A Tale of Four Churches


I lost my breath last Tuesday. As the first images of the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris came across my newsfeed, I was surprised by the depth of my grief. It is not a place that holds deep and abiding memories for me. I have fond memories of the cathedral, to be sure, but not the sort that would seem to evoke what I felt.  But seeing a holy space in such peril touched something in me. In the days since, I have been heartened, as we all have, by what has remained. And I have also been heartened by the outpouring of financial support and the commitment to preserve what we have left, and to rebuild. I believe that the world is starved enough for beauty and that whenever we lose something beautiful, the world becomes a little more broken.

I have also been chastened by the reminder that we have lost three African-American churches in Louisiana in recent months to arson, and that the kind of support that has come immediately for Notre Dame has been slow to come for these churches. What transpired in Paris on Tuesday was tragic. What transpired in Louisiana was evil, and yet we seem to have been less compelled to act. It is to be celebrated that the fire of the one church has brought attention to the fires at the three, and that donations to rebuild in Louisiana are now beginning to accrue. It is shameful that it took the burning of Notre Dame for our gaze to finally find its way to the sin in our back yard.

But as I have followed these two stories and their juxtaposition in the last week, I have been disturbed to hear, in some quarters, a note of judgment about the grief people expressed for the burning of Notre Dame and about the support for its rebuilding.  The argument, as I understand it, runs this way: we shouldn’t be expending resources on Notre Dame when there are more pressing crises that cry out for our support. The hundreds of thousands of dollars raised already for Notre Dame could have been better used for the work of social justice in Louisiana (or in Flint, or in Puerto Rico, or in…).

That is not the message I would hope that we take away from this tale of four churches.  That line of argument would have us believe that we can have either social justice or beauty, that the support for one cancels out support for the other.  It assumes a scarcity of resources which is, frankly, a canard. The sin is not that money has been raised quickly for the preservation and rebuilding of a magnificent work of art and of faith.  The sin has always been that, collectively, we have lacked the will to do the works of justice that so desperately need doing. We were failing the people of Louisiana, and of Flint, and of Puerto Rico long before Tuesday’s fire. The response to Notre Dame hasn’t made that failure qualitatively different, but it has brought it into sharp relief.

Finally, we need to be committed to creating and preserving beauty in the world AND we need to be committed to the work of social justice in the world. They are not mutually exclusive pursuits, but rather they are often mutually supportive. And it only plays into the hands of those who would have us stay on the sidelines when injustice occurs to buy into the narrative that we have to choose one or the other.

In the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, one of the young women marching to protest the working conditions in the Lawrence, MA mills carried a sign that said “Give us bread, but give us roses too.” May we as Christians respond to that claim on our resources. May we live into the abundance around us. May we work to bring this world closer to the Kin-dom of God, in all its beauty and in all its justice.

Robert Trawick is an Associate Professor of philosophy and religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.  He is a Ruling Elder at Germonds Presbyterian Church in New City, NY and a former moderator of the Hudson River Presbytery.

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Unexpected Grace

adrian-korte-76051-unsplashI am a singer, and an amateur musician, which means I can play three instruments (I’m counting tambourine) just enough to be annoying. There’s often music playing in the office, or in the car, and when out and about I realize I’ve am humming whatever was playing in the grocery store, or elevator, or waiting room. In a restaurant, I get distracted from the conversation if there’s music playing that I can’t yet identify. Am I alone in this? I don’t think so. Perhaps you’ve found yourself humming “Sugar, Sugar” walking out of the RiteAid.

So music is a big part of life, and joy, and, as I shared in the worship service at the Presbytery meeting a few weeks ago, for me, messages from the Divine. A colleague who shall remain nameless said, “So, not everyone gets spiritual direction on their Alexa.” Ok, it was Chip Low. Chip can now consider this mention a royalty. (That’s music talk for earning money.) For the Alexa story, the sermon will be posted in Hudson Happenings next week. And then I thought about it, and thought, “Well, why not?” Doesn’t God speak to us in music? Am I alone in this? I don’t think so. Perhaps that song that made you pause and reflect was the Lord trying to get your attention.

God get my attention most often when I’m not paying attention. Jung would call this the
unconscious. Apparently I’m unconscious quite a bit, because random songs will come to me at odd moments, and sometimes they are very funny, maybe from God’s point of view. My prayerful response? “Very funny. Har de har har.”

I often follow the discipline of the “morning pages” from The Artist’s Way, which is to write three pages when you first wake up, before anything else, no matter what. Often what I wake with is a song, and when I write the lyrics down, it’s pretty much on target about where I am spiritually. Sometimes it becomes my prayer to God or God’s response to me. A recent sampling of what music I have awoken with: “Roll With It” (when life it too much, roll with it baby!) by Steve Winwood; “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by the Police, “You Raise Me Up” by Selah; “Shallow,” (I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in (!) by Lady Gaga; “Roam,” by the B-52’s: “So Caught Up in You,” by .38 Special; Karma Chameleon” by Boy George; “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith, and recently “Seems to Me,” by Joe Walsh: (Seems to me, you don’t want to talk about it; seems to me, you just turn your pretty head and walk away.) Har de har har.

A few years ago, I was in a snit. Rushed, frazzled, overscheduled. Luckily I was alone and did not take my hissy fit public. I had a few moments in between appointments and work and teaching, and I felt guilty because my dog hadn’t had his usual walk, so I grabbed three tennis balls and the “chucker” and went into the back yard to give him a brief run. I had my phone in my back pocket because I was expecting a call, too, and I said out loud, “Lord, I haven’t even prayed today and I’ve only got 10 minutes, so this is what you’re getting!” Luckily God is kind and does not respond to snark the way a human beloved might. I began to throw the tennis balls around the yard, walking and muttering, (cue crazy lady music) when my phone went off.

But not a ring. It was a song; I didn’t recognize it at first, and pulled out the phone to look. My my apple app was open (I don’t use it) and it said “Duets” but nothing else, and I started scrolling, but stopped as I began to listen instead – big orchestration, two voices, singing, “No more talk of darkness, forget these wide-eyed fears; I’m here, nothing can harm you, my words will warm and calm you. Let me be your freedom, let daylight dry your tears; I’m here, with you, beside you, to guard you and to guide you. . . . .”

As recognition dawned and as the tears filled my eyes, I began to laugh and said “Really?
Phantom of the Opera? “Let me be your shelter, let me be your light; you’re safe, no one will find you, your fears are far behind you . . .” My breathing slowed and I was able to look at the sky, the trees, to smile at the dog, to play, to laugh, to cry, and to sing.
Albert Einstein once said there are two ways to live your life. One is to believe that nothing is a miracle. The other is to believe that everything is a miracle. My miracles can happen every day; I just need to listen for the song that is in that moment. And yes it can happen via Alexa, or the phone, or the Key Food Muzak or dreams, or your car radio.

Am I alone in this? I don’t hink so. I think this might have even happened to Chip Low. (Another royalty for you Chip, and thanks.)

“I will praise God as long as I live; I will sing to God all my life.” – Psalm 146.2

Grace and Peace to you.

Leslie Mott ministers in the area of clergy care and nurture and is  Spiritual Director and Yoga teacher.

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Winning Isn’t the Only Thing


“A miracle is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A miracle is when one plus one equals a thousand.” ― Frederick Buechner

So, the end came to Abbie’s (my daughter who plays college hockey) season last Saturday. Her team, Quinnipiac, had to beat the reigning national champion Clarkson to stay alive…at Clarkson where nobody wins.  But there it was 10.8 seconds left with Quinnipiac holding on to a one goal lead.  It looked like the season would stretch out another day at least. Face off, puck in the corner, it somehow slips out in front where the best scorer for Clarkson and in the nation is all alone.  She flings it at the net it eludes two diving Q players and Abbie who is completely screened. Impossibly, it went in with 1.1 seconds showing on the clock.  Quinnipiac players were strewn all over the ice not able to fathom or face what happened. That close.  And then in overtime Clarkson put it away after about ten or twelve minutes.  It was inevitable as they already broke the spirit of Quinnipiac with the last second goal.

Abbie played her heart out as they all did and came as close to winning as a team can. Excruciating.  But now the season was over, the seniors were done, and there was nothing but wait until next year for the rest.  Everyone who has ever played competitive sports knows how cruel it can be.  And this was very bitter to swallow.  Abbie did her best to put on a strong face and somehow be a sport about it but there were lots of tears.  And emptiness.  It hurts so much when you work so hard to win. And Abbie works really hard.

I have to say I worried how she would tolerate the disappointment.  I wasn’t doing well with it… I could only imagine her struggle. That night I didn’t sleep well at all.  I was too busy cursing the hockey gods and seeing that tying goal over and over.

Then… in the morning there was a text from Abbie.  No words just a picture.  At first, I couldn’t imagine why she sent it…a picture of Clarkson celebrating?  (Shown below) Even Abbie is not that good of a sport! But then I noticed her in the foreground, and her defense person next to her comforting her.  And then it made sense.  That’s what Abbie saw in that picture. That’s why she sent it.  Not the loss, not the failure, but her team and all they have meant to her. And there they were, two players who had each other.  A really sweet sentiment in the face of what had just happened.  The other player was Kenzie Prater who told Abbie “I couldn’t leave my goalie lying there face down on the ice.” There are great lessons in team sports but none greater than the value of the people around you. Abbie sent that picture to say that knowing and loving the girls on that team was better than winning. It has been the case all through her hockey career. The friendships and bonds formed don’t go away even when winning and losing is nearly forgotten.  I am very proud she could see it and wasn’t afraid to say it.  Still, it would have been nice to win that game!

For me the picture was pure grace.  My daughter able to see the true value of what she had gained (so very much) even in the midst of what she had lost (not that much in the long run).  A lesson for all of us, always.

Tim Ives is the minister at the Scarborough Presbyterian Church.  He is also a New York State licensed Psychoanalyst in private practice in Bedford Hills, New York.

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Once We Were Methodists

photo-1533412717210-fb283e0943f7.jpegOnce we were Methodists, not by affiliation but in practice.  There was a time when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) did not allow people who are openly GLBTQ to be ordained as officers, and the marriages of all were not recognized.  The United Methodist Church reaffirmed a similar position at their General Conference in February of this year.  Methodists give more credence to gender and sexual orientation than they do to Baptism — a sacrament.  

When we behaved like Methodists, we were heretics.  We dismissed major tenets of the Reformation and reverted to Catholic teachings.  We treated ordination and marriage as if they are sacraments — they are not.

In Catholicism, ordination is a sacrament; in the Reformed tradition it is not.  Preventing our Baptized members from being ordained was heresy.

In Catholicism, marriage is a sacrament; in the Reformed tradition it is not.  Preventing our Baptized members from being married was heresy.

We lifted a ban on ordination based on sexual orientation in 2011.  We declared marriage to be between two people in 2015.  We ceased to behave like heretics and returned to our Reformed beliefs.

Baptism is a sacrament by which full participation in the life of the Christian church is assured.  Now we are Presbyterians.

Laurie A. McNeill is a member of Hudson River Presbytery and she serves as the Pastor of yoked congregations in Highland and Marlboro, New York.

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I Have Given Up on Love


I know all the verses as well as you.

Love God.
Love your neighbor.
Love one another.
The greatest of these is love.

The problem for me is that we (the Church, Christians, those of us who worship on Sunday, those around us who hear us speak) have allowed our default understanding of love to become mushy.

More Kum By Yah than We Shall Overcome.
More holding hands in a circle than linking arms and marching across the Pettus Bridge.
More Joel Osteen than John Lewis. Or Archbishop Romero. Or Rufina Amaya.

My read of the world around us and the communities in which we live is we need something more. Something much more than a mushy understanding of love. We, in the Christian community, need to begin thinking and talking and believing and living an understanding of love which is strong and resilient and justice bound. A love rooted in our deep understanding and our firm belief that the Kingdom of God is meant for right here and right now. A love that not only says all the right words in our hymns and our prayers and our preaching, but stands up for them in the public square.

We have allowed the word love to be misused by so many for so long which is why I am giving up on it. Giving up on at least the word. And intentionally trying to replace it with something which gives me and maybe others pause when we hear it.

I am still working on what some of those words or phrases might be, but here is a start.

Hold onto God like your life depended on it.
Hold onto one another like your life depended on it, including the other over there.
Hold one another accountable.
And the greatest of these is when God’s Kingdom comes and all have enough and all have a place.

As I said, I am just starting.
I invite you to start as well.
Maybe together we will find a language and a way of living which tears open a hole and allows the Kingdom of God to push through.

Paul Alcorn is an Honorably Retired member of Hudson River Presbytery. He now lives in Vermont where there is still more than two feet of snow on the ground.

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The Sound of Silence


During Advent my congregation explored silence, as this was the 100th
anniversary of the Christmas Carol Silent Night. At the beginning of this year I
visited an audiologist and learned that I have “mild to moderate” hearing loss, (not
unusual for someone “my age” apparently). And during the month of February my
congregation is following the theme “Lift Every Voice,” looking at race, privilege
and faith in worship and adult education.

All of this has made me think about silence, hearing and speech. Silence as a way of getting closer to God is a spiritual practice in many traditions: Christian, Jewish
and Buddhist.

The Christian practice of centering prayer is defined as “… a method of silent
prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which
we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than
thinking, closer than consciousness itself.” Silent prayer.

Sara Maitland, in A Book of Silence, describes her search for silence, a search that
takes her to the Sinai, to the Isle of Skye, to the hills in Scotland. Silence and
solitude. It’s easy to forget how noisy modern life is, how many ways there are to
seek silence and how hard true silence is to find.

Silence and hearing. What do we find in the silence, and what do we not hear
because we can’t hear?

I now wear hearing aids. As soon as I put them on, sounds were, well, crisper. My
wife also has hearing aids, and recently, after we were at a Super Bowl party, she
asked me if I could hear the conversation between two of our friends. I said I
could; she wondered if we were eavesdropping. I told her that I would bet that
before we wore hearing aids, before our “mild to moderate” hearing loss, we would
have probably heard that conversation and thought nothing of it.

I have a years long meditation practice but until last year I didn’t sit every day.
Last year I committed to sit every day and I did. Ten minutes every day. Not to
empty my mind but to sit in silence. To meditate on the words of the psalmist: “Be
still and know that I am God. “Psalm 46:10 And what did I hope to hear in the
silence? Nothing. What do I feel in the silence? The presence of God. Not every
time I sit. But often when I sit.

What has changed in me because I sit in silence? I think I “hear” better, more
deeply. Not only with my ears, thanks to my new hearing aids, but with my heart. I
think sitting in silence for ten minutes a day has made me a kinder, more
compassionate person. You’d have to ask those around me if that’s true, and
maybe the change is so small as to not be noticeable to anyone but me, but that’s
what the sound of silence has done for me.

Finally, what about speech? “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can
listen twice as much as we speak” Epictetus supposedly said. Sitting in silence has
taught me that the voice that needs to be lifted up isn’t always mine. Often isn’t

I hope you find silence amid the noise of your life, so that you might hear the
sound of silence.

May it be so. Amen.

Connie Knapp is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church in Yorktown and a
participant in the Commissioned Ruling Elders program of the Hudson River
Presbytery. She is serving as Moderator-Elect of the Hudson River Presbytery
during 2019.

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On Being (Faithful)


Ok, so not all of my deep thoughts come from Instagram, but the posts I tend to follow are the ones that give an encouraging comment, an engaging quote or a suggestion for practice. And there’s plenty of snark, too; the Thug Yoga memes that read “I don’t carry any hate in my heart. If I loved you before, I’ve still got love for you. Stay away from me, though.”

I recently read an article about Krista Tippett in New York magazine, called “Krista Tippett is a Religion,” and it was about the phenomenon of her broadcast “On Being,” whose episodes have been downloaded some 53 million times. Tippett is a divinity school graduate, as are some of her staff, and in her new incarnation as the head of “The On Being Project,” she continues to have conversations about our way of being in the world, about our shared humanity, and how we want to live and relate to one another.

Although the show avoids talk of God, it delves deeply into mystery, existential questions of death and beauty, and the inner life and how it manifests. Particularly in this time of division, denial, and seemingly senseless power struggles, my curiosity about how the secular world makes sense of (what to me are faith) questions intrigues. And so I scroll, keeping the time limited, to investigate The Met, Huff Post, I Require Art, and one of my favorites, Drinking With Chickens.

As someone who navigates the divide between the church world and secular employment, I think often of how I want to live and relate in my various incarnations as preacher, teacher, office staff, pastoral presence, colleague and friend. I can talk the church talk and the faith talk, but if that is a foreign language to my friends and colleagues who have no church or faith background and aren’t particularly interested in one, am I equipped to attend to their mystery, their existential questions and their inner lives, without my overlay of faith vocabulary? I think most of us have this skill but I wonder if it is time to develop it still more, to let go of our own answers and ask anew what it would be like to hear and to speak good news of love and compassion and truth and kindness in a new context.

I don’t have an answer here, or a new program, or a new format for general use. What I do have is willingness, and practice. As a yoga teacher, I have to show up every day on the mat and work with the body and the mind that are present in that moment, which changes, often. As a Spiritual Director, I have to release of any knowledge, insight, past history and expectations and attend to what God is doing in this moment, this conversation, right now. Mostly, though, I have to let go of what I think would be helpful and live into a humility that a wisdom not my own will guide me though, even if it comes from a meme mash up. Today’s was a picture of Fred Rogers, Steve Irwin, and Bob Ross, with the caption, “Rogers: Be Kind to Other People, Irwin: Be Kind to Animals, Ross: Be Kind to Yourself.” Their pictures were backlit with white clouds and radiating sunbeams in a blue sky. Across the sky was written, The Trinity of Wholesomeness.” I laughed, and thought, “Well, we could do worse.”

Leslie Mott ministers in the area of clergy care and nurture and is  Spiritual Director and Yoga teacher.

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