Have we, too, forgotten?

Mary McKenzie - Navitiy Project

Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.  11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  -Luke 24:9-11

 

The women remembered Jesus’ words and believed them.  The women remembered Jesus’ teachings about love: for enemies, for their neighbor, for the least among us; love that unites every human being with another; love that that is stronger than fear and drives out hate; love that is merciful, compassionate and forgiving.

The women remembered his words and believed them.

They remembered Jesus’ words about humility, generosity, welcoming the stranger,

justice and hope that makes one strong in the face of abusive power.  They remembered his words about power embodied in the model of servant leadership.

The women remembered his words and believed them.

But the others…the others thought their words were an idle tale.  They wished to return to the ways of the world.  It always made more sense to them.  They ways of might is right; the ways of vengeance and power over another; the ways of looking out for oneself and giving into one’s fears.

The others forgot and thought the women’s words were an idle tale.

Have we too forgotten?  Have we refused to believe?

It would seem we have.

At times, it feels that we have replaced the Gospel of Jesus with the gospel of America First.  You may like this “tough person, bully” nationalistic persona.  You may embrace this “me first” ideology but if you do… do so on your own.  Do not bring Jesus into it.

If you do you have forgotten his words…you have refused to believe.

There is no way one can experience the story we heard this Easter season and at the same time embrace the rash, bravado of these current times. For Jesus’ life embodied, love, non-violence, compassion, mercy and forgiveness; Jesus’ death was at the hands of a system that embraced capital punishment and put to death an innocent man; And God’s response was to overcome this violent death, not vengeance, not with missiles and bombs but in a non-threatening, peaceful way: Jesus’ resurrection.

This is the story the women remembered and believed.

Naïve? Perhaps.  But so is the notion that violence makes for peace.  So is the notion that violence makes us safe.  So is the notion that greatness equals power.  So is the notion that any one people’s lives are more precious to God than another’s.

May we, with the women, remember and believe.

May we go and tell those in power we refuse to forget, we refuse to stop believing.

 Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:9-11)

The women remembered Jesus’ words and believed them.  The women remembered Jesus’ teachings about love: for enemies, for their neighbor, for the least among us; love that unites every human being with another; love that that is stronger than fear and drives out hate; love that is merciful, compassionate and forgiving.

The women remembered his words and believed them.

They remembered Jesus’ words about humility, generosity, welcoming the stranger, justice and hope that makes one strong in the face of abusive power.  They remembered his words about power embodied in the model of servant leadership.

The women remembered his words and believed them.

But the others…the others thought their words were an idle tale.  They wished to return to the ways of the world.  It always made more sense to them.  They ways of might is right; the ways of vengeance and power over another; the ways of looking out for oneself and giving into one’s fears.

The others forgot and thought the women’s words were an idle tale.

Have we too forgotten?  Have we refused to believe?

It would seem we have.

At times, it feels that we have replaced the Gospel of Jesus with the gospel of America First.  You may like this “tough person, bully” nationalistic persona.  You may embrace this “me first” ideology but if you do… do so on your own.  Do not bring Jesus into it.

If you do you have forgotten his words…you have refused to believe.

There is no way one can experience the story we heard this Easter season and at the same time embrace the rash, bravado of these current times. For Jesus’ life embodied, love, non-violence, compassion, mercy and forgiveness; Jesus’ death was at the hands of a system that embraced capital punishment and put to death an innocent man; And God’s response was to overcome this violent death, not vengeance, not with missiles and bombs but in a non-threatening, peaceful way: Jesus’ resurrection.

This is the story the women remembered and believed.

Naïve? Perhaps.  But so is the notion that violence makes for peace.  So is the notion that violence makes us safe.  So is the notion that greatness equals power.  So is the notion that any one people’s lives are more precious to God than another’s.

May we, with the women, remember and believe.

May we go and tell those in power we refuse to forget, we refuse to stop believing.

The Rev. Angela Maddalone, is Pastor of Palisades Presbyterian Church.  The image of the three women is by Mary McKenzie for The Nativity Project.

 

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The Time Has Come


The New York Times recently published a terrific piece that details the rising cadre of religious leaders who are diving headfirst into our political morass in an effort to reframe which values our culture views as “biblical.” The article is astute in its observation that, for the past couple decades, political engagement by clergy has largely been the domain of the religious right. This imbalance of Christian voices in the public square has had grievous consequences. When I ask my non-churchgoing peers to define “Christian values,” they are quick to point to hot-button, reactionary stances like staunch pro-life views on womens’ reproductive choices, or vitriolic backlash against gay marriage. These positions don’t describe my own beliefs, nor the convictions of most Christians I know, and yet they have come to define—for many—the essence of Christianity. And then we sit and wonder why more young people aren’t drawn to the Church.

I understand why many clergy are loathe to venture into the fray. Our politics have become so toxic that civic exhortations from the pulpit, or religious demonstrations in the street, can often engender animosity from members in the congregation who disagree; others are made uncomfortable by the close proximity of church and state. However, if we continue to remain silent on the moral crises that currently plague our government, we ought not be surprised if church attendance continues to dwindle. An aversion to political engagement isn’t just a public relations issue, though, it cuts to the core of what it means to be a Christian.

Politics is the vehicle by which our values become reality. If we pray on Sunday that the hungry might have food to eat, but remain silent in the face of proposed cuts to meals on wheels or food stamps programs, our prayers are impotent. If we ask God to heal the sick but do not decry efforts to eliminate health coverage for millions, we reveal our words as empty. If we sing of swords made to plowshares but turn a blind eye to our nation’s ever-increasing militarism, then Isaiah’s dream will remain an idle one. Welcoming the stranger, providing aid to the poor, healing the sick, safeguarding our planet, struggling to end violence: these are Christian values. It’s time to fight for them.

Ben Perry is the Assistant Director of Communication and Marketing at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a member of the Bedford Presbyterian Church.

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Backwards Faith


I went to a small liberal arts college in the heart of Arkansas, and it was there that I decided that I wanted to pursue ministry as a calling.  Over the course of my four years, I became a religion major, studied a semester at a divinity school, and interned at a local church, and as I neared my senior year, I felt quite passionate about this direction in my life.

The first and only time that all of our class’ religion majors were in class together was for our senior colloquium, and it became clear very quickly that only about one third of the religion majors were actually religious.  And they were equally as passionate about that direction for their lives—that for them, there was a place for the academic study of religion, but not so much for its practice, let alone belief.

And so I responded as any passionate 21 year old would respond: I got a tattoo.

I was very thoughtful in this decision, carefully choosing the placement and the word—faith, in Hebrew.

Afterwards, I proudly showed a fellow student who knew Hebrew.  And he looked at it for a few moments, and squinted a bit before saying, “Those are Hebrew characters…but that’s not a word.”  Turns out Hebrew goes from right to left, whereas my tattoo’s characters were left to right.  My faith was backwards.

My friends tried to comfort me, assuring me that it didn’t matter so much—that it was more about what the tattoo meant to me than if it actually said what it was supposed to say.  While they were kind, it didn’t make up for the fact that within six months I’d be taking my first Hebrew class in seminary with gibberish Hebrew tattooed on me.

So a second trip to the tattoo artist and a little bit of grace later, my faith actually said faith, in English this time.  It wasn’t the tattoo that I had first envisioned.  The lines were rough (and now several years later, faded), and the script a little strange as a result of being a cover-up job.

But I think faith is like this.  It’s not always particularly elegant.  There are places where it’s a little rough because that’s what it took to fix what was once backwards.  The faith that we have now isn’t necessarily the faith that we had first envisioned having.  It sometimes has more questions than answers.  It learns to navigate dark nights of the soul.  It isn’t afraid to grow and learn and change, to make the circle wider, to err on the side of grace, to let go of a little pride in order to be authentic.

My desire is to practice this kind of faith, and to help our people practice it as well.

Rev. Elizabeth Smith-Bartlett is the Associate Pastor at The Larchmont Avenue Church, where they now know that she has a tattoo.

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Is This The Time?


Tucked in the first chapter of Acts this line challenges us today.  The disciples were waiting according to Jesus direction in Jerusalem.  Maybe getting a bit antsy as forty days had passed since Jesus death and resurrection.  They are standing on a hillside looking over Jerusalem and ask themselves, “Is this the time the kingdom will come?”

Reading this caused me to wonder as well. And to push further, “What am I doing to further the Kingdom of God?”   On Memorial Day weekend, we remember soldiers who served and came home and those who served and did not return home.  They served to bring justice in places of injustice.  And many paid a great price – their lives or their emotional health.  I give thanks for their efforts.

I also remembered, my father.  One of millions of Americans not in uniform but supporting those overseas.  He was a scientist training physicians during World War II.  But more importantly working in a laboratory which discovered how to distill human plasma from blood donations.  Plasma which could be transfused to patients on the battlefield without concern about blood type.  A life saving gift to wounded in need of immediate medical support.  Lives were saved because of this laboratory work.  The Kingdom of God came closer as a result of scientists laboring over centrifuge and microscope.

A recent weekend group at Holmes Camp included a number of children and young adults born in the US, but whose parents came from other lands for greater opportunity.  I was struck as the retreat leader reminded the staff that they might be in the company of some anxious children.  Not anxious about being away from home, but anxious that their parents might not be home at the end of the event.  Not home because of arrest for immigration irregularities.  These group leaders were sharing faith, building a welcoming community and contributing to the Kingdom of God.  How are we working in our communities to build the Kingdom of God for these children?

There are other arenas  where effort is needed to bring God’s Kingdom.  Environment, equal rights, access to education, homelessness and poverty, ………

What has been your contribution to the coming Kingdom of God this week?  This weekend?

Have you shared your story with family and friends to encourage them?

What will be your contribution to the coming Kingdom of God in the next week? The next month?

Peter Surgenor is the Executive Director of Holmes Presbyterian Center and currently Moderator of Hudson River Presbytery.

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Swept Away


Lots of people have the jitters on their wedding day, and I was no exception.  Mine were about the dancing.

Like many of my generation, I learned most of what I know about dancing from John Travolta and “Saturday Night Fever.”  I suppose Werner and I could have taken some lessons in actual ballroom dancing – but who had time, what with work and wedding planning and going to Dead shows?  Instead, there we were, our first dance as husband and wife, lurching around the dance floor as graceful as Frankenstein and his Bride.

My father and I were mutually apprehensive about the Father-Daughter dance.  Dad had the skills; but, with failing health and weakening legs, there was no way he could make it through more than a few bars of  “Spanish Eyes,” the song we’d chosen, Dad’s favorite.

On the morning of the wedding, he shared his worries with my mother’s cousins from Astoria, and the Ruggiero brothers came up with a plan.

When it came time for the dance, they watched, and waited.  And when the picture-taking moments had passed, and they saw my dad struggling to hold his own, one of them tapped him on the shoulder and cut in.  Soon, another cousin came along and did the same, and then another, each taking a few turns with me around the dance floor.

Those Ruggiero boys  – could they ever dance! Even if I didn’t know what I was doing, they did.  At first, I tried to make sense of it.  I tried to use my brain to figure out the pattern, to learn the steps in real time.  I soon realized, there was no other way than to just trust the leader, and let myself be led.  To respond to a gentle push against one leg, or to the pull of a hand placed at the small of my back.

I didn’t know how to dance, but before long, I felt like Ginger Rogers out there.

I just had to let go, and let myself be swept away.

What would our lives, or our churches look like, if we would allow ourselves to be swept away by God?  And, how do we even begin? Maybe we could start by spending as much time praying as we do in meetings.  As much time dreaming as we do answering emails.  As much time perched on sidewalk benches or vinyl-clad diner booths or bar stools as in our offices or sanctuaries.   Maybe if we stopped trying to lead long enough, we might begin to discern God’s unspoken instructions, and feel the push and pull of the Spirit.

Ah, but being swept away can be so disconcerting!  Loosening our grip on the illusion that we are in control, and falling into the arms of the Holy One.  But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s in that very dance that we discover the steps that take us to who we were meant to be – and maybe even find the new rhythms of Christ’s grace-full church.

In her poem “I won’t take no for an answer,” St. Catherine of Siena wrote,

“I won’t take no for an answer,”
God began to say
To me

When He opened His arms each night
Wanting us to
Dance.

I’m ready to be swept off my feet.  How about you?

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 two left feet.

 

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My Story with the Clergy Consultation Service

PeggyThe Rev. Margaret E. (“Peggy”) Howland

I was one of the clergypersons who co-founded the clergy consultation service in 1969 in the Capital District of New York State (Albany, Troy and Schenectady area).  I had recently been called as Pastor of the Woodside Presbyterian Church in Troy.   When I took on a part-time position with Troy Campus Ministry as Protestant Chaplain at the nearby Hudson Valley Community College, the Chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy approached me about starting a Clergy Consultation Service.

I was already committed to reproductive freedom.  In the early sixties I had served on the Board of Planned Parenthood in Passaic County, New Jersey, where we hired a field worker to go door to door in the public housing projects in Paterson, NJ.  Poor women with several small children would shed tears when they learned there was a way to stop having babies every year.

It wasn’t until 1965, while doing graduate study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City that a psychology professor asked us a question – should women be “baby factories” for the sake of childless couples wanting to adopt?  Yes, it seemed right that young women should not be forced to bring a pregnancy to term against their will.

Up to that time, I had been opposed to abortion, because it was the cause of injury and death to many women, especially the poor and the young and uneducated.  Soon the New York State Council of Churches launched a campaign to repeal the abortion laws in NY State, because it was ILLEGAL abortion that was killing women.  Ending illegal abortion could only be accomplished by providing safe legal abortions with proper medical care under sanitary conditions.

I recall the excitement in 1967 when I read in the New York Times that Howard Moody and other clergy had announced their Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion.  It was the same year that I was approached by a clergy friend in Connecticut to escort a 16 year old girl to Puerto Rico for an illegal abortion, which had been arranged by her family doctor.  We knew, of course, that privileged women could get safe abortions with the right connections and enough money, even if illegal.

We used assumed names.  I did not know her real identity, and she did not know mine, or where I lived.  We met in a Philadelphia train station, where her family and boyfriend had brought her under the guise of going on a vacation together.

She and I flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico.  My plane ticket said “Martha Hill”, but no I.D. was required in those days.

The taxi driver in San Juan questioned me about the doctor’s address, and why we were going so far when there were plenty of doctors closer that he would be happy to take us to.

After the procedure, when she was doubled over with pain, she was a real trooper when I told her quietly that she must stand up straight and walk slowly to the taxi station and show no pain on her face.  We repeated that quiet slow walk into the hotel and across the lobby and into the elevator, standing up straight and looking calm and maintaining our secret.

That night I held her stomach while she vomited.  If we had gone to a hospital, they would have demanded to know the name of the doctor who had performed the abortion. So I called the same doctor, who sent an M.D. to the hotel.  She was having a reaction to the anesthesia.  Later I learned that a University of Colorado study at the time had determined there were 350,000 cases of post-operative complications every year in the United States, following illegal abortions.

When I got my first Pastorate in Troy in 1968, I came committed to using this opportunity in New York’s Capital District to work for the repeal of abortion laws.

So it was an enthusiastic “yes” to the RPI chaplain, and we organized a group of fourteen clergy – both Jewish and Protestant – to become the “Clergy Consultation Service on Problem Pregnancies”.  This name seemed safer to use in the Capital District than including “abortion” in our name.  We got a phone with an answering machine and a message that was changed every week, giving two phone numbers that could be called for help with “problem pregnancies”.  Two of us were on duty each week, so we used our own phone numbers, but great precautions were taken to keep our records private and secret, not to say anything over the phone, and not to give “advice”.

What we gave was information.  We trained ourselves in what later was called “all options counseling”.  We learned medical facts, the choices available, how to implement choices, and we gave information, leaving every choice and the carrying out of that choice to the women who came.

We met with other clergy from across New York State, for training in the facts by medical personnel.  If a woman chose having a baby to keep or to give for adoption, we provided information on whatever she needed to know.   If a woman chose abortion, we told her how to get a legal abortion, if possible.  Anyone who lived in Schenectady County could get a legal abortion in a hospital if two Medical Doctors signed that her life was in danger, and seven psychiatrists were willing to sign those papers.  She could also go to England or to Japan where it was legal.  So we had information on how to get a passport.

But often no legal recourse was practical, so we had a list and gave her appointment information for illegal procedures that were safe.  She had to make the call and the reservations herself.  It was a humbling thing to have women follow our instructions and arrange to meet a stranger on a street corner near a certain motel in a distant city, trusting us that they would be safe with a real ob-gyn trained doctor who was taking this risk to help them.

I sent women to Philadelphia, where there were ob-gyn residents from Lafayette Hospital who were working with us to provide this care.

I remember the stories.  One college student came with her boyfriend.  They planned to get married after graduation, but her father had recently had a heart attack, and she was afraid it would kill him if he learned that she had gotten pregnant. There was the distraught married woman whose daughter had been born while her husband was in Viet Nam.  She had immediately gotten pregnant again when he returned, but apparently suffering from PTSD, he paid little or no attention to her or to their little daughter and spent most of his time out at bars drinking and getting drunk.  Unfortunately, there was no way I could help her, because she was already at 20 weeks and past the cut-off time for a safe illegal abortion.

This was a cause that I was willing to go to jail for, if necessary.  But I worked carefully at keeping our records private, because I did not want to endanger my brother clergymen who were working with us.  I had a Presbyterian clergy friend in another state who was arrested and put on trial for counseling women on abortion, but when Roe v Wade was passed, the trial was stopped.  I am grateful to him for his courage.

In 1970, the New York State Legislature voted to permit legal abortion, which many of us had worked actively to support. The Presbytery of Albany had joined with me and our Church and Society Committee to vote in favor of legalizing abortion, and calling on the legislature and governor to do so.  A group of older white-haired women had come to support me with pickets and protest signs in front of the Presbytery the day we voted, because they knew what illegal abortions were about and told stories of packing a girl’s vagina with rags and other attempts at ending pregnancies in days gone by.  And they called the local TV station to come and film their picket signs at the meeting!

I organized the Rensselaer County Committee on Abortion Law Reform, and used it to spread information and encourage support.  I started speaking before church groups, women’s groups and service organizations, who were very interested in hearing a woman minister, a total rarity in those days.  I even spoke to a Roman Catholic women’s group, who said they had never heard anyone give a single reason in favor of abortion.  My own state assemblyman told me, with a judge listening, that we shouldn’t try to get rid of illegal abortion, because where else could he take an 18 year old if he accidentally got her pregnant?

After NY State legalized abortion, the doctors wanted our Clergy Consultation Service to continue counseling pregnant women and taking care of helping them.  But we felt our work should change, and we started asking hospitals to permit abortions in their facilities.  I worked with the Leonard Hospital in North Troy to approve allowing abortions to be performed there.

However, the movement to provide abortions mainly in specialized clinics was soon underway, and following Roe v Wade in 1973, that became the norm.  I became active in RCRC, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and served as Secretary of the New York Metropolitan RCRC and later the New York State RCRC.  I did All Options Counseling Training for seminary students and was on call for special cases where personal counseling was needed in difficult family situations.  The years since then have seen constant battles to keep clinics open, to protect clinic patients from protestors, to support Planned Parenthood and RCRC, and to fight legal attempts to make abortions difficult to obtain.

In the years I was working to make abortion legal in New York State, a lawyer friend of mine asked me what I would do next after we got abortion legalized.  I told him we would work on getting hospitals to approve letting men have vasectomies without requiring that they have lots of children before they would do it.  I explained to him how much easier and simpler it is for men to have vasectomies than for women to have major surgery to tie their tubes.   He was on the Board of a local hospital, so he got them to change their policy.

There has always been more to do.

The Rev Margaret E (“Peggy”) Howland was the 12th woman ordained to Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church on October 19, 1958 and first woman in the PC(USA) to serve as pastor of a congregation of more than 200 members, the Woodside Church in Troy, New York.  Peggy is honorably retired member of Hudson River Presbytery and active involved in Park Lake Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida.

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Circus Reflections

While on the road recently, I passed a billboard advertising the final tour of the Ringling Brothers Circus.  I had briefly registered an article about the passing of the circus earlier this year, but the billboard brought it home and I confess that I was surprised by my reaction.  I felt a visceral sadness that the circus was leaving town for the last time.

I’m not entirely sure why.  I wasn’t much of a circus kid.  I probably saw the Ringling Brothers circus two or three times in my childhood and my memories are fond, but it didn’t play a significant role in my life.  The sadness was more for the passing of an institution that I took for granted.  It was part of the background of life in a particular time and place (the United States in the twentieth century), and its goodbye seemed a goodbye to that time and place as well.

I know there are good reasons for the natural death of institutions.  In the case of the Ringling Brothers Circus, new forms of entertainment, indeed new forms of the circus itself, have captivated new audiences and the Ringling Brothers’ time was passing.  And the treatment of circus animals, so central a part of the Ringling Brothers spectacle, has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, suggesting that its methods were part of the past as well, and for good reasons.  But even now, I can’t help but feel a little melancholy that my son never saw this particular circus and that soon it will exist only in memory.

I think the tone of melancholy and nostalgia that often attaches itself to discussions about the church these days is a similar type of sorrow.  For many of us, a particular type of church catering to a particular type of people and worshipping in a particular type of way was so much a part of the backdrop of our lives that we assumed it would always exist, as it did when we were children.  And our worry about the direction of the church today is often colored by that longing.

Much of our leadership grew up in the Presbyterian Church of the 1950s and 1960s, when mainline churches dominated the social landscape in this country like no time since (and to be accurate, like no time before).  At times, we betray a longing for that church when we worry about the state of the church today.  Of course, we know that while the church of our childhood may have seemed more robust than the one in which we worship today, it had its share of problems.  It was a more exclusionary church than ours is, even if we have much work to do.  It was a church of the status quo, and as such often avoided the difficult task of being prophetic.  It was a church of abundance, often disconnected from a world of need.

That church is largely no more.  My childhood church is no longer a part of the denomination.  Our numbers are smaller, and our life as an institution is entering a new stage, perhaps a terminal one.  But God’s work in the world is not done.  We are called to this time and place, to be a remnant perhaps.  But God still has use for us, and I for one am excited to see what comes next.

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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