A Voice on the Bare Heights Is Heard

Sunday, I sat in my living room, a late afternoon sunbeam warming me as I sat crossways in an overstuffed chair, my back leaning against one arm, my legs draped over the other; on the telephone. Again. This time my phone was on mute, listening while others shared in a teleconferenced recovery meeting. We went through the traditional format and introduced ourselves. It was hard, at first, not being able to see others reactions to the conversation, like speaking into a void. But as people began to share their anxiety and their struggle, as well as their hope and their gratitude, I felt my shoulders release downward with every word and response. As I nodded in silent solidarity, I also began to notice the lump in my throat, constricting with the pent up anxiety that I had not allowed myself to feel before that moment.

I was glad of the telephone then, that no one could see me begin to weep – I felt ashamed at being so afraid, when, as I chided myself, I was one of the privileged – but as the confessions of others’ anxiety found their way into my heart, my own fear rose up and the tears came.

In a meeting, in person, when you struggle not to make the crying face, people respond; they glance in sympathy, they pass you tissues, they pat your arm. But there was no one to do that, and so my fear was able to have its way: full- fledged and an affront to all my good intentions and foundational theology.

I know that tears are healing and letting them come does far more good than attempting to batten down the hatches of your psyche. So I let them come, and the tightness began to ease. Eventually I pressed unmute and shared, although the emotion was still evident in my voice. I told the truth, that my faith was shaky, my fears were high, and I felt powerless – to get to my parents, who are compromised and high risk, to not be able to visit others whom I might be putting in danger, and especially powerless over my rage at the political laissez-faire and callousness. I expressed gratitude for local action. I spoke my own connection to all of it. When I finished, there was a “bing” of a bright pink heart emoji, via text. I stared at it, eyes filling again, for this small and extraordinarily lovely thing.

Others went on to share, and we ended the meeting with gratitude at creating this community of voices. A community unseen but not unfelt, speaking into a silence that was not a void, something new and unexpectedly connected.

As our communities close down our traditional way of being together, I give thanks for the technology that allows us to rediscover alternatives. There is much coming across the internet waves that is beautiful and wise. On Being is sending podcast care packages. The National Audubon Society is sending collections of photos and articles to remind us of the beauty of our world. Poets are waxing eloquent about the compassion that is possible, in spite of our fear. The earth, without humanity’s brutal fingers on her for a few weeks or months, could begin to heal. And all who minister are speaking into the questions as well as the uncertainty, knowing that silence is not a void, and that something new and unexpectedly connected can come.

“A voice on the bare heights is heard,” the prophet Jeremiah says. It seems that clarity is coming, and that the uncertainty, the silence, and even the void will lead us in new and challenging directions. I join my voice with his, and yours, my brothers and sisters, as we lean into to winds of profound change, speaking our love with courage and skill.

Here’s yet one more voice, that of Father Richard Hendrick, OFM, Capuchin Youth and Family Ministries – a blessing for this day:

Yes, there is fear.
Yes, there is isolation.
Yes, there is panic buying.
Yes, there is sickness.
Yes, there is even death.
they say that in Wuhan after so many years
of noise
you can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
the sky is no longer thick with fumes
but blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
people are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighborhood
so that elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary.
All over the world people are slowing down
and reflecting.
All over the world people are looking
at their neighbors in a new way.
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
to how big we really are
to how little control we really have
to what really matters.
To love.
So we pray and we remember that
yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not need to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul.
Yes there is even death.
But there can be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic.
The birds are singing again.
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
To touch across the empty square,

Leslie Mott, M. Div., RYT, CFP, is a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the
Presbyterian Church (USA). She serves as Coordinator for Spirituality and
Practice in Bedford, NY, and was the Coordinator of the Pastoral Sabbath at
Holmes Camp and Stony Point Center from 2015-2019. As a consultant and
retreat leader, she has presented to and guided groups at The Garrison
Institute, Holy Cross Monastery, Johnsonburg Camp, Mariondale, the NEXT
Church Conference, and Maryknoll, among others. She is now serving as
Interim Minister in North United Church of Christ in Middletown, NY, having
previously served as a solo pastor in Cold Spring, NY for 13 years.
Leslie is a yoga teacher, Spiritual Director, and Certified Focusing
Professional. She received her Master of Divinity from Princeton
Theological Seminary; her Spiritual Direction certification through the
Linwood Spiritual Center in Rhinecliff, NY, and is a member of Spiritual
Directors International. She is also a member of the International Focusing
Institute. With a regular practice of meditation, focusing, yoga and
Centering Prayer, Leslie considers herself a student first and a teacher
second, joining with others to discern and live out lives of contemplation,
mindfulness and action.

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Mr. Ganz

Photo credit: Kristine Fong

I note the obvious differences / between each sort and type / but we are more alike, my friends / than we are unalike. – Maya Angelou

…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ – Matthew 12:30-31

My wife Ann and I moved into our home in a wooded area of Bedford Hills in the fall of 1996.  Our son was just a few months old and it seemed that we had found the place we would raise a family and make a life.  We both loved it immediately and have continued to love it through these many years.

We chose Bedford Hills for its beauty and diversity.  The elementary school was filled with many different kinds of kids and that seemed right to us.   The world can be very segregated, but not this community.  One oddity of our home was that it was located across from a Hasidic Yeshiva and community.  I knew nothing about Hasidism but it seemed to fit with our ideal of diversity.  One neighbor said that they were great neighbors because they never bothered you. So be it.

When my son was a bit older, he would point to Hasidic men in their distinctive dress wherever he might see them and say, “Look, Dad, our neighbors!”  All for the good.

There was some interaction as they lived across the street.  One rather irksome interaction that happened a few times was that a Hasidic man had approached me at the store or shopping center and asked for a ride to the Yeshiva.  I wasn’t sure if it was a religious rule they were following or that they were stranded and just didn’t want to walk.  But I remember saying to Ann, “These people are kind of pushy!”  I guess being so forward offended my midwestern sensibilities.

That pushiness was nothing compared to the day that Mr. Ganz showed up at my door.  Passover was approaching and he was looking for a place for him and his family to stay that wasn’t far from the Yeshiva.  I was a bit taken aback, but I like to think that I practice hospitality, so I heard him out.  How many people in your family?  I asked.  Ten he said.  I swallowed hard. 

Coincidentally, we had just finished the basement and it was just a big wide-open space with a bathroom.  We could probably host them, I thought.  But I put off Mr. Ganz.  I had to talk to my wife, could he come back in a day or so.  He said sure, but didn’t come back the next day.  He had asked to stay the following weekend and as he didn’t show up day after day it occurred to me that he was going to show up Friday with his whole brood.  I thought to myself, these people are so pushy he thinks he can stay here!  And as the week went by I became convinced that he was going to show up expecting to stay the weekend.  And sure enough there he was Friday afternoon knocking at the side door.

I pulled open the door and blurted out, “Mr. Ganz, you can’t stay here!”  He looked at me kind of funny and said, “I know; I talked it over with the Rabbi and we decided it would be better for me and my family to stay elsewhere, but I wanted to come by and give you this challah bread that my wife made as a gift for you.  You were so gracious about considering us staying here.”

I felt more than a little foolish.  I fancy myself as open and accepting, but there it was.  I received his gift with humility and used it as the communion bread that Sunday at church. I prayed to learn the obvious lesson, and told the story to my congregation as we communed with our God and each other.

Tim Ives is the minister of the Scarborough Presbyterian Church and he is a New York State licensed psychoanalyst. He is married to Ann Guerra and has two grown children. He plays golf and hockey, skis when he can and grows roses and tomatoes, cooks, and reads a lot of history. 

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Appreciating Our Mentors in Faith

With Lent right around the corner and, according to Punxsutawney Phil, spring trying to arrive soon, I began to think about key influencers in my faith. You probably can identify one or two of yours right away.  Pause for a moment to remember them.

In the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” an acerbic, skeptic reporter is assigned to interview Mr. Rogers for a profile piece.  Instead of being interviewed, Mr. Rogers learns more and more about the reporter in each of their visits together.  Mr. Rogers listens to the reporter and challenges him to become more personal in the interview process.  A paragraph profile turned into a major magazine article as a result.

There is one powerful scene in the movie where Mr. Rogers takes the reporter to lunch in an urban restaurant.  In the midst of a busy place, Fred Rogers challenges the reporter to be silent for one minute and think of the people who have been important in his life.  In the magic of the movie, the silence grows in the restaurant until all present are silent as well.  The minute seemed agonizingly long but incredibly effective.  (If you watch the movie, look for Mrs. Rogers and Mr. McFeeley, who are “extras” in the restaurant).

Recently, Cathy and I led a church retreat organized around Mister Rogers (a fellow Pittsburgh Theological Seminary graduate) and some of his inspirational thinking.  One habit we practiced at the end of each of our content sessions was “Mister Rogers Minute of Silent Directed Thought.”  After active conversation, we sat in stillness and guided thinking. For one minute at the end of each multigenerational session, we were challenged to think about specific people or experiences in our faith lives.  Everyone present found the practice helpful.

Can you pause during Lent to take a “Mister Rogers Minute of Silent Directed Thought” on a regular basis?  Once a week, set time apart to remember and thank those key influencers of your faith.  Take a moment to write out seven prompts to challenge yourself to reflect, one for each week (e.g., remember the key influencers in your faith;  remember those who say that you are a key influencer in their faith; think about those in your daily life who lack a key influencer).  Post the list in your reflective space to remind you to sit in silence – then take the time.

Peter Surgenor served Holmes Camp and Retreat Center (Holmes, NY) and Crestfield (Slippery. Rock, PA) as Executive Director and Director for over 40 years.  He served as the second pastoral staff member for three Western PA churches for three years before moving to camps.  He has been Moderator of Hudson River Presbytery and President of both the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association and the American Camp Association.  He and his wife Rev. Cathy Surgenor live in Newburgh, NY and are active volunteers at Habitat for Humanity Newburgh.  In addition, Peter volunteers at the Riverport Boat Building School in Kingston, NY.  They have five daughters and six grandchildren who keep them busy.

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So, what does a Moderator do, anyway?

The passing of the HRP Moderator toolbox (Photo credit: Tim Chin)

Congratulations! What does a Moderator do, anyway?

On January 28th I was installed as the Moderator of the Presbytery of the Hudson River, a presbytery of seventy-nine churches throughout eight counties of New York State. Friends who are not Presbyterian (and some who are!) have asked me, “What does a Moderator do?”

This question has prompted me to give thought to Presbyterian polity.

Presbyterian polity is a beautiful thing. Our constitution consists of two parts. The first part is the Book of Confessions, or the statements of our beliefs. The second part, aptly named, is the Book of Order, which prescribes how we are to govern ourselves, including describing the role of the Moderator.

Each of the four councils in the denomination, from the individual church’s session, through the Presbytery, the Synod and the General Assembly, must fill two functional roles: that of the Moderator, and that of the Stated Clerk. Joan S. Gray and Joyce C. Tucker in their book Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders remind us that these are not honorary offices but functional offices.

So, what does a Moderator do? The simplest answer is that the Moderator is the presiding officer of the council. Our method of governing is both participatory and representative. All seventy-nine congregations are represented at each meeting of the Presbytery, and ministers and elders are represented equally.

My most visible job is to preside over the four or five meetings we hold each year, and ensure that the meetings are orderly, efficient and fair, respecting Robert’s Rules of Order throughout the meeting. We try to reach consensus, where consensus means that we agree to support a decision that might not be our favorite decision, but is in the best interests of the group. This is where the process of discernment comes into play, as we seek to understand God’s will for the Presbytery. I pray that I’ll be able to be a “non-anxious presence” or at the very least, “keep my head when all about me are losing theirs” (thanks, Rudyard Kipling!).

Oh, there are other things that a Moderator does, most of which include, in good Presbyterian fashion, attending meetings. I’ll be working with the General Presbytery, the Stated Clerk and members of the Council to set the direction for the Presbytery.

I am so blessed to be part of this exceptional group of staff and volunteers. God has been good to me, providing me with work experiences that have taught me skills I will need as we move forward together in 2020.

So now you know what a Moderator does!

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 of the Hudson River Presbytery during 2020. In a former life she was a programmer, a systems analyst, a financial systems manager, a management consultant, a college professor and a college dean. She is now retired from all of that.

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Rank Order

I don’t know what made me begin thinking about this.
Maybe it was something I saw on my social media feed.
Something I skimmed over.
Barely saw.
But somehow it got stuck somewhere in the recesses of my mind.
Until today.
When it became unstuck.
And pushed its way forward for me to think about.
Maybe because it is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
And I have been seeing and reading some of Dr. King’s more famous quotes.
What became unstuck is a Bible verse.
One I like.
And, one I know by heart.
One I find myself remembering and thinking about even if I didn’t see it posted on Facebook.
Micah 6:8.
God has told you, O mortal, what is good:
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice,
And to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Most of the time we think of those three things in a row.
All equal.
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.
Yea, the justice part is hard. Challenging.
Most of the time we really don’t know what to do with that.
But we are all over the kindness part.
And, the walking humbly with God…
Humbly or not, it is always comforting to think we are walking with God.
But what if we have it wrong.
What if I have it wrong.
What if instead of all equal these three are rank order.
One first and then the next.
Do justice first.
Then we can figure out kindness.
And, then…
Only then…
Can we begin to understand what it means to walk humbly with our God.

Maybe I have it all wrong.
But, then again, maybe I don’t.

Paul Alcorn is an Honorably Retired member of Hudson River Presbytery who now lives in Vermont.

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2020: No Basta Rezar

If you looked at my list of top artists in 2019, Spotify would tell you that I am a millennial who enjoys “old” music. Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary took the lead in the list of music I listened to this year, which led to an uncovering of a handful of gems from artists around the same time. One such artist was Alí Primera, a Venezuelan musician, and political activist, who wrote a song titled “No Basta Rezar” (Praying Isn’t Enough). The first time I heard this song, it struck me because of the relevancy of its words and hit me again as I thought about what we need to do as the Church in this new year and decade.

No, no, basta rezar. Hacen falta muchas cosas para conseguir la paz

(No, no, praying isn’t enough. Many things are needed in order to obtain peace).

As Presbyterians, we are very good at praying. We are very good at crafting statements and other documents, making sure that periods, commas, and semicolons are in their proper places. But I think we’ve reached an apex where words are no longer enough. People are looking for something real, something authentic, something that goes beyond spoken prayers and enters the realm of living prayers. Praying isn’t enough as we head into this new decade, and the challenge for us is to consider how our prayers will translate into an actual life-giving change in our communities.

En el mundo no habrá paz mientras haya explotación del hombre por el hombre y exista desigualdad.

(In the world, there won’t be peace while exploitation of humans by humans and inequality exists.)

I would say don’t “@” me just yet because I’m not saying that prayer is no longer needed. Prayer is needed! But our prayers can no longer take the comforting or familiar forms we are used to. As we head into another culturally acknowledged passing of time, it is my hope that our prayers will move from being not enough to enough. It is my prayer that the words that we speak take hold and transform us to embody living prayers that radically alter us. That is my challenge for us as the Church this year. It is something that I am challenging myself and my congregation to discern.  Let’s identify critical needs in our communities; let’s start tackling issues of racism, environmentalism, etc. Because if we only say our prayers, then we are missing out on the part of our call where we are co-laborers and co-creators.

What Alí Primera sings is true, “Many things are needed in order to obtain peace.” So may we pray together, sweat together, bleed together, cry together, sing together, and celebrate together as we head out to put our prayers into action using all our gifts and talents.

Rev. Casey Carbone serves as the bi-vocational pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Mahopac. He considers himself to be a coffee snob, which fuels his ministry, music, and work outside the church. 

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It’s a Good Thing

After an extended hiatus, A Curious Faith has returned!  Every two weeks, we will publish reflections by members and friends of Hudson River Presbytery.  We hope that you will find them engaging and share-worthy. 

May the blessings of Advent and the joy of Christmas be yours, in abundance.

* * * * *

I’m a fan of Martha Stewart.  Not a true devotee, mind you. I’m not one of those people who grows papyrus in their water gardens, so that they can make their own paper for their hand-stamped greeting cards.  I’m more of a voyeur, really, content to watch her do all the beautiful things that seem a bit beyond my reach.

Several years ago, I sat down to watch one of Martha’s television specials.  I was about to host my first Thanksgiving in my own home, and Martha had promised to show me how easy it was to set a warm and inviting holiday table.  The camera followed her into her linen closet, which was about the size of a small airplane hangar, and filled with every manner, size and hue of table dressing.  Next, it was time to select which set of china, and which cutlery to use: elegant, modern, rustic?  Oh, and don’t forget to bring out your vast collection of vintage turkey figurines!  They’ll add a seasonal and whimsical touch.

And I remember thinking: with all due respect, Martha, if you want to show me how I can set a spectacular holiday table, you need to use what I use.  You need to drag out the stepstool, and retrieve the knockoff delftware turkey platter, the one with a thousand hairline cracks.  You need to scramble into the back of my bathroom closet and gather the mismatched, clearance-sale napkins from Target.  You need to take my ancient tablecloths and strategically place serving pieces, so as to hide stains left behind by the cranberry sauce of Christmas past.  If you really want to show me how to do it, Martha, you need to be working with the same stuff I’m working with.

That is the great gift we have been given in the incarnation, isn’t it?  God, working with the same stuff we are.

God, showing us how exquisite these bodies can be when we use them to heal and to comfort, to stand with the oppressed, to sit with the lost and the grieving. 

God, spanning the divide between heaven and earth, between hope and despair, between life and death with a bridge of bone, sinew and muscle. 

God, showing us how we might build bridges, too, when we use these same fickle and imperfect bodies to make God’s love incarnate for one another.

In the Word made flesh, we see the very height of divine love and generosity.  And yet, on our more hopeful days, it doesn’t seem totally beyond our reach. 

It’s a good thing.  A very good thing.

Rev. Luanne Panarotti serves as pastor of Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, NY, and as editor of this blog.  She has one husband, two kids, one dog, four cats, and twelve boxes of Christmas decorations still to unpack. 

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