Ends and Means

Religion is to be used as a stepping stone to God, but it must never be used as a tower to hold one aloft from others. We are all cells in the body of humanity. When anyone attempts to isolate another, they only isolate themselves more.
                          – Peace Pilgrim

I think for a long time we may have gotten it wrong.
At least the way we have tended to talk about it.
We (Christians) made it all about Jesus.
About believing in Jesus.
About being saved by Jesus.
Jesus was (and for many still is) the most important thing.
Better than all the rest.
Growing up John 3:16 was our touchstone verse and one of the first verses I was encouraged to memorize:  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Christianity was not only the best, it was the only way. All other faith traditions paled in comparison and those who practiced those traditions were lost. At least that is how it was taught to me.

That understanding of Jesus and faith doesn’t work for me any more. I have too many friends and neighbors and colleagues who are Jewish or Muslim or Sikh or Nones. All of them are good people working as I am to live with integrity and compassion, to care for those in need and to make our communities and country and world better and safer and stronger. Their values mirror my values. Their hopes mirror my hopes. I can’t believe they are completely wrong or forever lost.

What I have come to believe is what we got wrong is we confused ends with means. For a whole host of reasons we made Jesus the end, when all along Jesus was and is the means to the end. A way we get to where we are supposed to be.
The end is something else.
Something more.
Something we are to be and do.

Besides getting Jesus in the right place, the challenge for us as Christians is to articulate what the end really is. What the purpose is for following Jesus and/or believing in Jesus. The idea/the language I have been playing with is this. I think the purpose of religion and the dream of God and the teaching and witness of Jesus is for us, on a personal level, to become and to be compassionate human beings and, on a community level, to build what Jesus means when he talks about the Kingdom of God. If I am right or even on the right track then maybe we can begin to talk about Jesus and our faith in a new and refreshing ways which invite others into the conversation and to work with others as equal and valued partners in building that beloved community. What do you think?

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“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy”

We are back after our summer Sabbath.
Thank you to Connie Knapp for launching our blog into this new year.

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A funny word, Sabbath.
Where does this word come from? In old English, the word “sabat” meant “Saturday as a day of rest.”  So Sabbath simply means “Saturday as a day of rest.”

Exodus 20:8 says, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” 
Oh yeah, one of the Ten Commandments.

So I’m pondering; what does this say to me, to us, about Sabbath keeping in the 21st century. This is one of the Ten Commandments, isn’t it? What should I do, or not do, on the Sabbath?

Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister, has written a book on the Ten Commandments, calling them Laws of the Heart. For her, the Third Commandment is the Law of Remembrance. Here’s how she begins this chapter:

“In my Grandmother Chittister’s house, good Protestant that she was, absolutely nothing happened on Sunday except church, Sunday school, and the family meal. She did not play the radio. She did not sew. She did not work around the house. You didn’t have to be a philosopher in that house to figure out that Sunday was a different kind of day. “

This might sound familiar to some of us. Some of us grew up in homes like that. But I love sister Joan’s reaction. She tells us, “I didn’t much like to be in Grandma Chittister’s house on Sundays.  …But, from her, I got a message about life that stayed with me forever….Life is about listening to the music of the soul. “

Sister Joan goes on to remind us that “surely the real sin to which the third commandment points is not the sin of not going to church on Sunday. It is the sin of not seriously seeking God.”

I’m not suggesting that you skip church.
I’m suggesting that you seriously seek God.
Listen to the music of your soul.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Whatever that means to you.

Connie Knapp is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church in Yorktown and a participant in the Commissioned Ruling Elders program of the Hudson River Presbytery.

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Summer Sabbath

We need time to rest.
And, to recharge.
And, to reconsider.
Time to be quiet long enough
To hear more clearly who we are called to be and what we are called to do.
And, those of us behind the scenes of A Curious Faith.
So we are taking a summer Sabbath.
And we hope you are, too.
We plan to be back in September ready to continue our conversations.

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The Day God Came to Church

“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
                                                                         – Genesis 28:16 

“Our real discoveries come from chaos, from going to the place that looks wrong and stupid and foolish.”
Chuck Palahniuk 

I finally got back to church during Advent.  I had quit months before.  I was never going back.  Done, finished, enough already.  I was not going to be God’s stooge anymore…if there was a God.  And I would have not ever gone back except that I am a sucker for Christmas.  Christmas occupies some primordial place of innocence and hope in my soul. Amazingly, this place of innocence and hope cannot be destroyed or even altered.  So as Advent arrived it didn’t matter what had transpired or what I had promised myself.  I knew I would sneak off to church like a not quite reformed drunk going back to the bottle.

I had meant it the previous June.  When I walked out of church I was done.  My faith was all but gone.  My love of humanity was dashed.  I no longer cared for much that was going on.  The world was a god awful place and I knew it.  Lies, evil, darkness those were the winners and there was nothing I could do about it.  I hadn’t always been this way.  No, I was ordained filled with hope and the confidence that I could make a difference.  And on Tuesday September 11, 2001 I still believed it and I dare say I lived it.  I especially believed it when I stood before my congregation a day after the disaster and prayed for the days ahead and warned that none of us should take any comfort in more violence.  To my chagrin it was almost the only thing that people seemed to believe in.  The country brought together by tragedy started to tear apart because of the polarized response.  Killing, death, and destruction is never the answer in my mind and yet we were involved in a lot of it.  I believe Jesus when he encourages us to love our enemies.  That idea never had a chance as our country went to war in Afghanistan and then Iraq.  What a disaster but anything I offered to the contrary was met with opposition and anger.  My place as pastor was completely compromised.  I resigned my pastorate of sixteen years because my call seemed to dissolve before me.  I would love to say that I wasn’t bitter but I was desperately so.  Jesus’ message of love and peace, that I hold so dear to my heart, was the message few wanted to hear.  The world was going crazy following the same lies that we had followed during the war of my childhood in Vietnam.  It almost seemed verbatim as the drumbeat of war quickened and the government announced how very necessary it was to invade Iraq.  It made me sick and horrified.  I was sure that all the heartbreak and disaster that went with Vietnam would now visit us again but even I did not have an inkling of how great was the disaster on the horizon.  It didn’t matter I had seen enough.  I was not going to speak for a loving God who had abandoned the cause…or so it seemed.

So I did not enter a church again for six months after I resigned but then Christmas loomed.  I went to a church near my house, arriving late.  I snuck in the back and sat in the first pew that was open.  I tried to not disrupt anything.  I slowly brought my head up and looked around.  The sanctuary was decorated for Christmas.  The kids were up front doing something.  I considered the people around me.  It felt good to sit in a pew and be reminded of Christmas.  I looked to the people who were in my pew.  The person right next, the person I had just randomly found myself next to was, to my surprise, a man who had been a member of my previous church.  He was not only a member of that church but he had been particularly vocal in his opposition to my views and had been instrumental in making things quite unbearable.  My enemy was sitting right next to me! I tried to imagine how such a thing could happen and then it seemed obvious.  God had sat me down right next to this man.  The whole sanctuary lit up with God’s presence.  I was astounded.  The thought I had was that I may have abandoned God but God had not abandoned me.  I said to the man, “can you believe this God of ours?”  We shook hands and it was the beginning of my new life.

You see I had missed it.  In my self-righteousness I had ignored the very thing that I thought I was living for.  I didn’t realize until that moment that God wanted me not to condemn this man for his views but reconcile with him in spite of his views.  This is where God was calling and is always calling.  I wasn’t just to spout the words but live the reality.  Love your enemies.  It is God’s most compelling and difficult challenge.  But the truth is that we’re not called to be right we are called to be loving no matter what.  In my new life as a minister these are the words I try mightily to live by.

These days I am starting to think that this kind of reconciliation is the only thing that will get us through now.  There are plenty of voices claiming who is right and who is wrong and it is tearing at the very fabric of our community and nation.  That argument will never lead us to a new day.  However, a reconciling depth of love for each other (even the ones we suspect most) is our only hope.   It seems counter intuitive until you live it.  When you live it the very presence of God cannot be denied.  And so it is exactly what we need now.

Tim Ives is a therapist who has a special interest in teens and families.  His office is in Bedford Hills. He is also a Presbyterian Minister at Scarborough Presbyterian Church.  He is married and  has two teenagers.

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The Headlines in the News

The headlines hit me like a ton of bricks.
We were driving out of the mountains of West Virginia where we had been on our annual summer work trip. Twenty-two high school students. Eight adults. A week spent replacing a floor and building a handicapped ramp and adding a porch. All without internet, TV or news. Doing our best to do good.
Then the headlines hit.

Philado Castile.
Alton Sterling.
Lorne Ahrens.
Michael Krol.
Michael Smith.
Brent Thompson.
Patrick Zamarripa.
All dead.
All shot.

Here is what I hold onto as I struggle with the senselessness and heartbreak of it all.
I believe there are more good cops than bad cops or racist cops.
I believe there are more peaceful protesters than ones who throw stones or bottles or taunt others with names.
I believe there are more people who honestly want to find a way forward than who want to dig their heels into the ground.
I believe there are more people who want peace than who want to wage war.
I believe there is more goodness in the world than hate.
Despite the headlines in the news.

We have a responsibility to name and to protest and to work to change and transform that which is evil and wrong and hurtful and hateful. And, we have a responsibility to name and to hold up and to support and to embody that which is good.

May we find the strength and the courage and the wisdom to do both.

Paul Alcorn is the pastor of Bedford Presbyerian Church in Bedford Village, NY.

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Pilgrimage and Vacation

Happy Fourth of July – the beginning of summer, and for many, the beginning of summer vacation.

The Thursday morning adult education class at the First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown has been studying Christianity and World Religions using a book by Adam Hamilton. One week we watched him on DVD and discussed a chapter in his book, and the next week we watched an episode of Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feiler. We’ve been with American pilgrims at Lourdes, in Jerusalem, in Mecca and Medina, in Japan and in India.

These sacred journeys have made me think about vacations and how a vacation is different from a pilgrimage, and how some vacations can be pilgrimages. I’ve been thinking about this as we plan our weeklong vacation on Deer Isle in Maine. What do we take with us and what do we leave behind? What will be the same and what will be different? And perhaps most importantly, how will I be different, on vacation and when we come home from vacation?

Jean Wise, writing at HealthySpirituality.org, defines a pilgrimage as a trip where  “the intention is to be open to God and allow the experience to transform you.” By that definition this vacation will be part pilgrimage. I’ll get to sit on a rocky beach looking out over the East Penobscot Bay and watch the sunset. I’ll get to hear osprey soaring as he looks for dinner, and I’ll listen to the slap of the water on the rocks. If I’m really lucky I’ll get to see a heron hunting. Each of these events will bring me closer to God-that’s the pilgrimage part.

I’ll eat too many lobster rolls and read at least one good mystery and sleep past 6:30 AM and take afternoon naps. We’ll hike and kayak. That’s the vacation part.

And on the long car trip there and back we’ll listen to at least two audio books to help make the trip go smoothly. That’s the transition part-the part where I get ready to be changed, where I set my intention to leave the routine behind and open up to the present, to God, to whatever is happening right now. I’ll take some of the routine with me; writing morning pages, reading scripture and doing yoga stretches. But I’ll leave some of the routine behind; doing laundry, reading e-mail.

And on the way home we’ll transition back to the everyday. These transitions mark the beginning and the end of this special time. One of my favorite retreat leaders, Jen Louden, has us walk through the door into the retreat room the first day saying, “I am on retreat.” And we always spend time at the end of the retreat recognizing that we’re going back, and we say, “The retreat is over.”

So is this a vacation, a retreat, a pilgrimage? Yes! I’m not heading to Lourdes, or Jerusalem, or Mecca, or Japan or India, but I am intending to be open to God, to God in nature, to God in the silences that are so hard to find when I am home. So, in the words of Jean Wise, “Transforming an excursion into a pilgrimage offers a deeper level. Take a trip with God and see what he will teach us!”

Have a wonderful summer vacation!

Connie Knapp is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church in Yorktown and a participant in the Commissioned Ruling Elders program of the Hudson River Presbytery.

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Hope, Frustration, and A Way Forward: A Tale of Two General Assemblies

Iosso Ali House Bike 6 9 2016There are actually far more than two General Assemblies, if we wanted to be subjective about it. And ironically, two of the “breakaway” Presbyterian Churches held their GA’s this same past week. But the two I compare are the Assembly of hope and the Assembly of frustration. I will say a word about each, and then try to bring them together.

The Assembly of hope was immediately visible in the Moderators election on the first evening, Saturday, June 18. Two co-moderator teams presented their views and answered questions. The pair of women ministers, black and white, won handily, though the male elder/minister pair, Hispanic and white, also acquitted themselves well. These are our first Co-Moderators, on the 60th anniversary of women’s ordination. The new Stated Clerk is also an African-American, J. Herbert Nelson, from the Washington Office of Public Witness. The interim Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency is Elder Tony De La Rosa, Esq., who represents further diversity in our leadership. The Belhar Confession was added to the Book of Confessions.

In addition, the Assembly affirmed a good many good policy statements and studies, but it is here that the frustration may begin, depending on one’s hopes. HRP was one of the 31 presbyteries overturing for swift divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel energy companies by fuel assets. The Assembly re-affirmed a more incremental process of engagement with the corporations proposed by the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI). MRTI had felt its report neglected in its Assembly Committee, but in plenary it was the “Fossil Free” proponents who saw their position not given equal time on the floor. Those who continue to oppose the use of divestment and boycott and sanctions to push for an end of Israel’s occupation were also frustrated. The GA strongly critiqued the chances for any “two state” solution, though it maintained a preference for that option, however feasible. There were 14 items related to racial justice, including anti-racism updated policy and a “repudiation” of The Doctrine of Discovery, to be studied after the fact.

More significant processes of “truth and reconciliation” might have come in response to two calls for apology, one to First Peoples for enforced cultural assimilation as well as material dispossession, and one to LGBTQQ people for past rejection and exclusion. There was frustration in both communities of color and those of non-conventional-binary sexuality, more in the latter as an alternative to apology was made for a more than 40 year process.

Other actions related to social witness policy were simply packed too tightly and could not get full deliberation due to the way business items were distributed among the committees. Reports on human trafficking (modern slavery) and Drug Policy Reform were not given much time, despite their respective calls to end “prohibition” style approaches to prostitution and legal regulation of drugs based on science. From my perspective, the addition of virtually exclusive “nonviolence” language to a Peacemaking report may limit the number of churches that use it, though the Peace Fellowship may claim hope there.

“The Way Forward” was a specific committee given some overtures from a South Carolina presbytery that sought to limit the General Assembly and its social witness (firmly rejected) and the reviews of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly. The hopeful side: no hasty merger of these two bodies, but there is a frustration for those who see more committees appointed without enough theological vision. And while the church is undoubtedly more united (and a bit smaller) than it was, there are still hard choices of how much church-wide culture and program is needed to maintain our identity going forward.

In my own two person office, our online journal, www.justiceUnbound.org, was slated to lose its staff person at the end of this year. The General Assembly renewed funding for the position for 2017-18, giving us hope that we can maintain its unique involvement of readers and writers, perhaps half under 44, that includes over 45,000 individual readers of at least one article so far this year. Many HRP folks have contributed to that journal. We need many more experiments like Unbound in the church.

Chris Iosso, Teaching Elder in Hudson River Presbytery, was pastor to the Scarborough church before moving to Louisville to staff the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. He received his MDiv from Princeton and his PhD from Union Seminary, NY. A fuller picture of GA reports from his office can be found at: http://info.pcusa.org/t/i-333D2DAF6CF0B303

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