The world is always falling apart. The sun stops shining. The sky goes dark.
The war in Israel is overwhelming. The divisions in our country are painful. Poverty and prejudice surround us.
After a recent Gallup Poll, the headline was, “U.S. Depression rates reach new highs.” The percentage of adults in the United States who report having been diagnosed with depression has reached 29%. Only 59% say they have a best friend. And 12% say they have no close friends.
The sky darkens with the silence that follows a painful conversation, a difficult text or the moment someone should have spoken up. The light dims with a doctor’s visit, a trip to the hospital or a call from the assisted living facility. The darkness is a slammed door, a shattered hope or a word that breaks our heart. We sit in sackcloth, ashes and sadness.
I was feeling broken when one of my favorite church members, Caroline, invited me to pray at the Kentuckians of New York Fall Dinner. President Koster promised good food and offered helpful instructions: “Mention world events, peace and empathy. Not everyone is Christian but everyone wants to find connection and peace.” I looked forward to the event, but I had the nagging feeling that I should not be having fun when people are suffering.
I love Kentucky. In 1983, I was an incoming seminarian at the Welcome New Students Ice Cream Social. I got in line for butter pecan, for which I did not care, because of the second-year student doing the scooping. Carol and I married the next year.
We visited Thomas Merton’s grave in Bardstown and saw the 1986 Louisville Cardinals basketball team win the national championship. We ate Hot Browns at the Brown Hotel in Louisville and wings at the original KFC in Corbin. We love the hats at the Kentucky Derby. Several times each year, we sing “Happy Birthday” — first sung in Patty Hill’s kindergarten class in Louisville.
The first Kentuckians showed up at least 14,000 years ago. They may have been following mammoths. The first meeting of the Kentuckians of New York was in 1904. They were following the money.
We sang “My Old Kentucky Home.” We knew this part:
Weep no more, my lady
Oh, weep no more, today
We sing one song
For my old Kentucky home
We had to look at the words for
Well, the corn top’s ripe
and the meadow’s in the bloom
Well, the young folks roll
all around the cabin floor.
We went around the room sharing our connections to Kentucky.
“I graduated from Murray State.”
“I’m embarrassed to say I was born in California, but I grew up in Possum Trot.”
“I have lived in Manhattan since 1981, but I tell everyone I’m from Kentucky.”
“I’m not from Kentucky. My fiancé told me there would be bourbon.”
“I’m from a small town in Leslie County no one’s heard of — Hell for Certain.”
“My mother grew up there.”
“I grew up in West Liberty, which is east of Liberty.”
“I’m actually from Cincinnati, right across the river.”
“So close and yet so far.”
Ariel Elias, a Kentucky-born comedienne who has been on Jimmy Kimmel Live, complained that some Kentuckians pronounce her first name “Earl.” She told us about the trials of being the only Jewish student in her high school. Her mother said that she could only date Jewish boys which “limited me to my brother and dad, but we weren’t in that part of Kentucky.”
When it was time to pray, I knew the world is falling apart, but I also knew joy is a gift from God, so I prayed:
God of all the world and Kentucky in particular,
Cardinals and Wildcats,
basketball and horse racing.
God of bourbon and KFC,
Mammoth Caves and Chevy Corvettes.
and bluegrass — both the fields and the banjoes,
God of Abraham Lincoln and Andy Beshear,
Chris Stapleton and Loretta Lynn,
George Clooney and Jennifer Lawrence,
Hunter S. Thompson and Diane Sawyer,
Ashley Judd and Muhammad Ali,
we come to this delightful gathering, knowing that the world outside is grim — fighting in the Middle East, gun violence and racism. Help us to see that when life is hard, we need to live with joy as well as concern.
We celebrate and long for others to be able to celebrate, too. We pray for dinner and world peace in the same sentence. We give thanks for good meals, laughter and friendship. We pray that all your children will share your gifts. Amen.
Brett Younger serves as senior minister at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, N.Y.