Reaching Back to Find My Way Foward

I wouldn’t be who I am today
Or, where I am today
If, when I was 19 years old, I hadn’t stumbled upon the book Raids on the Unspeakable by Thomas Merton. I can no longer find it on my bookshelf, but what I remember of that book is that on every page I underlined something and scribbled countless notes in the margins. Even though I read it cover to cover, it never registered with me that Thomas Merton was a monk. A Trappist monk. As in vows of silence and poverty and never leaving the monastery. Over the next several months, I read as many of his books as I could. Devouring them. His writing about life and faith and God and prayer touched something deep within me. Something I was looking for/needing, but didn’t know I was looking for it until I found it. Twice, in the next several years, I was privileged to visit and to stay at the monastery where he had lived. I sat in the same Chapel in which he had sat. I prayed the same Offices he had prayed. As I said, I am who I am today because of him.

All that came back to mind because a week or so ago, I wrote about wanting to find a different way to start my day. Rather than opening up the paper or my tablet and being swallowed up by the news, I decided I would take my cup of coffee and sit for a few minutes in our backyard allowing the quiet of the morning instead of the headlines to be the start to my day. After a day or two, I also took a book.

Maybe it is, that as I get closer to retirement, I am reaching back to my roots for grounding and direction. Anyway, the book I picked up to take into the backyard with me was a book of short excerpts from Merton’s writing. Each morning I read a page or two. A sentence I read a day or so ago has stuck with me. “In a world in which men have forgotten the value of prayer, it is the monks who pray for the world and for all those in the world who have forgotten how to pray.”

The word prayer is a part of my vocabulary.
But, I realize it may not be a part of yours.
So, what about this…
Instead of pray/prayer, insert the word kind/kindness.
Or, welcome.
Or, compassion.
Or, understanding.
Which translates to something like this:
In a world in which people have forgotten the value of kindness, we are the ones who practice kindness for the world and for all those in the world who have forgotten how to be kind.
Whether it is we pray…
Or intentionally practice kindness…
Or intentionally extend hospitality…
Or make understanding and compassion central to our lives…
We do so not just for ourselves or the other.
We do so on behalf of the world.
And, on behalf of all those who have forgotten how to be kind or compassionate or welcoming or understanding.

I am grateful that when I have forgotten how to pray there are those who have not. I am grateful when kindness eludes me there are those who practice it for me and others. I am grateful…

When the world has forgotten, we can remember.

And this note…
This is the time of the year when A Curious Faith takes its summer sabbath. We will take a deep breath and hope you do as well. See you again in the fall.

Paul Alcorn is the pastor at Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford Village, NY.

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God Is Watching

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.  6 ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
 (Matthew 18:1-6)

Attorney General, Jeff Sessions used a passage from Romans to support the administration’s evil policy to separate children from their parents who are entering this country illegally.  Since he has brought God into this, which because of separation of church and state is unacceptable to begin with, it is the moral obligation of clergy, laity and all people of faith to speak up against this heresy.

Regardless of whether or not a person is breaking the law, Scripture clearly mandates that we treat all humans with respect, love, mercy and compassion.  Separating children from their parents and housing them in tent cities is immoral and the total antithesis of the very Bible he is quoting.

Perhaps he failed to read further on in Romans 13 from which he quoted.  Paul clarifies his call to obedience to those in authority by reminding us there is a greater allegiance to which we called: “8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8,10) Or perhaps he missed the chapter before, Romans 12.13: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Or Ephesians 2:19: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Or how about Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  And of course, the Hebrew Scriptures are full of admonitions to welcome the strangers: Leviticus 19:34: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

This has nothing to do with politics or political allegiances.  This is about human decency whatever one’s worldview or ideology.  How are we to follow in the way of Jesus if stand silent in the face of the suffering of children.  How are we to live out the teachings of Matthew 25 to care for the least among us if we do nothing in the face of such sin?

I have been called too political lately, but I am not being political.  I am striving to live out the Gospel.  Jesus’s teachings are radical.  He offered those who had ears to hear and eyes to see a counter-cultural “kin-dom” where every human being was of equal value, where every human being is a beloved child of God.  We are at a watershed moment.  Are we to stay silent in the face of such inhumanity or are we going to speak out to our leaders demanding an end to cruel mean-spirited policies.  The choice is ours and I believe God is watching.

Angela Maddalone is the pastor at Palisades Presbyterian Church in Palisades, NY.

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The Root of the Matter?

As spring finally, slowly, eased into town, I was thrilled to get back to my garden, ready to try my novice hand at another year of vegetables.  But there was a problem that I’d been pondering all winter.  For the last few years, a garden that had produced so well had been failing miserably.  After some light tilling, the seeds always sprouted – popping up hopefully as the days warmed.  But by mid-summer, it was as if they all gave up.  Nothing grew.  I tested the soil. I composted. I watered more.  I watered less.  But for three years, the same result.  By August, most everything died off.

This spring, I decided to dig a bit deeper.  Literally.  With the help of an able-bodied son, we dug a trench on one side of the garden all the way down to the clay beneath the topsoil.  We found the culprit.  Roots.  Deep roots.  Loads of roots from a tree nearby – a tree that I had planted years ago that had found a way to tap into all the water and nutrients of my garden.

Years ago I installed a fence above ground to keep out the marauding deer.  I now have an underground fence to see if I can keep the searching roots of an oak tree at bay.

All things considered, I’m not a big fan of fences. Jesus constantly seems to be about the business of breaking down the fences that we erect.  He calls us to openness and risk, rather than walling ourselves in out of a fear-induced need for protection.  We need to be very careful about our fences.

But in this case it may be needed.  For everything there perhaps is a season.  That which creeps in and steals away our joy, our hope, our life – perhaps it too needs to be kept at bay.  And for all Jesus’ openness, this spring we read of him talking about doing a bit of pruning – trimming back unhealthy unneeded growth so that the fruit God desires will come in abundance.

So perhaps it’s worth asking.  In the gardens of our lives, and in the garden of our churches, what creeps in unseen that crowds out the life of the Spirit from us?  What needs to be pruned?  What needs to be cut back so that other fruit might flourish?

Dan Love is Co-Pastor at the Rye Presbyterian Church.

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Our Stuff and God’s Work

I’m a collector. I have been all my life. From baseball cards to stamps, from books to vinyl records I have always been in the thrall of one collection or another. I say this by way of admitting that I understand the lure of stuff. I, like you, have grown up in a culture where property is something close to sacred and the protection of that property has become the defining feature of our legal code.

Our homes. Our jobs. Our land. Our church. We know what it means to possess.

And, to be clear, private property is not a bad thing. The ability to hold property for oneself is one of the most important developments in moving a culture beyond feudalism. It has created freedom for many. It has become a way to better lives for our families, better education, better access to the goods of a society.

Yet, holding property too dear can limit us as well. It can keep us from seeing clearly enough the moral demands that the needs of others place upon us. When property becomes an end in itself, we have moved into idolatry, and we have replaced God in our lives with something less.

This is why the focus, in Reformed theology, on the doctrine of stewardship has always been an important corrective for me and for my own attachment to stuff.  When stewardship season comes around we are reminded that our calling as Christians demands of us that we use property to the glory of God. Property is not an end in itself, and the value of property is best determined by the mission it enables.

The doctrine of stewardship also reminds us of something more. When John Calvin wrote on stewardship, he knew that his audience understood the term “steward.” It was a regular occupation in 16th century Europe. A steward was one who managed the property of the Lord while the Lord was away. While it was the steward’s job to make sure that the property flourished, the steward did not own the property. It always belonged to the Lord.

So when Calvin called us stewards, he was not only reminding us of our duties, he was also reminding us that what we have does not ultimately belong to us. Taken in its fullness, the doctrine of stewardship calls us to re-examine the very concept of ownership. It undercuts the sacredness of private property and it reminds us to whom we belong.

As congregations and as individual Christians, it is always a faithful exercise to remind ourselves of this theology whenever we are making decisions about property: how to use it, how to share it, how to dispose of it. Our goal is a different one from the goals that the market demands. We are always called to  make sure, above all else, that in whatever actions we take, in whatever transactions we engage, we are furthering God’s work in our world.

May it be so.

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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Compared to high school bands of today, my high school marching band was very simple.  We marched in one parade each year – the Memorial Day Parade.   We spent a couple of weeks every spring learning to march in a straight line and to turn left in preparation for this parade.  This was because the parade marched up one street, turned left into the cemetery and then two more left turns before we played the Star Spangled Banner as part of the ceremonies.  These were days when Civil War monuments were prominent in the cemetery, when the patriotic sacrifices of our grandparents and parents in WWI and WWII were still fresh in family stories and community self-image.

As the 60’s wore on, patriotism changed as class mates went off to Viet Nam and the wisdom of political decision makers began to be questioned.  These patriots served, were wounded and often died even as class mates questioned or protested.  As the years progressed our country sent young adults to assist in struggles which often seemed noble at inception but which became quagmires as ancient struggles for power persisted.

Patriotism has been built on Christian principles influencing the self-perception of our country flavored by norms of the times.  The voices of the original 13 colonies were voices of privilege protesting exploitation by the Colonial System.  Strong nationalistic fervor with two very different perspectives led to our own Civil War.  A country reluctant to engage in the European and Asian conflict finally joined with great gusto and sacrifice to turn the tide against racism and totalitarianism.

This week we honor those who have given their lives in service to our country with its high stated values.  At the same time we face our challenges of “me over my neighbor”,  #MeToo,  health care controversy and more.

Memorial Day is a moment for fond remembrance of those who gave their lives for this country.

In addition, Memorial Day is a call to remember the noble words which set those voices of the late 1700’s on the path to revolution.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [women and children] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Parades today celebrate sacrifices made for our freedom.  There will be fancy marching bands making both left and right turns, scout and community groups proudly contributing.  Lincoln’s speech will be recalled and stirring words celebrating patriotism will be shared.  What will be the stories told in years to come about our work today, this year, for freedom and equality for all children, women and men?  How are we living out Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves?

Rev. Peter Surgenor recently retired as the Executive Director of Holmes Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center.  He was the moderator of Hudson River Presbytery in 2017.  He and his wife Cathy were Accompaniers with the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia in February of this year.  Peter and Cathy are regular volunteers with Habitat for Humanity in Newburgh where they now reside.

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Hearing and Understanding

After Kim Clijsters lost the French Open tennis tournament in 2001, she won the hearts of the crowd.  She spoke in French at the awards ceremony, and the people were delighted to hear the Belgian citizen speak their language.  Clijsters then spoke in Flemish, her native-tongue, and she finished her remarks in English.  There were some who followed what she was saying throughout her entire speech.  I was not one of them.

Languages are not my forte.  I often feel like the pet dog I once saw in a cartoon.  The caption in the first frame of the cartoon states WHAT IS SAID  by the dog’s owner — “Sit, stop barking, behave.”  The next cartoon frame declares WHAT IS HEARD by the dog — “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

When the people gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost, the initial sound of the crowds was like me listening to Kim Clijsters speaking Flemish or the dog listening to its owner, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”  The people were speaking different languages and dialects — Galileans, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and more.  Imagine a meeting of the United Nations without any translators!

Then, the miracle of Pentecost transpired.  The people suddenly were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they begin to speak in languages understood by those who had gathered to worship God.  WHAT WAS SAID was articulated in the tongue of one’s native language, but WHAT WAS HEARD was a clear message.

The diversity of the people remained; however, their differences did not divide them.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, they were united.  People spoke.  They were heard.  They were understood.

We now clad ourselves in red on The Day of Pentecost as an invocation: “Come, Holy Spirit!  Grant us such understanding, today!”

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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Duc in Altum

A few years ago, I was in Israel and visited the newly opened archeological and worship site at Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee.  The site included the discovery of a first century synagogue, and the beginnings of an expanded dig and exploration of the ancient city of Magdala.  It also had a brand new worship space. As we got off the bus, we were met by a young, earnest member of the staff, who allowed us to wander around the site for a while, and then to meet in the new Chapel for a tour.

The Chapel was lovely, open and spacious, modern, with a large worship area and small chapels around, each with a mural depicting a healing of a woman; the bent over woman, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and of course Mary from Magdala, but for the preachers on the tour the best part was the pulpit- it was a boat.  You climbed up the stairs in the back, and literally stood in the boat to preach, with the huge windows framing the Sea of Galilee directly behind you.

We took turns taking pictures, and then all too soon we were called back to the foyer, where our guide began to give us the information about the site, its discovery and the plans for its future.  I don’t know what it was about her, maybe her rehearsed, somewhat canned delivery, her youth (she was probably about 19), but she had the fervor of the newly converted, and when she began to tell us a Bible story, I internally rolled my eyes and thought, “Oh no, the baby Christian is going to tell us about Jesus. Isn’t that sweet.”

Not proud of my internal snark, I nodded politely, of course, and somewhere along the way I forgot who was telling it and began to listen.  The story was about Jesus, preaching from Simon Peter’s boat, a little way off from shore, to the crowds that had come to hear him.  He asks the fishermen on board to let down their nets for a catch.  They respond that they have fished all night and caught nothing.  Jesus says, “Put out into the deep water . . . .”  Our tour guide repeated it.  “Put out into the deep water.”  And when she said those words, I felt tears came to my eyes.

The invitation to go deep, to put out into uncharted seas, to trust, took me completely by surprise.  There, looking out at the sunny waters of the Galilee, I hadn’t expected to be touched, deeply, especially by a bright young person with a prepared script.  But there it was.  How often, I thought, have I stayed safely, and poorly, shallow?  How often have I given up after some of my best efforts have come to nothing?  How much can I trust God to lead me in a way that might feel futile, or even risky?  How can I listen for the voice that invites me to launch again into the unknown?  Put out into the deep.

That phrase, in Latin, Duc In Altum, is the name of the Chapel, and on the t shirt that I bought to remind me to listen, and maybe once more, again, to hear the call to let down my nets, my guard, my preconceived notions and let God fill me with something new, something abundant, something alive.

Put out into the deep.
Duc In Altum.
Invited to trust.
And like the disciples, to follow.

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

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