Persistent Faith

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
– Hebrews 11:1
“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien

After the tragic and frightening events in Charlottesville last summer, I decided to learn as much as I could about the rise of the National Socialists in Germany in the years running up to World War II.  I did a series of lectures about it at church and have continued my personal exploration reading a number of books about mostly ordinary people who had to deal with this darkness that disrupted the world and ended so many lives and caused such deep suffering.  The books I have read are both fiction and non-fiction, but all depict ordinary people dealing with a world gone mad that they cannot escape. Truly frightening.

It has been a fascinating journey with a very telling theme that runs throughout these books.  That theme is faith.  I am not talking about the clean, get up on Sunday, well ironed and brushed, go to church kind of faith but rather the persistent nudging of resilience that these people did not let go of.  All of the stories are incredible whether it was about a Jewish family trying to survive wartime Poland or a German fighter pilot who ferried a very badly damaged American bomber across Germany.  None of the stories are nice Sunday School fodder.  They are all gritty life and death stories where faith was real, and faith was all these people had.

I am reading one now about Christian missionaries who got caught in the Dutch East Indies when the Japanese invaded.  It is called Evidence Not Seen by Darlene Deibler Rose.  It is written with a kind of positivity that I would be most suspicious of if I did not know what she went through.  I do not cotton to that brand of Christianity that does not take the presence of evil seriously. I know that “aw shucks” approach because that is where I come from.  In the Midwest it is believed that “nice” fixes everything.  And the way this woman writes she sounds just like she believes it.  And in fact, the writer grew up in Iowa.  However, this woman’s faith was not just nice.  In the end it proved to be fierce and inspiring.

To begin with I was so very impressed that she would be in the East Indies (Indonesia today) at all.  She felt called to be a missionary (with her husband) to people so remote there was hardly any way to get to them and once they got there life was primitive at best.  The challenges were myriad.  And my first reaction was to be amazed that they would want to do this and then did it.  Yes, we are much more sophisticated and cynical today and have a certain skepticism about the mission’s field.  At least I do but I could not question the conviction of these missionaries.  The faith they had in their mission and their God was incredible.  If we had even a mustard seed of that we could bring world peace, today.

Their lives were as difficult as they could be and then the Japanese showed up.  And again, this tragedy is told in the speak of one who lived by the signs and presence of God.  Even in the worst situations the Bible is quoted, prayers are said, and an effort at good cheer is maintained.  What a powerful weapon to combat all that afflicts us, but we hardly ever get there unless we are desperate.  That is too bad because our lives could be much different, and the world could be transformed if we lived as if God was very present.  I believe that I am a faith filled person, but I am not at all sure I could have lived and survived and thrived as she did.  Hers is a story worth telling again and 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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Picture This

I vividly remember seeing the ads as a child; a polar bear floats alone on a solitary iceberg, adrift amidst an endless sea. For many, this iconic image still indelibly marks Earth Day appeals. Yet, despite its staying power, this visual badly misrepresents what is truly at stake in our climate crisis. This isn’t because polar bears aren’t badly threatened (they are), but because it portrays ecological catastrophe as something far away—a distant concern felt in the Arctic but not in our communities. Nothing could be further from the truth.

One need not travel to the polar circle to find environmental devastation, we see the defiling of God’s creation all around us—and its horrendous impact on the world’s most vulnerable people. Instead of bears, picture Flint, Michigan—whose lead contamination is worse than when it occupied headlines two years ago. Look at Cape Town, a city of 3.78 million people, projected to run out of water within the year. Envision Minden, West Virginia—a town so toxicly polluted that one resident reported, “Every neighbor I’ve had has died of cancer.” These are the images that should occupy our minds, and yet these tragedies are woefully underreported—their suffering sinfully ignored.

The other reason the polar bear image is so woefully inadequate, however, is that it only portrays ecological collapse; it doesn’t show the incredible ways that impacted communities are organizing to save both themselves and our planet. If we truly heed the gospel message, we can’t simply weep over images of ecological crucifixion—we must join the resurrection unfolding all around us.

We must follow indigenous communities, placing our bodies between corporate greed and sacred wilderness. We must join movements like the Poor People’s Campaign—which names and confronts the ecological devastation’s interconnectedness with racism, poverty, and militarism. We must stride boldly upon the Earth, marshalling whatever forces we can muster in its defense.

But, as Presbyterians, we must begin by getting our own house in order. It is egregious and unacceptable that—despite fossil fuels’ clear and present threat—our Church has still not divested itself from ongoing evil. This summer, we have another chance to do precisely that—to take the first step towards aligning our church with those struggling on behalf of people and planet. And we need your help. If you’re able, please join the Walk to Divest. This prophetic journey from the Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville to this summer’s General Assembly in St. Louis is an opportunity to pray with your feet, and to call our Church to follow God’s call in this most dire moment. With luck, our children will not associate the climate justice movement with polar bears, but with courageous communities living into right relation with one another and our world.

Ben Perry is the Assistant Director of Communication and Marketing at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

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Too Many Martyrs

“Too many martyrs and too many dead.
Too many lies, too many empty words were said.
Too many times for too many angry men.
Oh let it never be again.”
-Phil Ochs

On Wednesday of last week, many of us paused to remember the sad history of April 4.  Our thoughts turned to Memphis and to the murder of an unarmed black man in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. Yet even us we honor the legacy of Dr. King, our news feeds are still filled with stories of unarmed black men dying violently.

Stephon Clark. Saheed Vassell. The stories of these men are not the same. One was a father, using a cell phone in his own back yard. One was a severely mentally ill man exhibiting potentially threatening behavior on a New York City street. But neither man needed to die. They both join the terrible roll call of martyrs: Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner.

It is a time for confession. We, as a church, have failed our people. We have not done enough to counter a culture where extreme violence has become a normal response to everyday conflict. We have been complicit in a pervasive racism which threatens every institution in our society. We have too often remained sheltered in our privilege, and walled ourselves off from the horror.

But confession is not enough.

It is a time for mourning. We need to weep. We must join with those who have watched their loved ones die, and with those who fear for the safety of their young men. We must be present for them in their grief.

But mourning is not enough.

I have become numb, as many of us have. At times I feel paralyzed, and thoroughly inadequate to the task at hand. But as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called precisely for times such as these.  We are a largely white and a largely affluent denomination. It is past time that we begin to leverage the very real privilege with which we live, to put that privilege at risk.  And so, a few modest proposals, and an invitation:

  • Say their names. We must lift up these stories from our pulpits, in our Christian education classes, in our Bible studies. We must be willing to risk discomfort and dis-ease. We must even be willing to anger each other. We cannot let these stories be forgotten. It is not a time for our comfort
  • Meet with our local police departments. Learn about their standards for best practices. Know their rules of engagement. And speak out when policies, and more importantly practices, violate the norms of justice to which we are committed as followers of Jesus Christ.
  • Learn from our sisters and brothers in faith. We must be in conversation with people of color in our own congregations, and in other congregations in our communities. We must ask where we are needed. We must not presume that our answers are the most appropriate answers, and we must be humble enough to allow our witness to be informed by the experiences of others.

This is but a beginning, and not a sufficient one. I welcome your own thoughts, suggestions, and corrections. I need to learn from you and hear how the Spirit is moving you to respond.  The need is urgent. The time is now. The very essence of our Christian faith is on the line.

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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The In-between Time


I am writing this on Holy Saturday – the day between the death of Good Friday and the resurrection of Easter.  In church terms, I think of this as the day that death sinks in, the day of hopelessness and pain.  But as I look out the window at a barge moving down the sparkling river, at families walking in the park next door, at trees drinking in the sunshine, it looks as if resurrection is already happening.  And I remember that in real life death and resurrection both happen every day.

But still, the in-between time feels important.  The leaves that come down in autumn need the process of winter in order to become nourishment for spring growth.  Food needs to be digested before it can nourish us.  And we need time to measure a loss before we can start to build a new life.

When a tree comes down in our yard, we must first deal with the damage, and the mess:  clear the tangle of branches, chop and split the trunk – or have it carted away.  It is only as we wrestle with debris of its death that the new landscape presents itself – the hole where the sky comes in, the bald patch in our garden.  And it is only as we live with that new landscape that we can decide what form of new life we want to emerge.  Will we choose a young tree to replace the old?  Will we leave the openness and welcome the greater light?  Will we use the logs to build a playhouse for our children?  The new life, the resurrection, does not come right away.

And when the loss is of someone we love, we need the in-between time as well.  We need to know what we have lost.  A lover?  A cheerleader?  A guide?  We need to feel the pain and the absence in order for new life to emerge.  The pain is still there, but we learn to pay the bills ourself.  We continue to grieve, and we hire someone to repair the toilet.  We miss them desperately, but we find the space inside that turns out to contain our mother’s wisdom or our father’s encouragement.  The new life, the resurrection, does not come right away.  It needs to take root in the loss, in the death, before it can grow.

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

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BE the Change…or Get Out of the Way

Friends, today was a watershed moment. I’m proud that my husband and sister-in-law traveled to Washington, DC to join the March for Our Lives. I sat home and watched the coverage of the rally on TV and was in awe of these young men and women from all over the country. Lyric traveled to our place from Indiana — this is how she wanted to spend her spring break. Amen, sister!

Ghandi reminded his people that they needed to be the change they want to see in the world. Today people took to the street in DC and in hundreds of places around our country and around the world to be the change they want to see in the world. They are protesting the ubiquitous nature of guns in our communities, and the fear they experience just going to school.

What will it take to change the nature of the conversation about guns in our country? How many more children and teens will need to die to change that conversation? I don’t want to lose my husband or my colleagues to violence in churches, synagogues or mosques. I don’t want to lose my little sister to violence in our schools.

So why get political? Jesus was political — he was crucified because he claimed to be the ruler of a realm where God reigns supreme. We are still fighting that same battle as Christians today. Do we believe that God reigns supreme? I believe that God is love. If our God reigns, then love must reign. I know that Jesus was present with those amazing young leaders today. I believe that God is present wherever we speak out and say that love must conquer fear — because the greatest commandment is to love God, and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. And who is our neighbor? Jesus answered that question with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbor is the person in need of our care — regardless of who we are, or who they are.

As we head with Jesus into these last days of the season of Lent, let us remember the life of Jesus, all that he came to teach us, and all the ways that we still see his presence in our midst. Thank you to all the young people who helped me remember that all is not lost, that our best days are not behind us, and that God is certainly not finished with us yet.

The Rev. Jennifer Hope Kottler is a life and leadership coach and spiritual director in private practice in Irvington, NY and a corresponding member of HRP. This post was originally published on her blog at jenniferhopekottler.com.

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Rebuke and Restoration


“Get behind me, Satan!”

(Mark 8:33)
Jesus’ words to Peter are both a rebuke and a call.  The rebuke compares Peter to Satan.  The call is when Jesus says, “Get behind me.”  This is Jesus’ way of saying, “Follow me.”

Paul McCartney sings a similar theme: “Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged.”  Peter is the first disciple to be called and, even after he is rebuked,  Jesus extends the call once again: “Get behind me!”  Peter is out of line; he needs to get back in line.  Fall in!

Peter fails and he is restored.

We may take heart that a disciple whom Jesus compares to Satan is one who is held in great esteem.  Peter is the disciple who bookends the Gospel of Mark — he is the first to be named and the last to be mentioned.  Peter is named 25 times, more than any other disciple.  When a list of the Twelve is given, Peter is first.  Peter is present for the Transfiguration and he is with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Peter is prominent among the disciples even though he is rebuked by Jesus and even though he denies knowing Jesus three times.  Ironically, Peter’s distinction arises not because of his successes; instead, he is the epitome of discipleship because of his failures.  Through Peter we are shown that God needs us to be present, not perfect.

Peter denies knowing Christ at the time of the Crucifixion, yet he is the disciple who is singled out by name to go to Galilee to see the Risen Lord.  In John’s Gospel, Peter is the first disciple who enters the empty tomb of Jesus.  Peter remains in the fold.  He never is cast out for his transgressions.

A Brief Statement of Faith from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reminds us: “In life and in death we belong to God.  With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God is more forgiving than humans.  The rebuke and expulsion we suffer at the hands of others may not be accompanied with forgiveness and restoration.   With God, however, we never are forsaken.  We are rebuked and restored.  Thanks be to God!

Laurie A. McNeill is a member of Hudson River Presbytery and she serves as the Pastor of yoked congregations in Highland and Marlboro, New York.

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Lent Amidst the Toppled Trees


I love trees.  In my younger days, there wasn’t a tree I wouldn’t climb to explore and try to get its view of the world.  I stick to the ground these days, but I love learning about them, planting them, and tending them.  One of my favorite tree books is the classic A Natural History of Trees by Donald Peattie.  His descriptions of each species are part botany, part poetry,  but all love for these amazing creations.  Here is part of his description of the white pine:   “The white pine may be distinguished at a glance, almost as far as it can be seen, by its pagoda-like outline and habit of growth.  The whorled branches grow in well-separated tiers, as if they formed successive platforms of a tower.  When the male flowers bloomed in these illimitable pineries, thousands of miles of forest aisle were swept with the golden smoke of this reckless fertility, and great storms of pollen were swept from the primeval shores far out to sea and to the superstitious sailor seemed to be “raining brimstone” on the deck.”

In the wake of the recent nor’easter, in addition to many people out of power and heat, the area has been littered with the sight of magnificent old trees felled by the high winds.  Hundreds of years of slow growth, recklessly thrown to the ground, cut up, chipped up and carted away.  Beyond the temporary inconvenience, it has been a tree-lovers nightmare.

It has a Lenten feel to it.  Ashes, death, wilderness, the cleansing of the temple.  Those have all been a part of life inside the church in this season – a Lenten journey now reflected in the toppled trees around us.  The Spirit brings not just peace, patience, kindness, and other such lovely things, but also wind and fire.  It stirs us, pushes us – even toppling long and dearly held notions of who God is, who we are, and why we are here.  It isn’t always much fun.  And at this point, I’m ready for some resurrection!

Outside, eventually, a hint of resurrection will be seen in the spaces left by all the fallen trees.  Sunlight will find places it hasn’t seen in decades.  Long-dormant seeds will spring to life.  Reaching for the sun, new future magnificence will begin its slow and steady climb to the sky.

In a few weeks, inside the sanctuary trumpets will sound, and we will hear it said again – He is risen!  He is risen with the April-foolish promise that such a resurrection isn’t just for a single body two thousand years ago.  We are foolish enough to believe that it is also the way of the entire world –inside the church, out among the trees, and in every part of creation where such new life is so very much needed.

May it be so!

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

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