I Wonder As I Wander

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And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” –   Luke 2: 10-12

“It may be said unequivocally that whenever anyone is in extremis (whether it is a marital crisis, an economic crisis, a political crisis, or a health crisis), their chances of survival are far greater when their horizons are formed of projected images from their own imagination rather than being limited by what they can actually see.”

― Edwin H. Friedman

In a few weeks we will sing like this is the big one.  We will read the words of once and for all.  We may even imagine that the proclamation of world peace is within our grasp.  The words of the well-known carol “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” beckon us into such a world.  Incredible promises… However, it is not how we will act.  We will act as if there is no comfort in Christmas.  We will rush from here to there burdened by the very existence of the event.  We may not be afraid but there will be little relief until the day is accomplished.  I am not sure it is the response the herald hoped for when it sang “glory to the new born king.”

It is the sad reality of modern life. We live in a world awash in anxiety.  Every eventuality has a dark cloud.  We anticipate the very worst.  In the hope of safety we worry all the details.  It is little wonder that anxiety has surpassed depression as the leading malady of our collective mental/emotional state.  We are anxious indeed and the anxiety of the time makes the proclamation of Advent so very mute. Or at least just one more problem.

Yes, many of the readings of the lectionary in this season have a dark foreboding to them but only one stuck in the downward spiral of these days could not see beyond that dark horizon.   The truth is that we have let the structures of anxiety shape our worlds so that even the gospel, the good news of this season is suspect.

Yes, I know it is not accomplished yet.  I understand the world is far from the fair words of Christmas.  I am aware that the promises can seem empty when we look around the world.  And yet at the same time the promise of the season is still so beautiful and yes, it is filled with hope.  We need such a vision.  We need something better and lighter to strive for.  We need to be fed the possibility so that we might act upon it. The promise is here, what is left is our response.  So I urge not to rush too much.  Take a moment to remember this other worldly vision of angels, and shepherds, and magi and let your mind just slip a bit.  Get taken by the story and wonder.  It is a great opening for God to enter our souls and well worth the time. In many ways it has already happened and yet we miss it because it seems too much trouble to stop and listen.

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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Stepping Into Advent

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Here we are.

Stepping into Advent.

And, doing our best to turn our attention and our lives in the direction of the promises and hopes wrapped up in our celebration of Christmas.

As I make that shift, this verse has been tugging on my heart and running through my mind.

“The light shines in the darkness…”

Believing as I do that the Bible is never just about then, but also about now.

And never just about them (including Jesus), but also about you and me.

I have been asking myself how I am to be that light?
That light in the face of the migrant crisis at our borders?

That light in the face of endless lies and constant blaming?

That light as black men are shot again and again and again.

That light as friends and family struggle with crippling illness and relentless pain?

That light in the face of expectations which pile up one upon the other?

It is not enough…

It has never been enough…

To just leave it to Jesus.

After all…

If we take him at this word…

He is the one who looked at us and said,

“You are the light of the world.”

Paul Alcorn is the former pastor of Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford Village. He is now Honorably Retired (whatever that means) and living in Vermont.

 

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Gleaning

GLEANING AT LONG & SCOTT FARMS

“Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.  I am the Lord your God.”  (Leviticus 19:9-10)

“We are invited to glean!” announced Meg Pribeck.  During the announcements highlighted in worship, Meg alerted our congregation that we could volunteer with others at a local apple orchard for a Farm-to-Food Pantry Apple Gleaning.  To glean is to pick through the remains of a field after it has been harvested.

The gleaning opportunity this month continued a practice described in ancient scripture.  Provision is made for the poor and the alien.  Coincidentally, when Meg extended the invitation, the lectionary text for that Sunday featured Ruth and Naomi, after Ruth had been gleaning in the field of Boaz.

Ruth was an alien.  She was a Moabite.  When she followed her mother-in-law to Bethlehem, there was no guarantee that Naomi’s family would receive Ruth and allow her to stay.  It was possible that Ruth would be turned away at the gate of the city, sent home, or worse.

Fortunately, Boaz, the cousin of Naomi, provided for the two widows.  He allowed them to glean from his fields.

Ruth married Boaz.  They had a son named Obed.  Obed was the father of Jesse.  Jesse was the father of David.  David became King of Israel.  Centuries later, Jesus restored the House of David as Messiah.  Jesus’ legitimacy to be the anointed one was through his adoptive father, Joseph, who was a descendent of David.  Thus, Jesus was a descendant of Ruth.

Ruth, a foreigner, an alien, was the forebear of the Prince of Peace.

Laurie A. McNeill is a member of Hudson River Presbytery and she serves as a Teaching Elder in Highland and Marlboro, New York.

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Prophets and Kings

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My Disciple Bible study group is studying the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. I have come to appreciate the relationship between politics and a people’s relationship with their God.

Prophesy in the Hebrew Bible isn’t about telling what will happen in the future. The prophets are God’s messengers to God’s people. The prophets say, if you keep doing what you are doing, this is what will happen.

Books like Jeremiah, Lamentations, Micah, Amos and Hosea aren’t light reading.

Disciple study guide tells us, “We must know the history in order to understand the work of the prophets. We must hear them in context.” Each prophet is paired with a king: Samuel with King Saul, Nathan with King David, Elijah with King Ahab, Amos with King Jeroboam II, Hosea and Amos with King Zechariah.

Some of this “history” sounds like this morning’s news. Nathan was one of many of the advisers to King David. Once King David crossed a line, lusting after Bathsheba and sending her husband off to war to be killed so that David could marry her, Nathan became a prophet.

He told King David a story about two men, one rich and one poor. The rich man has many sheep and cattle; the poor man has only one ewe lamb that has grown up with his family. The poor man and his family love this lamb, the way we might love our dog or cat. The rich man has a visitor, and to feed the visitor, takes the poor man’s lamb and feeds it to the visitor. King David sees right away the injustice of this and says “the one who did this is demonic! He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this and had no compassion.” (2 Samuel 12:5b-6)

And Nathan says—You are that man!

How bold! What courage! He is speaking to the king, who could order him killed.

Much later the prophet Micah enumerated the crimes of the people. The priests only taught if they were paid to do so, government policies and taxes favored the rich, judges took bribes, idolatry was rampant.

TheDisciplestudy guide puts it this way “The prophets preached peace when they ate well but lashed out against those who didn’t pay them…The sanctuary prophets were not shameless charlatans. They simply were so much a part of the sins of the society they couldn’t see the plumb line of God. That’s why they didn’t speak out. That’s why they resented the criticism.”

I ask:

  • Who are today’s prophets?
  • Who are today’s kings?

And I wonder, am I so much a part of the sins of society that I can’t see the plumb line of God?

May we remember these words from Micah: “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) and do what the Lord requires from us, whatever the criticism, whatever the cost, knowing that the Lord is with us always.

May it be so.

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 will be serving as Moderator-Elect of the Hudson River Presbytery beginning in January 2019.

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Privilege, Pride or Wonder

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Last Sunday in the lectionary we were reminded of the presumptuous questions to Jesus from James and John, the sons of Zebedee.    (Mark 10:35-48) First they established their privilege, “ If we ask you a question will you grant our wish?”   They did not ask a direct question, but wanted to establish their close relationship (their privilege) to Jesus so that a “No” answer would seem impossible.  Jesus gives them a “Maybe” answer  (much like a parental “We’ll see”).  And like in all these sorts of exchanges Jesus means “Only if practical” and James and John interpret “Of course”.

So out of privilege and self pride as disciples they ask this presumptuous question: “Arrange it so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory – one on the right and the other on your right.”   Jesus replies, “You have no idea what you are asking.”

Often our questions and presumptions about the world around us and what might happen next come from our positions of privilege and pride.  They come from our unconscious understanding of self—based on skin color, education, economic situation and where we live.  Cathy Surgenor and I spent a month visiting with Presbyterians in Colombia last February.  Most of those we visited had been forced off their ancestral land by greedy “Ipressarios” (large land owners).  These folks had been forced to walk long distances to find crowded city living after simple farm living situations. Privilege and pride in the farming communities were the result of small sustainable farms in a community of similar folks.  In the cities they had no land or yards, had to find employment where ever they could and were afraid of the corruption all around them.

But these folks in Colombia and the Presbyterian Church leaders in Colombia learned ask questions out of wonder as they encountered the church and church people.  They live with no sense of privilege except that they are welcomed into the church.  The church lives and preaches equality which is not equal opportunity to accumulate/steal wealth but opportunity to work for peace in communities and in their country.  The Colombians ask questions about scripture and lives of faith that come from their sense of wonder.  Wonder that when I feel so useless a God and community of faith welcome me.

It is easy for us today to act and speak from our position of privilege and pride.  To think that it will always happen to “them” rather than me or my family.

As our elections near, I would suggest that we enter into conversations and relationships with questions of wonder rather than positions of privilege.  I am reminded that when my parents moved to a retirement community years ago there was a rule about dinner conversations.  No one would discuss their health, grandchildren or politics.  Once this became the norm they began to discover wonderful things about each other and to forge great friendships.

In the days ahead,  take moments to talk with others without discussing politics, grandchildren (or children), health and anything else that makes us feel more special.  Wonder about each other. Find the special in each to build relationships that will endure through the next two weeks and beyond.

Remember that this passage ends with the famous pronouncement, “but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Put others first in your conversations, your wonderings and your questions.

Peter Surgenor retired in September 2017 after 18 years as the Executive Director of Holmes Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center.  He is currently finishing service as the Temporary General Presbyter of Hudson River Presbytery.  Elder Deb Milcarek will become the next General Presbyter on November 1, 2018. Peter and his wife Cathy live in Newburgh, NY.

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#SpeakPeace

photo-1511297968426-a869b61af3daAlthough I have not been a regular attendee in the past year, the Heretics of Stony Point are still going strong.  Meeting on the 2ndand 4thWednesdays, the lectionary study/preaching discussion/deeply pondered/often passionate/sometimes raucous group gathered last week.  Ten of us pondered the lectionary texts in the light of the sturm und drang of a judicial confirmation and a woman’s testimony.  We talked about #metoo, the need to be courageous, our despair and our anger, our hope and our truth.  At one point, a member recounted through tears a recent experience of being scolded and shamed for a Facebook post; the women nodded in recognition, the men listened quietly.

It brought to mind all the moments, large and small, where the culture and norm of sexism has been folded into my history as pastor, leader, and woman in ministry.  I remember the Elder whose public, heavy handed attempts at humor were put downs of my leadership and in private often brought his 300 pound frame and face inches from mine when disagreeing with me. On one Easter Sunday, as I was at the door shaking hands he accused me of anti- Semitism, because what he heard (which is not what I said) offended him.  Misquoting me, he spoke, loudly, everyone around us in shocked silence.   I stammered out, “I’m sorry! I don’t think I said. . . . I didn’t mean . . .” and then, I felt my eyes fill with tears and I couldn’t speak.  Then he said, “Oh, give me a hug.”  And went out the door, smiling.

I remember the negotiation around an honorarium for my leadership at a workshop at a tall steeple church. (I had politely declined to do it for $50.00.)  After the workshop and the wonderful work we did together and the applause and all the positive comments, there was, unfortunately, no check. Someone forgot to make sure that it was requisitioned. A few phone calls and a few weeks later, I was eventually paid. The topic of the workshop?  “Sexism and the Workplace.”

I remember the older gentleman who, upon shaking my hand after a worship service said, “You’re not married?!  Wow! Some guy is missing SOMETHING!!” Which he repeated, in Fellowship Hall at coffee hour, to anyone who would listen:  “Some guy is missing SOMETHING!”

These incidents, and others, taken separately, over the course of years, have, by the mercy of God, been handled with courage and grace and humor.  But it is the cumulative effect that wears.  My brothers, your sisters in Christ, your fellow laborers in the field, are preaching and teaching and praying still.  And some days, these days, we are unutterably tired and sad.

At the Heretics lunch, after the discussion about preaching the Gospel with passion but not anger, with truth but not stridency, where we shared our pain and our hope about the love of Christ reaching the hearts of those who sit in the pews, a brother at the table said, “All I have to contribute is this,” and spoke a blessing: “Go from this place in peace, remembering that in the goodness of God you were born, that in the providence of God you have been kept to this day, that in the love of God made manifest in Jesus the Christ, you are redeemed, for purposes unafraid.  And may the grace of our risen Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God our Creator, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you, with those you love, and with those for whom you pray, this day, and in all your days.  The tears, this time, were in gratitude, as we said Amen.

And so, my brothers (and sisters) this is what you (and we) can do.  Speak peace.  Speak peace to us.  Speak peace to your sisters in ministry.  Speak peace to your brothers.  Speak peace before the meeting, or in a phone call, or in your email.  Speak peace.   Speak peace at the table and in the waiting room. Speak peace in line and on line.  Speak peace to yourself and to the world, the birds of the air, the creatures of the field, the driver in traffic, the worker you do not know.  Speak peace with courage and daring.   And may the Peace of Christ go forth, and abide, with us all.

Rev. Leslie Mott is the Coordinator of the Pastoral Sabbath at Stony Point Center and Camp Johnsonburg, the Coordinator for Spirituality and Practice at Bedford Presbyterian Church, a yoga teacher, Spiritual Director, and a Certified Focusing Professional.

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Fearfully & Wonderfully Made

knitting and needles 4Every knitter has their own style.  There’s the way they hold the needles, and the tension with which they allow the yarn to feed into the project.  There’s the method they choose to cast on, or place the first loops on the needle, and cast off or end the piece.  There’s the manner of knitting they prefer.  Some favor English knitting, throwing each loop of yarn around the needle, while others opt for Continental, also called German, in which they pick the loops through.  Then come all the other choices they make about the yarn itself: fiber, texture, color.   Bamboo, alpaca, hemp, merino.  Hand-dyed, lace-weight, self-striping.

If they’re designing their own garment, a knitter chooses which stitches to use, and in what pattern.  When making those famous Aran sweaters, named for islands off the west coast of Ireland, knitters choose their own mix of traditional motifs, each symbolizing an aspect of regional culture.  Cables depict the ropes used by fishermen; moss stitch represents the carrageen seaweed that inhabits Galway Bay; the honeycomb celebrates bees, and sweet reward for honest labor.  Legend has it that each knitter signed their work with a signature stitch, a bit of stitchery that was uniquely theirs.  It’s said that sons and husbands drownedat sea and washed up on shore were identified by the signatures of their mothers and wives, knit into their sweaters.

So many tools at a knitter’s disposal: technique, style, material, pattern, symbolism and tradition, all coming together to form a singular creation.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

What a beautiful image: God in her knitting chamber, pulling lengths of yarn from some fabulous skein.  Needles making that gentle clickety-click as She rocks back and forth.  Fashioning inward parts.  Fashioning outward parts.  Hemming us in, behind and before.  You.  Me.  Fearfully and wonderfully made.

How might you approach the day differently if you woke up every morning and recalled that?  If before you even got out of bed, you recited to yourself You knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  How might your choices be different, how might your treat yourself, if you always remembered that you were knit together by God?

I think I might imagine a better care label on my body.  Maybe put less junk into it and take it outside for some fresh air and sunshine more often.  Instead of criticizing what I see as flaws, I might look at myself and see a pattern that God found pleasing, with a signature that says to whom I belong.

What about you?  Would you be kinder to yourself?  Would you stand up for yourself?  Hold yourself to higher standards?  How could your life be different, if you always remembered that you were fearfully and wonderfully made?

Of course, the Divine Knitter is a busy one.  Each of us is a unique creation among innumerable others.  What might change if we were to say to ourselves when we look at one another You are fearfully and wonderfully made?  Job wondered aloud how he could face God if he didn’t treat others around him justly: Did not he who made me in the womb make them?  And did not one fashion us in the womb?  Somewhere in each of them is God’s signature stitch.  How would the world be different if we let ourselves be willing, and even eager, to look for that God-knittedness in others?  What could that acknowledgement and curiosity bring to our marriages and our parenting, our political discourse and policy-making and ministries?

Wonderful are your works, Lord.

That I know very well.

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

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