctor looked at the scale and asked, “How much are you exercising?”

Lying to your doctor is like lying to your mother—she knows.

“I run a little, jog really, saunter.”

“Where do you run?”

“Down the street, across the bridge, to the park and back.”

“Your knees are getting older.  You need to start running on a treadmill.  It’s more efficient.”

I think about my doctor as I jog across the Brooklyn Bridge.  It has to be better for me to see the world at five miles an hour than to spend another hour running in place.  I am confident that I will not come to the end of my life and say, “I wish I had been more efficient.”

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Reading the Obituaries for Lent

Some Christians stop eating meat.  Some give up Facebook.  Some read the Psalms.  When I was a young minister in Indiana, I began reading the obituaries for Lent.  The Paoli News-Republican came out on Tuesday and Friday.  A normal edition included two or three obituaries that were written by the newspaper’s staff.  No family was ever charged for an obituary.

The writers interviewed the deceased’s family, friends, and ministers to help them express their gratitude for the person’s life.  These tributes included sentiments like, “He never met a stranger” and “She laughed every day.”  Reading the obituaries reminded me that people are often good and that I need to make my days count.

The obituaries in The New York Times are different from the ones in The Paoli News-Republican.  Most of the people in Paoli would balk at paying $263 for the first four lines and $52 per line thereafter with 28 characters per line.  Most of the people in my old church would not be able to read the tiny seven point san serif font without a magnifying glass.

But it is Lent, so on Sunday I sat down with my hometown newspaper to look for what matters in that day’s obituaries.  Here is what I found—still in alphabetical order:

Lerone Bennett, Jr., 89, wrote Before the Mayflower in which he noted that the first blacks arrived in the colonies in 1619, the year before the Mayflower.  He worked to prepare students to live in a multi-racial society.

Leonard Gubar, 81, was a dedicated fan of the Mets, Giants, Rangers and Knicks.  He was a nationally ranked Scrabble player and a routine finisher of The New York Times crossword puzzle.

Marvin S. Hans, M.D., 91, was a music lover—especially Frank Sinatra.

Robert B. Hiden, Jr., 84, served as a vestryman and Junior Warden of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Zita Kremnitzer was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1922.  She survived the Holocaust and immigrated to New York in 1947.

Elizabeth Landauer, 80, served as a Girl Scout leader for many years.

Patricia Rashkin, 74, chose a career as a guardian for those unable to fend for themselves—spending more than three decades with the City of New York’s protective services.

William Selden, 70, businessman, philanthropist, sportsman, dog-lover, and innate comedian.  He was a long-time supporter of the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.

Alan Lewis Stein, 88, founded the not-for-profit affordable housing entity, Bridge Housing.  Bridge has participated in the development of more than 17,000 units of housing, providing homes for 42,500 people.

Constance Sultan, 84, worked for 30 years at Mt. Sinai Hospital, where she was the charge nurse in the baby nursery.

Reading the obituaries sounds gloomy, but that has not been my experience.  I am glad to be reminded that people are often good.  Being encouraged to make my days count feels like preparing for Easter.

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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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God Listens to Lists

On February 1st, my daughter called to tell me she was thinking about transferring schools. She’s a freshman in college. The news did not come as a surprise to me so I encouraged her to apply.  “Wait,” she said. “First I have to make a list of pros and cons.  I’ll text it to you in a few hours.” “Emily, the application is due tomorrow,” I yelled. “Forget the list- just do it!” We hung up on each other.

I have little patience for the thoughtful planning process. I prefer acting, often reacting. For instance, as strict and formal as my upbringing was at home, in school and at church, my daughter’s was intentionally informal.  I refused to push manners or dress. I wanted my daughter to understand that it’s not about appearances but what’s on the inside. I didn’t care about her grades. I wanted her to value and love learning.  But, most of all, I wanted Emily to know God, God’s unconditional love and grace. I wanted her to have a personal relationship with God. I wanted her to turn to God in times of trouble, in times of joy. I hoped she would get there through prayer; not the rote memorized prayers of my childhood but individual, spontaneous, relevant, daily prayer and I encouraged her as best I could.

I am not good at praying.  We’ve been working on prayer in Sunday School.  After modeling closing prayers, I started asking for volunteers.  Initially, the same child raised his hand every week.  He was a natural- a hard act to follow.  Finally, in his absence, a different child raised his hand, only to promptly lower it and avert his eyes.  “Think of prayer as a sandwich,” I encouraged him.  “Dear God” and “Amen” are the bread.  All you need is the middle and as long as it’s from your heart, it’s fine.” He still wouldn’t look at me.  Thankfully, another child gave it a shot: Dear God, thank you for today.  Amen. Short and sweet.  Easy and inspirational.

I was certain this would encourage others- and it did!  I had to wait a few weeks for my initially frozen second volunteer to raise his hand again, but it was worth the wait.  Two weeks ago, he closed our discussion with: Dear God thank you for letting children have Sunday School.  Amen.  I was so proud and happy.  This week, a once reserved girl ended class with: Dear God, thank you for your son, Jesus.  Help us listen better to you and Jesus.  Amen.

On February 2nd, I texted my daughter asking if she had submitted her transfer applications.  Yes, she replied, because unlike you God was willing to listen to my lists.  I probably should have felt hurt or guilty, but I didn’t.  I felt good.

Julia

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Eating burgers, sinning boldly

brett-blogIf you are leaving New York to visit Texas, these are socially acceptable comments:

“I could use some warm weather.”

“We’re looking forward to seeing friends.”

“I miss driving more than forty miles an hour.”

“I haven’t seen an armadillo in a long time.”

“I enjoy the jealousy on people’s faces when I say ‘I’m from Brooklyn’.”

This is not a socially acceptable comment:

“I want a Quarter Pounder with fries.”

I know how unsophisticated that makes me sound.  After two years in a culinary mecca, a center for gastronomic delights, and the world’s best pizza, I am supposed to be beyond mass produced fast food, but I am not.  Mine is not a sophisticated pallet.

This is a difficult confession to make.  I know how bad ordering off the dollar menu is.  I saw Supersize Me.  Finger lickin’ good is not good for me.  I can see that the Burger King is creepy.  I have read studies that say that if you eat a bacon cheeseburger, you have a 75% chance of a heart attack before you get to the Frosty.

But I live 250 miles from the nearest Cook Out.  None of the arguments against driving through a drive-thru—and staring at the menu until the guy behind me starts honking—are enough to keep my mouth from watering with anticipation at driving south on IH-35 knowing there are six fast food places at every exit.

Fast food is democratic.  Working people can afford everything that you have to stand in line to order—and you do not have to tip.

There are no surprises.  Every Whataburger tastes exactly like the Whataburger you had five years ago at the Whataburger 500 miles away.  Why have it your way when you can have it the same way every time?

I do not know how to explain to New Yorkers that fast food fountain drinks are better.  Free refills are a right guaranteed somewhere deep in the Constitution.  A liter of Coca Cola from Key Food is a pale imitation of a Cherry Coke at Sonic.  Anyone who has had the pleasure of eating a meal in their car at a Sonic Drive-in knows there is no better ice in all the world.

No one asks, “Are we dressed well enough?” before going to Dairy Queen.  No one worries that their preschoolers might act up at Subway.  Children do not get a toy with their meal at Ruth Chris Steak House.  There is no playground at Del Frisco’s.

As I sat on the plane heading to Texas I thought about the options:  Whataburger’s Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit (sugar and butter make food wonderful); Jack in the Box’s two for $1 tacos, the perfect level of greasiness; KFC’s original recipe anything; the chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-a (the pickle chips are the key); an Oreo blizzard at Dairy Queen (Oreo crumbs are to ice cream what bacon is to everything else).

I ended up thinking inside the bun—a Homestyle burger (an ironic name) and an iced mocha.  This is nothing to write home about—but I’m lovin’ it.  I know that if they served a McDonald’s iced mocha at Starbucks it would cost twice as much.

When Martin Luther wrote, “Love God and sin boldly” he was not in a fast food restaurant, but he could have been.  Luther was calling us to recognize what is important and what is not.  There are times when you should order the salad, but sinning without worrying about it too much is, on occasion, good for your soul.

As Lent approaches some of us are deciding whether to give up soft drinks, sugar, or Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Tacos Supreme.  We would do better to give up envy, anger, and greed.  We have many things about which we should feel guilty—how little we give to feed hungry people, how quickly we dismiss people who dismiss us, and how much time we spend on our own amusement.  Because there is so much about which we should feel guilty, we can feel free—every now and then—to eat curly fries boldly.

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