A Fig Tree Grows in New Jersey

Figs trees are native to the arid climates of Israel and Iran, and can thrive on sunny slopes in Tuscany.  In New York and New Jersey, they are botanical foreigners.  Maybe that’s why Italian immigrants were so keen to coax the luscious fruit from their northeast plots.  The fig trees reminded them not only of home, but of themselves, transplants struggling to lead fruitful lives in a strange land.

Years ago, you could see fig trees in so many postage-stamp backyards in Queens.  Our cousins all had them in Astoria, descendants of clippings carefully tucked into skirt pockets and tattered valises arriving from the old country decades before.  One cousin brought a tiny sapling to my mother, who planted it hopefully on the sheltering south side of our New Jersey home.

This tree needed special care.  It had to be protected from the cold and damp of our northern winters.  Insulated with a mound of dried leaves.  Wrapped in a blanket.  Covered with plastic.

When the plant was barely knee-high, that was an easy job.  But under the care of my mother’s green thumb, the tree grew ever larger, and our task, more challenging.  We would cut some side roots, allowing us to ease the tree into a prone position.  We’d pile on bushels of leaves and half the contents of our linen closet, then encase it all in a huge tarp, creating a mysterious, lumpy hulk that terrified the neighborhood children.

Then, one autumn came, when I was away at college and could no longer help with putting the fig tree to bed.  And that tree had grown too big and my parents had grown too old and they decided “Enough.”  Basta.  They could no longer tuck it in for its cozy winter slumber.  It was the end of an era.  We watched it, lifeless, through the winter, and mourned its passing.

Then spring arrived, and amazingly, the tree leafed out, as vigorous as ever.  We had babied it, this botanical visitor from another land.  We had nursed it along as best we could.  But ultimately, the force that kept it alive did so even without our help, and under the most adverse conditions.  And though it may have been our imaginations, its fruit tasted even sweeter than before.

I often find myself thinking of the Kingdom of God as something akin to a fig tree in New Jersey, a delicate exotic in need of tender care.  To be sure, there’s truth to that.  The ways of the kingdom aren’t homegrown, and often don’t feel native to our biology.  And never before in my lifetime has the surrounding climate seemed quite so inhospitable.  There is no doubt that the buds and shoots of compassion, justice, forgiveness and love are in need of special nurture in these uncertain days.

Yet, the word of good news I need to hear right now – and maybe you do, too – is that the force behind this kingdom is capable of keeping it alive, even under the most adverse conditions, and even when our efforts are flagging.  That when those moments arrive and we feel the task of its upkeep has grown beyond our reach, we can rest for a bit, knowing that God is still at work, bringing promises to fruition.  It will survive and thrive because it is an unstoppable thing, this kingdom.  And, God willing, all will enjoy its sweet fruit.

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, this year, an outstanding crop of weeds.

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A Question of Perspective

The gospel lesson yesterday was the parable which Eugene Peterson titles, “the Story of the Greedy Farmhands”.   It is one of Jesus’ stories which includes torture and death to make his point.  It is clear what Jesus was trying to tell the faith leaders of his day when he told this story in response to persistent questioning.

The first time I read through the text, I found myself reading from the point of view of the servants (stewards of an unexpected gift).  The more I read the more I realized that the story is comforting to the people of God who can imagine themselves to be the resource represented by the vineyard. This is a bit like looking at the image above.  Do you see a fashionable young woman or an older woman wrapped in a babushka?

It is easy to catch that first glimpse and stay with that image. It is easy to read a scripture and be challenged or comforted and stay in that place.

As usual this “Story of the Greedy Farmhands” challenges us to consider both perspectives.

As we continue to process the events of October 1st in Las Vegas and any number of events over the past year we can see instances of human beings tempted the way we read about Adam and Eve to desire to act like God.  One individual acting to make decisions about life and death.  National leaders unilaterally making decisions without collegial conversation or community input.  Or faith group leaders making decisions about inclusion or exclusion from worship or faith practice.   The Greedy Farmhands did not fare so well when they succumbed to self interest.

On the other hand – how are we feeding, encouraging, supporting human beings who are God’s creation?   Are we stingy about the resources God has provided for us?  Or are we learning by caring and giving away.  I heard a story this week about a food pantry where those being served have learned how to help with shelf stocking and distribution in order to share their talents.  Not normally in worship on Sunday, but giving of themselves when given a chance by a community of faith.  Or another faith community which has had a food pantry for over ten years.  In conversation with those visiting their food pantry this group discovered a place where resources could intersect for God’s purpose.  These conversations led to a realization that an alternative to yard sales could benefit those in need and the faith community.  A thrift shop was opened where goods and clothing could be donated and shared with those in need.   Were you impressed at the Presbytery Gathering last month?  “Zero Waste” is a community practice in Scarsdale which it’s organizers are willing to share.  Just the opposite of being Greedy Farmhands!  And what are our efforts to assist faith communities which have been devastated by the recent hurricanes (Houston, Puerto Rico, and the Southeast)?

Push yourself to look at the picture/situation from the less obvious side.  If you see the young woman first –push to see and study the older woman.  If you identify with the vineyard in the parable, push yourself to recognize the moments when greedy thinking enters your mind and practice. Peterson translates Matt 21:43:  If you are the greedy servants “God kingdom will be taken back from you and handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life.”

How do we encourage/build “kingdom life” where greedy thinking is prevalent and our faith community voices are not heard or respected?

Peter Surgenor is the former Executive Director of Holmes Camp and Conference Center.

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Look and Consider

“Look at the birds of the air… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…”

– Matt. 6:25ff

Jesus suggests that to understand how God cares for us we should be mindful of the earth and observe its creatures. Ancient Israel had always paid attention to the land, its frailty, its rainfall, its possession and its distribution, and its fragile ecosystems. The very life of Ancient Israel was a way of living lightly on the earth and in complete dependence upon the gifts from the earth which God provided every morning.  Every time Israel forgot the earth, and God’s sustenance of them through the earth, they suffered, and, as the prophets tell us, the earth suffered too.

Yesterday in White Plains we held our third annual Blessing of the Animals. It’s a profound experience to worship with animals. To hear their rustlings and voices, to feel the warmth of their bodies or the tickle of a claw or horn or beak upon our hands reminds us of how connected we are to the rhythms and processes of the natural world. Just this morning the Nobel Prize in Physiology was awarded to three scientists who have demonstrated this connection at the cellular level. There is something that feels “right” when the animals are with us.  The biblical world as well as much of the church’s history involved animals and nature and revolved around their rhythms; when they pasture, where they wander, where they are kept, how they are fed.  In famous cathedrals like Chartres we find animals of all sorts and images of nature – wheat, fruits, olive trees, shrubs, deserts – represented as a natural part not only of the biblical story but also of the church’s story.  Animals were valued possessions, providing essential subsistence for ancient families; food, clothing, milk, warmth, dung used in building.  They were usually kept inside the house with the family at night for the animals’ protection.

So it is unsurprising that when looking for an example of God’s provision for our needs, Jesus calls attention to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.  He lifts up what later theologians would call the Book of Nature, God’s first book; God’s revelation in the natural world.

As we sat with our pets –animals which bring joy to us, show love, demonstrate curiosity, make us laugh, and remind us that we too belong to the animal kingdom – as we rejoiced that God’s love redeems not only human beings but all creatures and the earth itself, we were reassured.  And yet in this precarious time, when earth’s life hangs in the balance, as animal species are made extinct and natural disasters increase because of our human carelessness and greed, what do Jesus’ words “consider the birds” have to say to us?  When we can no longer look to the Great Auk, the passenger pigeon, the Dodo or the Bachman’s Warbler because they no longer have one surviving member living on our planet?  When we can no longer consider the Rio de Janiero myrtle, Thismia Americana, or the Falls of the Ohio Scurfpea because their beauty and their pollen have been eradicated utterly?

First, Jesus’ words remind us of the gravity of our situation. His words were offered in a context that no longer exists.  So his words invite us to a reckoning of what we human beings have done.

Second, his words invite us to remember and recreate patterns of life that are mutually beneficial, as God intended.  We cannot just think of what makes human life easier – a kind of mindless, so-called “progress” that destroys the very ground upon which we live.  We cannot allow titans of industry or ambitious politicians or greedy developers to say these concerns are “for the birds.”  We must think about how our human well-being is entwined with that of all creatures and the earth.  We must develop a mutual mindset that truly IS “for the birds” and the fish and the topsoil and…us!

Jesus’s words point us to God’s desire to sustain all life through this beautiful, fragile world in which we live; to provide for all creatures what we need.  So, as we trust God’s promise, may we do our part – in our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our community, and in our world – acts that are small (like composting), acts that are sustainable (like planting trees), acts that set a new direction (like if the PC(USA) were to finally divest from fossil fuels), acts that are wide-reaching (like policies to slow climate change), that we may join God in creating a world that is truly “for the birds.”

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary is Pastor of the White Plains Presbyterian Church, a GreenFaith Fellow, and a member of HRPGreen.

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Fine People

I agree with President Trump.
There probably were fine people at the rally in Charlottesville.
That is…
If you define fine as people who get up each day and go to work and do their jobs.
If you define fine as people who say hello to their neighbors and help out when they can.
If you define fine as those who pay their taxes and who don’t get arrested.
If you define fine as those who show up at the Friday night football game. And, maybe even go to church on Sundays.

But, let’s be clear.
And, honest.
It was fine people, often the pillars in the community, who resisted – sometimes violently; sometimes silently – the civil rights movement in the 60’s believing blacks were inferior and did not deserve the right to vote or to swim in the town pool or to serve on the town board or to drink from the same water fountain. It was fine people who were in church each Sunday who forced ministers like Shodie’s father to leave a church because of his position on civil rights and his association with the local black congregation. And, it was the reaction of fine people which led to the resignation of Robert E. Lee IV, a young Episcopal priest and distant nephew of General Robert E. Lee, who resigned his position as rector after speaking out about racial justice and the removal of statues of his ancestor and namesake. It was fine people, people just doing their jobs, who followed Paul Briggs, the former Pastor at Antioch Baptist Church, through stores when he walked in. Why? Because he was a black man. It is fine people who resist Jews joining their clubs. Why? Because of they are Jewish and not Christian. It was fine people who refused a cake or a marriage license to a gay couple or who for far too long said, and sometimes still say, LGBTQ people have no place in the church. And, it was fine  people, at least some of them were, who carried torches evoking images of KKK cross burnings and lynchings, who participated in the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

And, let’s also be clear and honest about this.
Once you say you are Christian…
Once you say you follow in the way and in the spirit of Jesus…
Or, at least, lean in that direction.
You commit to something more than being nice and being good.You commit to measuring the breadth and depth of your life against the imperatives of the Gospel and the witness of the Bible which, at its core, has something to do with compassion and justice and peace and inclusiveness. Which has something to do with a concern for the widow and the orphan and the silenced and the marginalized. A witness which elevates the needs the others and places it alongside your own needs and wants. A witness which builds bridges and not walls and affirms and recognizes the made in God’s image dignity of every single human being. At least this is how I read the Bible and what I believe.

How did the author of 1 Peter put it?
Once you were not a people. Now you are God’s people.
God’s priesthood. God’s peculiar people.
Look around.
Do you believe it?
You? Me? Us?
Just as you are and just as I am and just as we are?
Ordinary as we are. Extraordinary as we are.
Broken and pieced back together as we are.
God’s people.
God’s presence.
Our lives…who we are in this moment and in each day we have…reflecting that which we know and believe about God onto and into the lives of others and the complex and sometimes heartbreaking circumstances of the world as it is. If, like me, you do believe it or try your best to believe it, how awesome and unsettling and challenging and life-changing that affirmation is. To be God’s presence with all of what that means – light, hope, compassion, generosity, dignity – amidst all the brokenness and need and hunger and hatred and searching which we see around us each and every day.

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

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“I came that they might have life and have it abundantly…”
John 10:10

“You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories.”
Garrison Keillor

This summer, for the first time, I planted tomatoes.  It is odd that it took me this long to take up this new aspect (for me) of gardening.  I have, at times, been an ardent gardener of roses (I once had over 100 plants); I always plant an herb garden that features basil.  When the kids were little, we would plant pumpkins and hope they grew big enough by Halloween. We have a pear tree and an apple tree, but never thought to launch into the garden edibles.  But for some reason this year I did…maybe empty nest syndrome.  For whatever reason, there I was this spring watching them grow their flowers that soon turned into little green tomatoes and then ripened into yummy red tomatoes.  I have Roma and Beefsteak.  Ann made a sauce with the Roma and we have enjoyed the many tomato sandwiches made with the Beefsteak etc. etc.  As everyone knows there is no comparison between a grown tomato and a store-bought tomato.  They are different in kind.  So we have enjoyed feeling like we were part of the earth as the tomatoes came in along with the Basil and Pears and Apples.  Oddly, we have a tree full of apples.  Some years we don’t get any.  This year we will be making apple butter, pies and anything else we can think of.  (Remember the old Disney Johnny Appleseed cartoon?  There’s a lot of work to do!)

In the summer of tomatoes and apples I took to sitting on the front porch on one of the rockers we have had out there for years.  I don’t know why but we hardly ever sat out there.  But now we do.  It may be because the dog loves to be out in the yard and it is easy to watch her from there—but hopefully it is more than that.  Empty nesting has its upside and part of it might be that there is a smidge more time to enjoy.  And we are.

This wonderful sense of contentment has been heartening but has not been undisturbed.  Of course, the reverberations from the larger world make all the blessings of the summer past seem less than ultimate.  As I write this, Houston is barely starting to recover, Florida is still digging out, Mexico has endured a terrible earthquake, and hurricane Jose swirls around not knowing which way to go…out to sea we all hope.  The disasters pile up beyond imagination.  Irma and Harvey came after the darkness in Charlottesville.  That was also something beyond imagination.  I believe in free speech and assembly but it is so troubling that there could be even a few who wanted to march under a flag that we fought so desperately against not so long ago.  I wonder what has turned to bring such anger and darkness.  The summer has been filled with a continuing polarization in the country that brings bad news almost on a daily basis.  The reports from the Middle East bring more and more word of innocents suffering and little solution. So even though my soul is content at home, the world still aches chaotically.  However, I believe, the chaos does not negate the light. It just makes clear how much more light is needed.  That is why I am so glad that the church year starts again, now.  I know how revived it makes me feel to see once again the gathering of faith that so nourishes all of us.  As I am fond of saying and Jesus taught.  The work is always the same in this world.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”  The call is to bring the best of ourselves to bear in the world and so believe that it matters not just to us here but to everyone everywhere. Love one another abundantly… it matters a lot and it starts here, now, again.

Tim Ives is the minister at the Scarborough Presbyterian Church.  He is also a New York State licensed Psychoanalyst in private practice in Bedford Hills, New York.

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Oh, Say Can You See…

Independence Day is upon us, an appropriate time to wade into a topic which can prove contentious for many congregations – national flags in sanctuary spaces.  If your worship space contains a national flag, I would urge you to use our national holiday to reflect upon the meaning and implications of that placement.  I would also urge you to consider prayerfully its removal.

My objection to national flags in worship spaces does not rest upon a simple “separation of church and state” argument.  Those of us who identify simultaneously as politically progressive and theologically Reformed have too often fallen back on that phrase reflexively and uncritically, especially when critiquing the political involvement of our more conservative and evangelical sisters and brothers.  Yet we belong to a tradition that actively encourages us to live out our faith in all spheres of our lives, including the political.  We have misunderstood the separation at times, and allowed ourselves to substitute that pithy phrase for a sustained theological argument.  There is more to be said here, but in another post.

However, I do believe it is instructive to remember our history whenever we do theology communally.  We know that our ancestors lived in times and places where the conflation of national identity with particular expressions of faith led to persecution and to corrupt theology.  We don’t have to step back too far into history, either.  The Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church is less than a century old, but its words about the dangers of a co-opted church are still relevant.  Composed as a rejection of rise of the Nazi party and the collusion of German Christians with the party, the authors of Barmen wrote:

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

When our churches — through our words, our deeds, or our symbolic actions – become too closely identified with the nation in which we exist, we lose the ability to speak prophetically to the nation.  When we accept the patronage of the state, we simultaneously diminish our capacity to serve the state in that important way that our Reformed ancestors thought so crucial, namely through prayer and critique, sometimes vigorous critique.

I do not mean to suggest that we check our political selves at the doors of our sanctuaries.  Our churches should be places of theologically committed and respectfully conducted political debate.  We are Reformed after all, and our heritage demands no less.  But worship also reminds us of who we are and of whose we are. Our identity as children of God comes before all other identities.  It is an identity which transcends nations.  Our church symbols should reflect that truth.

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.

Special Note: 
Thank you for reading and sharing our blog. We hope you find it thought provoking and inspirational. This is our last post for a while. We will be taking our summer Sabbath and we hope that these coming days provide some Sabbath time for you, as well. See you again in September.

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In the month in between my first call and my current call, I spent some time reflecting on what I’d learned, what I wanted to bring with me, what I wanted to do differently. And once again, I realized that self-care needed to be more of a priority…that I could only care for a congregation if I was also caring for myself.

And as fate (or the Spirit) would have it, a Facebook ad popped up on my newsfeed, advertising a gym a mile away from our new house that was offering 12 week transformation sessions–12 intentional weeks of strength training multiple times per week, along with one-on-one nutrition coaching, meal planning, and bi-weekly appointments to track progress.

I thought, “Wow, that sounds awful and insane.” And then I found myself filling out the application form.

After four weeks of the transformation session, I was feeling pretty good about myself.  I’d been eating better, I had more energy, I was getting the hang of each routine. And then I showed up Monday of week five, and my trainer said, “Ok, we’re changing everything up now.”

And I said, “But I just started getting good at this.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s why we’re changing it up.”

He said that our bodies are smart, and that once our muscles become accustomed to working in a certain way, they are able to do so more efficiently with less energy. The more familiar a movement becomes, the less our bodies have to work. He said that by changing fitness routines every four weeks, our bodies continue to work harder, learn new movements, and gain more muscle.

I think Paul knew this on some level.

“Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” he writes to the church in Ephesus, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Then and now, there is no way to lead a life marked by these traits without regular reflection, growth, and refinement.

Paul assures the Ephesians that Christ has gifted them all through grace so that together they might be the body of Christ and continue to build up the body of Christ. And friends, Christ has gifted each and every one of us as well to be the body of Christ and to build up the body of Christ, to equip the saints for ministry, to seek unity that isn’t uniformity.

But now more than ever, in this time and in this place, realizing these gifts in ourselves and in others means that we are constantly switching our routines and pushing ourselves to learn and to grow and to change.

Now more than ever, in this time and in this place, God is calling the church to lead the life worthy of the calling to which it has been called.

May it be so. Amen.

The Rev. Elizabeth Smith-Bartlett is the Associate Pastor at The Larchmont Avenue Church and chair of HRP’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry. This post is an excerpt from a sermon preached at the 2017 Early Ministry Institute, sponsored by the Synod of the Northeast.



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