Take a Hike!

treesMany of you in the Presbytery know I love to hike. From early spring through the fall I often spend my entire Sabbath day hiking or climbing; and on my blog I detail many of the hikes I’ve taken and mountains I have climbed. I love doing all-day hikes because the intense physical experience of walking or climbing for hours, attending to my breath and the steady beat of my heart, and being conscious of earth upon which I am walking, is conducive to mental alertness and spiritual awareness. I am very mindful of being about in what all the saints knew as “God’s first book,” the Book of Nature.

Hiking outdoors is for me a spiritual practice – something I do repeatedly, over time, made meaningful by reflection and connecting me with others who have done the same and with the earth. The desert fathers and mothers sought out the wilderness. John Calvin called creation “the theater of God’s glory.” Many of the great saints were hikers and climbers, including Jesus!  The more contemporary literature of walking, from Rousseau and Nietzsche to Thoreau, Muir and Proust, reminds us of a way of living all but lost to us today. Health and heart, body and soul, I am at my best when I stay connected to the world God made at the pace God intended.

Being outdoors also has many health benefits. I’ve recently read, for example, that a ninety minute walk in nature can significantly reduce rumination – the negative or obsessive thoughts so many of us experience, which take us out of the enjoyment of the moment at best and leads us down a path to depression and anxiety at worst. (And who would not benefit from that, after this past month). Walking outdoors can reduce activity in part of the brain associated with mental illness and increase creativity and problem solving.

Since this was such a beautiful weekend with temperatures in the low 60s, I took my son out after worship yesterday for a traipse (a great word for a particular way of walking) along the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut. We parked beside the Housatonic River (the name means “river of the mountain place” in Mohican) and scrambled hand over hand up St. John’s Ledges and hiked over to Caleb’s Peak with majestic views of the Taconic Mountain range. We followed animal tracks, identified the cries of raptors, and observed various kinds of scat.  We also reflected on the Biblical stories behind the names of landscape we were tracing. We spoke of the coming Sunday’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration that took place after a day of rigorous mountain climbing and in the presence of Moses and Elijah, both of whom were accustomed to ascending and descending mountains in search of God. And we remembered other hikes we have taken together, of lessons we have learned, and people we have met. The great joy of hiking as a spiritual practice means that our day together on the mountain was not just a single event but part of our growing relationship with one another, our world, and its maker.

The holiest of moments (the moment of wholeness, for us) took place on a snow covered forest floor nestled between two ridges where “the world in solemn stillness lay” below the bright blue sky. We had escaped the busy world, for a while, and could hear not a sound about us. We simply stood, silent ourselves, and content together. When next we spoke, we were ready to head home.

Now, more than ever, we need practices of self-care that keep us connected to others and immerse us in this world that God loves so much, practices that bring us regularly to places of health and wholeness.  How do you do it?
The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary is pastor of the White Plains Presbyterian Church and a GreenFaith Fellow.  He is especially proud to have been the first person to have completed the “Westchester 100” (after the authors of the hiking guide, of course)!
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Sacred Hospitality

abraham-sarah-three-visitors

By the time this blog post goes live over 80 people will have gathered at Stony Point Center for a Sanctuary Training hosted by the Synod of the Northeast, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, the Community of Living Traditions and the National Sanctuary Movement.  We will remember people of faith’s long history of offering refuge and sanctuary to immigrants and refugees.  We will look to the future of how we will be called to serve in this time.  We will ground ourselves in the call of God’s Word.

What scripture text comes to mind when you think of the words “hospitality” or “sanctuary”?  There are so many options.  My mind has been dwelling on Genesis 18:1-8…

“The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat.  He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply.  He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant.  Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree.  Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.”

They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”

So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three seahs of the finest flour and make some baked goods!”  Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly.  Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate.”

Without knowing who was before them, Abraham and Sarah responded by providing foot-washing, the shade of an Oak tree, bread and meat to eat, and a place to rest.  Without even knowing the identity of the men who arrived at their camp, hospitality was the immediate response.  This is anything but extreme vetting. This is sacred hospitality.

May this holy text give us courage in this time, to risk inviting the unknown and to receive God into our midst.

Sarah Henkel is a Teaching Elder. She is a resident at Stony Point Center and member of the Community of Living Traditions, a multifaith community of Jews, Muslims, and Christians dedicated to the practice and study of radical hospitality, justice, and nonviolence.

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It’s Not About Us!

seek-justice
During Inauguration weekend, I had a conversation with the pastor of a Presbyterian Church that was predominately black church.  When asked if the members of that church would be participating in the Women’s March the reply was “That is not a black issue”.  This was not a comment dismissing the issues which brought those marchers together.  Rather this pastor was reminding us that racial prejudice and injustice have not been eradicated.  And the worry is that the energy around this Women’s March would not detract from important efforts to combat racism.

One of the scripture texts from the Lectionary recently was Matthew 5:1-12 better known as the Beatitudes.  This is a scripture we have read from the same translation for so long that we often read the words as relating to others.  Blessed are those….  (others who are poor, persecuted and more).   Reading this passage in The Message, translated by Eugene Peterson gives us a very different perspective on Jesus’ words.  “You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule” v3.  This reminds me of the anonymous poster saying “Where were you God when I was walking alone?”  “ Beside you.”  “Where were you when I could not walk any further?”  “Carrying you.”

In these transition times in our country and around the world we are challenged more forcefully to remember that we, our communities of faith, our communities and our country are our responsibility to live into out of our Christian faith, our partnership with God.  We cannot be passive and comfortable expecting God to rescue someone else.  We cannot be violent.  We are charged to speak to injustice and unfairness out of our faith.

Our complaints, protest and hand wringing should not be about the slights we feel individually.  Instead we are called to share the message that God calls us to love and care for all of creation. On further reflection, we can see that when our oppressors segment our particular complaints we are weaker.  Justice for all is the goal – this includes racial justice, ending faith based prejudice, marriage equality, gender equality, eco justice and many more.   The US is formed into “One nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all”.  Not just justice for my particular injustice.

Reading Eugene Peterson again:  “You’re blessed when you show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight.  That’s when you discover who you really are and your place in God’s family.  You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution.  The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s Kingdom.  Not only that – count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me.  What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.” Matt 5:10-11.

It’s not about us!   It is about bringing God’s justice to the world around us.

Rev. Peter Surgenor is the Executive Director of Holmes Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center, a parish associate at the Bedford Presbyterian Church and moderator of Hudson River Presbytery in 2017.

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What Does The Lord Require of Me?

micah
Micah: 6:8 – He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

This week’s lectionary, the schedule of scripture passages for the day, included the passage from Micah, above. I love that passage. I think about what it means to “do justice,” “to love kindness,” and “to walk humbly” with my God. Humility seems in very short supply today. As does “justice” and “kindness,” for that matter.

Thomas Merton could be talking about right now, even though he wrote these words in the 1960’s in New Seeds of Contemplation:

“We never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggression and hypocrisy.”

Now there’s a definition of humility! And so I’ve been trying to remember that I am more or less wrong and certainly at fault, when I decide (even if I do it subconsciously) that if you aren’t with me you are against me. Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, reminds us that “All the wars, all the hatred, all the ignorance in the world come out of being so invested in our opinions.”

But how to bridge that divide? Perhaps if I try to remember that most people are doing the best that they can, that they probably have very good reasons to see things exactly opposite from the way that I do. Perhaps I can try to remember that the people “on the other side” have probably made up their minds about me, too.

And so I pray the peace prayer of Saint Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

May we act justly, love mercy and walk humbly, and may God grant us peace. Amen.

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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Finding My Way…

 

inauguration  womens-march

I am sitting at my desk today feeling buffeted by Friday’s inauguration and Saturday’s marches.  Opposing words, opposing visions, opposing passions.  I am aware that, while I have a clear preference, my reality does not align completely with any of these.

I am drawn to memories of a bible study group I helped lead at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility a week or two ago.  We watched a video clip on “God” from the (excellent!) DVD, Animate Faith.  In the clip, the speaker introduced the concepts of the kataphatic and apophatic traditions, unfamiliar words for this group.  In the kataphatic tradition, words used to describe God have real meaning.  When we say God is like a rock, or a shield, or living water, or fire, or a father, or a king, those words have some accuracy or meaning in describing God.  In the apophatic tradition, words are useless in describing God.  In this tradition, for any word used to describe God, its opposite is also true.  So, while God is the Lord of Hosts, or Armies, God, in the person of Jesus is also humble, a sacrificial lamb, and the one who pours himself out on our behalf.  The strong, immovable “rock” God is also a fluid, changeable “water” or “fire” God.  The “forgiving and merciful” God is also a “judging and avenging” God.  In the apophatic tradition, our contemplation of God reduces us to an awed silence and the acknowledgement that God is completely beyond our human language.

Kataphatic descriptions of our county, of our values, and of who we are as individuals have pounded our ears for many months now, culminating in the political pageantry of the last few days.  Are we a nation that is harmed or strengthened by immigration? By free trade? By the Affordable Care Act? By actions to limit climate change? By our investments in the health and stability of other countries? By technological change? By the current composition of our military forces?  These are only a few of the categories in which we are asked to place ourselves.  These are only a few of the definitions we are asked to apply to ourselves.  And, like descriptions of God, they all seem to be both right and wrong.

On the march yesterday, I saw signs that lifted my spirit; and I saw others that made me cringe.  In President Trump’s flood of tweets I find much to deplore and some statements that give me hope.  Where and how do I find myself in this world where we are all expected to take sides?  How do I decide, as a citizen, what political actions to take, which efforts to endorse and which to oppose?

For me, this is where the apophatic tradition asserts its value.  It is in wordless prayer, it is in a contemplative and restorative silent listening, that I contact again my deepest self – that self that is most connected to God.  Like God, in whose image I am created, I am too complex to be defined by a word or a slogan, by a movement or a political party.  But also like God, my words, my thoughts, and my actions and inactions have consequences; to declare myself above or beyond politics is to deny and ignore those consequences.  It is in that listening prayer that I find some answers for my political self.  I will march; I will not shout “Dump Trump.”   I will urge my members of Congress to fund the Affordable Care Act; I do not have a clear position on free trade.  I want our efforts to limit climate change to include assistance for the poor and middle class who may be financially harmed.

In the bible study class we agreed that we needed a tradition “sandwich,” and I find myself relying on that now.  Being human, I take in ideas and possibilities using words; and on the other side, I require words to insert pieces of myself back into the public discussion – as I am doing here.  But in the center, the “meat” of the sandwich, I am reduced to silence – the silence of awe and confusion, of worry and dreams, of searching and listening – until some small piece of what I hope is God-given clarity emerges.

I need a lot of that silence these days.  I hope you can find it, too.

Dorothy Muller is a Chaplain at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and a Parish Associate at Bedford Presbyterian Church.

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Jesus Is Not An Enabler

be-the-change
From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry we learn a very troubling lesson:
Our messiah is not an enabler.
You see Jesus is not here to do anything for us…
He is here to empower us to go out into the world to do the work of God.

Throughout all the gospels we see Jesus insisting over and over again that the power to heal he world does not reside solely in Jesus.  He sent out his disciples to heal in his name.  He sent the Holy Spirit to empower us…to go…to be the change we seek. Jesus came not to gather power for himself but to disperse it…to empower his followers and every person he encounters.

Jesus we learn from the Gospels was baptized and emerged from the water a new creation himself.  Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” He believed the voice, and made his belovedness a part of him.  His belovedness made him unique but not special.  Not at least in the sense that his belovedness moved him to narcissism.  He never gave in to the temptations that followed his baptism by suggesting that he alone was the beloved and therefore he knew all the answers and alone would fix the world.

His “Ah Ha” moment went beyond the recognition of his unique relationship with God.  It extended to everyone’s unique relationship with God…”I am God’s beloved, son, yes…but so are you…you are God’s beloved daughter…you are God’s beloved son…with whom God is well pleased…”

Such an understanding, is at once healing and terrifying.
It is tempting to desire a messiah, a pastor, a parent, political leader, who will do it for us…Yet every baptized Christian is called to be the beloved servant…a dispenser if you would, of God’s unending generous blessing upon all creation.  We are to be as deeply immersed in the world as Jesus is…called to love and empower it.

I have signed up recently for a daily devotion from Sojourners Magazine called the Verse and Voice.  Each day into my inbox comes a Scripture Verse, a short reflection, quote and a prayer.  A recent quote was from the late Gwen Ifill:
“Real change comes from the people who make up their minds that if they see something, they will do something.”

The power to heal the world is something Jesus, from the beginning of his ministry on the banks of the Jordon River, intended to share with his followers.  When you see something I could imagine Jesus saying…do something…
Don’t expect me to do it for you…

Jesus was not an enabler.
Jesus was an empowerer.
May we remember our own baptism, the vows we took, the promises made to us and the promises we made.  May we embrace our belovedness and go out to empower others to embrace there own.

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

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THE YEAR OF REVERENCE

reverence
2017 is the Year of the Rooster.
The Chinese have zodiac signs that follow a 12-year cycle featuring a specific animal each year.  The
rooster prompts an image of crowing and the cry to wake up and get to work!  Those who are born in the Year of the Rooster are perceived as being honest, intelligent, personable, independent and ambitious.  Myriad beliefs are associated with the tradition.

There is a bit of wistfulness that Christians do not dedicate each year with a singular focus.  Imagine the impact on our lives if this were The Year of Reverence!  

Our year would begin with an acknowledgement of our smallness.  We are not God.  We simply are a unique soul created and claimed by God.  Because of our smallness, we live humbly in relationship with the One who is greater than we.  Reverence is a response to this feeling of humility.  

Reverence involves the elements of worship, prayer, and the reading and interpretation of Scripture.  Reverence also includes awe, respect, discernment, shame and outrage.

Awe and Respect — We know what it is to experience awe in the presence of something greater than our imagining or ability: the Hudson River, Handel’s Messiah, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the channeling of electricity, a computer that fits in the palm of our hand, a heart removed from one body and transplanted in another.  When we are reverent, we respect that which creates this sense of awe.

Discernment — Paul Woodruff, a humanities professor at the University of Texas in Austin, suggests that there is a reverent response to that which is not transcendent, when we are “in the presence of something base.”  For example, “the most reverent response to a tyrant . . . is to mock him.”  Reverence compels a response, even though the response may be disconcerting.

Shame and Outrage — Shame provides perspective.  There is conduct that is unacceptable.  There are moments when outrage is reverent.  A father once shared with me his reaction when he entered a room and found his grade-school son being choked by his friend.  The father grabbed his house guest and threatened his life.  “Don’t you ever touch my son again or I will kill you!”  The father’s outrage was because of his reverence for his son’s life.

Reverence is not merely calm and deferential.  Reverence requires a response when God’s creation is threatened.  

Laurie A. McNeill is a member of Hudson River Presbytery and she serves as a Teaching Elder in Highland and Marlboro, New York.

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