Suffer the Little Children

Child with Gun Violence Poster

“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”   -Mathew 19:13

We have failed miserably and that millstone that Jesus sometimes threatened his disciples with should drag us to the bottom without mercy. Forever.

The statistics build up and are unforgiving.  The pictures filled with teenaged energy stare back at us and there is no escape.  We have failed and no amount of social media remorse or outrage can ever recover the children that were given to us to love and protect.  We may think that this was not the community I live in so the tragedy is somehow not mine but the sad truth is that this darkness could afflict any community at any time, that is how deeply we have failed.

Finger pointing won’t do it either.  It’s their fault.  Whoever we don’t agree with is somehow at fault.  People on the other side of our political views are the ones and should be held responsible.  Or so the vitriol of the day goes on and on and on.

What was it that Jesus said… take the log out of your own eye before you remove the speck from the other’s eye?

Me who me?

Yes, we have together become a basket of vipers at each other with venom enough to destroy everyone…and it is.

The self-righteousness alive right now spits at the idea of loving one’s enemies and yet God pleads with us to somehow reach out and include the ones we can’t accept. But we don’t.

What happened to discussion over condemnation?  What happened to listening?  What happened to compromise and negotiation?  What happened to submerging self interest and championing community interest?  What happened to working out a solution?

And we who call ourselves religious are as guilty as anyone.  God did not call us to be Christian so that we could wax superior over our rivals.  I am sick of it and convicted by the news time and time again.

Children die in our schools, children die at the end of our drone attacks (how dare we call a child collateral damage!) children die of starvation all over the world, children die on the end of weapons we buy and deploy, children die trying to escape the chaos that war has made out of their homes, children die, children die, children die… and yet we still want to believe it isn’t our fault.

It is our fault, all of us together.  So, it is up to us to change it.  Jesus said it best with the very first words he proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” Turn towards God, humble yourself, and believe that somewhere there is good news to be lived.  Now is the time.  Don’t delay.  In fact there is no other time.

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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The Things We Leave Behind


My wife and I are getting ready to move out of our apartment. Transient millennials that we are, the three years we’ve spent here is the longest I’ve ever lived in one place since childhood. I’m excited for a new place but, as I look around, I confess I’m daunted by the task of moving. Piles of cherished memories, useful tools, assorted miscellany and, frankly, garbage surround me, demanding to be sorted; I hardly know where to begin.

I can’t help but feel that the Church is similarly situated. It’s no secret that we’re living through a period of dramatic ecclesial change. Old patterns of ministry, the habits of what it means to be a church, are proving insufficient—evidenced by emptying pews, dwindling coffers and an increasingly secular culture. Few people I speak to doubt that radical changes need to be made if mainline Christianity is to matter, or even survive. And yet, surrounded by traditions accumulated over centuries, the prospect of sorting what we bring with us, and what we leave behind, can be paralyzing.

Make no mistake, there are things we will need to leave behind: Perspectives of ministry more concerned with institutional viability than following God’s call into the wilderness; theologies and customs that negate the full humanity of our LGBTQ siblings; patriarchal God-talk that sinfully conflates masculinity with divinity; prioritizing the comfort of white congregants over confronting the endemic white supremacy that rots our social fabric. And these are just some of the big things. The transition from where we are to where God is calling the Church will no doubt also engender myriad smaller casualties—customs and practices that will naturally become obsolete as we move into new ways of being church.

I don’t say this simply to be iconoclastic. There are also traditions we’ll gladly take with us: Old hymns that, for their years, haven’t lost the power to gladden our hearts; Scripture that still retains its power to stir our souls and prod us to act; the love that has always characterized communities that truly commit themselves to Christ. Still, despite these deservedly cherished carry-ons, we ought not lie to ourselves—this moving process will not be easy. Change is often painful, especially the kind of radical change upon whose precipice we find ourselves perched.

We should, however, take solace in the knowledge that the things we will leave behind were never what it meant to follow Jesus. Even in times when these habits seemed beneficial—when they “worked,” in the sense that they brought more people through the sanctuary doors on Sunday—they weren’t any more essential to the enterprise of being church than the art show flyer I’ve inexplicably kept for two years was to making our apartment a home. Churches need people and a deep commitment to following Jesus’ call to spread God’s love and justice. Everything else is ephemera.

And so, daunting as it may be to sort through our collected Christianity, we should not greet this task with trepidation; it’s simply time to sift through the clutter. We already have everything we need.

Ben Perry is the Assistant Director of Communication and Marketing at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

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Kelmar Cookies

 

 


The church calendar may say it’s nearly Lent, but at my house, there’s still some unfinished Christmas business.

That always seems to be the case, since I became a pastor three years ago.  With work and family holiday preparations reaching a simultaneous crescendo, some things inevitably slip through the cracks.  This year, a must-do still remains: the baking of my mother’s signature holiday cookie.  Christmas just hasn’t happened unless we enjoy some of those tender crescents, plump with walnuts, raisins and cinnamon.

Back in the day, my mother used to bake them by the hundreds.  Before I was old enough to be of any help, she would choose a day early in December, and pull a baking all-nighter.  After tucking me in, she’d set to work, and I’d fall asleep to sound of her heavy rolling pin urging the dough into a thin sheet across the Formica table.  Sometimes, I’d wake in the middle of the night to hear muffled conversation coming from the kitchen.  My mother’s brother lived next door, and conveniently, always happened to notice the night the lights were on.  He’d come over – just to see if everything was OK, of course – and they’d chat into the wee hours, with Uncle Milly sampling each batch as it came out of the oven.

If there was anything unusual about the tradition, it was the name of this prized treat.  Mom always called them “Kelmar Cookies.”  As a child, I just took it at face value, but as a teen, finally asked about the odd moniker.  Turns out, she had gotten the recipe decades before, from the wife of Mr. Kelmar, the man who owned the dress factory where Mom sewed piecework for many years.

Apparently, our family’s Christmas cookies were Mrs. Kelmar’s rugelach.

In the years since that revelation, those cookies have offered unexpected food for ever-deepening thought.  For a while, I just enjoyed what seemed to be the “rightness” of the fact that a mainstay of our Christian holiday had Jewish origins, that our “Christmas cookie” was likely the sweet featured at the Kelmar family’s Shabbat or Hanukah celebrations.  With time and understanding, though, also came concern: that my family and I were guilty of some cultural appropriation, even a bit of pastry-based supersessionism.  I wished that I knew how to find the Kelmar family, to thank them for that recipe, and apologize for ever passing the cookies off as our own, or neglecting to share the story of their ancestry.

And how easy it is for us as Christians to do similar things in our teaching and worship!  I know I’ve cherry-picked my way through a psalm, surgically extracting just the right portions for a liturgy, rather than using and appreciating it in its entirety.  We might annually showcase those few trophy passages from the book of Isaiah – Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term – but neglect to help our congregations hear the words with the ears of those for whom they were written.  We may interpret scripture in ways that subtly extract Jesus himself from his Jewish context, or characterize him as an opponent of his own religion.

Who knew pastry could start such a conversation?  These days, I try to be more forgiving of my family’s cookie kleptomania.  What if it were more a case of what Krister Stendahl called “holy envy,” seeing something admirable in another faith, and wishing that it could somehow be reflected in your own?   Stendahl believed that leaving room for this envy was key to religious understanding.  At a time when we often hear shrill voices using religious differences as a way to divide and exclude, perhaps a little envy could go a long way.

The ingredients are in the house; one day soon, I’ll pull out that big rolling pin and get to work.  And I’ll give thanks for my mother, and for Mrs. Kelmar.  May the memory of each be a blessing.

The Rev. Luanne Panarotti serves as pastor of Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, NY.  She has one husband, two kids, one dog, and five cats.

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What Do You Know?


As an educator I am interested in how people learn things. And once we’ve learned them, do we really “know” them?

Early in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, he addresses the issue of whether or not it’s okay to eat food that has been offered to idols. We need a little background here because this is actually a fairly complicated issue. William Barclay, the Scottish theologian, reminds us that “sacrifice to the gods was an integral part of ancient life. It might be of two kinds, private or public. In private sacrifice the animal was divided into three parts. A token part was burned on the altar…; the priests received their rightful portion…; the worshiper himself received the rest of the meat. With the meat he gave a banquet.” So the question becomes, can I attend the banquet where the meat came from a sacrifice to an idol? If people can’t do this, they won’t be able to attend many social occasions.

To make matters worse, the meat left over from the public sacrifice was sometimes sold to markets, so people might inadvertently be eating meat from a sacrifice.  People at this time believed very strongly in demons and evil. They believed that spirits settled on their foods, trying to get inside a person. To avoid this, you dedicated some meat to some “good god.” It would seem that somehow all the meat in Corinth was connected with a heathen god! And we won’t even discuss the question of “was it Kosher?”

Paul is dealing with two different groups at Corinth; the Jewish “rigorists” in the Christian community who were well versed in the law would not want people to eat such food, and the “anti-rigorists” who felt that as followers of Jesus they have been set free from such details. Paul is addressing a question that, at first, seems to have absolutely nothing to do with us: can we eat food that has been sacrificed to idols? He reminds the church at Corinth of what they know: they know that “there is no God but one,” but not everyone has this knowledge, not everyone knows this. Paul says “We know that no idol really exists” but that some people are so used to idols that they still think of the food that they eat as being offered to an idol because their consciences are weak.

Here’s the point. Eating this food makes no difference to us, but people are looking to see what we do. If people see us eating this food, they may think it’s fine to go ahead and eat it. In this case we might say sometimes we know what we know because we see how others use their knowledge.

Let’s set this in a modern setting. Okay so we don’t eat food sacrificed to idols. But we might, oh, gossip. We know we don’t mean anything by it, but others listening might think it’s okay to gossip because we do. We might say something nasty about the driver who just cut us off; we know we don’t mean anything by it, but our passengers (our kids, maybe?) might think it’s fine to call people names. We might uncomfortably laugh at a co-worker’s racist or sexist joke, “going along to get along,” but someone else, who is also uncomfortable, might think it’s okay to laugh because we did. I’m sure you can think of more examples.

It can be a slippery slope. Paul is reminding us that we need to think about others; we have knowledge but what is the impact on our brothers and sisters in these sensitive situations? There’s knowing what’s right and then there’s doing what’s right. “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.”

What do I know? I know that “knowledge” alone isn’t enough; knowledge needs to be tempered by love. What do you know?

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.

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Solarize HRP


All of us at some point in our lives wonder – what is our legacy?  Long after we’ve departed this earth we wonder, will our lives have made a difference?  Will we, through our words and our actions, have helped sustain the earth and all its people?

In this time of dramatic climate change, persistent poverty, and global connection, the congregation I serve has pledged to future generations, that starting right now we will live responsibly on God’s earth, that we will dedicate our lives to correcting those natural, corporate and human systems that have placed our planet and its people in such precarity, and to raise our youngest generation of Christians to do likewise. To this end we have not only divested our congregation’s financial investments from fossil fuels but have invested ourselves in renewable energy: four months ago, we installed 167 solar panels on the roof of our education building and our chapel.

By getting our energy directly from the sun, rather than burning fossil fuels, we will be saving 48,000 pounds of CO2 emissions a year, the equivalent of taking five cars off the road every year, or preserving 3.5 acres of trees. For those more financially minded, it’s a savings of more than $12,000 a year. The solar panels will pay for themselves in a little more than seven years and will, over the life of the panels, yield an almost 14% return on investment. And a little short-term gratification has come in the form of our congregation’s Con Edison bill in October was $0.

Solar energy is not just a green thing to do, or good thing to do, or a financially sound thing to do. The Apostle Paul would have us see it in the largest terms possible, as nothing less than the arrival of the Sons and Daughters of God, participating in God’s work of redeeming the world.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we await our redemption.

Next month HRP Green will launch SOLARIZE HRP, to offer solar energy to every congregation in our presbytery easily and at lower cost. This offer is not only for our church buildings, but for every one of our members’ own homes, members of nesting congregations, as well as groups active within our churches like nursery schools, twelve-step groups, and community programs. Members who own commercial property or multi-family residences can also take advantage of the SOLARIZE program. Invite your neighbors to a Sunday Solar Gathering (which HRP Green will help you organize) and it applies to your neighbors as well. SOLARIZE campaigns are designed to significantly increase solar installations by making the process supremely easy and affordable. A core team from HRP Green has already interviewed solar providers, researched technology, explored incentives and funding options, and is confident that we are offering the very best to our presbytery.

Let history say that we understood the precarious moment we are in, where earth’s very ability to sustain itself hangs in the balance.  Let history record that we invested in a future that is not dependent on the fossil fuels that have so squeezed our planet’s resources, but that we invested in renewable energy – not simply because it was cost effective but because it was necessary for our earth’s survival.

The Call to Restore Creation, adopted by the PC(USA) in 1990, reminds us that “God’s work in creation is too wonderful, too ancient, too beautiful, too good to be desecrated. Restoring creation is God’s own work in our time.” May future members of our churches and communities say, “they did all they could to repair the damage that was done. And they built a better future.”

Jeffrey Geary is the Pastor of the White Plains Presbyterian Church.

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MLK Day 2018


As we depart,
Both individually and collectively
Be who you are called to be.
In any and in all the ways you can
Seek justice.
Resist evil.
Stand strong against Death.
And all Death’s works and wiles.
Add your voice.
Move your feet.
Extend your hands.
And because it just might
Hold on to that long arc of history like your lives depend on it.
And pull
With as little or as much strength you have
So that together we might help it continue to bend in the direction of justice.
And peace.
And hope.
And promise.
For you and for me.
For us and for them.
For all of the children of God.

So, having been nourished by this evening’s gathering
It’s words and its witness.
Go now and be Peace.

Paul Alcorn is the Pastor of Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford, NY.

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Epiphany


While the culture around us begins much earlier than we do, the Christian community holds onto Christmas longer than they do. But with the celebration of Epiphany, even for us, the Christmas season is now over. But before we go I thought I would offer this for your reflection.

What I realized in reading and thinking about the story of the Magi seeing and following that mysterious star is there were and there are many stars in the sky. Many stars we might see and follow.
Herod saw clearly and was following his star.
His star was power and control maintained by intimidation and brute force.
But, there were and are other stars, as well.
There is the star of win at all costs.
Or, the star of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.
Or, the star of me first.
Or, the star of I deserve this.

Or, the star of I can’t do that.
Or, what if we fail.
Or, I am only one person.
All those stars are there in the sky and the narratives they represent surround us. They flow through the air we breathe and are in the water we drink. They are the stories we were told as we grew up.

And then you come to church.
And here, you are reminded…
Here we are reminded…
There is another story.
Another narrative.
Another star in the sky we might see and follow.
This star has something to do with God with us.
With each and every one of us.
This star has something to do with treating others as we and they would like to be treated. This star has something to do with the last being first and a table big enough for all. This star has something to do being peacemakers and peace on earth. This star has something to do with light and grace and welcome and resurrection.

Paul Alcorn is the Pastor of Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford Village, NY.

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